Erica Pinsky



Are We There Yet? - Women, Position, & Power

 available as a PODCAST

Second in an interview series ... an interview with Donna Wilson


On April 30th, I sat down with Donna Wilson,  VP, Industry Services & Sustainability at WorkSafeBC,  to get her perspective on
Women, Position & Power.  Ms. Wilson has a wealth of knowledge and experience and I found her story fascinating.
  I encourage you to listen to the entire
  I have selected a few gems to share with you here.


On how gender has affected her career progression:

Overall Ms. Wilson’s experience is that “If you are creative and innovative , good at your work, and show leadership” you can do well.  She found gender to be a factor when she was starting out, and again when she decided to move into an executive role.  It was a perception of risk that arose as a result of her being a woman.


Early on in her career “I actually had someone say to me we are taking a risk on you, and you better prove that this risk is worth it’s while.  There was a barrier there…. When I applied to be a VP, it was made clear to me that my youthfulness at the time and my gender created a perception of more risk.


A lot of senior people happen to be male. Many may not have had a lot of experience working with women in senior roles outside of HR. The unknown is the unknown.  It creates a risk.  If the top is dominated by men, and they are used to a certain type of thinking, introducing someone that has a different type of thinking or who approaches things differently would feel risky.”


Lessons for Leaders - Be mindful of assumptions you might be making about someone that is unfamiliar to you, particularly based on personal characteristics like age and gender.  To minimize the risk of the unknown, get curious about this person. Find out about them.  Ask questions that will allow you to learn more about them.


Lessons for Women - Women aspiring to the C suite should anticipate the perception of risk and be strategic in order to minimize it.  Ms. Wilson suggests creating opportunities for senior leaders to observe your job performance.  “Look for opportunities where you  can be exposed to senior leaders and demonstrate your abilities, even in a volunteer capacity. Work on boards or projects where you can get exposed to people.  Get on projects that are about significant change, complete redesign, re-engineering, projects that will allow you to be seen. Look for opportunities to build relationship and let people (men) see what you can do.”


Echoing what I heard from when I spoke with Anne Kinvig, COO of Pacific Blue Cross who I interviewed for this series in February, Ms Wilson cautions women to ensure that they are not allowing their own beliefs about their abilities to be self-limiting, particularly with respect to confidence about financial oversight. “I’ve noticed that women will self-limit:  I can’t lead an organization because I am not a CFO or an accountant. You can still have strong financial acuity and financial sensibilities.”


On being a woman in a position of power:

Ms. Wilson has two pieces of advice for women aspiring to C-Suite positions.


“Particularly when you are early on in your career, be very, very careful about any perception that you are sleeping your way to the top.  Be wary. Stay away from having any type of romantic relationship with anybody at work.”


If you decide to become a woman in a position of power, be mindful of the fact that to be powerful does not mean that you have to bully your way there. The reality of being a woman in power is that you need to be assertive and sometimes aggressive. Don’t be ashamed of that.  There is a difference between being assertive and aggressive and being a bully. And being overly competitive. Pay attention to those differences.”


Ms. Wilson’s experience, consistent with what we heard from Ms. Kinvig, is that women leaders are often assessed through a gender biased lens.  When she began to actively pursue moving from senior management into the C Suite  “I was getting signals: you’re very assertive, you’re quite aggressive” although she was simply doing  what a man of her age and stage of career routinely did.


The norm is for women to hang back, to wait to be asked, to work hard and hope that someone notices rather than ask for what we want.  In this case Ms. Wilson was actively pursuing what she wanted.  “I was really clear that that was what I wanted to do. That seemed to be a bit of a problem for some people at the time.”


Ms. Wilson, however, did not allow the reaction she got to deter her and advises other women to do the same.  “I stuck to my guns.  Just stick to your guns.  Be comfortable demonstrating assertive behaviour. This is how this game is played in this world.”  She advises women to speak up, ask questions and take control of their own power.


Then she said something about being a woman in a position of power that floored me.  “I still struggle with it to this day. There are times when I let myself not ask the question.  I think to myself maybe I will wait a little longer.”


Lessons for Leaders – both female and male:  “It is competitive.  Show the quality of who you are: what your skills are, your finesse, your relationship skills, your technical skills rather than bully your way to the top and leave dead bodies behind you.  Carefully watch that you don’t move into the bullying zone.  Ask yourself, do you feel good about your actions?  Are you being assertive or are you diminishing other people or taking air out of their space?”


On Being a Mother in the C-Suite

Ms. Wilson has two children.  She made a choice to work part time when her children were young. Her perspective is that while this choice might have slowed her journey to the C-Suite it did not prevent her from getting there.

She has no regrets about having worked part time when her children were young.  “It was totally worth it. My kids are the priority. They are really important, the only real legacy you will leave long after you’re gone. Once you leave an organization you’re legacy eventually diminishes.”


Lessons for Women –  If you aspire to a senior leadership position, be strategic in terms of timing.  Get enough professional experience so that you have an impressive resume before having children.  Ms. Wilson also advises women to stay in touch when they are off work. “Find someone like myself and others that are out there who can help you get back in. Don’t let your fears get in your way. Stay in touch with the work world. Maintain your connections.”


Ms. Wilson cautions women to be realistic about the commitment involved with being in an executive role.  Again, timing is a factor some women might want to consider relative to when to make the move. “When you get to the C-suite you are expected to be available to the organization at any time it needs you.  Business trips, retreats, strategic planning, travel. It is all time away from your family.  You come back and you don’t necessarily have any time off.  Your days are long, particularly if you are hired to create change. I would not have been able to have taken that on if my kids were younger. My kids were in high school and university.”


On Women Bullying Women

“I have experienced bullying twice at the C suite level, not before that.  I did experience sexual  harassment earlier in my career but not bullying.  I have been bullied by a man and a women. I have to say that it surprised me. In both cases I was not in the power position.  I was new, or smaller, but because I was challenging what was being said, I believe the individuals felt intimidated.”


Ms. Wilson then disclosed something that I found quite surprising.  “I didn’t  realize it was happening until I was in the middle of it.  Even though I am in a position of some power, I tend to fold my tent in these situations.  I think the difficulty is for the target to speak up.  It’s tough.”


Lessons for Leaders –“ If you are a person that has people reporting to you and you hear that someone is bullying, you need to take action. Speak to them. Suggest they get coaching.  CEO’s need to take responsibility.”  She also advises leaders to “Watch the effect you are having on people. I monitor myself.  I will get strong on a point.  I watch for the reactions of others.  I always check in with them and ask:  Are we ok with what is happening here?”


What Ms. Wilson would share if she had an audience of male CEO’s of Fortune 500 Companies.

“All CEO’s need to surround themselves with people that are very, very good at what they do.  Some might not  always have the same view of life as you do.  If you only hire people that look like you and see the world like you do, the opportunity for your organization is much narrower.


Open your doors to welcoming women at the table. Don’t be afraid. It broadens the discussion. It offers different ways of looking at the same problems you are dealing with .”


For ambitious Gen Y women and others aspiring to C-Suite positions:

“Find a male mentor – it helps to understand how men view the world of business.  Early in my career a male mentor helped guide me on some very fundamental pieces.  Mentors can help you figure out how to navigate through a career in the world of business.  It is helpful to have those kinds of friends.


Wherever I am approached I make myself available.  I am approached more by women than by men.  It is something that women do. My experience is that women tend to go to other women.


Step out of your comfort zone.  Ask yourself, how can I form relationships and get exposure to men? There are some key learnings.  You have to figure out how to navigate being an executive at the relationship level, how to get decisions that you want the organization to make moved through the organization.  It is not a straight line. Men often navigate differently than women. You need to understand how to work that because these committees are often dominated by men.


Think about what you are wanting.  If you want to be a woman in a power position in an organization, be conscious of that choice and the impact that will have.  When you make a decision to go after a C-Suite position, it is a conscious decision about work life balance. You will devote much more time to work than you may expect. It is part of the territory of being an executive.


You need to be accountable and responsible.  Don’t be afraid. Don’t limit yourself.  The area that I am picking up the most is the financials. Increase your literacy, spend your time learning what you need to and then boldly go.”


"Our company recently implemented a Respectful Workplace training program. While researching and developing the program I discovered Erica’s book Road to Respect: Path to Profit. After reading it I realized that the information and guidance contained in the book would provide real value to our organization, so I distributed copies to the entire leadership team. For those organizations committed to building a respectful workplace, Road to Respect: Path to Profit is a must read."

Pauline Johnson
Envirotest Canada

An interview with Anne Kinvig


An interview with Faye Wightman