Erica Pinsky



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

 available as a PODCAST

Fourth in an interview series... an interview with Sue Paish – CEO Lifelabs


Something I learned in short order when I started my career as a Labour Relations Advisor at Canadian Airlines was that lawyer Sue Paish, and her colleagues Patricia Janzen and Lorene Novakowski at Russell and DuMoulin, as the firm was then called, were women I wanted to get to know.  I heard them speak at numerous Labour, Employment and Human Rights conferences.  I read the book Ms. Paish co-authored; - Act Don’t React – Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Your Organization.


Given my interest in Women, Position and Power, I was among many individuals pleased to learn that  Ms. Paish had been appointed as the firm’s Managing Partner in 2000.  During her tenure she led the firm through a major merger and a global expansion to eight offices on three continents.  Lexpert named  Ms. Paish one of Canada’s Top 25 Women Lawyers.


At the end of her 6 year term, the maximum allowable, Ms. Paish started to wonder about her next career move.  “The normal trajectory for men who become managing partner was retirement and given that I was just 48 I was nowhere near ready for that.”  She decided to explore new opportunities and chose to leave the legal profession.  While the firm was supportive of her decision “a  lot of people thought I had rocks in my head deciding to leave the firm and not having a place to go. I  put my name out there and was really surprised to hear what people thought I could and could not do.”


Her job search ended in May 2007 when she accepted the position as CEO at Pharmasave Drugs (National) Ltd., the largest banner of independently-owned community pharmacies in Canada.  One of the other activities Ms. Paish was involved in, while at Pharmasave, was serving as a member of the Board of LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services.  In 2012 she was offered and accepted the position of CEO.  “I knew enough about both the organization, its ownership and the sector to realize it was going to be a hugely exciting and challenging opportunity.”


That same year Ms. Paish was inducted into Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Hall of Fame. As a four time yearly winner, she is one of only 88 women in Canada upon whom the Women's Executive Network (WXN) has bestowed this honour.


I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Paish for this series at LifeLab’s Burnaby offices in early July.  Our conversation lasted over an hour. Upon thanking Ms. Paish for an “enlightening, inspiring, completely informative and fascinating interview,” she thanked me for “doing this kind series,” adding “I think we are blessed in Vancouver and British Columbia to have phenomenal women leaders in a variety of sectors and contexts.”


I know from feedback I receive from members of the Road to Respect community that one of the things you appreciate about these monthly posts is their relative brevity.  There was so much relevant, practical information shared during my lengthy conversation with Ms. Paish that I found it a challenging task to edit.  I strongly urge you to make time to listen to the entire interview.


Here is a brief sample of what you’ll hear.


On Gender and Career Progression:

“I get that question a lot and I should probably have an answer prepared for it but I never do because I am always surprised when someone raises it.  Maybe it has not been an issue for me because I have not recognized it as an issue, (in spite of the fact that) most of the time I have been the only girl in the room: whether it is the executive committee at the law firm, the managing partners conference for law firms in Canada, or sitting around a board table.”


Ms. Paish credits her perspective from her experiences working on her family’s ranch in Northern BC and as the first female assigned to work in floor as a labour relations officer at a GM fabrication plant in Oshawa.


“You learn to get the job done and not look for other issues.  That is what I learned from day one – just get the job done. Do your very best and don’t look for extraneous issues.  If extraneous issues arise, deal with them.


Don’t become a victim.  I have never wanted to be a victim.  What I focus on is being someone who is  110 percent committed to getting the job done right, and getting the right job done.”


On Women and Power:

“If you focus on what you want to do with your life it doesn’t matter what your personal characteristics are or what your demographic makeup is.


Some people might be rolling their eyes right now and saying I haven’t lived in the real world.


Are there people out there that don’t think women should be in leadership roles? Absolutely!


There were lots of them in the 80s.  I had lots of stones thrown over the fence at me.  I had lots of people patting me on the head and saying, very nice that you have these ideas now let’s get real.  I remember an interview in university where I said I wanted to be a CEO and the interviewers laughed out loud.  Rather than cocoon myself and say well I guess I can’t do that, I said well I guess I am not working for this company and moved on.”


Whether female or male, Ms. Paish advises young people to figure out who they are and what they want.  “Decide what your values are as early as you can and then make sure that you live those values.  Decide what you want to have in your life. Decide what is important to you. Don’t live someone else’s life.


That is easy to say.  It sounds cliché but it is hard to do, particularly when you are 19 or 20 and you have people telling you to write a career plan for the next 10 years or you can’t have children if you want to do this, or you can’t take vacation if you’re going to do that, or if you choose this be prepared to burn out after 5 years.


Know what path you want.  Not everyone needs to, nor should they want to, be a SVP or a CEO.  It is wonderful to choose a pathway that is different from one that is vertical.


Decide what you want to do and be deliberate about it.  Know that others might not agree with you.  Be prepared to defend your choices.”


Here’s Ms Paish’s perspective on how to, as I frame it, “step into your power respectfully.”


“Never hurt anyone else on your pathway.  Don’t step on people.  Don’t have your elbows up.  Never burn a bridge.  Understand the importance of building strong positive relationships because that is what will propel you down the path more than your own horsepower.  Be the person that is easy to work with, that is easy to trust.  Be the person that people want to be around and the pathway will unfold for you.”


On Being a Mother in the C-Suite:

“We have to accept the fact that if we are going to have children, particularly in the early to mid-stages of vertical progression, it will have an impact.  That impact will be dealt with later on, but if we focus on it and make it an issue, it will become the defining part of our careers, rather than a normal part of our career.


I am not so naïve as to think that no one out there who makes decisions about women’s progression in a corporate world looks at a young women who is starting to have children and says maybe we should pass her over.  Yes, that happens.  We need to accept the reality.  That is going to happen.”


Given that reality Ms. Paish suggest that women “Be upfront about that. ‘Yes I have two small children at home and I will not be able to travel as much now as I will down the road,’ or whatever the decision is.


My experience has been if we are up front and adult like in talking about our family responsibilities and how they fit with our career you’ll be surprised at how adult like others will be.  I used to say this to people at the firm; don’t talk in code.  I was totally upfront about coming in late or leaving early to get my kids or attend a sporting event.  I made it very clear to my work mates why I was not in when I was not in and people adapted.


I think these days if we can be a little bit more deliberate in communicating, things are a lot easier.”


The other critical piece in progression to, or being in a Mother in a C-suite position is to “get your job done.  Make sure to make the decisions on the family front so that you can get your job done.”


On Bullying and Harassment:

Ms. Paish’s perspective mirrors something I constantly share with my audiences.  Victimization is a choice.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”


“I actually don’t think most people get out of bed determined to make life miserable for the rest of us.  (that said) There are some predators.  If you are in that scenario, don’t be the victim.  Take the steps that are available to you in the workplace.  If there aren’t internal steps go external.


It is very difficult for an employer to address the scenario if they don’t know.  It is also difficult for the employer if you come forward but won’t give the essential details.”


There is only one conclusion to come to if you do come forward and the employer won’t or chooses not to take steps to deal with your complaint. “You are in the wrong work environment. You do need a certain level of trust.  If you don’t trust your organization to deal with it, ask yourself why you are working there.  I know that if you are a single mom, responsible for putting food on the table, it is pretty unrealistic to say walk away, but you do have to be deliberate about the decisions that you make: either moving up or out.”


Ms. Paish advises employers to “Remind, educate and train all of us about appropriate workplace conduct.  Have policies and people that know how to deal with these issues.”  The other critical piece, consistent with another message I constantly share is to “Model the behaviour.  If you see inappropriate behaviour you better make sure you act on it because people will be watching.”


Advice for male CEO’s of Fortune 500 Companies:

“Let’s be blind to the demographics in the context of people’s potential.


There are phenomenal opportunities for us as CEOs to bring forward talent, potential, and inspiration from people in our workplaces regardless of size, shape, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc etc.  We need to be aware of those differences for career planning and things like that, but let’s make sure we build workplaces where people know that we are values based organizations with values based leadership.  Let’s create work environments where people are encouraged to decide what they want in their lives, and to articulate to us, in whatever way is appropriate in our organization, what those career aspirations are without all of them having to be vertical.  Let’s build workplaces where we help people realize their career aspirations in a way that works for them and works for us as an organization.


For Gen Y women aspiring to the C-suite:

Decide what you want in your life.  When you are 18 don’t assume that you know what you’re going to be doing when you’re 30, because very few of us are doing at 30 what we thought we would be doing at 18.  Decide in a short term way what your values are.  Live those values.  Be deliberate.  Take responsibility for your own life.  Don’t ever be a victim.  Instead, be that person that is easy to trust, easy to work with and easy to get along with in a whole host of contexts.


Make sure that you understand that every decision has a consequence.

  Decisions you make about family, about community about personal aspirations,

 about career aspirations will impact the other parts of your life.

  Don’t be apologetic about that.  Own it.

 Own your decision and make sure the decisions are yours.  It works.

"Erica Pinsky’s book, Road to Respect: Path to Profit approaches a range of difficult topics in an honest, direct and non-threatening manner. This book will stimulate readers to think about their own values and behaviours and to question those that are operating in their workplaces. Erica shares personal stories and best practices to clearly show why adopting respect as a core value is a requirement for any business interested in being designated as an Employer of Choice in our multi-cultural workplaces.  I highly recommend this book!"

Susan Rubin Mulder,

Principal - McKinsey & Company