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Villeneuve Speaks of Disruptive Instinct

Amy Villeneuve believes in her gut instinct, and it’s led her to a number of unconventional moves through a varied and successful career. It’s also led to her current position as President and Chief Operating Officer of Kiva Systems, an innovative startup providing robotic materials handling technology and acquired last year by

Villeneuve recently shared her self-described “disruptive” story, as well as the wisdom she’s gained, with Tepper School of Business students as part of the W.L Mellon Speaker Series. Through the hour-long C-level presentation for which the series is known for, she detailed the twists and turns of her 24-year career and stressed the importance of learning from every experience.

She described the challenges of her first job as a young female running a General Motors union assembly line, where confidence was key.

“What makes you think you can do this job?” Villeneuve recalled being asked. “I answered, ‘What makes you think I can’t?’ I learned more about leadership in the first six months on that job than I have ever since – how to manage people and how to get things done.”

Following a master’s degree in engineering, she returned to GM and a supervisory position, and told of turning a line of “trouble-makers” into a self-directed, high-performing team. While not in her original plan, she noted the job provided invaluable leadership experience.

Villeneuve recounted that soon after her first child arrived, she quickly recognized how valuable family support would be in enabling her to juggle both her career and motherhood, so she promptly relocated her home and career back to the Boston area to be closer to her family. And following her second child and thirteen years past her undergraduate degree, she applied to and enrolled in Harvard Business School.

“In one month, I resigned from my job, sold my house, divorced, moved into the basement of the house I grew up in and started business school with a two-year-old and a four-year-old,” she said. “I was asked why I would leave a job most would aspire to and go back to school. For me, it was that I trusted my gut. It was the right thing to do.”

Villeneuve described the skills she gained from the strategy consulting position she took with the Parthenon Group upon graduating, but stressed the greater value of learning she was in the wrong career.

“It’s really important that you know yourself in this process,” she explained. “I learned amazing things about how to analyze a company, an industry, develop a big picture strategy. I also learned that I was not a career strategy consultant. I was ready to get back into the operating role – to grow companies and develop people.”

So again she moved – to Cross Country Automotive Services, a small privately held company, becoming instrumental in its rapid growth. And when she was on the cusp of becoming CEO – she left to join a revolutionary startup.

“I took myself completely out of my comfort zone, made a bold move, and shocked a lot of people in jumping to Kiva, and quite frankly, I never looked back,” maintained Villeneuve. “Everything I had done in my life came together at Kiva. At the end of the day, there’s a leap of faith.”

She touched again on instinct and comfort zone in enumerating her four key points of straightforward advice for the group:

  • When you map out your career, don’t manage it too tightly. Be ready to pivot when your gut tells you the time is right.
  • If you’re in your comfort zone, move on. If you’re too comfortable in your role, you’re not being challenged anymore.
  • It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s how you learn.
  • At the end of the day, deliver results. That’s how you move – because you get in there and put the marks on the board.

Villeneuve additionally remarked on the value of both a good support structure and colleagues with a variety of viewpoints.

“I’m a huge believer in surrounding yourself with people that have different perspectives,” said Villeneuve. “If they all think like you, you’re not going to get much further as a company.”

In speaking to the students’ future career options, she observed, “When you think about companies, passion is something important to consider. You work a lot of hours. The more passion you feel, the happier you’re going to be.”

And she tied instinct to the role of analysis in business.

“In managing a business, you often start with the numbers, but in many cases, there’s no right solution,” she said. “You just have to figure out the pros and cons and line them up. Sometimes, at the end of the day, there’s a gut feeling.”

Importantly, Villeneuve relayed the value of moving forward.

“Glean what you can glean, but never look back and regret. Just move forward and figure out what it is you learned from this experience and how you can apply that to the next thing going forward.”

Related Links:

Presentation Video

Q&A Video

W.L. Mellon Speaker Series