Follow Her Lead

By Kanupriya Vashisht | May 1, 2010 | Last updated on May 1, 2010
14 min read

It’s a common conception that finance is a male bastion, where the most furious networking happens on the golf course. Belief in this notion could have kept many a woman away from this industry.

Statistics bear that out to some extent—a 2008 Catalyst Report conducted for Women in Capital Markets shows the representation of women in Canada’s investment dealer and retail private client lines of business was virtually unchanged since 2000, despite record growth in the total worker population of the capital markets.

But the women we spoke with are made of sterner stuff. They’ve not only made it to the ranks of senior executives at their firms, they’ve also inspired and mentored a whole new generation of women who are able and willing to look beyond the bias. These women don’t just let life happen, they make it happen.

Tamara Vrooman CEO, Vancity

When the current CEO of Vancity, Tamara Vrooman, approached British Columbia’s ministry of finance in 1992 for possibly the most junior position it had to offer, she was rejected despite excellent credentials because her interviewers assumed she wouldn’t be good at math.

Rather than grumble at the heartlessness of sweeping stereotypes, Vrooman’s rejection drove her to UVic’s Master of Public Administration program, where she took every hard- core finance course she could find—from accounting to public sector finance to microeconomics to monetary policy. After two years, she returned with her A+ transcripts to a panel of stunned interviewers.

Twelve years later, she was B.C.’s deputy minister of finance, the first and youngest woman to hold that position in the province, confidently steering its $36 billion fiscal plan.

Once the ice was broken, the only resistance Vrooman ever found was to her age, never her gender. That was until she got pregnant and applied for maternity leave. A deputy minister had never applied for maternity leave in the history of the province and a new policy had to be written (it’s now in place for all the women who have followed).

Despite her many achievements, Vrooman agrees the finance industry doesn’t offer women a level playing field.

And the numbers back that up. According to the Catalyst Report, women held only 17% of all line positions in capital markets, making no significant gains since 2000.

One of the reasons for this, Vrooman says, is that even though men participate more in the family these days, women still are the CEOs of the house; managing children, groceries, and meals.

“Companies still haven’t figured out how to develop family- friendly policies all the way through.”

A precarious balance When it comes to achieving the elusive work-life balance, this mother of a six-year-old says she’s truly blessed because her husband chose to switch to a more flexible career and be a stay-home dad. Vrooman also admits she’s been lucky to earn an income that allows her to hire help.

She’s also very focused on prioritizing her time. “I try to leave work at 6 p.m. and be home for my son for at least two hours. I often go back to work after 8 p.m. on many evenings, but that means I can get home at the key point when my son is still up, for his dinner and story time.”

Maintaining strict boundaries around her personal time has actually made Vrooman a better leader. “I’m able to set priorities and stick with them, and I delegate a lot more.”

Climbing the ladder The biggest key to Vrooman’s professional success is her undaunted pursuit of problematic projects—what she calls the dog files. “I am willing to try anything in terms of projects.

I like the dog files because they are the ones where you can be most creative, because things haven’t worked out before.”

This strategy has given her excellent exposure to a variety of projects in the organization, as well as the confidence and knowledge that she can handle more than her job description demands. “Exposure, I think, has been equal to experience in terms of me building my way up.”

Vrooman decided very early on that she would manage her own career, always seeking opportunities for lateral and professional development. “I rarely signed up for management trainee programs; instead I went and built a customized program for myself. I found that gave me more opportunities to connect with industry leaders.” This independence was engendered, in part, by a necessity. Vrooman was rejected by the government’s trainee program because she was considered too junior. “I was forced to do it myself, and found that worked quite a bit better.”

Building networks Despite her independent streak, Vrooman has carefully cultivated networks through her active participation in the community. The way to do that, she says, is by building relationships around things you care about.

“It’s hard to build a network for the sake of building a network,” she says. “I don’t play golf, so that’s not where I choose to network. If you aren’t passionate or comfortable, it comes through.”

Success, like everything else, has its trade-offs. “At times, many of us feel like a failure for not being at our son’s soccer practice and the board meeting at the same time.”

The best way to deal with that, Vrooman says, is to come to terms with the fact that you can’t do it all. “Nobody can. Men don’t even try most of the time. Why do we women insist on doing that? I worry about people who set the bar at an unrealistic level.”

Her advice to other women aspiring to fit into the types of shoes she walks in: “Once you find what works for you, stick with it. People will respect you more for it. I get more compliments, from both men and women I work with, around the fact that I have a balanced life.

“If I show I can get results equal to or better than our competitors by employing strategies that allow me to have a work-life balance, then I deliver on both counts.”

Charyl Galpin Chief Operating Officer, BMO Nesbitt Burns

Charyl Galpin went through high school planning to go to law school. Then Patrick came along and swept her off her feet. She was married at 19, one year out of Grade 13.

That meant a slight tweak to her professional dreams—instead of going to university, she decided to work. Her father was a manager at BMO. And that’s roughly how she fell into finance.

She’s been married to the same man, same industry, and in a circuitous way, the same bank for the last 31 years. Galpin started with BMO in 1979. She left in 1986 to join Burns Fry. In 1994, BMO bought Burns Fry and merged it with Nesbitt Thomson.

She never did end up going to university to get a formal education in finance.

“I have certainly contemplated it many times,” she muses. But the lack of it has never deterred her belief that if she worked hard and proved herself, good things would come her way—and the fact that the brokerage side of the industry was woefully male didn’t bother her either.

“There has been a real focus in recent years to raise the number of women in executive positions. But we still don’t have any women CEOs in the banks. I don’t think it’s any secret, in some cases women opt out of senior positions because they find it too hard.”

She too had her fair share of hardships during maternity. When she went away for her first maternity leave, she was told she would be promoted to manage a couple of departments when she returned. But she became pregnant with her second child within three months of returning to work. So the opportunity went to another person and she got assigned to special projects.

Luckily for her, management wasn’t happy with the guy who had been handed her position. She was recommended for the position again, and that marked a new beginning of a great career.

How she does it Galpin didn’t start her career as a teller thinking she’d one day adorn the chief operating officer’s chair at BMO Nesbitt Burns. “I never dreamt I would find myself in this position. But throughout my career, once I had mastered what I was supposed to be doing, I was always looking for the next opportunity.”

Part of her success came from being quite candid with all her bosses about her career expectations. “I always believed as an employee it was my right to discuss my career expectations with my manager. Just as, in turn, as a leader it is my obligation to tell my staff what’s possible—what they have to do, and what we as an employer could do to help them get a better opportunity.”

Galpin says she has very specific personal, professional and financial aspirations, and she’s always tried to manage her life around how to make all of them work. “If ever I feel one of them is not being met, I take a step back, take the emotion out of it, and make a business decision about what needs to be done to fix it.”

Part of the trick, Galpin says, is to be extremely organized, to the extent that every day in her life pretty much unfolds like the day before. “I can’t handle every day being an adventure, I need to know there’s some routine to my day, so if life throws me a curveball, I can deal with it.”

Galpin is equally candid about how grounded her personal life is, thanks to her extremely supportive husband. “You need to know your home life is managed in order to do a good job at work. You can’t have chaos everywhere. Patrick and I are equal partners in making that happen.”

When the kids were still quite young, Galpin and her husband started their workdays at the crack of dawn, earlier actually—they’d get up at 4:30 a.m. to get to work by 6 a.m. “My objective was to start my day earlier, and end it earlier. I’d leave work at 4:30 p.m. every single night so we could sit down as a family and have dinner. It was a sacred ritual.”

Of women who are unable to balance their personal and professional lives, Galpin says: “Sometimes people don’t realize they have more options and more control than they believe they do. And their frames of reference need to change so they see the situations in a different light.

“I was always very firm in expressing that I’m a person, a mother, a wife, and a worker, and for me all those things need to work in unison.”

A lot of her success came from people being able to observe her good work. “I always had sponsors who believed I was capable of more. It’s worked out really well.”

Advice Networking is key, and it doesn’t have to happen on the golf course. “Do what makes sense to you,” Galpin says. “We can control more than we think we can by just talking to people about what it is we’re interested in doing. Ask someone out to coffee, or for lunch, and have discussions.”

This industry routinely gets painted as male-dominated. But there’s nothing really stopping women from making a mark, she says. “They need to be candid about what they’re looking for. They need to take responsibility for managing their careers.”

Speaking from her own experience, Galpin reiterates the importance of getting formal education, and accreditations. She has received the ICD.D certification from the Institute of Corporate Directors and is a Fellow of the Institute of Canadian Bankers.

In the end, Galpin says, you will be measured by your results, so what you contribute is important. “You need to have conviction. Lay your cards on the table, and be realistic. Plan how you want to manage different aspects of your life. Figure out where you want to be; figure out what the gaps are. Most of all, help other people chalk out how best to progress their careers.”

Monique Gravel Head, CIBC Wood Gundy

The brand-new head of CIBC Wood Gundy had no real background in finance. Her family’s only real exposure to it came when her grandfather lost most of his money during the Great Depression.

By her own admission, Gravel came from a generation of women who weren’t included in the family’s financial decision- making. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when she developed a fascination for the stock market, which translated into a degree in finance and international business from McGill.

In college, Gravel gravitated toward finance at a time when not too many people, of either gender, were showing much interest in the field. When she graduated in 1978, very few finance companies came for campus recruitment. Wood Gundy was among them. Gravel chose Wood Gundy, or rather Wood Gundy chose her, and the union has lasted.

Reminiscing about her rookie class of ’78 at Wood Gundy, Gravel recalls at least a third of the bunch were women. But not many made it to management positions—most didn’t even stay in the investment business.

Gravel doesn’t blame it on the industry. “It isn’t for lack of opportunities; it’s just that sometimes women don’t take up these positions. Some of it goes back to the fact that women, back in the day, weren’t included in the family’s financial decisions, and subsequently had no affinity to finance. They had a much greater proclivity for accounting because of the popular perception that there were many more opportunities in that field.”

Gravel adds the stockbroker business is for the risk takers. “Perhaps a lot of women don’t perceive themselves as having that orientation.”

Life’s no fair playing field Gravel matter-of-factly points out that it is society as a whole, as opposed to the finance industry specifically, that can be biased.

“Is life a level playing field for anyone?” she asks. “No it’s not. When a child is home sick, the expectation is that the mother will stay home and take care. Even if you have the greatest husband, the guilt level and a personal expectation will dictate that you stay home.

“We’re still working through the fact that this business is heavily male-dominated. Women will gain positions as they gain in numbers.”

But when all is said and done, she says statistical biases can’t take away from the fact that this is a great industry for women. “Honestly, in my 32 years, only once—maybe twice—was I ever told that there was a client looking for a broker but didn’t wish to deal with a woman. Just as frequently, people have dealt with me because they wanted to deal with a woman, not a man. These are personal biases; we’ve got to learn to deal with them and move on. It isn’t an impediment.”

Gravel likes to think she got to where she is today on the basis of merit, not gender. “My whole life I’ve believed jobs don’t have a gender, why then would the person doing it?”

Juggling roles Gravel has one son and she’s had to juggle various aspects of her life like other mothers. “Some days I feel I’ve failed miserably. Just like in business, in life you have good days and you have bad days.”

Like most other successful women, her husband is her backbone. “If I can’t be there, he is there for our child in full, uncompromised measure.”

Ask Gravel how she moved up the corporate ladder. “Slowly,” she laughs. “I’ve been at it for 32 years.”

But she’s certain she couldn’t have made it to this level without various levels of personal and professional support.

The leadership formula The key to being a successful leader, Gravel says, is to have followers. “Your influence depends, in part, on your visibility. Your superiors have to be able to observe what you’re doing.

“The rest is determined by the effort you put into your job, the education and experience you gather along the way, the determination you have to succeed, and the support you get from people around you.”

Cathy Welling Managing Director and Head of Scotia Private Client Group

With a banker father, Cathy Welling was no stranger to the finance industry. She started out in a trust company, managing estates and trusts for a number of years. Her job took her into unfamiliar territory—from having to file tax returns to managing real estate assets, to having homes valued and auctioned off.

“This experience taught me to think about a business as a generalist,” she says, “and that opened up doors along the way.”

Through her career, she moved to banking and managed bank branches for many years, and then progressed on to the investment side, only most recently returning to the private client world at Scotia Private Client Group.

Welling says she’s faced many challenges throughout her diverse career. “I’ve made mistakes and tried to learn from them as opposed to getting too settled into what I’ve done wrong. I’ve always tried to take from it what I can do right the next time.”

For Welling, success in this business is a lot about building up confidence. “When you first start out you’re used to a very different environment as students. You have to gradually learn how relationships work in this industry; gain expertise in a technical side of the business; fall on your face a few times, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going.”

A mother of two, Welling credits a lot of her success to her husband of 27 years who picks up the slack when she can’t.

Her way of coping with the demands of a busy life is to detect early any signs that she might be tipping the balance. Impatience is a red flag for her. So whenever she feels impatient, she takes a step back and consciously slows down.

Welling has also set strict boundaries around her personal time. “I work a ridiculous number of hours, but I try hard not to work on weekends. My personal time is very important to me.

I always take my holidays and encourage my team to do the same. We all make an important contribution at work, but at the end of the day we have to recognize we aren’t the be-all and end-all. Things will be fine even if we take some time off.”

Step-by-step In terms of her career path, Welling had no inkling she’d make it to the upper echelons of her firm. “I didn’t walk out of university thinking I wanted to be managing director or president.”

Her career has been all about taking baby steps. “I could never imagine myself handling a position several levels above. But with each job my confidence grew, my eagerness to learn more and take on new challenges grew. My focus has always been on what can I do today, and do well.”

Welling didn’t have a business degree, but she took the Ivey Executive Program, which helped her build confidence and showed her that she knew a little more than she actually thought she did.

Since life has been good to her, Welling believes in paying it forward. She’s been part of a mentoring program at the Scotiabank Group for a number of years. She’s taken about six mentees under her wing, and she meets with them once a quarter—or whenever they have a significant business decision to make and want to talk it over.

“In my experience at Scotia Private Client Group, we’ve demonstrated a steadfast commitment to ensuring that women work in a level playing field through a variety of initiatives. We now have a strong representation of women in senior roles in the business and leading our local centres across the country.”

The best way to develop mentor relationships, Welling says, is to ask. For those who aren’t as confident about approaching mentors, she suggests working through managers or HR directors. “I wouldn’t start out with the president on the first day, I’d start out a few levels above your current position. And with time you’d have a good network of mentors going for you.”

  • Kanupriya Vashisht is managing editor of Advisor Group publications.

Kanupriya Vashisht