Start Following the Crowd

Gaylyn Lawton, VP of finance at Sierra Systems, used a people-oriented approach to turn around a toxic culture

Accountants and money managers don’t traditionally conjure up images of people-oriented leaders, but armed with her keen sense of emotional intelligence and an innate talent for zeroing in on efficiency, Gaylyn Lawton upends those perceptions as vice president of finance at top-tier IT services and management consulting firm Sierra Systems. In addition to her role, she is on Sierra’s board of directors and cochairs the CFO Roundtable group for the British Columbia Technology Industry Association.

Her various roles keep her busy, an aspect Gaylyn thoroughly enjoys. “I love that my job is so varied,” Lawtown says. “It makes everyday interesting and different.” With her demanding schedule, it is clear Lawton has to run tight ship. However, this Lawton had stormy waters to calm while stepping into her role.

“As a leader, people need to know that I am also a vulnerable human being. I don’t know all of the answers.”

Upon joining Sierra—a large operation in Canada, boasting nine offices with approximately 685 people—Lawton faced the daunting task of bringing her team together after dynamic shifts within the company. Morale was low and skepticism was high.

“The team was frustrated because the system did not work as expected,” Lawton says. “It did not provide solutions to problems in the way the previous system had done.” Facing the challenge head on, Lawton decided to divide and conquer the issues, first by communicating with her team. “I sat down with people and I listened to them. I quickly discovered the problem was not with the entire system. There were particular areas, which contained roadblocks.”

After surveying the areas of opportunity, she tackled the biggest challenge—the most dissatisfied team— first. “I thought that if I dealt with the most dissatisfied group and solved their problems first, it would quiet the noise down and calm the situation,” Lawton says. “Then we could all work together to solve the remaining problems.”

Lawton’s strategy paid off, then having the most vocal group behind her, the rest eagerly followed suit. “As a result of listening and dealing with the roadblocks, the first group began to feel that they had better understanding and control of their situation,” she says. “They then started telling people in the rest of finance and the organization that their concerns and ideas had been considered and we were solving the problems together.” With a renewed sense of purpose within the company, Lawton saw a dynamic shift within the team. “They wanted to work hard with me and make things happen. It just started to roll in the right direction. I got the respect of some key people within the team.”

While Lawton’s problem-solving initiatives paved the way for improvement, she credits her leaders with their strategic method of integrating her into the company. Hired by the group CFO, Gaylyn was given the green light to do what she does best. “I joined the company as a contractor so that we could focus on the problems that needed to be solved immediately while keeping everyone calm,” Lawton says. After gaining the trust of her team and transitioning to the VP of finance role, Lawton set out to quell the rest of the apprehension among the wider organization.

“There was significant suspicion of finance as the organization had moved from a decentralized to centralized approach, and there was a feeling that finance controlled everything,” Lawton says. “I spent a lot of time educating people about the role of finance in this centralized organization and I listened to people’s concerns.” I proposed the idea that while the Finance group fills the role of gatekeeper, it is also a business partner that can provide valuable information to support sound business decisions that benefit us all. I mentioned some ways we could make things better.” Taking an assistive approach, Lawton managed to turn a wary team into her greatest allies. “I’ve certainly had feedback in the last two years from our general managers that it’s working.”

“I was lucky to have the support of my boss and the CEO,” Lawton says. “They made sure that I started working at the company in such a way that it was not threatening to the team already in place.” Backed by senior leadership, Lawton’s success can largely be attributed to her leadership style. “Everyone is an adult and they need to have appropriate information to make good decisions. I don’t believe that we should hide things. As a leader, people need to know that I am also a vulnerable human being. I don’t know all of the answers—it is only together that we can know.”