Skip to content

Female Disruptors: Nancy Parsons of CDR Companies On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

When things get tough, focus on the mission. This is so true. With releasing our new coaching technology, CDR-U Coach, during COVID combined with all of the marketing and sales challenges of introducing a new product, it has been a tough climb to say the least. When we have a disappointment or setback, I focus on our mission and think about how many people we are going to help in their careers and lives. This stops me from getting too down or negative. Also, you have to understand that there are many failures along the way for all entrepreneurs. If you get down and focus on what goes wrong too often, you will miss the opportunities and windows to succeed. Your mission can be the rudder to help steer you through the tough times. It does for me.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Parsons.

Nancy Parsons is CEO/President of CDR Companies, LLC, and is a globally recognized expert in combining the science of assessments with the art of developing people. Nancy was the MEECO International Thought Leader of Distinction in Executive Coaching (2019) and author of the Amazon bestseller: Women Are Creating the Glass Ceiling and Have the Power to End It. Nancy and her team recently launched CDR-U Coach, the first of its kind, A/I type avatar coach that provides individualized assessment feedback and development for all employees and was just awarded the 2021 Gold Star Winner of the “Best New Product or Service of the Year” by the Stevie Awards for Women in Business.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was raised outside of Philadelphia, PA and was the middle of five children, the first four of us were girls. My father worked third shift at the Inquirer newspaper and was a union negotiator. So, I think I developed my assertiveness from my dad. When I was growing up, I participated in every sport available to me. Back then, there were quite a few: swimming, running, basketball, softball, and field hockey. I even played on a women’s football team in Philadelphia and we won the city championship. I played cornerback and this gave me a whole new appreciation and perspective for football, which I already loved. Lastly, in school, I also held a number of leadership roles: co-president of my junior class, captain of the drill team and I had the lead in several plays. In my off time, I was a softball umpire.

I was a non-traditional college student and attended Neumann University at night while I worked full time at Sun Shipyard. I began as a secretary in procurement and when I started, I had to cross the picket lines as the five bargaining units were striking. This helped me to get noticed as I was superfast on the keyboard and was able to help many people who didn’t have their secretaries. Soon after the five-week strike was over, I was promoted to a job in HR. I remember the question the HR Director asked me, “How do you think you can deal with someone, say an angry employee, yelling at you?“ My response was, “Well I hadn’t had that on the job before, but I am an umpire and men and women players and coaches can get pretty tough and I usually can settle it or will toss the person from the game if needed.” I think that nailed the offer for me and I was selected over several who had college degrees. I never looked back. HR and helping people was my destiny and I am still on that course.

At one of my jobs at Sun Pipe Line, I was the lead labor negotiator for a time, taking the other side of my dad’s work! I loved the HR work, but over the years, I gravitated to coaching, developing leaders and the employees. I even developed a 360 feedback process for executives in 1990. I grew weary of firefighting and wanted to get in front of the leadership and employee problems. My first attempt at being an entrepreneur was in the early 1990s. I started GREATer EXPECTATIONS, a human resource consulting and publishing firm. I stayed with it a couple of years and went back to a large energy company for a while as I missed being in the large company. However, what I learned there while taking classes on running my own business at the local technology center, saved what was to be our future company, CDR Companies, LLC. I learned to copyright and trademark, or even patent if eligible, all intellectual property and file with appropriate government entities. If you don’t file to certify it, you cannot protect it effectively. I am so thankful for this course!

Later, I focused on assessments and founded CDR Assessment Group, Inc. in 1998 with Kimberly Leveridge, Ph.D. where we developed the CDR Character, CDR Risk and CDR Drivers & Rewards Assessments and later, the 360 Leader Scan. We train and certify internal and external executive coaches. Our vision is to revolutionize leadership and we are still on that quest.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We developed the first of its kind avatar coaching platform that individually debriefs our in-depth Character, Risks and Drivers and Rewards Assessments. It is an AI type experience for the user with no two people receiving the same feedback and developmental action plans are offered. Most AI coaching products are just in time coaching on short or simple issues. With CDR-U Coach, which is available 24/7, organizations can now provide robust assessments and coaching to all levels of employees, not just the top 15 to 20 percent. Then, the data from CDR-U Coach can be used for enterprise-wide solutions, such as succession planning, custom training designs, team formation and development, improving diversity and inclusion initiatives, finding hidden talent and more.

Finding good employees today is difficult and keeping them is even harder. Retention is crucial and according to the Workplace LinkedIn Learning Report in 2021, 94 percent would stay at their current employer if they invested in their long-term learning. This begins with helping each employee understand their own inherent capability, strengths, gaps, risks and motivational needs. That is what CDR-U Coach does.

As noted in my bio, CDR-U Coach is being honored as the 2021 Gold Star Winner of the “Best New Product or Service of the Year” by the Stevie Awards for Women in Business.

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 gave this careful thought and I honestly could not think of a “funny” story when starting CDR. I do have a story, however, of an odd twist of fate that we persevered through. When I signed the contract with the company where we were going to buy scoring and data in the early days, that was the Friday before Labor Day weekend of 1998. Then, I went off from Tulsa to my daughters’ soccer tournament in Plano, Texas. During the early Saturday morning game, my oldest daughter, who was a sophomore then, was going in to score on the Dallas D’Feeters. The Sweeper (defender) took her out in a nasty hit and she suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula. She had to go to the Plano hospital for emergency surgery. So, my husband was going to fly to be with us. However, he suffered a medical emergency himself while he was on the way to the airport and ended up in St. John’s Medical Center in Tulsa. I had two surgeries of my loved ones in two different cities the day after I signed the contract. (Thankfully, everyone recovered over time.)

Then my business partner, Kimberly Leveridge PH.D. and I opened CDR Assessment Group on Monday, October 5, 1998 at our new offices. That night, Kim went to step aerobics at the local YWCA. She fell off the bench and broke both wrists.

Were these bad omens? I hoped not. We worked really hard, developed our assessments and managed life the best we could. The lesson I learned was that you never know what life will deal you and to do your best and stay focused on your mission and your family needs. This forced me to be extremely productive and adaptable to get through those tough first few months. We met our goals and sent our assessments to be copyrighted to the Library of Congress at the end of December. This later saved our business.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

For my entire time at Sunoco companies, I had great bosses. They believed in me, trusted me, helped me, gave me “candid” feedback and treated me with respect. They also gave me plenty of space to perform. Fortunately, I was a hard worker and had a knack for problem solving. I would sometimes find problems the company didn’t even know they had. In one case at Sun Ship, I became a bit of an expert on the ERISA laws, governing retirement plans. I found that a good percentage of employees who were vested had been denied pensions because the company had miscalculated their actual eligible vested years. Sun Ship immediately reinstated and back paid everyone when we found this unintentional error. That was under Donna Pedrick and she always had my back, even when uncovering this costly pension mistake. She regularly gave me feedback and helped me grow. Bill Howey, Rick Taylor and Joe Swift were all positive too. They saw something in me and supported my “justice will be done mentality” to help employees and the company. They were all honest and supportive, but different in their styles.

My business partner, Kim, was also a mentor to me in many ways. She had wit and wisdom that I welcomed. If we faced a tough case or client, Kim would frame it in such a fun way, in confidence, I had to laugh and that would always take the pressure off. I really enjoyed brainstorming with Kim and we complemented each other quite well.

Richard Gajan helped me in the last several years with my coaching technology business and on how to write the plan, get investors, etc. He had great patience and was always responsive and totally believed in our mission. His excitement was always reassuring. Christine Klatt heads up our business and clients services and she has been my rock. She has amazing business and financial savvy and knowledge. Christine is a great problem solver and critical thinker. We are a small entity and together, we have broken boundaries, have accomplished so much and it works. So, I guess you could say she is a mentor as she is an expert where I am not. We often disagree — but we get there and I trust her judgement.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption is positive when you are providing solutions that make marked improvements and can be sustained and tested over time to be positive. Disruption is also essential when dealing and adapting in “VUCA” times we live in today. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Events such as COVID, political climate, economic instability, inflation, hiring difficulties, civil unrest and even technology leaps combine for constant change with many unknowns. Today’s innovators and futurists can be key to helping us through by disrupting with new solutions when facing so many unknowns. With CDR-U Coach, we have built a platform that is future focused because today’s solutions have not adequately identified and developed all talent. Our goal is to democratize, personalize and digitize learning and development. It is disruptive, but necessary to retain and develop talent.

On the other hand, some disruptive ideas and solutions can be ineffective, damaging or even devastating. One example that comes to mind is some of the work in AI that could violate values and ethics. Some forms of AI monitor all activities of employees and managers all day. This may invade privacy and be over the line, which can cause employees to leave. Technology frequently is disruptive, but when it invades privacy or our personal data without clear permission, this violates the law and trust. Lastly, not all change or disruption makes sense. Sometimes supposed improvements or disruption ideas cause more damage than good, so careful evaluation and due diligence is needed to be sure we are not changing just for the sake of change.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  • Never forget where you came from. Bill Howey was my boss at the Cordero Coal Mine in Gillette Wyoming when I was an ER Representative. He was concerned that because I was so young in my early 20s that my position and pay would get to my head and that I might become arrogant or full of myself. I was raised in a blue-collar family and people would describe me as down to earth. He didn’t want me to lose that and I don’t think I have. I am proud of my family and history. I enjoy relating to all people from janitors to CEOs.
  • Trust yourself. I was always confident in dealing with senior executives, even early in my career. I did my homework and always was able to stand my ground when necessary. However, in the world of assessments, research, executive coaching and consulting, we work with many Ph.D.s. In the early years of CDR, there would be an occasional cynical, arrogant or pompous scholar who might be sarcastic or abrasive who would challenge me or our work. Kim, my business partner, was always there to remind me that I was the expert and to trust myself and not let these non-experts (in our field) hurt my confidence.
  • When things get tough, focus on the mission. This is so true. With releasing our new coaching technology, CDR-U Coach, during COVID combined with all of the marketing and sales challenges of introducing a new product, it has been a tough climb to say the least. When we have a disappointment or setback, I focus on our mission and think about how many people we are going to help in their careers and lives. This stops me from getting too down or negative. Also, you have to understand that there are many failures along the way for all entrepreneurs. If you get down and focus on what goes wrong too often, you will miss the opportunities and windows to succeed. Your mission can be the rudder to help steer you through the tough times. It does for me.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Well, I am looking forward to some exciting research we will be doing on personalities that are more prone to being victims of harassment and bullying as things settle a bit. This will be eye opening for sure because we can help the would-be victims earlier in life to adapt tactics and skills to fend off any would-be offenders.

Soon, we will introduce an addition to our Career Action Planning Module called, “Do You Have a STEM Profile,” which can help so many young people understand that they do, in fact, have the inherent potential for this exciting and profitable work.

We are on the course to helping millions of people earlier in their careers to become more self-aware to drive their education and careers in the best direction based on their strengths and their passions with CDR-U Coach.

Lastly, I really want to shake up how we do “leadership.” I hope to turn leadership on its head so that we can get it right. For over two decades, leadership ineffectiveness stands at about 50 to 75 percent. This is evident from multiple and ongoing studies from the most respected organizations that show this.

So, CDR-U Coach is a stepping-stone and coaching platform to help us to disrupt and reverse the impact of failed leadership. We will get this done!

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

Clearly, men’s businesses have an easier time getting financing and more contracts than women. They own many of the businesses that have been around for decades and that dominate the marketplace. One of the issues we face is that often our prospective clients are not risk takers, so they tend to want to go with consulting houses with long track records. Sadly, these are the ones who are often making bank off of failed systems. HR types are not change agents by nature, so they stay with these firms, many of the male-dominated or owned large consulting houses. It is visibility that can be tough in a busy marketplace for the female entrepreneur. The big boys have big marketing budgets and it is hard for us to gain the footing to be seen and tested.

Also, our firm’s research shows that when men are more assertive and bold, customers in leadership like and appreciate those behaviors. When women are assertive and bold, we are too “pushy.” There are different rules of engagement when it comes to perceptions. So, we don’t only have to fight the market share issues of the old guard, we also have to not rock the boat too much with prospective clients or they run away.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

My favorite is Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage. This is a great book for clarifying your values as an organization and building your playbook. It is not fluff and he challenges using the word “integrity” for your core values since this word means different things to different people. He says get clear and gives and example of an effective value,

“We will all clean floors if that is what it takes to get the job done.” That is actionable and clear!

Also, he offers a two-page strategic game plan for your team members and to share with all employees. It’s clear and concise and puts everyone on the same page without the blah, blah, blah.

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

Enhance your own self-awareness so that you can be successful and happy. Otherwise, you can be missing a great deal in life. Use a deep scientifically valid assessment like the CDR 3-D Suite to help you understand your true talent, risks and passions. Then, you will never work a day in your life. Also, this can prevent you from undervaluing your potential or getting stuck in a career that is unsatisfying. You would be shocked at how many people have hidden talent that they never realize or develop.

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

“The question isn’t who is going to let me, but who is going to stop me.” — Ayn Rand

As a woman entrepreneur, these are words to live by. Asking permission is the kiss of death to building your business success. I’ve always started things, led things, competed for things and love to make things happen. When you combine your practical knowledge, problem solving capabilities and excitement to develop and design new solutions, you can’t lose.

Now, of course, you need to network, build relationships and support others–and those are the things that women are generally natural at doing well. You need a great team to succeed, but as the CEO of your start-up, don’t ask for permission. You will need to pivot and flex frequently along the way, but stay strong, stay determined and do not let naysayers and glass ceilings deter your will and your success. You go girl!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Female Disruptors: Nancy Parsons of CDR Companies On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.