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5 Ways Women GCs Can Advance Their Career – Lessons Learned from Stepping Beyond: Future Opportunities

By By Teona Climie
July 3, 2018


Stepping Beyond panellists (left to right) Jennifer Warren, Sheila Murray, Kathleen Flynn, Robyn Collver and Dorothy Quann (moderator)

There’s a certain skillset that GCs have: attention to detail with a focus on finding solutions; agility to continuously learn; expertise in governance, compliance and risk management to name a few.

Women GCs are uniquely positioned to leverage their business and strategic skillset to pursue new opportunities in their professional career, which is why Blakes introduced Stepping Beyond: Future Opportunities in 2018, a program geared towards women GCs who are preparing for opportunities beyond, or in addition to, their GC role.

Here is some truly inspiring insight from our expert panellists from the event, which took place on May 28, 2018:

1. Expand Your Experience

As lawyers, you’re learning throughout your career because the law changes so significantly, says Dorothy Quann, former Vice-President and General Counsel of Xerox Canada and Board Member of Women General Counsel Canada. You can apply the skillset that lawyers have — agility and ability to constantly learn and keep on top of things — beyond the legal profession and bring that inquisitiveness to new areas of opportunity.

It’s important to acquire business knowledge and profit and loss (P&L) experience, says Sheila Murray, President and General Counsel of CI Financial Corporation and Blakes alumna, because it’s easier to get on boards if you have C-suite experience.

“I wish I had taken the opportunity to expand my executive experience sooner,” Murray says. “If I could give my younger self advice, it would be to read more books and meet with more business people to better understand the business from a holistic level.” 

Jennifer Warren, Entrepreneur Mentor at New York City-based Fintech Innovation Lab and Corporate Director, agrees: “It’s tough to get to board roles from the GC world without taking a trip through the P&L world. You need to gain P&L experience and differentiate your skillset if you’re going to take it to a governance level.”

"I put a lot of effort in being a good GC," says Robyn Collver, Senior Vice-President, Risk and Regulatory Affairs at Canadian Tire Corporation. "I could have spent 75 per cent of the effort and spent the remaining 25 per cent learning how to be a better overall C-Suite executive. This would have allowed me to contribute outside of my area of expertise earlier — it's harder to transition later in your career."

2. Foster New Relationships

It’s true what they say about networking: it will increase your future opportunities. Warren recommends networking not just within your legal team, but also outside it, and even outside of your organization.

“There are opportunities for personal development outside of work too,” she says, adding that, throughout her career, she has taken — and given — all the mentorship and sponsorship opportunities she could.

Warren is a Blakes alumna who took on various leadership positions with CIBC, including former Senior Vice President and General Counsel (Canada) and former Managing Director – Head, US Region, at CIBC; and President and CEO of CIBC World Markets Corp. She gained invaluable experience as the Professionals Sector Chair of the United Way Toronto Campaign Cabinet and has leveraged her knowledge and passion for giving back to become co-chair of the United Way Cabinet in New York City, where she has developed a new network of incredibly talented and inspiring professionals.

“I've noticed that women are becoming much better at networking and pulling each other forward,” she says. “New York women, in particular, are comfortable with the transactional nature of networking and expect a ‘give-to-get’ exchange. Regardless of geography, I believe senior women are recognizing the importance of supporting each other, and it's very encouraging.”

Kathleen Flynn, Executive Vice President Real Estate, and General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Indigo Books & Music Inc., agrees: “Amidst all the responsibilities we’re juggling, we need to find time for those professional development opportunities because it’s good for everyone, for ourselves and for our team members.” 

59 per cent of GCs on boards are women, and the number of board positions held by GCs is growing quickly, according to the Blakes Board Report 2017: Opportunities for Women General Counsel.  

3. Establish Credibility

Networking, however, goes deeper than making new connections, Flynn adds: “You need to establish credibility so that when those lucky moments come up, you’re ready and recognized as someone who can seize the opportunity and tackle that challenge because you’ve proven yourself.”

It’s important to have one-on-one conversations with business people to show your interest in learning about the opportunities and challenges they face and find ways to add value beyond legal, she says.

“That’s what I would do,” Flynn says. “I would spend more time being very purposeful about those relationships and work hard to be a partner with business people.”

One way to establish credibility and show how you’re adding value is to draw connections between what you’ve worked on and the strategic priorities of the business. Another way, Murray says, is to be proactive and constructive in your approach.

“Your responsibility is not only to react to an issue,” Murray says. “Meet with people, sit at meetings, invite yourself to meetings and really listen, and you’ll show your value. And don’t ever just say ‘no’ or ‘it’s legally complicated.’ Say instead: ‘Tell me what you want to accomplish,’ or ‘I think there’s a way to get there. Let’s work together.’”

4. Work With Brilliant People

"If you ever get a chance to work closely with someone who is brilliant at what they do, you should seize it because it's a gift — I learn from our CEO, Stephen Wetmore, in every meeting I have with him," Collver says.

Watching and learning from brilliant people, finding ways to add value to the company — it'll increase your overall capability, build your credibility as a business leader, and expand your horizons, she says.

"But it's not for the faint of heart," she adds. "If you want to be in the C-suite, you need to be constantly agile and ask yourself every day how you can add value. You need to be resilient and find your own way to be relevant." It’s also important to look ahead and build succession behind you.

“I’m currently looking to see who can succeed me in the GC role and to see what’s the next line of senior leadership at our company,” Murray says. “And I’m noticing how different people react to different situations, and I think that as lawyers, we are uniquely trained to be problem-solvers, to be organized, to be process-driven — that’s a different voice at the executive table, and in my experience, it’s been a really valuable voice.”

5. Put Yourself Out There

There’s risk in transitioning from being an experienced legal professional into the world of business and there’s an extremely steep learning curve that can make it difficult to find lawyers willing to make the move, Murray says.

“I’m sympathetic that if you’re in a highly technical environment, lawyers don’t weigh in too casually and it’s difficult to break out of that box because there are highly experienced people who bring a lot of technical expertise and history to the table — there’s power to that,” Warren says.

“It does introduce a real concentration risk to you,” Warren says. “You have to be up for that risk because there are no safety nets. You have to look at it and be aware that there’s no reward without risk. There’s no way around it; it’s part of the challenge.”

It can be intimidating because the move to the business side is much more complicated, Collver agrees, but the way people perceive you comes from you and how you present yourself.

“It helps if you present yourself as willing to take on risk or being passionate about a strategic direction someone is proposing,” Collver says.

It’s also important to keep your options open, Flynn says.

“To get to my current role, I first took a position that was part time and was not promised to be a forever proposition,” she says. “Don’t rule out a position where you go in, get the process up and running because that may lead to your next opportunity.”

Success, Flynn says, is a combination of building relationships and credibility and being open when the opportunity presents itself.