Kerry Siggins: “Having children will make your life so much better…and harder”

Hire smart, talented people who fit your culture and create opportunities for them to really get to know each other. Too many times, members of large teams create silos and try to build empires. Don’t let this happen. Connecting with each other will allow them to be a much stronger team. As a part of our […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Hire smart, talented people who fit your culture and create opportunities for them to really get to know each other. Too many times, members of large teams create silos and try to build empires. Don’t let this happen. Connecting with each other will allow them to be a much stronger team.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Siggins. Kerry is the CEO of Colorado-based StoneAge, Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of high-pressure water blast tools and automated equipment for industrial companies and contractors worldwide. She joined StoneAge in January of 2007 as the Director of Operations. In 2009, she was named CEO by StoneAge’s Board of Directors and has since led the company in building a strong global presence resulting in double-digit growth year over year. Her passion lies in organizational and leadership development, and she is focused on helping StoneAge employees grow both personally and professionally. Siggins is also an avid leadership blogger. Under Kerry’s leadership, StoneAge became an ESOP Company in 2015, and she inspires her employees daily by cultivating a strong culture of ownership and engagement. She is proud that StoneAge shares a significant amount of its success with its employees and believes that ESOPs are a viable model for founders looking to exit their companies. Siggins was named one of Colorado’s Top 25 Most Influential Young Professionals and was a finalist for Colorado’s CEO of the Year in 2017. StoneAge is recognized as a top 100 company to work for by Outside Magazine. Kerry sits on several other boards including Chinook Medical Gear, E.P.I.C. Magazine, and the Fort Lewis College School of Business Advisory Board.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Montrose, a small town on the Western Slope of Colorado. At 18, I left home to attend Colorado School of Mines, a small engineering school in Golden, CO on a softball scholarship. At Mines, I quickly learned that I didn’t want to be an engineer. But quitting is not my style, so I stuck it out, graduated, and moved to Austin, TX with the intent of working for a year or two and then going to graduate school. I found a job as a part-time waitress and an operations coordinator for Eaton Corporation’s electrical engineering services group in central Texas. I quickly fell in love with the complexity of manufacturing, engineering and operations and knew I found my passion. I did a short stint in the IT recruiting world, where I learned about talent management, software, and client development. I never made it to grad school.

After five years, I decided that the crazy lifestyle I was living in Austin and the heat of Texas summers weren’t for me. So, I put my belongings in storage, packed up my SUV, and drove to Durango, CO where my mom lived. I cried most of the 1000 miles out of both fear and excitement, sadness and happiness. I think that’s just what happens when you follow your heart.

I had no money and only a little hope of finding a job that would allow me to stay in Durango, but I figured I could be a ski bum for a winter and then move to Denver if it didn’t work out. Luckily, I found StoneAge where the two founders saw something in me that made them decide that I just might be the one who could take over running their company. They took a risk (although they thought I only had a 50/50 chance of making it) and hired me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Last year I began the due diligence process of buying a Chinese manufacturing company. Even though I had read a lot about the Chinese business culture, I had no idea what it was really like until I jumped in feet first trying to figure out if I could buy the company and integrate it into ours. I even learned how to speak some Mandarin Chinese…that’s how committed I was to figuring it out. While it didn’t work out, and I walked away a few months later, it was one of the most challenging and interesting situations I have been in during my career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t recall the funniest mistake but the most vivid mistake I made — and it sticks with me today — is calling out an employee in front of his peers. I was angry and was trying to prove a point. I put him on the spot in front of his coworkers, and it damaged not only my relationship with him but others on the team, too. They were all afraid to speak up for months afterward. It took me a year to build back trust. I vowed never to do it again, and I haven’t.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?

My mom has told me that at the age of two, I took over being the boss of my family, directing our activities and plans. I suppose that leadership runs deep in my blood. I didn’t set out on my journey to be a CEO, but I always found myself, purposefully or not, in leadership roles. When I applied for the position at StoneAge, I was attracted to the broad responsibly of the role and the opportunity to make an impact using my talents. Growing into the CEO role was organic.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of the business. CEO’s should be spending most of their time dreaming, thinking, and planning for the future. And reading, CEO’s should spend a good portion of their time reading. Reading not only educates but inspires and informs new ideas.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Having time to think of and curate new ideas. I love new ideas!

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Being a CEO comes with significant responsibly, something that I don’t take lightly because my decisions affect hundreds of people. The pressure is relentless and can cause me to burnout if I’m not careful. I must stay in tune with myself to make sure that I stay balanced and healthy.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

CEO’s should have all the answers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are so many things I don’t know and don’t have the answers to. I am not ashamed of this, and it’s why I surround myself with smart teammates who have different expertise. It’s unrealistic and unproductive to think that a CEO should and does have all the answers.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Not being taken seriously, especially in a technical industry. I have heard many times, “well, Kerry isn’t technical, so let’s ask so-and-so.” This happened to me again last week, and it’s maddening! Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I am not technical (I am) and even if I wasn’t, it’s dismissive to assume I can’t bring something useful to the conversation.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I thought that being liked by all my employees would mean I was a great leader. While likeability is important, being respected, direct, and decisive are far more important than being liked.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I define success as a leader as being able to make good decisions that grow the business while at the same time inspiring those who work for you to say, “I would work with her for the rest of my career. I would go with her to the end of the Earth and back.” I believe that being humble, self-aware, empathetic, transparent, and having the ability to connect and communicate well with others are the top traits that successful leaders should have. People who are insecure, credit hogs, incommunicative, or closed-minded don’t make great leaders.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Always put your people and culture first; the customer experience will only be as good as the employee experience. They are intertwined.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are an employee-owned, ESOP company. This is very rare and creates a unique culture of ownership and accountability. We recently had 20 customers from Canada at our headquarters in Durango, Colorado, and every single one of them asked how they could get a job at StoneAge. They were inspired by our employees, our commitment to our work, our positive, can-do attitude, and the genuine interest we have in each other and our customers.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are developing robotic positioning systems that will make those who perform high-pressure waterjetting safer and more efficient. It’s state of the art technology, and we are excited to be part of changing our industry.

I’ve also been part of starting a movement within the waterjetting industry. Along with two of my industry counterparts, we’ve started a grassroots movement to create global waterjetting standards that are being adopted around the world. Unfortunately, there are no defined and accepted safety and operating standards in our industry, which allows for too many waterjet cut injuries and fatalities. We are on a mission to stop this from happening and createdthe Global Industrial Cleaning Coalition (GICC). The purpose of the GICC is to help save lives and reduce injuries in the industrial cleaning industry through the collaborative development and promotion of basic industrial cleaning principles.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Hire smart, talented people who fit your culture and create opportunities for them to really get to know each other. Too many times, members of large teams create silos and try to build empires. Don’t let this happen. Connecting with each other will allow them to be a much stronger team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mother. I wouldn’t be where I am without her. When I left Austin 13 years ago, I was in a dark place, battling addiction and drowning in debt. She let me come home to rebuild myself while still holding me accountable for the poor choices I had made.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Creating the GICC. I am proud of the impact I am making on our industry; my success at StoneAge has given me a platform to create and be the face of this movement. The work we are doing will lead to fewer fatalities.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Self-care is a discipline, not a luxury. I have learned that I must take care of myself if I expect myself to lead well and be responsible for the livelihood of others. I learned this lesson the hard way when I burned out from living an unhealthy lifestyle of over-exercising, substance abuse, and too little sleep.
  2. WAIT: Why Am I Talking? I talk way too much, and I had to force myself to stop so I could become a better listener. Since keeping quiet more often, I have learned more about myself and others than I could imagine. In my early career, I once had a boss tell me, “Are you done talking? OK, good. Now I can give you the actual story, so you really know what you are talking about.” Ouch!
  3. Having children will make your life so much better…and harder. I spent most of my life thinking I never wanted children. In fact, when I was 24, I asked my doctor if she would tie my tubes that year. She unequivocally said no. What a mistake this would have been. My son Jack has taught me more about what it means to connect to other humans and loving unconditionally than I ever thought imaginable. He has also woken me up almost every night for 6.5 years and I am always sleep-deprived. It’s hard to be a good mom and a good CEO, but it’s worth the effort.
  4. Say no more often. I used to say yes to every opportunity that came my way. I volunteered, sat on boards, mentored people in my community, and had dinner with anyone who invited me. While I learned a lot from these experiences, I also had no free time to think, rest, and read. When I had Jack, I decided to cut everything not related to StoneAge or being a mom out of my schedule. It was profound. I had time to learn how to be a mom, to read more books, and to be a good wife. I had space to cry when I thought I was failing and time to think about growing StoneAge.
  5. Get a coach. I began working with a coach about 6 years ago, and it was life-changing. It’s hard to get honest, real-time feedback as a CEO and coaches can provide that. Through working with a coach, I have learned so much about myself, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and how to embrace all of it to be the best version of myself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Because of the GICC, I am learning a lot about how to start a movement and keep it going. I am confident I will be able to take what I learn and affect greater change in politics and business. I would start a movement that would unite the left and right in politics. The divide that is happening in our country and the world is so counterproductive, and we need to come together to solve the huge challenges we are facing as a species on this planet. We are far more alike than we are different.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A good friend, mentor and board member once told me, “Don’t be afraid of surrounding yourself with people smarter or who are better than you. A true leader only shines when his or her team shines first.” I use this as a mantra and have discovered that it’s far more rewarding to support others and help them achieve their dreams and goals.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Barack Obama. To help me with my Unite the Left and Right movement! I think he tried his best to unite the left and right in Washington but had so much resistance that he could not overcome it. I’d like to ask him questions about how we might be able to go forward and actually unite. Plus, he is an inspiring, authentic, articulate leader who has the ability to connect with people quickly. That’s the kind of leader I try to be!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

You might also like...


Greg Harrell-Edge On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

Jane Finette On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

Peter J Klein On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.