Breaking down barriers in the VC space: An interview with Kristina Williams, CEO of Alberta Enterprise Corporation
Venture Capital

Breaking down barriers in the VC space: An interview with Kristina Williams, CEO of Alberta Enterprise Corporation

Kristina Williams discusses how organizations can shift mindsets regarding gender, how her CEO and board roles complement each other, and how her investment philosophy has changed.
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In this episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Sean McLean speaks to Kristina Williams, the CEO of Alberta Enterprise Corporation, vice chair of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), and a non-executive director of North American Construction Group. Williams discusses her experience in the technology and investment industries and shares how her investment philosophy has changed since 2020 and her outlook for 2023, highlighting the potential for Canada to start thinking globally and exporting high-value products. She also discusses the role of DE&I in organizations, particularly regarding gender, stressing the importance of sponsorships and the need for organizations to change their mindset and recruitment processes. Finally, she shares how being both a CEO and a board member has helped her in both roles.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Sean McLean: Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership podcast. I'm Sean McLean, partner at Heidrick & Struggles and member of the global Industrial and Financial Officers practices, and leader of our Calgary office.

In today's podcast, I'm excited to speak with Kristina Williams, CEO of Alberta Enterprise Corporation (AEC), formed as an independent corporation by the government of Alberta in 2008, Alberta Enterprise invests in VC funds with strong track records, global networks, and a commitment to the province of Alberta. She's also the honorary consult for Sweden. Prior to joining AEC, Kristina worked at several technology companies and led multi-functional teams across legal, regulatory, business development, strategic planning, IP management, and sales and marketing. Kristina is also an associate with Creative Destruction Lab, Rockies, vice chair of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), a non-executive director of North American Construction Group, and a former director of Alcanna.

Kristina, thanks very much for joining us today. 

Kristina Williams: Thank you, Sean, for having me. 

Sean McLean: Kristina, you're a true global citizen. You've lived, worked, and studied internationally. Since coming to Canada, you've led or served on the boards of very different organizations. Given this unique perspective and experience, what is your outlook and mindset for 2023 and beyond?

Kristina Williams: I come from a small country, Sweden. It has a small internal market with few natural resources, so Sweden's always been focused on global export and exporting high-value products. Historically, the vast majority of Canadian exports have been to our neighbor to the south—to no surprise. Because of Covid, there was a move from globalization to protectionism. I think this protectionism is temporary. So, now, there’s a time and place for Canada to start thinking globally and to start thinking of high-value production exports. We have some of the best AI and machine learning in the world in Canada. In the technology sector, we've never seen this many technology companies started ever in the history of Alberta, and we're seeing a very strong energy sector at the same time as we're seeing a strong tech sector.

So, the interesting thing then is what's going to happen going forward? In 2020, Canada as a whole did see a reduction in venture capital investments, which is the space that I play in on a daily basis. But in Alberta, we were actually growing. So, looking forward then, I think that we'll see probably a healthy reduction in the valuations of technology companies coming in 2023. In Alberta, we have seen a reduction of about 14% already, while the rest of Canada has seen a reduction about 30%. But this is by far not a crisis, in my mind. This is just coming back to more reasonable valuations compared to some of the crazy activities that we've seen in the prior years. So we're leaving some of the hype behind us and we're actually coming back to business fundamentals. And we saw many VCs actually hold onto their capital in 2022, and I'm [expecting] that in 2023. And, going forward, there will be a lot of new investments coming as valuations go down. 

Sean McLean: Very exciting to hear that perspective, and certainly we feel it on the ground in terms of a real burgeoning optimism in Alberta in sustaining some of the diversification that's occurred over the last few years. And thank you for all you do in that domain. 

So, given all that has happened and is happening in the world, Canada, and Alberta in the 2020s, has your investment philosophy changed? Has your leadership style evolved? 

Kristina Williams: I wouldn't say that it's changed. I would rather say that my style and thinking have been reinforced by the last couple of years. If I look at the investment philosophy, it's really back to the business fundamentals, as I was mentioning earlier. Will a business generate revenue? Will they generate a profit? Is there a demand for the product? And in terms of leadership style, I've always been a massive proponent for flexibility. So, an ability to pivot, just rethink your business strategy. Businesses that managed to do that during Covid were the ones that were coming out of Covid successfully. In my mind, it's about staying calm and collected but adaptive. So, use historical information. Don't get stuck in it, but we've always done it this way. We know that there will be new black swan events for sure. We know that there will be new disruptive technologies coming. Do you want to be a Blockbuster or do you want to be Netflix? And, in fact, Netflix is about to be disrupted themselves. So as a leader, how are you going to react? So that's going to be key at core going forward. 

And listen to your team. They're usually way closer to the issues than you are. I'm not an expert in every field, so I rely on my team to really feed me the information that I need to make business decisions. Clear communication—that's another leadership trait that I really, really try to focus on. Your team needs to understand what you're trying to achieve. What is the goal? So the “what” has to be really clear, but the “how” might be changing in times of massive change like the ones we're going through. 

Sean McLean: Thank you for that. It's interesting that one of the core pillars of our leadership framework is agility, and it sounds like we would agree that that's one of the most important leadership attributes given all the change that we've seen and are likely to continue seeing.

Related to the previous question, have the last few years changed the skills or capabilities you look for in the leadership teams or in the investment philosophies of the VC funds you partner with?

Kristina Williams: So, when we look at what VC fund teams back, having investors who have had operational roles at a senior level themselves is key. Have they been in the trenches? Do they understand the operational issues that these companies will face? Will they be able to help these companies through those difficult times? Having had that operational role becomes imperative. We are putting an increased emphasis on VC funds that have the ability to, again, adapt and communicate with their investors. Throughout Covid, we observed various different ways of handling the crisis that we had, and there are various different ways of doing it, but one thing that came out very clear was: Are you able to adapt and are you able to communicate how you're adapting and why you're adapting to your investors?

Sean McLean: Kristina, as we mentioned in your intro, you serve on a number of boards. What capabilities and leadership attributes do you feel board members need?

Kristina Williams: So, similar to when we're looking at funds and which funds to invest in, I really truly believe that having operational experience at a senior level is key for being a good board member as well. If you've been a CEO or a COO, you will have broad experience; you will understand risks, operations strategy, and you'll also understand the many, many, many day-to-day issues that CEOs will face and the management team will face. And this will give you a better ability to provide value in the boardroom.

Sean McLean: Following up, how would you say that your board director roles have influenced your CEO role, and vice versa? How does being a sitting CEO influence your board director roles? 

Kristina Williams: I know that there's a massive knowledge gap between the management and the board, and as a CEO I work with the business on a daily basis, so I have detailed knowledge about what's going on. And, as a CEO, my job is to provide the board with relevant information so that they can do their jobs. And when I say relevant information, I don't only mean the information they need to make the decision. It also has to be delivered in a format that's easy to digest for them and understandable because they spend way less time on the business than I do, and they also are very busy individuals, so I have to deliver the material to them so that it's easy for them.

I also have to be very clear with them about what I am asking of them. Is this a decision? Is it a review? Is it for information? And I don't ever want them to be surprised, so I just talked to them at the quarterly board meetings. Continuous discussions are really key, because, as a CEO, it can get very lonely, because there are issues you cannot discuss with your team. So, the high-quality individuals that are on your board are sitting on expertise that you as a CEO can use. And I know that from being on boards, and I know that from being the CEO. So I use the board as a sounding board, and I very, very much value their opinion. And vice versa, being a sitting CEO has really influenced how I deal with my board roles because I have a very clear understanding of what my role as a board member is versus the CEO. As a board member, my job is not to run the day-to-day business or to get involved in the details of the operations. Rather, my job is to think about what value I can bring to help management successfully execute on the strategy that's been set. What outside perspective can I bring? What barriers can I help remove to enable management to be successful? But I'm also there to push management, and I'm there to challenge their assumptions because, as a board member, I have a fiduciary responsibility to all the stakeholders of the business, not just to management. So it's important that you play that role and you really push management hard to make sure that you get the best outcome for the entire business.

Sean McLean: That's a great perspective, Kristina. I know we often tell first-time directors that the shift in mindset going into the boardroom is almost as great or greater than the shift in mindset going into your first C-suite role. Thank you for that. 

As we reported in our Board Monitor Canada 2022 report, we are seeing improvements in DE&I. The share of seats going to women in 2021 increased to 46%, up from a rather significant dip to 38% in 2020, and the share of seats allocated to people from diverse ethnic backgrounds increased from 9% in 2020 to 40% in 2021. There's still work to be done, especially on management teams. In your opinion, what are leaders doing well right now to accelerate progress on DE&I within their organizations? What more must be done? 

Kristina Williams: So, let's start with [how it was] when I came to Canada from Sweden. I had never, ever thought male versus female. I thought in the realm of, is this person suitable for the job or not? Here, I did find that there was a bit of a difference. So, in my mind, this is about changing the mindset of individuals in organizations. So, quite often, I get the question, “Who takes care of your children?” Because I'm the CEO and I'm on boards and I have younger children. Or, people ask, “When are you going to have your next child?” This would never, ever, ever, ever happen in Sweden. Som the thing is, how do we then change this mindset and how do we move the DE&I question forward? It really comes down to the fact that we need more women to have CEO, COO, or CFO experience, and we have to figure out how we remove those barriers to get that done. Setting targets has always been a good thing and many organizations now are starting to set targets, but that actually has to translate into action. And that starts at the recruitment process, and it's about seeing the potential of the individuals, not just current qualifications. There are many, many studies showing that when men are recruited versus women are recruited, for men, individuals judge their future potential, and for women, they judge their current qualifications. So, we need to change that mindset. And I even caught my own organization doing this, and I went back to my team and said, “Nope, we have to reevaluate these candidates and really rethink.”

Another way is obviously to remove any names from any of the job potentials so that you're removing some of that bias. But the bias, whether or not we like it, is there. Mentorship becomes important. So, if you have a mentorship program inside your organization—but even more important than mentorship is probably sponsorship. What's the difference? Sponsorship is when an individual will actually go to bat for you and put your name forward, which will put their own reputation at risk. So, when I became the CEO, I had some great sponsors inside my organizations and inside my board who really put my name forward to become the CEO. And at the time I became the CEO, I was actually on maternity leave with my second child. And so, the board really took a chance on me at that point in time, and I'm forever grateful, and that's because I have sponsors who put my name forward. 

Another thing to look at is hidden barriers. Don't have breakfast meetings at 7:00 AM If you have parents in your organization who have young children at home, because they have to take their kids to school. They cannot come to a 7:00 AM breakfast meeting. What maternity/paternity policies do you have in your organization? Are men encouraged to take paternity leave? Is there a negative stigma if they take paternity leave? Again, looking back at Sweden, there's never a question. Men will take half of the parental leave and women will take half. So, we need to change the thinking of that in Canada as well. 

Now, a huge positive of Covid has been that we can be more flexible with where we work from and what hours we work. And I like to say that this is totally a game-changer for women in the workforce. But I also want to make sure that the women take their responsibility because if they're given an opportunity, they have to take it. So it's also their responsibility to ensure that they do. 

Sean McLean: Kristina, it's great to hear the role that mentors and sponsors played in your career. I know with our clients, we're advocating for allyship a similar principle to ensure that we are developing the next generation of diverse leaders who make it into the leadership ranks and C-suite. Let's turn to your unique background. Given your international experience, what have you observed Canadian organizations doing particularly well? Where's the room for improvement? 

Kristina Williams: Canadians are very, very entrepreneurial and I love working with Canadians. Also, I've said that at no other point will you step into an elevator and someone starts speaking to you, and this is a person that you don't know. That will not happen in Europe, and that's a huge plus. Canadians are very approachable. And, believe it or not, it's way less bureaucratic, allowing workplaces here in Canada to be more flexible with promotions and other things. So, that's also a major positive. We talked about sponsorship earlier. Another word for that is being an ally. Canadians are great at sponsoring each other. So, I've had some great sponsors in my life, including my former CEO, my former board chair, and a whole bunch of women in my network that have helped being my sponsors. 

Now, what can be done a little bit better? I've looked at leadership from different perspectives throughout my career. Swedish organizations tend to be less hierarchical with the teams providing more input. Now, that doesn't mean that all decisions are made by consensus, but it means that the team understands the reasons behind the decision, and even if they don't agree, they will know why. And that's going to make it more powerful when they actually enact the decision. And I'll give you an example from early in my career: I was working for a person that was running a global sales team, and I didn't quite agree with the strategy that he was suggesting, and I told him what I thought could be improved. He did not want to hear what I had told them. And he went on to explain to me how insignificant my role was and why he was not going to listen to my opinion. I went home that day and I was really upset about how he treated me. And, first off, it was a good wake-up call for me as an individual going, “OK, well maybe my opinion doesn't matter, and maybe it wasn't important.” But I also realized he wasn't really interested in my opinion at all. It was his way or the highway. So how motivated do you think that I was in the future to give any suggestions to this organization of how to improve? And guess what? A couple of years later, there were major cutbacks and the organization had to really roll back on a lot of stuff that they were doing. And I'm not saying it's because of them not being able to listen, but I do think that how you run your organization and your ability to listen to people that are closest to the questions does play into the success of your business.

So if you're empowering your employees to make decisions and allowing them to participate in decisions, you will get way more out of them. And there's a great book that I would recommend anybody to read, and it's a really easy read. It's called Moments of Truth, by Jan Carlzon, the former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines. And it’s exactly about how you can empower your employees. They're at the frontlines to make the decisions to ensure that you have a successful business.

Sean McLean: What a great overview. And as a tip to our listeners who aspire for the C-Suite, one of the things we look for as an executive search firm is leaders who generate followership. And certainly seeking input and empowering your colleagues is one of the best ways to do that. Thank you for sharing that. 

Kristina, one last question. Any advice, tips, or tactics on what leadership, skill sets and characteristics will be critical for leaders as they navigate what is likely to be a turbulent period for the foreseeable future?

Kristina Williams: I touched on some of these earlier, so this is a little bit of a recap and maybe a couple of new things. But, be clear with the goals of what you're trying to do. Empower your team. Listen to your team. I'm not here to tell them how to do it. I'm not expert on every small detail. My job is to know who to ask, and based on the information, provide leadership to my team. I see things as opportunities instead of challenges. The other thing you miss, I tell my children all the time, too, is that you will never have perfect information to make a decision. So sometimes, or quite often, you will have to make a decision with the information you have at hand at the time, because it's better to take a decision than to not take a decision. But then also change, if you realize that you were wrong. And if something does go wrong, take responsibility. As a CEO, it is my responsibility if something goes wrong, but if something goes really well, I give credit to the team, because it is a team effort. And then, you're not alone. Ask for help. So, being a CEO can be really stressful and especially you have times of uncertainty and volatility and you need to take care of yourself.

My former boss, who I worked for for a number of years—unfortunately he's no longer with us because he died of suicide. That forever changed me and my perspective on my leadership. I see a psychologist, not because there's something wrong with me, but because it's good to have a mental check-in. I take breaks. Working 24 hours a day is not going to provide better results. So sometimes you need to step away to get better clarity on your decision making and on a problem that you have at hand. I don't know how many things I've solved when I've been out for walks out in nature and you get this brilliant idea of how to solve a problem. That's because you're stepping away from the problem for a while and giving yourself a break. And then finally, be humble. 

Sean McLean: Kristina, thank you so much for your candor and insights today. We really appreciate you making the time to speak with us.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don't miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you're listening via Linked In, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time. 

About the interviewer

Sean McLean ( is the partner in charge of Heidrick & Struggles’ Calgary office and a member of the global Industrial and Financial Officers practices.

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