The experience of watching her parents and grandparents enacting solid Midwestern values of resolve, hard work, perseverance, and loyalty to family and friends provided Susan Kerr with some of the most deeply formative moments of her life. “I am so grateful for the qualities I was given by both my mom and dad,” she says. “My mom is positive, vibrant, and courageous; strong is an understatement.” Her mother grew up on an Illinois farm that at times went without heat or indoor plumbing and required dawn-to-dusk labor in all types of weather. She became an award-winning real estate salesperson in the Southern California community where Susan grew up. “My dad is this deep river within me,” she continues. “I try to bring into my daily work with my clients his intelligence and humility and my mom’s exuberance for life.” Susan frequently calls upon her appreciation of that humble, yet durable heritage as a treasured reminder, both of where she comes from and of “how lucky I feel to get the opportunity to do what I do.”
Today, as the CEO of Advancing Inspiration, LLC, “a solutions-based, relationship-driven executive coaching, facilitation, and strategic consulting company,” Susan still adheres to the three core qualities she set out for herself on the day she made the commitment to start her own company: “My whole business plan was to be open, willing, and teachable.” These qualities are abundantly evident in Susan’s deeply grounded approach to executive coaching and providing leadership development and strategic advising for some of North America’s most influential leaders in business, healthcare, technology, real estate, fashion, education, nonprofits, and publishing. Susan describes her organization as “a small but mighty group of individuals” who serve as executive coaches and strategic advisors for CEOs, founders, presidents, best-selling authors, and other thought leaders in North America and Europe (mainly Venice, Italy).
As a girl I saw my mom work hard to establish relationships with people and continue to care for people regardless of the deal closing or not.
Advancing Inspiration, headquartered in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, serves clients across the United States, in Canada, and internationally. “We are privileged to sit shoulder to shoulder with leaders and talk with them about the seemingly insurmountable issues that they face on a daily basis,” she says, “including leadership development, business acquisitions, working with their people, re-structuring—whatever the touchpoint is. “It is such a gift to be in honest, deep, dynamic conversations with our clients. So often, all they need is a safe space to hear themselves talk—a place to speak and hear their own inner knowing.” The company has strong relationships with industry leaders in the healthcare, technology, and nonprofit spaces and has a large percentage of its work focused on a number of notable technology startups. “We also do a lot of work focusing on clients taking their sales to a higher level, whether that is growing their business, acquisitions, fundraising, or improving account management and customer success. As a girl I saw my mom work hard to establish relationships with people and continue to care for people regardless of the deal closing or not. I feel the same way about my work, which is about serving others, being of service to leaders, to our world so that families and communities can have better, richer, safer lives.” Advancing Inspiration also provides leadership development and strategic advising services. “I will sometimes coach the CEO or president of the firm, and then we have additional executive coaches who facilitate additional coaching to create a collaborative, impactful cultural environment within the organization.” Susan and her colleagues also design leadership development workshops focused on helping others within the organization realize their individual potential and elevate themselves, both personally and professionally.
“I typically have people coach our clients who have coached me. Having worked at larger consulting firms, I have learned that I never want to sell anything to anybody that I don’t feel to the moon and back good about,” Susan says. “So if I am going to sell executive coaching services to a client, I need to have spent a month—or six—with that coach to make sure that their belief system is in line with ours. In most cases, I have known and/or worked with our executive coaches 10–20 years. I also need to be certain that the coach has been successful in the same area of anticipated need as our client. They need to have done their own footwork, and it must be obvious that they themselves are thriving in their own professional world.” Susan says that her deployment of other coaches besides herself is a function of being invited to help and providing the resources necessary to the task. “There are often times when I’ve been working with a CEO, and we’ll subsequently be asked to come in and work with the senior management team, but the CEOs want to keep me for themselves. One of the early lessons of Advancing Inspiration was to hear the invitations and to respond to the market need. So, as we can and as it makes sense we have a handful or two of associates whom I know and trust and that will bring in as the situation warrants.” Susan attributes the growth of Advancing Inspiration to being super fortunate and her ability to respond appropriately to the unique needs presented by each organization.
“I’ll work with anybody whose situation inspires me,” Susan says. “What I mainly look for is that person with a twinkle in the eye, who has the feeling that they may be poised on the edge of something great or pushing themselves into a new chapter of possibility.” Susan believes that “the market will tell you what it needs,” and she is very clear with her clients that at any point, they are free to discontinue the relationship. “I tell them what I was told by a client years ago. ‘Susan, my job is to strike you this check every month. Your job is to make me thrilled to death I’ve done so.’”
However, and perhaps not surprisingly, well over 85 percent of Advancing Inspiration clients return for additional services after their initial experience with the company. “We love ‘boomerang’ clients who come back to us after we’ve worked with them for a while. Sometimes, clients will even ask us to work with their children, especially when they’re coming out of college, preparing to enter their careers. This, of course, is one of our greatest honors and requests.” Creating that type of client commitment is one of the greatest joys and rewards for her work, Susan says. When Susan started Advancing Inspiration, she began her work by volunteering at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, with the Parent Family Advisory Council and by teaching in the business school at SUNY, Binghamton. The year was 2008 and for many months she would teach in New York, finishing her Wednesday late afternoon class, jump in her old car, drive down to the DC area, sleep on a friend’s couch, and then cross the river the next day to be of service to the families and leaders at Children’s National. This later led to more work and a wonderful relationship with their remarkable, visionary CEO, Kurt Newman, MD and that recently-named U.S. News and World Report #5 ranked hospital.
I grew up learning so much from so many people and felt the values of love, patriotism, cultural generosity, and kindness that comes from living among different languages and traditions. I’m really grateful for that,” she says.
Born and raised in Anaheim, California, Susan has rich recollections of the cultural melting pot that was her neighborhood and credits that environment with instilling in her a deep appreciation of humanity, which carries through today in the way she conducts her business and her life. “I was raised by the neighborhood, and all those influences are still with me. We had Greeks next door, Iranians across the street, Italians, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, African Americans, Scottish, Mexicans, and Vietnamese. I grew up learning so much from so many people and felt the values of love, patriotism, cultural generosity, and kindness that comes from living among different languages and traditions. I’m really grateful for that,” she says. Her dad, though trained as an engineer, spent ten years as a self-employed woodworker and cabinet builder, working out of their garage. He called his business Kerr Wood Products. Susan associates with him the qualities of earnestness, authenticity, kindheartedness, generosity, thoughtfulness, family, and strength. “Dad was always around, even if he had sawdust in his eyebrows most of the time, because he was always working. He is a man of integrity, dignity, and humility. He’s devoted to my mom in a way that you can feel every time you see him. There’s a twinkle in his eye and a shine to his smile almost every time he talks about her. He really embodies that Midwestern ideal of a good man taking care of his family.” Susan characterizes her mother as vivacious, “with a joie de vivre” but also a strength and toughness that made her confident, rather than hard. “Mom never met a stranger,” Susan says. She became a real estate agent when Susan was about twelve, and quickly joined the ranks of the top-selling agents in the area. “She was the one who would say to me, ‘the world is your oyster,’ and ‘the little boy got the ice cream cone because he asked for it.’ Those types of statements were a big influence on me. Another was ‘Always leave a place better than you found it and you will never want for a job.’ I try and live that daily with our sacred client relationships.”
Susan was the youngest of four children. “We had a lot of activities at our house when I was growing up,” including meetings of the “Worm Burners,” a golfing club that her parents were members of, which were often at her house. “I was a tomboy, always on my skateboard outside or catching rides to the Huntington, Newport or Laguna beaches or to my friend’s horse-riding home in Villa Park. When I wasn’t doing that I was with the neighbors or playing ball. I would be the one picking up odd jobs, mowing lawns, or trying to make money to help my family. I remember following the mail carrier on his route, talking to him about his job and whether he liked it when I was a young kid.” Susan loved sports and athletic activity of almost any kind, including golf, skiing, skateboarding, running, and even the playground games, like nationball, soccer, and football that she played in elementary school. “I used to go home to have lunch with my dad,” she says, “and I would run all the way there and all the way back. That gave me a good thirty or thirty-five minutes to play games on the playground while the other kids from my classroom might be held by the lunch lady or still be eating. It was all about sports for me, growing up. I loved it.” She had a friend who had a horse, which led to a lifelong attachment to riding, and not surprisingly, she naturally developed a deep and abiding interest in sports. She even wrangled horses for a time in the Bitter Root Mountains of Montana. “My brother Steve played baseball, and that was a big deal for me and for our family. I loved Steve and followed him around whenever I could to games and practices.” But baseball wasn’t available for girls at that time in Susan’s community, so she signed herself up for softball at age seven. “I loved softball; I played for seven years.
Susan loved sports and athletic activity of almost any kind, including golf, skiing, skateboarding, running, and even the playground games, like nationball, soccer, and football that she played in elementary school.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in intercultural and interpersonal communication at Cal State Fullerton in 1991 and studying overseas for a year abroad program in Europe, Susan did graduate study at the University of Southern California. “I was working at Salick Healthcare in Los Angeles, and I developed a wonderful friendship with William Quan, Pharm.D., who was the head pharmacist for the organization. I called him my mentor, but he said to me, ‘No, I’m your tormentor.’ He was the one who told me, ‘You have to get your MBA.’” He emphasized his point by telling me the following story. ‘You know what I do when I get résumés? First, I separate them into two piles. The ones with bachelors and the ones with masters. You know what I do with the bachelor pile?’ I said, ‘No, what?’ ‘I throw those in the trash can.’”
Following the advice of Dr. Quan, Susan graduated with an MBA from the Marshall School of Business at USC in 1997. She went to work for Ernst and Young as a management consultant and was well on her way to “conventional success” when, feeling the need for a different sort of balance in her life, she took a break from her work and went to the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. “I was looking for a place to rest, a chance to breathe, and what turned out to be an opportunity to return to my spiritual roots, and I wanted horses in my life. I’d heard about Peterson’s Horse Corral [in Anaconda, Montana], so I drove out there and told them I wanted to lease a mustang and keep it on their property. Vicki Buckley (Peterson) said, ‘Why don’t you just ride our horses?’” Susan’s riding skills from childhood were still strong, and she started bringing in horses in the morning on a weekly basis. She worked at the corral, caring for the horses and helping to manage the herd that the Buckleys used to provide trail rides and other activities for the tourists who were their main customers. It was during this time, Susan says, that she felt the inner, spiritual tug to turn back toward a power greater than herself. “I would leave Butte and drive out to Anaconda, which is about thirty minutes, and it was just gorgeous. It just rekindled my belief in something bigger than myself, which was a huge turning point for me.”
Before she took a break from her consulting role at Ernst & Young, she was considering her future. Susan says, “At the time, I had thought in terms of ‘or,’ not in terms of “and.” A leave of absence or stay at Ernst and Young and get promoted; or I’m going to buy a place in California; or I’m going to get a new job… I had all these or’s, and what happened was that all the or’s turned into and’s.” She took the leave of absence and received an offer for promotion while she was in Montana; she also got two job offers—one at Sony Pictures on the lot in Los Angeles, and one at the Advisory Board Company, a healthcare consulting firm headquartered in Washington, DC.
“I was always the kid (and the friend of the kid) who had health challenges growing up and some impressive accidents,” Susan says, explaining her decision process. “I had lots of opportunities for up-close interactions with healthcare providers, and I think that made an impression on me, gave me a desire to give back to the people who had cared for me and my friends and who had even saved my life, in some cases.“ In addition, Susan’s paternal grandfather (who died over a decade before she was born) was a country doctor during the depression and a medic in World War I, so that influence on her family was tremendous. In large measure because of such personal experiences with committed healthcare professionals, Susan felt strongly drawn to accept the position with the Advisory Board Company. “The Sony Pictures job was a lot sexier, of course,” Susan says, laughing, “but I really wanted to help hospitals become the best possible version of themselves. I wanted to give back.” Susan felt strongly drawn toward this opportunity, and so it was that she moved from the Bitterroot Mountains to a corporate suite at the Watergate, in Washington, DC.
“The people at the Advisory Board Company were, as a group, very smart, very sophisticated in their approach, and very impactful in the healthcare space,” Susan says. “That was a huge part of the attraction for me.” Susan initially found her pace while working with the nursing retention and recruitment team where, she says, “I eventually flourished; I love nurses.” At that time, the company had hired her to help launch their in-house consulting product side of the business. “It was very innovative, very entrepreneurial,” Susan says, “and the atmosphere was such that I really thrived. The transition from wrangling horses in Montana to traveling around the country as a national speaker and consultant for hospitals wasn’t necessarily an easy one, but my heart and my passion were fully engaged,” she says. “I was fortunate to be promoted and given more responsibility as the national director of hardwiring service excellence focusing on the patient care experience. I always felt lucky to be there. It was such an amazing experience.”
In the early years, Susan says, she drew upon her memories of her hardworking parents. “We never lacked anything we needed,” she says, “but Mom and Dad worked hard to take care of us.
After three years at the Advisory Board Company, Susan made the decision to start her own business. “I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t really know what I was leaving, but I jumped. There’s nothing like leaving a nice, big job to provide focus, especially when you have a mortgage payment and no income. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to go to my deathbed without having tried going solo. I figured I had an MBA, Advisory Board experience, and there were 6,000 hospitals in our country. So I went for it!” Activating her resolve to be “open, willing, and teachable,” Susan launched out in 2003 with an enterprise she initially dubbed Kerr Word Products, in homage to her dad’s woodworking business, Kerr Wood Products “and it really took me until 2008 to get my focus and a bit of traction.” In the early years, Susan says, she drew upon her memories of her hardworking parents. “We never lacked anything we needed,” she says, “but Mom and Dad worked hard to take care of us. I remember the taste of powdered milk and Velveeta cheese,” she says with a smile. ”That helped me when I launched my business and had to learn again how to eat beans and rice instead of steak.” At the beginning, she was willing to pursue any avenue that seemed to be on offer, including work as an artist. “I was at the dentist, and the receptionist said to me, ‘you’re an artist; you should paint for my son.’ So, I went to the paint store and bought paint and un-stretched canvas, and I started painting. She later purchased 3 of those paintings and I now have artwork in many homes and places across the country and in some cases, Europe.” Susan still paints in her Old Town, Alexandria, studio and is among the artists who once contributed works for A Room to Heal, an organization seeking to create nurturing environments for children in Binghamton, New York with life-threatening illnesses and often facing economic hardship.
Given her deeply spiritual approach to life and work and her focused intention to “listen to the invitations that come,” it seems natural that Susan understands both her work at Advancing Inspiration and her overall leadership style in emotional terms. Characterizing her approach as “loving” and taking “authenticity” as her key word, she further states that caring deeply, even “revering” clients is central to her professional methodology. “People can sense who you are even before you say a word,” she says. “So I get to show up as real, honest, and vulnerable. My core identity has to be clear and clean, and that comes from my living my best choices.” She also cites the strong orientation toward serving others that she inherited from her parents. “I remember the stories about my parents taking trips to support Mexican orphanages, when I was really little,” she says. “And even today, in their eighties, Mom and Dad just retired from volunteering at their church for men and women trying to get back on their feet, working with houses of worship in Orange County to provide bridge services for homeless families. My dad would literally spend the night in this makeshift room with the group of men and women. My mom would take them shopping and cook for them. Fearless. Service. Love. That attitude is a part of my heritage, part of who I am, and it certainly informs the way we approach our work with clients.”
Building from a central attitude of courageous caring, Susan would advise young professionals to “go for it.” Echoing the influential words of her mother, she continues, “There are no limits; you can do anything you want. So believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally, and be careful how you care for others; if it’s making you tired and depressed, there’s a problem. We get to live in the solution and in the energy of uplifting, positive, remarkable people.” Susan believes strongly in “exercising your gratitude muscle,” and she advises others to do the same. “Learn both to speak up and to listen up,” she says; “be afraid—and do it anyway. You’ll make mistakes. We all do, but those learning experiences will help shape your core character.”
One friend of Advancing Inspiration described Susan this way: “You bring ease, infinite possibility, and a loving, nonjudgmental perspective into any arena you enter. You risk courageously, and when you do, you bring sharp intelligence coupled with empathic insight into the nature of the situation. Your beauty and ready laughter fill every room you enter.”
Finishing her advice, Susan says, in words that would not be surprising to anyone who has been the beneficiary of her loving, mindful coaching, “I’m so fortunate to get to do what I do. I love the invitation to be of service to our clients, my community, my family, and friends. It’s such a gift.”