WeKC 2018: Women Executives-Kansas City

Values-Driven, Success-Oriented

A great many analyses of business success focus on vision, and how this executive or that one draws on it to chart a course for both personal and organizational success. Perhaps it’s worth spending more time considering not just the vision, but the precursors to it.

Because if you scratch the surface of what inspires the 10 women Ingram’s recognized as Women Executives-Kansas City for 2018, you’ll find that values are what matter most, the foundation that gives rise to that vision.

And in most cases, the values that inform their executive world-view did not come out of an MBA program, high-level networking or even the occasional slips made while climbing the ladder of success. They started at home, with Mom and Dad.

“My values come from my parents,” declares Nancy Creasy of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. “Specifically, I learned the importance of honesty and integrity from my father and humility from my mother.” Her father, she says, offered guidance that should serve any executive well: “He always told me that you tell the truth so that you can sleep at night.”

At financial-services giant Security Benefit, Jackie Fox also incorporates lessons learned from her youth. “Core values that were instilled in me while growing up are the same ones that I often think about and utilize in leadership. These values include being optimistic, respectful, reliable, supportive, aware and conscientious—I strongly believe in treating people the way I appreciate being treated,” she says.

For Jo Stueve of Children’s Mercy Kansas City, growing up with a general surgeon and a nurse as parents left an indelible mark. “I think leaders distinguish themselves by working hard, collaborating with others, seeking excellence, showing compassion and respect for everyone,” she says. “Leaders live by example, which I learned from my parents at an early age. My parents always modeled their values, and encouraged and showed pride in the accomplishments of their children.” Those were powerful lessons for Stueve. “In a lot of ways, parenting and leading an organization are similar,” she says. “It’s important to inspire, compliment and encourage the type of behaviors and work you want to see. And to celebrate the successes.

For third-generation business owner Kimberly Wilkerson, strong role models from her youth produced a focus on family, community, education and leadership. “I was lucky to be a part of a complex and dynamic family and community where I had opportunity to learn and lead at an early age,” she says.

Others can cite the influence of a key executive, of in-house networks formed through successful collaborations and teamwork, or of mentors who gave freely of their talents and their own experiences to help someone just starting the rise through the ranks.

But with these 10 individuals, the theme of family connections, and of what has been passed on to women in leadership roles today, holds great promise for business success in Kansas City. These are not, after all, the types of leaders who will jealously guard what’s been vouchsafed to them. They are passing those values on to the next generation of leaders, and the extended family of business leadership in this region.


Jeannette Cox, Oddo Development

Determination and resiliency, says Jeannette Cox, were personal traits even in her childhood. She wielded both on her rise to vice president of operations for all properties at Oddo Development Co., wedding those skills to a voracious appetite for self-improvement. “I thrive on learning and growing, and believe in taking initiative and continually finding opportunities to grow,” says Cox. “If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.” Strong relationships, she says, are the cornerstone to successful leadership. “I have been fortunate to meet brilliant people throughout my life who have supported and challenged me in ways that continually develop my character and leadership. Connecting with employees and colleagues to assist them in building their careers is important to me, I love seeing people succeed and find passion in their work.” A native of Houston who split her childhood years between Leawood and Saint Mary’s, Kan., she started her career in sales and marketing at various companies before finding her niche: real-estate development and property management. Part of that passion, especially during the recent boom in multifamily construction, has been helping people find the lifestyle niche that suits their needs, a dynamic driving new types of apartment offerings. “I love architecture and design, and the wide spectrum of skills you can learn and develop is exciting and has kept me in this field,” says Cox. She also gives a care-er hat tip to holding company founder Frank Oddo and his son, Rick, who leads the development operation. In a sector dominated by men in leadership roles, Cox says that when she has found herself a minority in the room, she draws on an inner strength. “I never back down from a challenge,” she says. “In any professional environment, male or female, knowing your craft, being able to confidently communicate your knowledge and speaking up is critical in gaining credibility and adding value.”


Jackie Fox, Security Benefit

The path to corporate leadership is not a straight line, as Jackie Fox can attest. Eager to get rolling on a career just a year after high school, she left college and headed for the workplace. Then came the realization: “To be successful, a college level degree was strongly recommended,” she says. So, she returned to college after her first son turned one. “While returning to school in a non-traditional fashion presented its own set of challenges, I believe the unconventional path gave me greater appreciation, confidence and a desire to set goals—ones that I thought were unreachable,” says Fox. Today, she’s vice president for strategic client services at Security Benefit, one of the region’s largest financial-services firms. With college degree in hand, she was able take on increasingly higher levels of responsibility, armed with values gleaned from her parents during her formative years in Ottawa and Topeka. “Both worked full time while raising my siblings and me,” she recalls. “They were hard-working individuals who always taught us that things in life don’t come easy and one must be committed and driven to achieve their goals.” Her mother, in particular, was a key influence—a successful business woman and excellent role model. “She demonstrated not only how to be a fantastic mom,” Fox says, “but that you can also be a management professional. I recognized at an early age that I could do the same.” That she does,applying those traits of being optimistic, respectful, reliable, supportive, aware and conscientious, she says. “It has been exciting to see so many successful female executives in our industry, and even larger numbers of women are beginning to enter into those types of roles,” Fox says. Diversity and collaboration will lead to positive outcomes, she says, but “to be successful in any role, I believe open and fact-based communication is essential in mitigating and/or handling potential challenges that both men and women will face.”


Nancy Creasy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City

In a world of numbers-people and people-people, Nancy Creasy is a hybrid: She understands that if the people end of the insurance business—the customer experience—isn’t right, then the numbers side won’t be, either. She’s executive vice president of technology and service delivery for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, the region’s largest health insurer. Managing half of a work force roughly 1,000 strong, her charge is to bring innovative products and technology to Blue KC’s clients. That starts with a focus on customer experience. She’s a Rockhurst University accounting grad who spent three years at a former Big Eight firm before signing on with Blue KC, one of her clients. “I found the insurance industry fascinating,” says Creasy, and in that space, she has applied a value set handed down from her parents. “I learned the importance of honesty and integrity from my father and humility from my mother,” she says. “My dad was a tool-and-die maker who eventually was pro-
moted into management.” But he was also engaged civically, eventually becoming mayor of her hometown. “He always told me that you tell the truth so that you can sleep at night,” Creasy says. “Watching him work a full-time job and then turning around and serving his community in his free time spurred my drive to make an impact,” something she emulates as a board member at her alma mater, (and she sits on Rockhurst’s Leadership Council), as well as the Metropolitan Kansas City Crime Commission and Mid-America chapter of the ALS Association. Through-out her career, Creasy has generally viewed gender as secondary in importance. “I’ve been presented with many challenges in my career, but I’ve never really seen them as being complicated by my being a woman,” she says. “People are people. I have found that when you deal with others with honesty and integrity, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a man or a woman.”


Lisa Krigsten, Dentons

While still a young girl, Lisa Krigsten knew she wanted to be a lawyer, and had the image locked in her mind even then: Beautiful, sun-dappled courtrooms, big office windows, shelves of law books promising tranquil days of instructive reading and deep thinking. Then, along with her law degree, came her reality check: “I have no idea where that image came from, but it drove me toward the law and, of course, that’s not been the case with a single day of my practice,” she says with a remarkably upbeat tone. Real-life law may lack made-for-TV scenery, but there’s been no shortage of what appeals to her about it. “I always felt the law effected change, and you can use the legal system to pursue justice and do good,” says Krigsten, whose pursuit of justice these days is in the white-collar and government-investigations practice for Dentons, the world’s largest law firm. After handling cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse as a prosecutor, she went to work for the Justice Department, where she eventually secured a presidential appointment to run the civil-rights division and directed a team of 600 lawyers. She had “a front-row seat to some of the best legal leaders in the country, and I learned a lot from them. I got to see tremendous leadership” in many cases, she said, and in some, “a leadership style I don’t want to emulate.” The change of administrations in 2009 brought her to Kansas City. “It was tremendous,” said this native of Sioux City, Iowa, “but when it ended, well, I’m Midwestern at heart, and it was time to come back to my roots.” Counseling multinational corporate executives and boards on legal issues is the lawyer hat she wears today, but the business executive’s hat is never out of reach. “We’re handling millions of dollars in legal spend for our clients,” she says, “so we need to be sure we have the right team, that we’re managing expenses appropriately and growing our team in terms of the people and skill sets that meet client demands, while maintaining the P&L side of it—staying within budget, meeting the requirements.”


Lisa Garney, LMG Construction

Entrepreneur, executive, lawyer, master plumber, philanthropist—do NOT try to pigeon-hole Lisa Garney. The founder and CEO of LMG Construction, primarily a commercial plumbing contractor, she also runs a concrete-production company (G2), a legal-services and consulting firm (LMG Professional Services), and an HR and staffing company (Sky Services). And, often, chairing a headline charitable event in KC (as with the recent Kemper Museum Gala), or throwing her energies behind efforts to support women and minorities in business. “Everything I do,” she says, is the closest she may ever come to understatement, “is done with tenacity, vision and purpose, while paying very close attention to detail.” Raised and inspired by the legendary plumber-turned-contractor/developer Charles Garney, she earned a law degree and put it to work as legal counsel for his development company, while also working in private practice and laying the groundwork for successful launch of her contracting company. “My legal practice was highly specialized in regulatory compliance, affirmative-action compliance, small businesses and tax incentives, all of which put me in close contact with construction/development entrepreneurs, people I knew who knew me, and who were willing to give my young company a chance,” she says. Her work revealed a need for more women- and minority-owned companies in Kansas City, she says, given the opportunities that followed the Great Recession. But she had few models to consider as a woman in construction. Still, she says, “gender does not guarantee success. May it open doors? Yes.  It’ll close a few, too.” Success, Garney says, is a product of hard work, tenacity and purpose, and complete dedication to the business—and it will entail making sacrifices and overcoming obstacles. But as a former pilot, she says, “we know when everything is against you, remember that airplanes take off against the wind, not with it.”


Bridget McCandless, Health Care Foundation of Greater KC

In a previous career as a physician, Bridget McCandless had to divide time between hands-on care and executive duties as medical director of the former Shared Care Free Clinic in Jackson County. These days, she’s all-executive, all the time as president and CEO of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. “I have had to leave direct patient care behind,” she says. “I miss that personal connection very much, but know that the work we do at the Health Care Foundation also can have long-lasting impact.” Her leadership today is still informed by years of delivering quality care to an under-served clientele, and those patients, she says, “have been my most influential teachers.” She joined the foundation in 2014, a little more than a decade after it was created by HCA’s purchase of the Health Midwest hospital system. As a practitioner, she says, “I knew that while I could help people one patient at a time, there were external forces and environments that determined much of what was possible for their health.” When the opportunity to move to the foundation arose, “I felt that being part of that larger force by supporting upstream prevention efforts, influencing systems, and working in the policy arena, would allow me to serve my patients and others in need, but in a different way.” Today, she manages a non-profit that has more than $550 million in assets and nearly $40 million in annual revenue, pushing for policies that break down barriers to accessible, affordable care. Patient care, in a way, on a vastly broader scale. “I have always felt that social justice was a foundational part of my upbringing,” says this physician’s daughter. At the clinic, “I was lucky enough to work with incredible teams where each part made the rest of the team function at its best. The volunteers who made the clinic possible came to work with their full hearts every day. The patients knew it. Mission and service matter to me and to the people I work with at the Health Care Foundation. That makes it easy.”


Carla Sanders, AMC Entertainment

West Philadelphia-born Carla Sanders went to the AMC theater chain back in 1988 and found something far more enduring than a good flick and buttered popcorn.  “It’s been an amazing journey—not only growing professionally along with the company, but along with the movie industry.” So says the senior vice president for human resources and member of AMC’s executive committee. If you think employee retention is an issue at your workplace, imagine dealing with nearly 4,500 full-time employees and a whopping 35,000 part-timers. Yet she doesn’t see that as a work-force challenge-—quite the contrary. “We get to work in an era that has more diverse thinking than ever before! How cool is that?” she says. With that growing diversity comes a need to reinvent how the company communicates with associates, Sanders says, and layer that change over the rapid advances in technology reshaping the movie-going experience. “AMC has been extremely good to me,” she says. “When I wanted to relocate from the East Coast to the West, AMC had a job waiting for me. As I took on new responsibilities, AMC supported me in securing certifications and provided the learning and development opportunities to grow my knowledge base and evolve.” So when the time came to seek out leadership roles, she had supportive leaders on her side. “Aspiring to be as great as those I am surrounded by and respect, in a company that has been fantastically supportive, is a big part of the value proposition,” says Sanders. Hers has been “a glorious journey” across the nation, especially the nearly 20 years here. “I’ve benefitted from seeing Kansas City transition and transform over the years,” she says. “It’s a great place to raise a family and be a home owner, build a career with so many great employers in the surrounding area, make a tangible difference through a variety of top notch not-for-profit experiences, and develop a net-work of friends that become family.”


Jo Stueve, Children’s Mercy Kansas City

Born and raised in Kansas City’s Northland—she lives there still—Jo Stueve seemed destined for a career in health care. “My father was a general surgeon and my mother was a nurse, so I had knowledge and understanding of health care from a very young age,” says the Chief Operating Officer for Children’s Mercy. Over the course of her 31 years there, the hospital has emerged as a national force in pediatric medical research, caring for some of the sickest children from well beyond this region’s borders. Throughout her journey, Stueve has held fast to lessons she learned early—before she even realized that leadership would be her destiny. “I think leaders distinguish themselves by working hard, collaborating with others, seeking excellence, showing compassion and respect for everyone,” she says. “Leaders live by example, which I learned from my parents at an early age. My parents always modeled their values, and encouraged and showed pride in the accomplishments of their children. In a lot of ways, parenting and leading an organization are similar: It’s important to inspire, compliment and encourage the type of behaviors and work you want to see, and celebrate the successes.” That has helped chart a career course she calls “very organic.” “Although I never set out to attain a leadership role in the organization, I always gravitated toward being part of the strategic management process and finding solutions.” Finding the right mentors along the way has helped. “Leland McGinness, former Administrative Chief of Staff at Children’s Mercy, offered me great encouragement,” Stueve says.  Randall O’Donnell, our former CEO, gave me tremendous opportunities and promoted me to senior leadership.” The hospital turned to her in August, when O’Donnell retired two months earlier than expected, and she served as interim CEO until Paul Kempinski’s arrival this month. “Young people will often ask how I became COO,” she says, and she has a template for success ready in reply. “My advice is always do the best job you can. Do anything and everything you’re asked to do, learn at every opportunity, and work well with others.”


Rosalee McNamara, Lathrop Gage

Rosalee McNamara has been a highly accomplished lawyer for more than 30 years, but her skill set, perhaps, has never been more relevant than it is today. She’s deputy managing partner at Lathrop Gage, and a master of corporate discrimination litigation. She regularly conducts training and investigations for C-suite executives and boards at for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, with a focus on anti-harassment and anti-discrimination matters. A big believer in the power of listening, she has a pragmatic view of how #MeToo mania has influenced society. “Balance is critical here,” says McNamara. “My Fortune 500 and other clients have long embraced the value of an inclusive work force. To the extent we can all listen, communicate and contribute to such a welcoming culture, hopefully with respect rather than backlash, this is a positive development and will have positive ramifications for business and individuals.” Influenced by a brother who became a judge and a sister who also earned a law degree, McNamara chose that path and had multiple options coming out of the University of Iowa’s law school. At that point, “Lathrop Gage sold me on Kansas City,” she said, and she fell in love with the livability and affordability here, the depth of the artistic and sporting venues. Employment law in the 1980s was an exploding and rapidly changing arena, she says, and “I discovered that I loved that work even more. I requested more of those cases and projects, which resulted organically in my employment work.” She developed a reputation as a tenacious and knowledgeable lawyer, eventually adding executive duties. “Success in either pursuit,” she says, “requires close attention to client/customer service, as well as promoting awareness of the products or services offered and inspiring teamwork in the organization. I’ve learned a lot from my clients; one client once told me that every manager within their large business managed a ‘business within a business.’ I think of that often and try to help both clients and other lawyers manage their own business within a business.”


Kimberly Wilkerson, Haas & Wilkerson

“I swore,” Kimberly Wilkinson insists, that “I would never work for the family business.” So she didn’t. She followed her passion to education, honing her craft and earning leadership roles. Then, in February 2004, came word that changed her life. Without warning, “my father  died, and overnight, I became a third-generation business owner,” Wilkerson recalls. Torn between the opportunity to become an active partner in the family business and continuing to grow as an educator, she says, she took a high-profile leadership position at Colorado Mountain College. For the next four years, she worked remotely by phone and email as her brother, Ryan, took the day-to-day reins. By 2008, it was apparent that her path would run back to the firm. “Leaving my chosen career for the family business was one of the greatest challenges of my professional life,” she says. That she was able to make that move with confidence can be traced to her value set: Family. Community. Education. Leadership. “Growing up, I was surrounded by strong role models, and I was lucky to be a part of a complex and dynamic family and community where I had opportunity to learn and lead at an early age.” What does hindsight tell her? “Of course it turned out to be the right decision!” she says. “It took me more than a few minutes to find my natural fit at the agency, but over time, it became clear that I could support the agency in a wide variety of ways.” The past decade has been productive, rewarding and fun, she says, and her executive duties, complemented by her community outreach for the firm, have produced “the best of both worlds, because I not only get to build upon and improve the current work environment at H&W, but I also get to give back to the community that has done so much for me and my family business over the past 80 years.”