Last Wednesday morning, Ottawa’s leading ladies of business gathered at the Rideau Club on 99 Bank Street to meet, exchange and listen. The theme of this Women’s Executive Network (WXN) event, ‘A Decade of Leadership’, included sharing the experiences of three Top 100 Award Winners: Karen Meades, President of the Ottawa Health Services Network, Karen McBride, President & CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education and Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte, President and Vice-Chancellor of Carleton University.
From breaking ground for high-ranking women-in-business, climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro, promoting international education, running marathons, crafting prize-winning poetry, and being able to tell a really good story – these ladies pulled from their journeys for a retrospective look at key question around mentorship and leadership in today’s business world.
When Ms. McBride was asked how she perceives characterises of new and emerging leadership skills, she turned the question around – not focusing on what is new, but rather, on what never gets old:
“I think some key characteristic of leadership are not new and emerging, but in fact enduring … The first thing I would say is collaborative leadership is essential, focusing on the result and not the individual profile … what it requires of leadership is to set aside ego, to focus really hard on building relationships – and I don’t mean superficial networking, I mean relationships that are built on mutual respect and trust. Because if you’re going to be a collaborative leader, you have to be willing to take the risk and trust other people that they are taking that same approach.
“The other one I know is enduring and is long-standing, but I think it bears repeating. I think leadership has to rest on the foundation of your principals and the values of your organization … Often, there is no clear way forward on an issue or a challenge. At the end of the day, you have to rely on your compass of principals and your compass of values in order to make decisions you can stand by. I think that if a leader does that, when the decisions are tough decision to make – your colleagues, your peers will know that you have done that based on values and principles. Hopefully over time you can start to infuse your organization with those principles and values.”
As we’ve seen from several of the women interviewed on Sister Leadership, Ms. McBride benefitted from informal mentoring as she progressed in her career:
“I have to say that at the point in time 20 years ago when I was starting off my professional career, there really wasn’t a lot of formal programming to support young professionals through that type of mentorship. So most of my mentors have been informal, and in fact – they’ve always been my boss. I was reflecting on that, preparing for our conversation, and I thought when someone has a vested interest in you and how well you do, I think that that is one of the cornerstones of a relationship of trust, and I think it’s a relationship of trust that fosters that sense of mentorship.”
Ms. Karen Meades has an interesting approach to coaching and mentoring that seems to spring partially from her athletic experience (like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; running a 7day / 220 km endurance race in the Amazon Jungle in Brazil, and more), as well as her business experience:
“I’ve done everything with respect to coaching and mentoring, and I’ve been shameless about it. The world of athletics is well versed in mentoring and coaching, and it is a model you can copy in your job . . . One of my first coaches in running was Ray Zahab. Ray is out of this world, okay? He’s untouchable. But I actually had the nerve to call him. It didn’t matter to me that I’m down here in my learning, and he’s up there in his learning. I cold called him and said, this is who I am and thinking I would like to run a marathon. Next thing you know, he was my coach.
“I’ve done it in work too. Find people. They are everywhere. Just find somebody that you think is cool and doing something that you think is cool – doing something that absolutely, positively terrifies you, and say, ‘how do you do it? Who are you? What do you know?’ And I think if you are genuine and keen and really interested in that person, there’s no body in the world who’s going to say, ‘no I don’t have time to talk to you.’ As a matter of fact, I find most of the time they are quite flattered. They’ll take the time to talk to you or go for coffee, so spend some of your time doing that.”
But Ms. Meade stresses the importance of focus in finding a mentor or coach: “Know what your goal is so that you can find the right coach, or the right mentor. Because as wonderful as somebody like a Ray Zahab might be – if you’re not interested in running, you might be wasting your time and you may be wasting his time in those conversations.”
As the morning progressed, the conversation also turned toward the necessity of perseverance.
Dr. O’Reilly Runte, President and Vice-Chancellor at Carleton Univerity, gave us an insight into her personal creative journey as a poet.
“I wrote some volumes of poetry. The first volume of poetry that I ever wrote, I sent off to a press for publication. You’re putting yourself out a little bit, it’s almost like having a child – it’s out there and you’re feeling like your soul, your heart, your ideas are on that piece of paper. And I’m waiting and waiting, and this envelope comes back in the mail. It looks about the size of my manuscript. I opened it up, and on the top of it there is a piece of paper and it says, ‘Would you please do humanity a favour and never put pen to paper again?’”
(Gasps of surprise & sympathy filled the room at 99 Bank at this point. Like we discussed last week, taking risks can have its pitfalls, but as you’ll see – it can also have benefits.)
Dr. O’Reilly Runte continued with her story: “I was completely destroyed. I put it in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. I cried. I couldn’t tell anybody. And then a few months later, some of my friends said, ‘what happened to that book you were sending off?’ And they said to me, ‘Take it out and send it somewhere else. Get a second opinion.’
“So here’s the moral of the story: get a second opinion. I sent it out to another press; it was published and it won the prize from the French Academy.
“Poetry is a matter of taste. But I think the moral is three things: Get a second opinion. Do not give somebody else nasty advice – don’t tell them never to put a pen to paper again. Tell them that there might be better ways to express themselves. And third, if you are doing it, don’t give up.”
To which Ms. Meades followed up with some excellent advice: “You don’t need to be good at stuff to try stuff, do stuff, experience stuff. You shouldn’t wait until you’re good at things to try it. But persevere. If you don’t you’re just gonna be left with a manuscript at the bottom of a drawer and you’ll never realize your potential. But if you do persevere and you try and you take it out and send it to someone else. . . yeah, you do see the reward.”
Sometimes the reward is in doing, other times the reward is in succeeding – but if you never start, you’ll never know either way.
Much more was said during our WXN breakfast meeting. More on finding a mentor, what makes an employee shine (quick notes: pro-activity, hard-work, finding connections, and being conscientious). The stories were fascinating to hear, and the conversation was served to create bonds as we sat at our tables and exchanged business cards as well as stories and project concepts.
If you would like to join us at the next WXN breakfast event in Ottawa, registration for members and non-members will soon be open locally (next event is scheduled for April 17th) as well for as upcoming breakfast events across Canada. And don’t forget, through the WXN we have wisdom circles available for peer mentoring – it’s your own personal advisory board!
Many thanks to the WXN, the excellent speakers and the engaging women who attended the event. It seemed to be a great success, with much to take away and consider.
Till next time!
Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, bringing her knowledge of resilience, perseverance, and changing perception to others. Camille is currently accepting applications for the Women’s Executive Network Senior Executives Wisdom Peer Mentoring program. Applications to this exciting and knowledge-sharing program are available here.