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"Keynote address, Schulich School of Business 2007 Women in Leadership Conference"

Remarks to Schulich School of Business 2007 Women in Leadership Conference, Toronto
March 9, 2007
Written by Colleen Johnston.

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Good morning! It’s a real pleasure to be here this morning. It’s great to be back on the York University campus and here at the world renowned Schulich School of Business. It’s hard to believe that I graduated 25 years agofrom York’s business school – I can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia and some emotion being back here. And I’m glad I graduated when I did – not sure I could get into Schulich today because of the school’s incredibly high standards.

As you’ve heard, today I’m the CFO of the TD Bank, having joined the bank in 2004. But this wasn’t my first work experience with the TD Bank. My first experience was 33 years ago – I was 15. It was the March break and my friends and I decided to become Kelly girls and work for the week. When we got in the elevator a man asked us where we were going. We said to ‘Kelly Girl’. He barked – aren’t you a bit young to be Kelly Girls? So we did the logical thing – ran into the washroom, regrouped and emerged with heads held high to go through the testing and application process. And I landed a job for the week at a TD branch as a clerk typist. I’d like to say it was an incredibly memorable work experience – but all I can remember is my pay cheque for the week - $99!! It was a fortune.

So roll forward 33 years – tomorrow I head off on vacation for March break. Yes, I do take vacation – in fact, a full 5 weeks a year – it makes me a better executive. But this March break is also a milestone for my husband and me. It’s our last March break family vacation because my elder daughter is heading off to university next year. I have 2 teenage daughters – age 14 and 17. So I plan to fully savour the time.

So getting back to my brief life story. It’s funny - as a kid growing up, I always envisioned that I’d have a career in business. But it had a twist. I imagined that I’d go downtown every day to work but I’d go to the salon first to get my hair done – this was the day and age of the major hairdos. So that had to go by the wayside – my hairstyle now requires less than one minute of blow-drying – we’ll talk later about choices.

So quickly – let me recap what happened between the York University days and today. I was a summer student at Price Waterhouse in 1981 and I joined the firm full-time after graduating in 1982. I qualified as a CA. I followed in my father’s footsteps in getting my CA – so needless to say I was very proud to have my father with me last fall when I was awarded my FCA. It was a great honour.

I was at PW for 3 years. I made a mistake earlier in my career when I left PW. I joined a company for all the right reasons – when I lined up the pros/cons – it sounded great. But I wasn’t so sure about the people and the culture. Big mistake. Only stayed a short time. And fortunately, I only made this mistake once. Because in many respects, it’s all about the people. Years ago in a job interview with a very senior executive – asked – what’s important to me in a career? Like to do work that makes a difference and like to work with people I like – bad answer. He said – me too! And I went on to have a phenomenal relationship with that executive – who I think of as a role model and friend to this day.

So fast forward - since then I’ve been in banking exclusively and also in finance roles exclusively.

So I know that many of you are hoping to get some practical advice and perspective from my discussion today. Where did I turn to for help when I was graduating from university 25 years ago? How did I feel as a woman forging ahead in my career? Also, as women executives we are often asked to talk about the sacrifices and the barriers we’ve faced.

When I graduated from university 25 years ago, I felt very bullish about the prospects for women in business. Why? Because women were graduating in record numbers from the business schools and professions – just like they are today. And I knew it was a new frontier for women. But in 1986, over 20 years ago, the term ‘the glass ceiling’ was coined. It recognized that there are systemic and cultural barriers that stand in the way of advancement of women. And frankly, while there’s been lots of progress made in the last 20 years, there hasn’t been as much as I would have expected back then. And we still talk about the glass ceiling today. I don’t have all the answers on why progress has been slower than expected. But what I can tell you is that organizations are more focused on diversity today than ever before.

Why’s that? Simply put – it’s a business imperative. There’s a war on for talent and you can’t ignore all the talent that’s out there. A Catalyst report in 2004 suggests that companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams performed better financially than companies with the lowest representation. As the CFO of an organization, that’s a pretty compelling reason for me.

What advice did I have early in my career? There weren’t many female role models in those days in really senior roles. But there were some self-help books. My favourite was ‘Think like a man, act like a lady, work like a dog’! And of course, the ‘Dress for Success’ series. The advice was basically – dress more like a man in dark colours. In my first shopping trip for my career wardrobe I bought a drab grey suit. It looked horrible with my colouring. I retired it quickly. I remember an important job interview just a few years later – I wore a fabulous red suit and felt great. They say that when a man wants something he wears a red tie – so think about the impact of a red suit!! Fabulous. Mentors along the way. Best mentors are former bosses.

So let’s go to the last point. Sacrifices and barriers. What I say when I talk to women in the bank is let’s focus on the positives – how great it is to have a successful career in a great organization. That’s what all of you are aspiring to. It seems as women we’re more inclined to talk about sacrifices. For me it’s a privilege to be the CFO of such leading organization – 4th largest company in Canada and one the 10 largest banks in North America. I’d love to tell you I had a master plan. For me, combination of ability, commitment – sponsors and luck! It’s stimulating and interesting. I work with great people every day – inside and outside the bank. But what excites me most is the opportunity to be a leader. People always ask me – how do you do it? You have such a big job. Yes, but I’ve got a team of over 600 people who support me day in and day out – very committed, very talented people. If I succeed, it’s because of them.

And as you grow as a leader, you’ll be asked to take on broader leadership roles within your organization – on a wide range of topics – and also be asked to take on community leadership roles. Years ago I learned about the circles of influence and circles of concern. The theory is that you need to achieve mastery in your own area of expertise and as you do your circle of influence will widen into your circle of concern. What that means is that you get involved in issues that are outside of your traditional boundaries.

Community leadership roles are incredibly fulfilling – they make you a better executive and a better person. I have thoroughly enjoyed my roles as volunteer – making a difference outside of banking!! How can I help – how it helped me. Being a good leader is about having heart and about having compassion.

So let’s talk about leadership. It’s a big word. What does it take to be a leader?
I know that the answer is no different whether you’re a man or a woman. Fact is you don’t have to have the job of a leader to be a leader. The more you show leadership attributes in each job you today, the more you will be noticed as a person with potential to take on bigger and bigger jobs.

At TD, we have a leadership framework with 7 leadership attributes. What gets you hired, fired and promoted around here? What I like about this framework is that we use plain language to describe the leadership qualities. Let me walk you through it

1. Make an impact

  • Get things done
  • Focus on what matters
  • Know your business from the ground up and customer in
  • Find a way to outperform, not settling for average
  • Deliver superior results from all stakeholders in both the short and the long term
  • Own results, don’t blame others – dog ate my homework

2. Build for the Future

  • Stewards / trustees
  • Leave the organization stronger than we found it
  • Have a vision and proactively take action to implement it
  • Develop tomorrow’s leaders
  • Create an organization that starts with the customer
  • Build organizational capabilities today that business will need tomorrow
  • Seek continuous improvement and create a learning environment

Like to spend a few minutes here and talk about a defining time in my career. In the mid 90’s, I was appointed to my first senior management role as a VP and the CFO of the Domestic Bank for another large bank in Canada. I inherited a department with lots of problems – morale was very low and relationships with other areas of the bank weren’t in good shape. So I was very idealistic and said – what we need here is a common vision and some team building. I remember being asked ‘how can we have a vision if there isn’t an overall vision for the bank’. I said – we can’t change the bank but if we can change our small corner of the bank – we can make a difference. So we developed a vision – a declaration – it involved excellence in everything we did, partnership, teamwork and establishing the highest level of employee satisfaction. We took it on the chin and sent out detailed surveys to our internal partners and to our staff – and the truth was tough to take. But we went on to establish very clear goals and measures and linked them to our strategy. And our improvement was dramatic. Within 4 years, we became known as one of the most service oriented groups within the bank – in fact, we won 5 national service awards – which was a huge deal. And remember – this is a finance department bursting with pride.

I remember one of my colleagues coming to me and saying – you’re spending all this time on this vision stuff – when do you find time to do your job? Interesting question – what is the job of a leader? Is it to roll up the sleeves and do the detail work – sometimes it is – the buck stops here. But I’m not in my role because I’m the best finance professional or best accountant at TD – far, far from it. What this also underlines is that sometimes you need to take risks in your career – I embarked on the vision work before it was fashionable – people may have thought I was going a bit soft in the head. But it was an exhilarating time for me and my team. And it demonstrated to me the profound power of leadership. And I’ve aimed to bring vision and strategy and accountability to all of my mandates since that time.

So when I said we can’t change the bank– I was wrong. We became a model for many other areas as excellence, partnership and teamwork became important themes for organizations everywhere.

3. Inspire the will to win

  • Evocative
  • Driven to win with a passion for the business
  • Attract and retain great people – always the key to success
  • Bring out the best in individuals and teams and make it fun
  • Show perseverance and resilience in bad times
  • Recognize and reward the contributions if others, both in little ways and more formally (give credit – what does it cost you)
  • Care about people

4. Work effectively in teams – critical in era of greater specialization. Can’t all know everything about everything. Need to be able to work in cross functional teams to get more insights.

  • Driven to win for TD team
  • Make things happens by leveraging their partners
  • Use positive influence not power to deliver results [people know you have power – don’t lord it]
  • Show trust in their business partners
  • Work well with people who are different than they are – diversity – inclusiveness women vis. Minorities pwd glbt.
  • Know instinctively how to engage the organization to make things happen

5. Live transparency – positive correlation between candid CEOs and share price performance

  • Speak candidly but with respect, not rounding corners
  • Have no time for internal politics. Intrigue of politics – for me a waste of time – always assume the best of people. Be yourself – but be your best self.
  • Are grounded, authentic and genuine and don’t take themselves too seriously
  • Are willing to personally wear problems
  • Surface problems, fix them and learn from them
  • Recognize their own strengths and weaknesses

6. Show excellent judgment

  • Make pragmatic decisions, using a mix of intellect, experience and street smarts
  • Deal with tough issues, fairly, decisively and calmly – deal with issues professionally – people feel bad enough – don’t make it worse
  • Make timely decisions, even in ambiguous, rapidly changing situations
  • Take intelligent and prudent risks
  • Make decisions based on what’s best for TD not their ego

7. Demonstrate unwavering integrity

  • Do the right thing to the highest ethical standards
  • Put the interests of the organization above their own and their business unit’s
  • Treat people with respect– life is long, careers are long
  • Actions speak louder than words
  • Act as a role model publicly and privately
  • Demonstrate loyalty and responsibility to TD
  • Do a 360. As you go through your career – ability to be a leader – key to your success.

But let me also share with you a few things I’ve learned over the course of my career and that may be helpful to you as you develop yours.

1. While there is much more in the way of formal career development for women today, the path is not automatically laid out for you. It becomes the sum of the opportunities you put in front of yourself.

2. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself. Don’t be afraid to take some risks. Studies show that women often underestimate what they are capable of, don’t put their hands up for assignments.

I have a great story about my 14 year old daughter. Last year, she was graduating from grade 8 and she wanted to be the valedictorian. The process at her school was you needed to write a speech and audition for the role. Now what kid wants to do all that work and then face a crowd of hundreds of people on graduation night? She did!! The weekend before the audition we were out shopping for her grad outfit. She said – Mom, I want to look great (typical female!) that night because I’m going to be the valedictorian. I said – don’t get your hopes up. We had a big debate about the height of her high heels – she’s 5’10” and wanted 4” stiletto heels. We finally sawed off at 3”! Well the punch-line is that she competed and won the honour. I couldn’t have been more proud that night – and she was proud as well. So put your hand up. It works.

Sometimes women don’t want to appear pushy or self promoting, are highly self critical when they make mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn. So cut yourself some slack. It’s said that Edison failed 98 times when he was trying to invent the light bulb. If he’d given up maybe we’d still all be in the dark.

One of the things we always hear from customers in the retail part of our bank is, it’s not making the mistake that matters as much as what you do to recover. And what we believe in the bank in general is that what matters is what you learn from it. If you never allow yourself to fail, how can you ever know what your limits are? And sometimes when you make a mistake it opens up new doors.

3. Let’s talk about choice and flexibility. Big question that comes up – work life balance. My philosophy, life isn’t about balance – it’s about choices. Left with impression that we can “have it all”. Article in the Toronto Sun – “Women who have it all”. Not true. In today’s environment of greater and greater shareholder scrutiny and higher and higher performance expectations, there are still very few – if any -senior executive jobs that are 9 to 5. That shouldn’t stop you from trying to get there. If you love your work, why not aim to be the best you can be?

Where orgs. are changing is flexibility – enabling technology – nature of work has changed. Family, elder care, personal commitments – that’s what I did. People often ask me – are you superwoman? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. I must admit I have a profound sense of my own limitations. I see a lot of women out there who feel they need to be perfect at everything – in their careers, as a parent, as a volunteer, in their homes. You doneed to set priorities. And you need to outsource where you can.
Many years ago there was a commercial that came out – women sashays into the room – I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never let my husband forget he’s a man. Even back then I knew this was crazy propaganda – I wrote a complaint letter to the company.

So on all of this – here’s my advice. Choose what matters to you and do it. Don’t get hung up on other people’s definitions of what you should be doing. It’s your life. Live it to the fullest!! And wear a red suit – you’ll feel great!

4. You set realistic goals for yourself.
Different people get fulfillment from different things and contribute in different ways.

5. Finally: “Don’t confuse having a career with having a life” – I love my career.
Don’t let your career define you – mosaic of your life – daughter, sister, wife, mother, business executive, friend, volunteer,

So let me wrap up. When I look back over my career so far, I can honestly say it has been enormously satisfying.

There are great opportunities ahead for you too. You have more tailwinds than any generation of women before you. You will change the way business is managed in Canada and around the world. You will be pioneers for this era. Women like me will learn from the new bridges you build and the new frontiers you discover. I have high hopes of what you will accomplish and I wish you every success. Thank you.


Executive Headshot :  Colleen Johnston
Colleen Johnston
Group Head Direct Channels, Technology, and Marketing
TD Bank Group

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