Not having a sponsor is a key reason many talented women never reach their potential. That’s why up and comer Alana Riley was paired with Alex Besharat, Senior Vice President & Head, Canadian Wealth Management through Scotiabank’s Canadian Banking Sponsorship Program. With a senior leader advocating on her behalf, there’s no telling how far Alana’s career will go.
By Shelley White
Sometimes the best way to grow as a leader is to jump out of your comfort zone, says Alana Riley.
Alana first joined Scotiabank as a District Vice President, followed by the role of Regional Director, Scotiatrust for Western Canada. She recently completed her MBA through Dalhousie University’s distance program, balancing studying with leading a team of 500 people at work and being a wife and mother of three at home. It was a challenge Alana took on with gusto.
“Quite frankly, I don’t want the participation ribbon,” she says with characteristic enthusiasm. “You might say challenge, but I say, ‘Bring it on.’”
It’s this kind of drive that made Alana a natural fit for Scotiabank’s Canadian Banking Sponsorship Program. In order to promote gender parity and mitigate the barriers to advancement that women might face, Scotiabank’s Canadian Banking division implemented the innovative program five years ago.
High-potential women are paired with influential senior executives as a way for them to build networking relationships, better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and accelerate their career aspirations. The sponsors benefit from the program as well, by enhancing their coaching skills and interacting with diverse talent at the Bank.
This past summer, Alana was paired with Alex Besharat, Senior Vice President & Head, Canadian Wealth Management at Scotiabank. For the past six months, the two have been meeting bi-weekly. Alex says he wanted to take part in the program because of how he benefited from these types of relationships over the years. “I’ve had great mentors; people who helped me formally and informally through my career,” he says. “The advice, the counsel, the insights, challenging your thinking — those have been key things for me. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without it, and I wanted to pass that on.”
Alex notes that the low ratio of women in senior leadership roles across countless industries is an issue that needs to be addressed. According to the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA), as of 2016, women occupied 49.8 per cent of middle management positions and 36.2 per cent of senior management positions.
“One part of the solution is to make sure that people who have real talent are exposed to and benefit from the same opportunities as their peers,” he says. “It’s very easy for jobs to be all-consuming. Without these kinds of sponsorship programs, it’s incredibly difficult to take yourself out of the fray and really think strategically about your approach to things, how you’re evolving, and how you’re going to reach your maximum potential in a leadership position.”
Alex and Alana say their dialogue ranges from discussions on specific projects, challenges or job opportunities, to more high-level discussions of personality traits and leadership style.
“Without these kinds of sponsorship programs, it’s incredibly difficult to take yourself out of the fray and really think strategically about your approach to things, how you’re evolving, and how you’re going to reach your maximum potential in a leadership position.”
“I can dig deep into my 30 years and see if I can find situations where I can say, ‘I’ve dealt with this, or I’ve had this challenge myself and here’s what I did,’ good or bad, and hopefully that provides Alana with some learning,” says Alex.
Alana says she’s learned a great deal throughout the journey she and Alex have been on together.
“How can I leverage my strengths and where are the areas I need to develop?” she says. “I know Alex is invested in my success and that’s been key. He can be my advocate, knowing what I’m capable of delivering. And from a personal perspective, it has me thinking more strategically, and has increased my confidence.”
Both Alana and Alex note that an important part of the success of their partnership has been keeping in consistent contact and maintaining their bi-weekly meetings, “rain or shine.”
This kind of sponsorship program can be well worth it, says Alex, but it’s not something to be taken lightly.
“For it to work well, it requires both people to be committed to it. Not just to make appointments and times, but to be emotionally ‘all in’ and honest, and have a very open attitude towards it,” he says.
“What you put in is what you get out of a program like this,” Alana adds.
Alana says she’s also developed a close network with the other women taking part in the program. “There are a core group of us that have really built our relationship and hold our own bi-weekly calls together,” she says. “So this journey with Alex as my sponsor has had a significant impact for me in terms of my personal development and career advancement strategy.”
When it comes to where she wants to take her career, Alana says the sky’s the limit. As Chair of the Prairie Regional Women in Leadership committee at Scotiabank, Alana looks to company executives like Barbara Mason, Maria Theofilaktidis and Gillian Riley for career inspiration.
“I think they are transforming our industry in terms of discussing unconscious bias that may have prevented women from taking on leadership roles in the past. So I hope to carry that torch forward,” she says. “I hope by the time my daughter is in her career, we will no longer need a committee to encourage leadership diversity.”