After attempts to find his replacement externally didn’t pan out, Benevity founder and then-CEO Bryan de Lottinville asked Kelly Schmitt, then-CFO, to step into the top spot. Six months later, Schmitt spoke with the #CIBCInnovationEconomy podcast about her nervousness to take on the role, the two things she realized being a CEO is truly about, and why she’s already thinking about identifying her successor.
Benevity had been searching for a new CEO for a while, as de Lottinville wanted to take a step back from day-to-day operations and focus on thought leadership and innovation for the company. The company had a couple of failed attempts to bring in senior executives from the United States who had tons of experience scaling up companies to a global level, but unfortunately didn’t fit the culture. Schmitt, then the CFO, described the process of searching for a CEO external to the company as “organ rejection.”
According to Schmitt, de Lottinville would regularly say that a founder transition would only be successful if you could “find someone who wouldn’t turn my baby into a smoking, swearing teenager.”
“Find someone who wouldn’t turn my baby into a smoking, swearing teenager.”
That’s when it became clear to de Lottinville and Benevity leadership, said Schmitt, that the new CEO had to be someone who was proven at Benevity and embodied the company’s culture.
“Companies need to assess not just what someone has done, but their values,” said Schmitt.
After continuing the search and coming up dry, de Lottinville told Schmitt he wanted her to take up the mantle and step into the CEO role. While flattered, Schmitt said she “pretty much laughed out loud” and told de Lottinville to find another candidate.
“It’s intimidating to take over from a founder, especially one like Bryan [de Lottinville], who built a business as great as Benevity,” said Schmitt.
A part of Schmitt’s nervousness stemmed from the feeling that she had to be the same kind of CEO de Lottinville was: a thought leader with a product mindset, and a key salesperson for the company. Coming from a finance background, Schmitt didn’t feel she had the product or sales chops to lead in the same way de Lottinville did.
“I just didn’t see myself playing that role,” said Schmitt.
After further conversations with de Lottinville and others, something clicked for Schmitt. She realized being a CEO didn’t always mean being a sales or product person.
“What I’ve since learned is it’s really all about people and culture,” said Schmitt. “And my number one role is ensuring that Benevity continues to have an amazing culture where we can attract and develop great people and that I could build an exact team that complements my skill set and I didn’t need to do it all myself.”
Armed with this mindset, Schmitt stepped into the role. Six months later, she still regularly speaks with de Lottinville and considers him a mentor.
But moving into the CEO role and the internal c-suite shuffle that happened to support it – the VP of finance became the CFO, the head of marketing became the chief impact officer, and the company hired a new CTO – got Schmitt thinking about the future so much that she and Benevity’s leadership are already having conversations about the Benevity executive team of 2031.
In order to support this endeavour to eventually name her own successor, she and the c-suite are planning a series of mentorships and support systems for high potential employees to give them stretch assignments, guidance, and show them they have a future at Benevity. This process doesn’t kick in until someone has been around for a year or two, which gives the company enough time to spot the potential. But regardless of tenure, Schmitt is always on the lookout for “shining stars” in the company.
“We’re starting to have more regular conversations so that we all know who those people are at all levels,” said Schmitt. “And we make sure that they have lots of opportunities to build their careers within Benevity versus going to do it elsewhere.”