Kathleen Higgins Victor always has been a take-charge person.

When her dad died unexpectedly during her freshman year in college, leaving her to raise her brothers ages 13 and 14, she bought a house, went to school and managed Sambo’s restaurants. “I just about killed myself with the long hours,” she said, “but we got through it.”

As an executive at Burger King, Pillsbury, Grand Metropolitan and Northwest Airlines, she took on increasingly important human resources positions, always with a goal of providing a better working environment for employees.

And when she grew weary of high-stress, corporate lifestyle demands, she adapted by starting her own company to provide executive development and coaching servicesto organizations as varied as small nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies with $100billion in revenue.

Higgins Victor’s life may be just as busy today as it was when she founded Centera Corp. 17 years ago – she works with up to 30 clients at any time – but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said one afternoon between meetings over a cup of tea at a Minnetonka coffee shop. “I love the work that I do. I have ultimate control, and I work with really neat people.”

It may help that Higgins Victor is a pretty neat person herself – a go-getter who faces challenges in a forthright, full-speed-ahead pursuit of doing what’s best for clients … and herself.

She grew up in New Haven, Conn. Her dad was a sales and marketing executive for a hydraulic equipment manufacturer and was transferred to Overland Park, Kan., during her senior year in high school. She chose to attend Avila University, a Kansas City school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (the order also founded St. Catherine University in St. Paul).

When her dad died, she gave little thought to her options. She knew she would care for her brothers. She did just that while earning a degree in public administration and personnel management and working her way up to district manager for Sambo’s. She remains close to her brothers, who she proudly reports founded J. Higgins Ltd., whichmakes kilts and other Scottish clothing.

She met her husband, Bob, while working in human resources for Burger King and they moved to the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s. She held senior executive positions at Burger King, Pillsbury, Grand Metropolitan and Northwest Airlines, where she was senior vice president of human resources when she decided it was time to make a careerchange in 1995.

“I had envisioned owning my own company for five years,” she said. “Psychologically, I am an entrepreneur. In business, I was always dealing with turnaround situations, and over time I realized I wanted to start my own company.”

Higgins Victor saw a void that she wanted to fill. Companies typically hired psychologists to provide executive coaching services, but too often they lacked relevant business leadership experience. She thought her firm could integrate both perspectives and she founded Centera, whose name reflects a goal of providing “a new era of coaching for the next century,” as the company’s tagline states.

She always has kept Centera small – just five employees – and while she is the sole owner, she never has wanted to sit back and just run the show.

“I want to practice – to get involved with clients,” she said. “I don’t want to manage. Our core model has not changed. Our practice has evolved into working with chief executive officers and their boards to become more effective.”

Centera’s philosophy centers on three words: “PRAGMATIC simplicity, RELEVANT leadership and business WISDOM” – and she has commonsense explanations for each:

– Pragmatic: “We focus on what’s needed. We customize everything to be practical -to build on an executive’s experience. If the competition wants to come in and look at a company A to Z, we’ll say that if the company is doing A to D well, let’s start with E.”- Relevant: “We want to know the objectives the organization is holding the executive responsible for, and we focus on those.”- Wisdom: “All of us have been involved in top leadership positions, and we have the wisdom necessary to help organizations improve.”

While it may sound, with 30 active clients, that Higgins Victor is ready to work with anybody who walks in the door, she insists that isn’t the case.

“I won’t take on clients if they are not ready to do the work they need to do,” she said.”I won’t waste my time or theirs – if they’re not ready, they need to find somebody else.”

Centera’s client list is loaded with highprofile organizations: Accenture, Hazelden,Medtronic, Piper Jaffray, State Farm Insurance, SuperValu, 3M, University of Minnesota, Wells Fargo and YMCA. She also has served on corporate boards, including Best Buy since 1999.

Higgins Victor has an innate sense of when she is successful, recalling one executive who tracked her down when she was out of town to thank her for working with him.

“I helped him understand that in his relationship with his board, he wasn’t approaching it to get the outcomes he wanted to achieve,” she said. “We made a number of adjustments. He told me it was the first time he had come out of a board meeting in three years not feeling beat up.”

Barb Bindgen, a former General Mills human resources director who has a consulting company and collaborates regularly with Centera, said Higgins Victor has an uncanny ability to assess an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

“She has a strong business acumen,” Bindgen said. “She understands what it takes to be successful at different leadership levels of an organization. She also has a very practical approach – she is flexible in figuring out what will work within the culture of that organization.”

Mike Connly, chief technology officer at UnitedHealth Group, said Higgins Victor is a quick study who “understands the dynamics and culture of an organization. She is very good at matching people with the right coach and giving them the feedback that they need.”

Higgins Victor has found that leadership issues, regardless of an organization’s size, “are pretty universal.” She often gets inquiries from companies that are pinning their success on CEOs “who have been pushed into high-pressure roles with a lot of responsibilities” and need help.

“When you are running a company that is profitable and doing well, that’s easy,” she said. “Leaders are tested when things aren’t going well. That’s when you see true leaders emerge.”

The same way a certain young woman once emerged to run restaurants, work her way through college and be a parent … all at the same time.

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