Lisa Lisson – FedEx President Triumphs over Personal Tragedy

By Angus Gillespie

The methodical process by which Canadian corporations execute their business plan with expert efficiency often goes largely unnoticed by the general public and why wouldn’t it? To those on the outside, these corporations seem like big, faceless, robotic entities that manage to churn out products and services for consumers to purchase to enhance their own needs, be it personal or professional. But while such companies can seem faceless to those on the outside, nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s people just like you, who are at the very core of any company’s success.

If one were to sit down with 10 executives from any large corporation, it’s virtually guaranteed each and every one of them would have a compelling story about their life’s journey, part of which has resulted in them being where they are today and the person they’ve become.

Such is the case for Lisa Lisson, president of FedEx Express Canada with 5,700 employees and eight airport hubs feeding into the worldwide network that handles 8 million shipments a day in 220 companies. This is a woman who has by all accounts reached the highest of highs on a professional level, while also suffering tremendous lows on a personal level, but in the end overcoming tragedy. Hers is a story of perseverance and inspiration for others. Making Lisson even more ideally suited as such a role model is that she is now and has always been extremely accommodating in her willingness to share her experiences, both good and bad, with others who may find comfort in knowing they are not alone.

Dealing with Tragedy

For Lisson, her story is about a deep love with her husband Patrick. They met in high school, got married and had four children together. By their 30s, both were doing exceptionally well in their executive marketing careers. Patrick with a large building materials company and Lisa, by that time a well established executive at FedEx.

The fantastic life for this young family of six was suddenly and turbulently slammed upside down one night in August, 2007 after they had returned to their home in Burlington, Ont. from a cottage vacation. It was in the middle of the night when Lisa heard a loud thump on the floor. She was startled to quickly realize it was her 38-year-old husband, lying unconscious on the floor. Lisson immediately began CPR and managed to regain a pulse and Patrick was rushed to hospital. It was soon determined he had suffered a massive heart attack.

“He had a genetic defect in his heart, which we didn’t know at the time,” Lisson tells us from her office in Mississauga.

Patrick Lisson did not die that night. In fact, he lived on for another two years, albeit in a vegetative state as his wife painstakingly continued to search for a miracle that would bring him back to the way he way before that fateful night. 

“On day eight the doctors said there was no brain activity and Patrick had a living will which basically said if there’s no hope for a meaningful life please don’t prolong a life that’s not worth living,” Lisson says. “But I’m sure at the time he signed it he was thinking of such a scenario happening at 94 – but he was 38 years old. The doctors were trying to tell me to let him go. I said to them ‘do miracles happen in this hospital?’ and of course the answer is yes, because miracles happen every single day. So I told them to hook him up and keep him alive and I need to know if I’m going to get my miracle.”

Acceptance of a New Life

Despite immense faith, a miracle was not to be. However, to this day Lisson remains thankful for the additional two years her children had with their father. On numerous occasions they came close to losing him along the way. He couldn’t see or speak or move at all. The family would bring Patrick home from the rehabilitation centre each Sunday with the children right there by his side. Lisson has no regrets about keeping him alive that extra time, believing it helped her family gradually come to accept that his death was inevitable.

“It was kind of like our new normal,” she recalls. “They would talk to him just like he could respond back. That’s not the family life I’d dreamed of, but it’s what I had dealt to me at the time.”

During the two years her husband was kept alive following his heart attack, Lisson did take a three-month leave of absence from FedEx, but beyond that she somehow managed to work fulltime in her executive position and take care of her family. In fact, returning to work was cathartic in many ways and she says it helped her tremendously. But prior to returning to work, Lisson was devoted to getting her husband into a strong rehabilitation program just to see if there was anything anyone could do to wake up his mind.

“I was fortunate enough to get him into a rehabilitation centre in Hamilton where I knew he was getting great care and being stimulated to try and get any type of brain activity back and that’s when I felt he was in a good enough place that I could go back to work.”

“As soon as I walked back inside this building I could forget about my life outside of this building which was trying to deal with a very sick husband and raising kids who were three, five, seven and nine at the time. At work I was able to focus on what I needed to do with my team and the job and really was a blessing.

It felt good for me to come back and be with my second family here.”

Over time, Patrick’s body could no longer sustain itself. He became extremely sick and passed away. Almost a year to the day after his death in 2009, Lisson received a phone call from FedEx headquarters in Memphis congratulating her on becoming the new president of FedEx Canada. The appointment in September, 2010 also made her the first female and the first Canadian to hold the position. Just prior to the promotion Lisson had been vice president of marketing and customer experience.

“I remember going into a bit of shock at the time and saying to my boss ‘aren’t you going to interview me?’ and he said ‘you’ve been interviewing for 20 years’. I always tell people this. Every interaction with upper management, always consider it a mini interview.”

The Early Years

Lisson was born in Brantford where she lived until she was five. Her parents divorced and her mother remarried a man who had two sons and together they had another son. Her father went on to marry a woman who had a son from a previous marriage and they had a son.

“I have six brothers,” Lisson smiles. “One real, two halves and three steps. So, I would say it’s like The Brady Bunch… but twice as confusing.”

As far back as high school Lisson knew she wanted to pursue a career in marketing, fascinated by that aspect of business and so she decided to attend the University of Guelph.

“The school offered a program called a Bachelor of Applied Science, major in consumer studies and minor in consumer behaviour, so more on the scientific side of marketing,” she says. “From there the university introduced another program which was more of a Bachelor of Commerce in marketing, a bit more broad and maybe not as narrow-focused as the original degree I was pursuing so I moved over and got a broader Bachelor of Commerce degree with a major in marketing.”

Making that move towards commerce allowed Lisson to be more greatly exposed to the entire business side of a corporate setup as opposed to just the marketing side.

“I knew I wanted to work in the corporate environment,” she replies. “When I finished university I decided that I wanted to pick a company whose philosophy I value.

Lisson spent a great deal of time researching companies and she came across FedEx.

“What I loved about what I read is they talked about this thing called PSP – the philosophy is: people; service; profit,” Lisson notes. “Treat your people well with utmost respect and they in turn will provide service to your customers that’s exceptional, which will deliver profit to your shareholders and then you can reinvest back in the people.”

As Lisson mentioned, we all spend a lot of time away from our families while dealing with work commitments and she wanted to be around people and a culture that she felt would be dynamic, exciting and enjoyable. It was at that time when she decided to pursue seeking out a position with FedEx.

“You couldn’t email your resume, it didn’t exist at the time,” she says. “So I did my resume up but I didn’t just want to mail it in and have it just sit on someone’s pile so I decided to go and actually deliver it myself. I showed up at the FedEx head office in Mississauga and I found out who the assistant to the director of marketing was by phoning, and her name was Peggy. I walked into the front door and said I had a delivery for Peggy. I ended up talking to her and gave her my resume and asked her to pass it on to Kathy, who was the director at the time. I asked if she had children and she said yes. I then said ‘I’m sure one day in their career they’ll be looking for a job just like me and I hope they find a Peggy like you that’s kind enough to take my resume.’ The next day I sent Peggy flowers. A few days after that, the director came out to see Peggy and said she had a position to fill and wanted to see the stack of resumes. Peggy said ‘have I got a gal for you’ – and that’s how I got the job in January, 1992 in entry level marketing.”

From that point onward it’s been a corporate climb through the large logistics company. When not at work, Lisson does a lot of mentoring and partakes in many speaking engagements, believing that success is largely about creating your own unique value proposition in order to find a way to stand out above the crowd.

“I’ve always been very optimistic my whole life and I’ve always set goals because people who write down goals on paper are more successful than those who don’t,” she remarks. “Part of my goals that I’d written down included having a successful career in marketing and one day I’d like to run a company.”

When people go through personal tragedies they all handle such situations very differently. There are those who become very guarded and withdrawn and there are those who are more able to share their thoughts and emotions. Lisson falls into the latter category, believing that by telling her story it can help provide inspiration and motivation to others that life goes on and that you can overcome the hardships no matter what they may be.

“I’m very open about sharing the journey with my husband because I always just say that his life was lost and if I can take this life that was lost and share how I learned to cope and find the good and the bad and find a way to learn as much as I can from this experience and become a better person because of it. If I can help just one person by sharing my story, it does my heart good.”

Lisson is known for believing in focusing on the here and now. We can’t change the past and can’t predict the future, so dealing with the present seems like the only sensible thing to do.

“A lot of people didn’t know what I was dealing with in my personal life until afterwards,” Lisson reveals. “They wanted to know how I managed to come to work with a smile on my face and cope. What I initially found was that my mind was wandering into the past when Patrick was healthy and of course that would make me sad so I decided I couldn’t keep letting my mind take me back there.”

The only time she would relent and allow herself to go back in time was if she felt there was something to be learned from it. But then she’d immediately snap herself out of it and move on. Lisson didn’t want to spend time worrying about potentially being a widow with four young kids because she views it as wasted energy, knowing that within a split second life can completely change, as hers did.

Instead, Lisson trained her mind to focus on what’s happening now and try and find as much enjoyment as possible in the moment and reasons to smile.

Positive energy being transmitted onto others is something Lisson believes in wholeheartedly.

It stands to reason that being president of a large corporation means that effective time management is crucial for Lisson in order to fulfill her duties as an business executive but also as a mother. Scheduling conflicts do come up, but that’s just part of life. She is by nature an early riser and tries to be home most nights by 5:30 pm to have dinner with the family.

“What helps me to achieve good balance is every week I have white space on my calendar,” she shares. “It’s a couple hours a week where you have no meetings, no phone calls and you’re just focusing on what you’ve got to do, so I’ll take my kids to anything important so I will try and work around significant things in their lives and that really helps me.”

Lisson’s parents live just five minutes away, which is a tremendous blessing, especially during times when she has to go on business trips.

Lisson firmly believes in the corporate philosophy of promoting from within whenever a current employee is suitable for the promotion. FedEx has implemented extensive management training programs including one called Drive Your Career. There are also internal workshops and seminars to help promote employees to higher levels within the company.

Celebrity President

Lisson says it’s always been a corporate philosophy at FedEx to promote from within, and yet she herself agreed to be “demoted” but it was all part of a guest appearance on the CTV reality television show Undercover Boss Canada. The producers of the show had read an article on Lisson and her background and the personal challenges she’s had to face and overcome in her life and they knew she was exactly the type of individual they wanted to have on the programme. In July, 2011 the call was made to Lisson to gauge her interest.

“I first did some research and then said I’d be happy to do it,” she tells us. “It was honestly one of the best experiences of my entire career.”

It meant more than a week on the road filming and then other individual work days. The television crew did an excellent job of disguising Lisson and also had her working in locations far away from Toronto on the belief she’d not likely be as recognized. Lisson, a physically fit, attractive young blonde-haired woman who’s always impeccably dressed, was disguised to be far less glamorous while going incognito for her episode on the programme. The alterations included dying her blonde hair to a dark brown while being fitted with a big pair of glasses, a baseball cap and courier uniform.

“My own children didn’t recognize me,” Lisson laughs.

“I went out to some of the more remote areas where I’m not as visible.” She was also in Kelowna and Victoria, B.C. “I actually did do a station here in the GTA and was a bit nervous about that but I was able to pull that one off as well.”

Doing the show was of course a thrill and great to be part of but doing it was also very much an eye-opening experience because it allowed Lisson to get a feel for what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes and gave her a whole new appreciation for what others do on a daily basis.

“It’s one thing to watch your employees do what they do but it gives you a whole new perspective when you are side by side with them actually doing the job,” she acknowledges. “When I was out there doing deliveries as a courier or offloading from our aircraft doing the graveyard shift in Calgary, it gives you a whole new appreciation for what they do every single day. I was actually sad when it was over. It’s like I had separation anxiety. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these employees. “It’s incredible how much they multitask and hustle out there to get all the packages there on time. At some point I could not keep up and was running behind some of the couriers trying to keep up.”

Not surprisingly, once the news spread that Lisa Lisson had appeared on the show, working undercover as a woman named Suzanne, it became big talk with all her friends and with staff members at FedEx. Even strangers reached out to her including people who sent in their resumes hoping to work for her at FedEx.

“I’ve been blown away by the feedback not only just from our employees but also the general public.” The episode aired this past April 5 here in Canada and also in the U.S. on TLC.

“What I love about this job is that every week is different,” Lisson states. “I really try and get out on the road as much as possible, burn that shoe leather and get out where the action is.”

“We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. We have to make sure we listen twice as much as we speak.”

Lisson has already attained an incredible level of achievement in her professional career at a young age, but she’s not yet done in reaching all of the goals she has set out for herself.

“I’ve got written down as one of my goals that I would like to work in another region of the world for FedEx,” she shares. “I think it would be wonderful culturally for my kids and for me to learn about another region. It’s definitely a potential ambition down the road.”

If and when she has a bit of spare time, keeping fit is on the agenda.

“Although I hate exercising I do it three or four times a week because I believe it’s good for the mind, body and soul,” she replies. “I also do help mentor other women including a woman who just recently lost her husband to a heart attack. I’m in a position to answer some of her questions because I’ve been through it myself. One of the questions she asked was ‘how did you know when it was time to take the wedding ring off’? Only someone that’s been in that position can answer that type of question.”

“When I share my stories they tend to let their guard down and are then more willing to share their stories knowing that they aren’t the only ones who’ve had to go through a traumatic experience.”

By the age of 40, Lisson had performed three eulogies: one for her father, her best friend’s sister, who was a murder victim, and finally for her husband.

“I’d never have thought I’d do three eulogies by the time I was 40, but that’s life and it’s the journey we’re on. If I can only help one person who reads this, if I can help make someone’s life better, to show how I coped and went through it all, then it does my heart good.”