Address to the Mentoring Women Leaders Symposium
Rose M. Patten, O.C., LL.D.
Chancellor, University of Toronto
March 8, 2019
Thank you, Dr Pauly. Good afternoon, everyone. I am delighted to take part in today’s conversation, which focuses on a subject of very great importance. And so, before proceeding, I would like to thank all those responsible for initiating and organizing it.
First, I would like to acknowledge our sponsor, the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto – and in particular I would like to acknowledge the Consul-General herself, Ms Takako Ito, for her wonderful leadership. I am so honoured that you approached me with your idea for this event, and that you invited me to get us started in our discussion today. And what a great honour it is, to share the platform with these outstanding scholars and to engage in conversation with them.
Thank you also to the Centre for the Study of Global Japan, for co-sponsoring this gathering. The Centre, as you know, was created by an historic partnership between the University of Toronto and the Government of Japan. That partnership reflects the importance of Japan’s global influence and its relationship with Canada, as well as the University of Toronto’s prominence as a Canadian pioneer in the study of Japan. And of course I would also like to thank our other co-sponsors, the Rotman School of Management and U of T as a whole.
The endurance of International Women’s Day – for over a century now – is a sign of the crucial importance of women and the rights of women as full and equal participants in human society. It provides an opportunity to celebrate the central role that women have played internationally and in countries around the world, in the advancement of peace and justice. And it reminds us of the need to keep working in solidarity with all those who share those values, to realize them more fully in our own day.
I would like to point out one very impressive example of leadership in pursuing that vital goal, on the part of one extraordinarily courageous woman. Samra Zafar is a distinguished alumna of U of T and a member of the University’s Governing Council. I am proud to add that she is also director of business finance at BMO. A survivor of an abusive arranged marriage, she has become a prominent human rights activist – and, as you may have heard, just this week HarperCollins released her memoir, entitled, A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose. It is an incredibly powerful and inspiring story.
And of course countless other women, as well as men, are also doing their part around the world. My fellow presenters will tell us about a few specific areas and examples, from here at U of T and well beyond. I am really looking forward to hearing from them and from all of you, as our conversation unfolds.
Looking ahead to my own remarks to start us off, I was very pleased to see that the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better” – the notion that “a more gender-balanced world is a better world”. That resonates very strongly with me, from my experience as a woman – in my career in banking, in my various volunteer commitments, and indeed throughout my life. But I would like to suggest to you today that, while it is absolutely true that a more balanced world leads to a better world, the reverse is also true – a better world leads to a more balanced world.
Of course, I do not mean that balance is just a by-product – absolutely not. Equity initiatives of various kinds have produced so much good, and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone is free and welcome to exercise their equality, here in Canada as well as on the global level. At the same time, I believe we must also remember the power we already possess, whatever the particular limitations that we may face or may be imposed upon us. And this power is realized by our own example, as leaders in our professions and communities. By being better leaders, we can make a better world; and this in turn will help to make a more balanced world.
Leadership is a topic near and dear to my heart, something I have worked at and reflected on for decades, and now I am preoccupied with translating today’s disruptions into the implications for leaders and leading. This work is the underpinning of the leadership models I have developed, and my teaching here at Rotman and at BMO. It animates my approach to mentorship, both as a mentor and an advisor and as a mentee for my own continuous growth. And it applies equally to men as to women – though women today have a golden opportunity to make a special difference, not least because the quality of leadership in all spheres has been lacking, and indeed slipping, for many years.
There is no shortage of evidence of this problem – we have seen it dramatically in the business world, for example, in the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. In many ways, we have still not recovered from that very disruptive experience. Indeed, since that period, we continue to see evidence of questionable leadership across many sectors. Leadership has never been more important. It has also never been harder. And so, we have to seize the day, and we can do so very powerfully, by enhancing our leadership capabilities for today’s realities, not yesterday’s assumptions – and by encouraging and supporting others in being better leaders.
My teaching and advisory work with select CEOs, presidents and hundreds of other senior leaders have led me to codify three patterns of leadership effectiveness – those who are highly effective and continue to excel through change, complexity and their ability to adapt; those who continue to sustain; and others who struggle, and become less relevant or even derail.
Examining this phenomenon along with the significant disrupters related to increasing stakeholder expectations and trust being on trial, along with digitalization, new technologies and the dramatic transformation of our workforces and the way we work. There has clearly emerged a different paradigm for leadership – what was highly valued and assumed, and what has been represented by people who have served as role models, has now shifted, and unfortunately, we have not recognized this shift nearly well enough nor acted upon it.
The late David Foster Wallace told a wonderful story in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in Ohio. He said, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” Unquote.
Complacency and comfort zones can make us oblivious to the reality around us. In this current context, women and men can thrive by intentionally and deliberately reinventing themselves with far greater emphasis on enhancing their human skills and select other defining capabilities.
I will now use these last few minutes of my time to assert several perspectives on leadership through more exclusive lenses. For example do we think leaders are born, not made? Does the “context” shape leadership or does the leader shape the conditions? Is good leadership (or bad) timeless? What are the most relevant – and defining – capabilities for now?
The starting and most compelling truth on those questions is that leadership is NOT timeless – it has shelf life. “Once a great leader, always a great leader” is a flawed assumption. I think of the great Einstein quote which hits this point well: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”
In other words, what got us here has changed. Leaders will do well to keep this thought front and centre. We now see clearly that context drives leadership – the conditions leaders face need to be considered and well understood and well translated into what matters most. Those conditions include the external changing realities, the internal priorities and the cultural context of the institution.
Human skills do NOT improve over time – they improve with feedback, self-awareness, adjustment and practice. As Aristotle said, “Excellence is not a mere act but a habit” – in other words that I find useful, we are what we do repeatedly. I believe and we do have evidence that leadership can be learned and indeed must be continuously learned, reflected upon and practiced deliberately.
Leadership is hard – it is not for the lazy, it is not for those who do not want it or those who do not have a purpose for it. I believe the role models of the future will be those who are (1) “open” and adaptable and seek self-assessment and feedback, (2) those who become increasingly self-aware and (3) those who care deeply about their impact on others.
Gender has not cornered this market of excellence; but either gender can. It’s a bit of an opportunity – my advice is to seize it deliberately and intentionally. This is where mentoring has a significant role to play – being mentored for the purpose of understanding ones blind spots, as well as one’s strengths.
Mentoring is now a proven part of continuing self-development and impacting the development of others. Today most of the Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs. And we know that best practices now call for focusing at least 20 percent of learning and development on mentoring. In fact, in one reliable survey, it was shown that CEOs and other leaders have at least one if not more mentees or advisors like I am.
The benefits are huge, in both directions – and I know that like me, everyone here has experienced this. We tend to think first of the benefits to mentees – to give just one striking example, mentees are five times more likely to be promoted than those without a mentor. But the gains for mentors are at least equally great.
We know that most senior leaders have at least one blind spot or hidden strength which mentoring helps uncover. One of the great features of mentoring is to gain feedback for better self-awareness. And we know that a lack of self-awareness is one of the most common factors which cause leaders to struggle in their success – studies show that leaders who are self-aware, who adapt and adjust, are up to four times more successful than those who do not.
Clearly mentorship makes a difference, to all involved. Often, in fact, it makes a life-changing difference. It helps to build a more balanced world, through the advancement of women and others who are underrepresented in various spheres and strata. It also helps to build a better world, by helping us all to become better leaders. In these two, mutually-reinforcing ways, mentorship is a very effective means of progress for both individuals and society.
Now, there is a great deal more that I could say. But I know that we are all eager to hear from our other speakers and to begin our conversation. And so, with that, I would like to thank the Consul-General once again for her leadership in initiating this gathering. I thank you all for your presence and your kind attention. And I turn the podium over to Professor Sylvia Bashevkin.