Colleen. Advice, Alliances and Personal Advisory Boards

posted December 9th, 2009 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

I asked Colleen what was the best advice she had ever been given and what advice she would pass along to a young woman.


She said: “Okay, so here’s a funny story.  When I first started at Moss Lawson as a retail broker, a successful female broker took me out for lunch and handed me a copy of the book “Dress for Success”.  She was basically explaining to me that I wasn’t dressed properly.  I was a bit offended by it at the time.  I was making $700 a month or whatever being a retail broker and here was somebody telling me I was not dressed properly.  I thought, well, you know what, we’re going to have to solve that problem in a couple of years; it’s not one I can solve this week.  But in some ways I think, she was teaching me that what I wore to work was a uniform and I wasn’t dressed for work.  So I think potentially that wasn’t, upon reflection, a horrible piece of advice.  I think that having people encourage you and provide honest feedback about your strengths and areas for improvement when they see it, not as part of an annual review process is really helpful.” 


Colleen says her advice is always for people to take good, well-informed risks and work hard. She says they will be amazed by what will come from that. She encourages people to envision where they are going next.  In her words: “You don’t need to know where it is exactly.  It can be very nebulous.  I never knew where I was going to go but I was always able to see what my next step a little bit out was going to be.  I’d see people in the role or position and I would say to myself I’d like to do that.   I think another thing in terms of advice is to ask others how to get where you want to go.  It’s kind of like asking for directions.  You ask people what would prevent you from doing it or how would you get the opportunity to do it because it’s what you want to do.  Articulate your goals and enlist people to help you. 


She gave the example of a fellow who had approached her recently. He was someone she had worked with on something completely different and he wanted to step up at his current firm. He said he’d heard this job at his firm might become available but because he wanted to advance his career he was applying for jobs at other like organizations in other cities. He asked her what he should do.  Colleen says: “I said, well, just go in and see the decision-maker on the role you want and explain that if it should become available that you’d like it.  My friend is a 30 year-old guy and it never occurred to him to ask for what he wanted. I told him to tell them that because you can’t see another career path inside the organization, you are looking at these other roles but your first preference is to stay with your current firm. Don’t threaten.  You’re not.  You’re just trying to explain where you stand in a forthright, honest way. At the same time, make sure you’re completing all the job responsibilities that would make you a candidate for the job.  It doesn’t seem very difficult to me, in fact, it seems straightforward.  I think we sometimes get caught up in the “I can’t ask, I can’t do”. 


I asked Colleen whether she would advise a young woman to establish alliances with other women at their own firm and elsewhere and she said she would. She was in Young Presidents Organization (YPO) for a period in her career.  As part of this, she says you belong to a forum, a group of ten people who become your personal Board of Directors, supporting you and helping you manage your career.  As a group, you meet regularly, once a month for four hours. She says: “It’s a big commitment of time and work. There is a prescribed format for interaction.  During monthly reviews, you provide updates on your career, your family, your community activities and yourself personally. By reviewing your life in the context of these four quadrants, it makes you reflect on your progress on a regular basis.  It allows you to rebalance and make changes when life gets out of whack! Those few minutes each month are your chance to ask yourself  “Am I doing this the way I was thinking I would do it and am I still on my true north pathway in each quadrant?”  For women, we constantly forget about the personal part.  We’re working and we’re looking after our kids and we may have some community stuff that we’re doing as well.  The next thing you know you’re really burnt out and you’ve got migraines or you haven’t worked out in a year and a half and you can’t breathe and you’re trying to survive on four hours’ worth of sleep each night. One day you say, I’ve got to get out of here.  My forum offered me the opportunity for regular reviews and interventions, so I could regularly ensure I was living my life by design.   So, I think a personal advisory board of peers is really, really good.  I think there are rules you have to have in a group like that, so I think a little formalized is better.   I think rules of engagement, like confidentiality and attendance are really important because you are committing a lot of time to it. The group should not be solely comprised of a group of your friends. Its composition should be based on the strengths of each member and attempt to achieve an overall balance, just as you would look for in a Board of Directors”.


Colleen says this type of personal Board of Directors is important and she had one informally when she was at CIBC/Wood Gundy through the women’s groups and she had one formally in YPO.


She says she needs fitness in her life as well to keep her sane and she makes time for it. She says: “Taking time to go for a run for thirty minutes a day isn’t going to cause the world to fall apart.  Pick a point in your day that you’re going to do it and do it”.


Colleen acts as a Business Co-Director of The Judy Project, “An Enlightened Leadership Forum for Executive Women”, at the Rotman School of Management. She says each session of the Project is attended by thirty like minded women who establish personal advisory boards (PABs) at the end of the program as a way to maintain the momentum generated by the intensely experiential week long core program. Although, the core program includes senior executive lecturers who focus on the development of skills in setting direction, risk taking, producing and leading through change, building effective networks, inspiring others, building aligned collaborative organizations and being true to self and the core curriculum focuses on women executives as exceptional leaders, and examines the philosophical, attitudinal and behavioural components of leadership, celebrating gender and style, Colleen says: “Even the best developed leadership initiative will only succeed because of an ongoing commitment to change.  The Personal Advisory Boards are comprised of the women you spent the week with and allow for follow on focus on the goals and targets you set for yourself during this time. I have spoken to many of the past participants who say that the PABs are really the key to career sustainability and continued ambition.” 


What Strikes Me?


It’s important to “dress for success”


Take good, well-calculated risks and work hard and you will be amazed by what will come from that


Have a vision of where you are going next; it doesn’t have to be specific


Articulate your goals and let people help you get there because people do want to help you


Ask for what you want


Checking in with a “personal advisory board” once a month can keep you moving towards your previously articulated objectives. It’s a formalized “check in” which allows you to examine all areas of your life


Women often forget to take care of themselves because they are busy taking care of every one and everything else and it catches up with them



What Strikes You?


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