“I can’t control all of the things that happen to me and I would be wrong to try. I can control my reaction to opportunity and to events and I would be wrong not to try.”

Kevin Ball, CDK Global

In this interview, we speak to Kevin about one aspect of mental toughness, that of ‘control’. He states that developing control, “requires my leaders to define ambition in terms other than constant financial growth, to give up some jealousy and understand themselves and their careers in a more holistic sense.”

A little about your company:

At CDK Global, we provide integrated technology solutions to the retail automotive industry throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific and South America. We operate in around 100 countries worldwide through around 9,000 people. We are listed on NASDAQ and have annual revenues of around USD 2 bn.

Highlights of your career to date:

Trained in the law, General Management in FMCG and Financial Services, HR Director in a European Financial Services provider, Owner of niche Change Management Consultancy before nearly three years in my current role.

What is your vision for the culture and leadership of CDK?

Our shareholders and our customers are dependent on the people we employ for the success of our business. Plenty of organisations would say that and it would be true for many of them but somehow or another they fail to express that strategic truth in the actions of their leaders. I would love us to be a company where our culture gives evidence to the importance of an adult relationship with our people. I would love us to be a company where leadership is defined as the facilitation and coordination of the success of others.

What are the challenges you face in supporting your leadership and talent to continually perform and enthusiastically remain engaged?

Our business has complex and diverse technologies. We work in more than 100 countries worldwide supporting a complicated and challenging industry. We’re putting a lot of energy into making our business better and simultaneously addressing an enormous market opportunity. The size of the task and the effort required in making complicated things simple can often be daunting. Being focused on the details while keeping everyone’s eyes fixed on the horizon is a major challenge for leaders and individuals across our world.

Do you believe that senior leadership requires a higher degree of mental toughness? How can you develop mental toughness?

The history of human endeavour is full of imprecations to mental toughness. Confucius: ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall’. Milton: ‘Awake, arise or be forever fallen’. I could go on. Mental toughness gets tested in lots of less obvious ways for leaders, ‘though. When William Faulkner urged prospective writers to ‘Kill your darlings’ he was describing the toughness required to let go of good ideas in favour of better ones; when Cyril Connelly wrote about the pram in the hall being the enemy of promise he was describing the toughness required to balance all of the elements in life in the pursuit of your passion. The ability to resist opposition and encourage challenge, to have a fixed purpose and a flexible means of achieving it, to remain relentlessly optimistic while acknowledging failure require mental flexibility and toughness to an extraordinarily high degree. Developing that sort of toughness only comes through knowledge and experience and the role of the organisation is to facilitate the education and, wherever possible, control the experience to make it as safe and constructive a process as possible.

Do you believe that you have an influence in the outcomes you experience in life? Can you elaborate on your answer?

I can’t control all of the things that happen to me and I would be wrong to try. I can control my reaction to opportunity and to events and I would be wrong not to try. Earlier in my career I chose to set up my own business. I was studying for an MBA at the time and the almost universal reaction of my fellow students was that I was ‘brave’ and they were jealous that I’d stepped out of the corporate world. Reflecting on their attitude to both the financial risk that I was accepting and how much they would have liked to have done the same thing made me realise that neither the risk or the desirability of the consulting lifestyle were the point. The opportunity was there for all of us. Choosing to take it or not was absolutely in the control of each of us. Choosing whether to accept it or not was really only a matter of deciding what you wanted to do it for. If it was about financial security, it was undoubtedly the wrong choice. If it was about other things, then it became the right choice.

How do you make sure that you are in control of your future? How can you support your leaders/talent to take control of their careers?

I’ve come to the view over time that the ‘core’ of a person is what drives success and too many HR systems and processes deal with the things around the core rather than the core itself. This manifests itself at recruitment in searching for people with direct experience of the role and the industry when what is more often required is a fresh set of eyes and some parallel experience. It manifests itself in Learning & Development in a narrow focus on training functional skills rather than a broader development agenda for people to help them develop, improve and, if possible, grow towards adjacent or higher roles. Knowing what your core looks like, it seems to me, is one of the keys to success. At the core of me, I’m pretty good at knowing what I’m best at, what I’m ok with and what I’m not so great at. I have control over my career when I’m operating in the first two of those and avoiding the last. Creating that honest self-appraisal in developing people at every level from young graduates to aspiring senior managers is hard work because it requires them to give up a little ambition in favour of an investment in future happiness. It requires them to define ambition in terms other than constant financial growth, to give up some jealousy and understand themselves and their careers in a more holistic sense. There’s not yet a common awareness in the world of work that this approach is the best long-term investment in yourself that you’ll ever make.

What difference would it make to your company if your colleagues believed that they had a full part to play in their careers?

I wrote earlier about an adult relationship between the business and the people in it and some of that is reflected here. I think it’s a requirement for the success of the business and it’s a journey we’ve started.

How has the work of TOWARD supported CDK to develop as leaders & improve performance?

We are early in our relationship with Toward and by its very nature, these things take time so you should come back in a year or two for me to tell you about results. Right now, I think we’ve found some kindred spirits in the Toward people and some genuine shared interests in collaborating on the future. We’ve made a good start. We have some overwhelmingly positive feedback from our leaders and some real momentum in creating change. I’m hopeful, but if what I said about mental toughness is right, I’d be wrong not to expect some bumps in the road before we can call this a victory.


Kevin Ball

Kevin is the Vice President of Human Resources at CDK Global, headquartered in Hungerford in the UK. He is responsible for Human Resources strategy and operations across the non-US operations of covering more than forty countries across the world. He joined the business in April 2012. Kevin’s career began in the legal profession before moving to General Management roles in the drinks and financial services industries. He held an HR Director’s position with a major European insurer before moving into management consultancy supporting change management initiatives with global organisations. He has an MBA, is an experienced Non-Executive Director and is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Europe’s leading professional Human Resources body and a leading research organisation on the management of people. He is an occasional contributor to professional journals. Outside work, Kevin is a regular runner, writes literature for pleasure and supports an English soccer team who regularly disappoint him. He’s married with two teenaged daughters and a disobedient Labrador.