Lauren. Accomplishments, Success and Significance

posted May 7th, 2009 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

I asked Lauren what she considered to be her proudest accomplishments at work. She said they were threefold. The first one was a project in Africa which she described as the most meaningful work she has ever done. I believe her own words allow you to hear the emotion I heard in her voice: “Really. I mean when you think of being able to work directly with the governor of a bank and his people, well educated, University of Chicago PhD’s, trying to fix their country. Where the governor said to me, every cent that goes down the drain on that crappy bank doesn’t go into education, health care, and everything else, so we’ve got to fix that bank. That was such a good project.” And when I reminded her she had originally said three, she said that this one was probably the highlight.

The second one was while she was at the regulatory agency working with one of her mentors on a major financial institution which had blown up. She says she felt in light of the circumstances, they did an amazing job.

And the third one happened when she transferred back to Canada from the NGO. She ended up in a regional office of the bank where she had started work and she was not initially welcomed by the people working there; in fact, they didn’t want her there at all. She was parachuted in; she had been back in the bank about three months after an eight year absence and she was sent to this regional office by head office. She says: “I mean, the welcome that I got there, I would go home at night almost in tears but I turned them around and not only did I turn them around I ended up having a great management team because they learned to trust me.” They got the best inspection (internal audit) of anyone in the country, their numbers were good and she says that it wasn’t her it was her team. For Lauren, this was a great accomplishment. And I could hear the pride in her voice, in herself but most importantly in her team.

I asked Lauren what she considered to be her greatest successes at work and she said she didn’t know if they would be different from the accomplishments she had highlighted. With a little prodding, she admitted the NGO job was a great success. She says she was thrilled to get the job and reluctantly agreed it was probably her greatest success.

In terms of responding to the question of what she considered her work of greatest significance, she did not hesitate for a moment. She quickly and clearly responded, the restructuring of the bank in Africa. She says: “that was of major significance. We stopped the bleeding at that bank.”

The banking system had been nationalized by consolidating a number of foreign banks and putting one name on the combined entity. In Lauren’s words: “They didn’t integrate anything… well first of all it was Africa… some of the branches didn’t have a calculator. I mean, they didn’t know where they were making their money. We literally had to rip that bank apart line by line. It was the most incredible experience of my life.” While she recounted this story, she had the most blissful look on her face. It was like witnessing a moment of sheer joy as she recounted work which had great meaning for her and was something which made her deeply proud. She says: “It was tough. We unearthed so many problems with fraud and people that… we had to fire people and that was hard, that was horrible. We had to downsize, we had to stop the bleeding. That’s typical in African countries you know. There are so many public servants because those are the only jobs.”

And I asked Lauren: “What’s next for you?” She said when she finishes her doctorate in corporate governance she does not think she will want to do anything full time. In fact, she doesn’t want to work full time again because she is at the stage in her life where she likes variety. So for her what’s next is some teaching, some more research which she says she really enjoys and perhaps some consulting, although she sounded a little doubtful about the consulting. She reluctantly admitted that her passion for the whole area of corporate governance has diminished. She said: “I’m so discouraged. I’m discouraged with the state of affairs.”

And I couldn’t help myself, I followed up with “in what way?” And she said she thought the odds are against effective corporate governance given the structure of boards. The odds are against an individual being a change agent; in fact, the pay off comes from not being a change agent. The pay off is in keeping your mouth shut and just going along with the group. She says being a change agent on a Board is painful. The pay off is great if you work on an issue and succeed, however, if you don’t succeed, there is no pay off. In fact, she believes it’s detrimental. So she is concerned.

And I asked whether she thought women are more often change agents on boards than men? Are women more likely to raise difficult issues? She said the results are the same for both men and women. In the research she conducted, women brought issues forward twice as often as men and she thinks that would hold true with further research. She says, it’s tough going against the grain, the group. She found her research very interesting. Women stuck to the change agent process for long periods of time; they would pull back, go forward, pull back but many of them succeeded. Men didn’t stick to it that long. If they weren’t listened to they might stick with it but a lot of times they said, well, if I’m not being listened to maybe I’m the one that’s wrong and they would defer to the group. She says: “So there was a lot of deference and for some very valid reasons, frankly, but no, I can’t remember one male interviewee talking about an issue that he stuck with more than six months and in a couple of cases they exited. They just said, okay, you don’t want to listen to me, this is important to me; I’m out of here.” In her words again: “Gracefully, everybody does it gracefully. It’s amazing. You do it gracefully on Bay Street. You never tell, you never tell. Everybody knows that you’re leaving for a substantive reason that you’re not standing for re-election, but nobody says anything, right?”

And I could understand Lauren’s discouragement. And I found it interesting because it sounded a lot like the stories of many of the women who leave Bay Street. Everybody knows why you are leaving but you endeavour to leave with grace and keep the details to yourself.

This is the end of Lauren’s story. I have altered some of the details or left a portion of some of the interesting anecdotes out to protect her and her former colleagues at her request. Regardless, I believe she told me much of her story with great courage and honesty. And it is a story of great achievement. I believe Lauren kept reaching for more because she felt she deserved it and she felt she deserved it and could afford to be brave because one day when she was a very young girl and her older sister had been incredibly mean to her, she felt the deep love and protection of her Mum, the support of whom she continues to rely on today. Sometimes, we just get lucky!!!

What strikes me?

The more things change the more they stay the same

What it means to be a champion

The courage required to have a significant impact

The stifling impact our institutions can have on change agents and the consequences of this impact

What are the implications for Bay Street and the larger corporate world of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture?

The powerful impact of wisdom, courage and inspiration

What strikes you?

Please add your comments.

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