INTERVIEW SERIES | Leaders Who Inspire Us And How They Do It

In this time of uncertainty, Covergalls sought out the women who have long inspired us for courage and insight. Over the next couple weeks we will share some of the advice, personal stories and experiences they shared with us.  

"Nothing will work unless you do" - Maya Angelou 

What is it like being a CEO? How do I become a better leader? What career path should I take? These are examples of questions many of us will ask ourselves during our lifetime. In moments of uncertainty, it often helps to seek advice from friends, family and those you admire.

We decided to reach out to some inspiring humans and chat. In an interview last month we caught up with extraordinary human, Zoe Coull, founder and CEO of ICE Dragon Corrosion Inc. Please note that this conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Let’s start with what's your title? 

Z: What's my title? That's a good one! I don't really like titles. I am a director. I'm a CEO. I'm a corrosion specialist. One of my clients calls me Chief Dragon.

Chief Dragon in action!

What made you interested in getting into your field?

Z: I had a kind of light bulb moment when I was 17. I was sitting in an undergraduate lecture from someone who came in from industry and he was talking about the failure of an oil tanker, and how this had been caused by corrosion. Up until that point I'd actually been a member of Greenpeace - at the age of nine until I was until I left high school - and so I was finding it really difficult to marry in my head how do I save the world and do that as an engineer, with my love of science? Sitting in that lecture, I thought: ‘oh, okay, here's a really tangible way that I can make an impact by using my engineering to keep the infrastructure safe, the environment safe, build things around us that are going to work.’ And so I stuck with my program, and then I decided to specialize in corrosion. 

What exactly do you love about mining? And working in corrosion specifically?

Z: I've always loved science and engineering but I think that in the last five to 10 years my focus has shifted from solely the technical aspects, which are still obviously very important because we need engineering competency - those are the tools that help you to solve problems for people. But the more that I've worked in mining, and actually across different sectors, the more I realized that the technical problems are the easy problem to solve. It's the people-problems, right? It's: how do you engage and enable people? How do you train people? How do you talk to different people? You talk to your general manager in a very different way, with a very different language, versus other people on the team. So I think that's been the biggest learning for me and it's exciting too. I don’t think I would have figured this out if I hadn't started my own company. Because I'm very specialized, I think I would have been put in a technical box for some time. When you start to have the intersection between the depths of engineering education and all these other capabilities around leadership, you start to get something special. Mining needs that, I believe.

 What are some types of challenges you faced as a woman and how have you overcome them? Like, a challenge that I imagine lots of women can feel, especially within the mining industry where there's so many men and it can be like a boys club sometimes, is maybe being scared to bring up ideas or make changes?

Z: I'm not someone who's ever been scared to bring up ideas! I don't think that has ever been my main issue. Perhaps it was just that I was bringing up ideas in the wrong place? Does that make sense? Like the culture wasn't conducive to having those ideas heard. They didn't really seem to take me seriously.

Why do you think that was? Because you were a woman? 

Z: I don't know why, but I do feel that that was partly a reason? It’s also about support in the room - you can't really network when it's difficult to find mentors. For example, it was kind of noted at one dinner that I went to and introduced myself to the CEO, I sat next to him for a bit and chatted, and afterwards people were like, ‘Oh, you know, you're gonna have to watch that. People are gonna start talking.’ It's that sort of thing. So, it can be quite difficult to get meaningful support.

One of the biggest shifts for me, when I started my own company, was I was forced to network because otherwise I couldn’t get work, and I couldn't eat or feed my children! So I had to actually force myself to go network in a way that I hadn’t done before. I’m quite introverted, so this was quite difficult for me. Anyway, I found these amazing groups of women in mining and within the client teams that I was working with directly, and within Artemis, which obviously you know about due to Alicia's involvement. That has been a massive step for me. Because, all at once, you've got all these supportive women around you. There is no ‘Can I be in the club, please, please, can I be in the club?’ You're in the club. You have the support there. Everyone is very willing to help you. I never had that before.

What personality traits would you say make a good leader? 

Z:

 Personality is one thing, character is another thing. When we talk to the students about this in our course [Zoe teaches a leadership course at the University of Toronto!], we talk about character traits and building your character. And some of the most important traits in a leader are honesty, integrity, and courage. And the ability to be moderate, to control your response, to have thoughtful responses to situations. Compassion. 

How do I act with integrity? How do I act with compassion? How do you act with courage? How am I creative? Creativity is a very important one, because leaders have to be able to imagine the future, to vision. You have to be able to get ahead of when change is needed, see that there's a change that's needed and come up with a way of changing it in a positive way, and then motivating and inspiring others around you to move in that direction.

You can actually pull the sort of core leadership traits that are really important today right back thousands of years ago, to the Greek Stoic philosophers. What they talked about was focusing on building our core character strengths - the same character strengths we talk about now. So I find that quite interesting. We think of ‘leadership’ almost as something new. But it's not. 

Zoe’s personal values are embedded in her company: Integrity, courage, and endurance. Her advice? Have the tenacity to see things through. It's not enough to be creative and have ideas, you've actually got to implement them and see results. 

Z: We tell our students that everyone can be a leader, it's a skill that can be learned, just like their engineering skills, and therefore it requires practice. In our course, we give them a lot of tools and frameworks to help them to think about leadership and how they're going to practice leadership. But, really, it comes down to them. First of all, working on their self awareness, making that a practice, like how am I doing? And what does this actually mean to me? What are my values? How do I want to be seen in this life? 

We make them do really morbid exercise: we ask them to imagine their own funerals! You're looking at your own funeral from above… Who is in the room? Who is missing you? What are people saying about you? What are the things that you've done? How do you feel about that? Are they really important? Do they tie in with the things that you personally value?

So we ask them to start there and almost work backwards... of course there's gonna be meanderings along the way, but if you have a general idea of what things would look like then you can define a direction - so if this is where you're going, what are the things that you are going to do this year? How will you practice leadership to put you in situations to learn? What are things you want to achieve? How do these things tie back from values? It's kind of a useful exercise. I do that with my team as well, we pull all of this into the way that we structure Ice Dragon too. 

And what would you say is the best and the worst part about being a CEO?

ZCEO. It's funny, because I don't really think of myself as that...but I think the worst bit for me is just the level of responsibility. At the end of the day, the buck stops with me. And sometimes that means I'm working on the weekend. At the moment, because the company is so small, it means I'm HR, it means I'm the accountant, it means I'm admin, it means I'm business development, it means I'm technical lead. And sometimes having all of those hats can be very overwhelming, as well as the other hats that I have, like, teacher, mom. 

I think the best thing, though, is that I get to design culture for my team and myself around what I value. We've just submitted our B Corp application. I don't know if you're familiar with what that is, but it's a corporate designation that says that you are adhering to high standards of sustainability within your company. A lot of it is formalizing a very compassionate culture around people, which we've done since the beginning, but it's been a really good exercise to go through because it formalizes a lot of who we are. I’ve kind of been able to design the workplace I always wanted!

Do you have any advice for women who are entering the field and who maybe want to become leaders or to start their own company?

I do speak to a lot of women who are thinking of doing that, or who aren't quite sure if they want to do that. I think for me that the big thing was always networking. And so what I say to them is don't just network for the sake of numbers. Network and find your core support team. The people that will help you will be there, hopefully throughout your career. And make sure you find a good core set of women. Because that does make a difference. Or it did make a huge difference to me, I should say.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the CEO of your company?

The biggest lesson I learned was to be myself. I think for a long time, I was trying to fit into a mold; not just on my career path but in terms of life generally. Being true to yourself will make you happy, whatever that looks like for you. There are no rules. Same on the career front.

Thank you to Zoe for speaking with us! If you wanna see and hear more of Zoe in action, she has been selected to join the team at The Social Movement (TV Series) for Season 2 this summer! The show puts together diverse teams from different backgrounds and asks them to come up with solutions to some of the planet's biggest challenges. 

The Social Movement is available to watch on Amazon, AppleTV, H2H, Roku, Xbox, VUDU, GooglePlay

Official Extended Trailer | The Social Movement (TV Series) from Red Knight Studios Company on Vimeo.

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