The 10 Most Admired Women Leaders in Business, 2024

Kelli Burns: Pioneering Leadership in Cybersecurity and Diversity

The 10 Most Admired Women Leaders in Business, 2024

In the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity, one name stands out as a beacon of innovation and leadership: Kelli Burns. As the Chief Information Security Officer and Senior Vice President at Accolade, Inc., Burns is more than a leader; she’s a luminary. With accolades as one of Cybersecurity DIVAS’ “Most Influential Women in Cybersecurity,” Burns commands respect and admiration in equal measure. 

Tracing her journey reveals a narrative rich in expertise and innovation. From her formative years as a consultant at Ernst & Young LLP, where she honed her craft navigating the complexities of cybersecurity for Fortune 500 behemoths, to her transformative tenure at Symetra Financial, where she not only fortified digital defenses but also championed diversity and inclusion, Burns has left an indelible mark on the industry. 

Beyond her professional endeavors, Burns radiates a passion for mentorship, particularly for women seeking to carve their path in the tech sphere. Her influence extends far beyond boardrooms, resonating within communities where her guidance ignites sparks of inspiration.  

Navigating a Path of Passion, Innovation, and Purpose 

Kelli’s journey into the world of security began during her consulting internship at the age of 20. Thrust into a security project, she discovered a deep-seated passion for the field, coupled with a keen interest in team building. Over the next three years, Kelli immersed herself in diverse projects across several esteemed companies. It was here that she not only honed her technical skills but also mastered the art of storytelling and visual communication—competencies that have significantly propelled her career forward. 

Her transition into the life insurance industry marked a pivotal chapter in her professional narrative. Recognizing a sector ripe for transformation, Kelli seized the opportunity to develop a comprehensive security program from the ground up. Her role extended beyond technical achievements; she became a vocal advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the organization. Among her numerous accomplishments, Kelli is particularly proud of how she balanced the demanding roles of executive leadership with the responsibilities of motherhood. This period underscored the importance of adaptability, work-life integration, and the power of vulnerability in leadership. 

Kelli’s quest for a career aligned with a higher purpose led her to the healthcare industry. At Accolade, she found her calling. In her current role, she is not only tasked with safeguarding the data of Accolade’s members but also with enhancing their well-being by delivering clinical value that makes a tangible difference. Kelli’s journey, characterized by her passion for security, commitment to DEI, and dedication to meaningful work, stands as an inspiring testament to the impact one can have by aligning career aspirations with a purpose-driven mission. 

The Power of Small Moments 

Kelli’s leadership philosophy is grounded in the belief that often-overlooked aspects of leadership can have a profound impact on team dynamics and success. While she does not claim to be unique, her focus on the significance of “small moments” distinguishes her approach from the conventional. She encapsulates her leadership mantra succinctly: “small moments matter.” It is in these small moments that she finds the greatest potential for impact and connection. 

Throughout her leadership journey, Kelli has pinpointed three critical areas where she chooses to invest her time and energy, fostering engagement, purpose, and joy among her team members.

  • Recognition: For Kelli, recognition is a cornerstone of her leadership philosophy. She believes in the transformative power of taking just 30 seconds to express genuine gratitude and acknowledge the contributions of her team members. More than a simple “thank you,” Kelli strives to articulate the specific impact of a person’s actions and how they align with the team’s core values. This personalized approach not only boosts morale but also reinforces the importance of each individual’s role within the organization.
  • Career Development: Kelli is deeply committed to nurturing the career growth of her team members. She finds immense satisfaction in witnessing individuals recognize their own potential and aspire to grow. Understanding that people may sometimes be in roles that do not fully leverage their strengths, Kelli feels a personal responsibility to facilitate coaching or transitions to positions that better suit their talents. This dedication to career development involves regular one-on-one sessions, where she works closely with each team member to craft and refine personalized development plans, ensuring they have the support and guidance needed to achieve their career aspirations.
  • Effective Communication: In today’s global, remote, and hybrid work environments, Kelli recognizes the crucial role of communication in building a cohesive and empowered workforce. She ensures transparent and consistent communication through weekly updates, sharing her thoughts, key business developments, and expressions of recognition. By doing so, she helps her team members understand how their contributions align with the broader vision, mission, and strategic objectives of the organization. This clarity fosters a sense of purpose and unity, driving both individual and collective success. 

At heart, Kelli’s leadership ethos revolves around the belief that by prioritizing these seemingly minor yet deeply impactful elements—recognition, career development, and effective communication—she can cultivate a culture of fulfillment, growth, and purpose within her organization. This approach not only enhances individual satisfaction and development but also drives the overall success of the team. 

Building Trust and Connection 

In Kelli’s extensive experience, fostering trust and a sense of purpose within teams is foundational to achieving exceptional results. She understands that trust is not a commodity that can be instantly acquired; it requires the delicate interplay of vulnerability and authenticity. 

To nurture this environment of trust and connection, Kelli has implemented several practices aimed at fostering genuine relationships among team members. One such practice is the pre-meeting “check-in,” which creates a safe space for individuals to share and be vulnerable. By taking a moment to center themselves and eliminate distractions, team members can enhance their focus and mitigate the influence of biases, which often surface in moments of distraction. 

These check-ins are not just about improving focus; they also serve as a platform for team members to learn about one another on a deeper level. Kelli often initiates discussions with simple yet profound questions, such as, “What’s your favorite holiday tradition?” This seemingly innocuous inquiry reveals unique insights into each person’s background, values, and personal experiences. Through these exchanges, connections are forged, fostering a sense of community within the team. 

Kelli firmly believes that strong relationships and a sense of belonging are not only conducive to team cohesion but also essential for long-term success and sustainability. By prioritizing practices that encourage vulnerability, facilitate genuine connections, and cultivate a supportive community, she lays the groundwork for teams that are not only productive but also resilient and empowered to achieve their fullest potential. 

Using Power for Good 

Kelli’s guiding principle is straightforward yet profound: “Use your power for good.” As a senior leader, she recognizes the privilege and influence that come with her position, and she is committed to leveraging this power in a way that serves the greater good. To ensure this principle is more than just a mantra, Kelli has instituted several practices in her day-to-day operations to make it a lived reality. 

  • Cultivating an Inclusive Leadership Team: Kelli believes in building a leadership team that reflects the diverse voices within the organization. This commitment extends beyond her direct reports. She actively involves individuals from various levels and departments to ensure a wide range of perspectives is heard and valued. To further challenge traditional hierarchies and promote a culture of inclusivity, Kelli has implemented a quarterly rotation, inviting an additional individual contributor to join leadership discussions. This practice dismantles the notion that access to leadership circles is contingent upon reporting directly to her, emphasizing that hierarchy should serve as a framework for decision-making and policy, not a barrier to community and collaboration. 
  • Promoting Inclusivity and Empowerment: Through her inclusive and empowering leadership style, Kelli aims to create an environment where every voice is heard, every perspective is valued, and every individual feels empowered to contribute to the collective success of the organization.  
  • Building a Culture of Equity, Empathy, and Excellence: Kelli is dedicated to ensuring her leadership is not just about wielding authority but about building strong, cohesive teams and fostering a culture of equity, empathy, and excellence.  

Through practices that promote inclusivity, empower individuals, and foster a culture of equity and empathy, Kelli ensures that her leadership is a force for positive change within the organization. Her approach exemplifies how senior leaders can leverage their influence to create a more inclusive, collaborative, and successful workplace. 

Leadership Through Listening and Collaboration 

Kelli firmly believes that effective leadership begins with listening, rather than imposing solutions. She has often found that the strongest ideas emerge not from her own mind, but from the collective wisdom of those around her. To harness this collective wisdom, Kelli makes a conscious effort to step back and create space for collaboration, allowing others to contribute their insights and perspectives. 

In essence, Kelli’s leadership is characterized by a commitment to listening and collaboration, coupled with a willingness to embrace vulnerability. By prioritizing these elements, she creates a work environment where diverse ideas are welcomed, trust is built, and innovation thrives. Her approach exemplifies how leaders can use their influence to cultivate a culture of openness, empathy, and collective success. 

Championing Equity Through Employee Resource Groups and Fair Policies 

Kelli’s leadership is marked by a strong commitment to Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which she has spearheaded in every company she has worked for. These groups provide a vital sense of community for employees and serve as a reminder to leaders of their own identities as employees. Kelli actively participates in ERG events, showing genuine interest and continually learning, which she views as key aspects of her executive role. 

Kelli understands the profound impact that ERGs can have on fostering a sense of belonging and support within an organization. Beyond fostering community through ERGs, she is a staunch advocate for policies that promote equity. At Accolade, she takes pride in their tiered approach to insurance premiums based on salary, reflecting a deep commitment to fairness. Kelli believes it is crucial that organizational actions align with their values, ensuring that employees are not equally burdened regardless of income level. This approach to equity demonstrates a thoughtful consideration of the diverse financial realities of employees, fostering a more supportive and inclusive workplace. 

For Kelli, it is paramount that the actions of an organization mirror its stated values. By implementing equitable policies and actively supporting ERGs, she ensures that Accolade’s commitment to fairness and inclusivity is not just rhetoric but a lived reality. 

Advocacy Through Quiet Sponsorship 

Kelli supports the professional development and advancement of underrepresented individuals within her team. Sponsorship, which goes beyond mentorship by actively promoting, recognizing, and advocating for individuals, especially when they’re not present, is a responsibility she takes to heart for many. One important piece of advice she adheres to is: let the magic unfold quietly. By not taking credit for their successes, individuals can rightfully attribute their achievements to their own hard work and talent, fostering a sense of empowerment and ownership. 

Embracing Grace, Growth, and Repair 

In Kelli’s perspective, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) are undeniably multifaceted and deeply personal, with each individual embarking on their own unique journey of understanding and growth. Recognizing this, she appreciates the importance of extending grace when someone stumbles along the path. Rather than chastising missteps, Kelli views them as valuable opportunities for education and enlightenment, guiding individuals towards resources that can support their learning and development. 

Equally essential, according to Kelli, is the concept of repair. Even in instances where harm was unintentional, the impact remains significant. Understanding and addressing the impact of words or actions, regardless of intent, is fundamental to fostering a culture of accountability and empathy. By acknowledging the importance of repair, Kelli believes she and her team not only demonstrate their commitment to DE&I principles but also pave the way for meaningful dialogue and collective progress. 

Commitment to Strategic Empowerment and Collective Success 

At Accolade, Inc., Kelli emphasizes that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) are not merely buzzwords but fundamental aspects of the company’s strategic approach. The core mission revolves around empowering members to lead the healthiest lives possible, with a deep recognition that many members hail from marginalized communities. Consequently, every facet of operations, including technology, personnel, and processes, is imbued with a conscious consideration of DE&I principles. 

Recognizing that the fulfillment of the mission relies on the sense of belonging and inclusivity felt by employees, Kelli underscores the importance of a diverse workforce that feels valued and respected. This diversity enables a better understanding and addressing of the unique needs of members. Thus, fostering an environment where every employee feels a sense of belonging is not just a moral imperative but a strategic one. 

At Accolade, DE&I is integrated into the core of the company’s identity and operations, rather than being treated as an add-on or side project. Through prioritizing DE&I across all aspects of the organization, Kelli and her team aim to enrich workplace culture while enhancing the company’s capacity to positively impact the health and well-being of its members, ultimately driving collective success. 

Dedication to Positive Change 

Kelli’s unwavering aspiration is to persist in sponsoring others, speaking up, and leveraging her influence for positive change. She is committed to using her power as a force for good, advocating for those whose voices may go unheard and championing meaningful initiatives that drive equity and inclusion. 

Furthermore, Kelli aims to serve as a conduit for knowledge and growth, sharing her own journey openly and transparently to inspire and empower others. By offering guidance, support, and a platform for dialogue, she endeavors to foster a community where learning and mutual understanding thrive, propelling us all toward a brighter, more inclusive future. 

Kelli’s commitment to sponsoring, advocating, and fostering community underscores her dedication to creating positive change and promoting inclusivity in both the workplace and beyond. Through her leadership and actions, she strives to build a world where every individual is valued, heard, and empowered to thrive. 

Vision for Inclusion

Kelli plans to continue advocating for underrepresented individuals and driving positive change in the workplace through a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, she believes in fostering inclusive environments where everyone feels valued and respected. This involves actively listening to the concerns and experiences of underrepresented groups and implementing policies that promote diversity and equity. 

Secondly, Kelli aims to lead by example, using her platform and influence to amplify the voices of those who may not always have a seat at the table. This means advocating for diverse hiring practices, mentorship programs, and opportunities for professional development for all employees. 

Lastly, she is committed to collaborating with other organizations and community groups that share similar goals. By forming partnerships and leveraging collective resources, Kelli believes we can make a greater impact and create more inclusive workplaces and societies. 

Advice for Emerging Leaders  

To leaders seeking to foster a more inclusive and diverse work environment, Kelli offers heartfelt advice: Listen genuinely and attentively. Understanding the experiences and perspectives of all employees, especially those from marginalized groups, is crucial. However, Kelli emphasizes the importance of not burdening these individuals with the task of educating you on every aspect of their identity or struggles. This can be exhausting and unfair. 

Kelli advises leaders to take the initiative in educating themselves. There are abundant resources available through research, literature, and other educational materials. By proactively seeking knowledge, leaders can better understand the diverse experiences of their team members without placing undue strain on them. This approach shows a commitment to understanding and supporting all employees. 

Kelli underscores the power of gratitude in fostering a culture of respect and belonging. Authentic appreciation for the contributions of every team member can significantly impact the work environment. It’s not just about acknowledging projects completed but also recognizing the relationships built and the way people are treated. Genuine expressions of gratitude reinforce that all efforts are valued and appreciated.

Kelli believes that the true measure of success lies not only in the work accomplished but in the quality of relationships formed within the organization. By expressing sincere gratitude and showing appreciation for individual contributions, leaders can create a lasting positive impact on their teams.