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Maureen Sabia on: Women on Boards and the ‘Mad Men’ era

Getting more women on boards is an evolutionary (not revolutionary) process, says Maureen Sabia.

BY Mark Keast


One thing about Maureen Sabia – if you are going to serve on a board she chairs, get ready to be proactive. You’re not there to tick boxes and enjoy a free meal. Get ready for monthly meetings. Get ready to work.

“You better have a damn good excuse if you don’t show up,” she says.

The shy need not apply. There will be no watering down of issues to some accepted norm. Sabia hates compromise. Every director is kept in the loop. Everyone is educated on the goings on of the company. So get ready for courageous expressions of views, or constructive conflict, a term she coined after growing up in a household with parents and siblings in the 1950s and 1960s that encouraged open, lively debate. A “war zone” is how her friends would describe the Sabia household at dinner time.


 

[woiiconheading type=”h3″]Chair(wo)man of the Board[/woiiconheading]

Sabia has made a career at the board level, over the past 25 years, after first graduating from the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto (one of just three women), then after a stint in the public and private sectors as a corporate counsel.

Since 1986, she has worked on the board of directors of the Export Development Corporation, where she was made chairman in 1991. She has been a director at O&Y Properties Corporation, O&Y First Place Tower Inc., Gulf Canada Resources Limited, Hollinger Inc., Skyjack Inc. and Laurentian General Insurance Company Inc., as well as serving on audit committees and governance and compensation committees for some of those organizations and others. She co-authored a book on improving the effectiveness of audit committees.

“I remember I went to my first board meeting, and I was sitting next to two prominent business people who were well known at the time to be really good directors,” she says. “And I looked at their books. There wasn’t a mark. They were virgin. Mine was full of questions marks and notes. I thought, boy, have I ever got a lot to learn. Those guys can come in here, and they can just deal with these [company issues] without having gone through every line. I wanted to be like that.

“Until I realized they were winging it,” she says, laughing. “Then I realized I didn’t want to be like that.”

Now Sabia sits as one of a handful of powerful women in Canada who chair major, public companies, in her case the Canadian Tire Corporation, the next best job to being the CEO of a major corporation, she said once, in another interview.

Maureen Sabia is bullish on boards.

“Most people would characterize me as a leader,” she says. “My job here is to build and sustain a board that is highly productive, that leads the way, that is very knowledgeable about the company it oversees. Management has to deal with us, like it or lump it. We hire and fire the top management, so we are unavoidable. In the past, boards have been quite reactive. We believe we need to be proactive, and we are, although that doesn’t mean crossing the line and running the company. Our role is an oversight and leadership one, but we still have to play an active role in strategy and have a long-term vision, a five-, ten-year view of where we are going. We set financial goals and hold management accountable to those. In some environments all they want is a go-along board. Our environment isn’t that.”

It makes one wonder why Sabia never made the move to senior management, why she chose to stay at the board level. She’ll tell you it had more to do with the times, entering the work force during the 1960s. If she entered the workforce 10 years ago it would have been a different story.


“In my first job, my boss told me I dressed too well for the salary they were paying me, that it might give rise to the view I had a sugar daddy. He had the nerve to tell me that. But that’s the kind of atmosphere in which I started my professional career.”

[woiiconheading type=”h3″]In the Mad Men era[/woiiconheading]

Raised by parents (her father was a surgeon, her mother was a prominent social activist and feminist) who told their kids they could do anything – if they had the smarts, education, and drive – Sabia says it wasn’t long after graduating from University of Toronto law school that she was hit face-on with the icy cold reality of the business world circa Mad Men. She says she is a big fan of the hit cable television show. It’s like a time machine. She loves the pin-point accuracy of its portrayal of society at that time.

I suggest she was like the character of Peggy in the series. Like the character, Sabia was brash, and had talent, but was swimming up stream against an entrenched male patriarchy.

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Sort of, she says. In that environment, Sabia learned on the job. No one handed her any lifelines. And that reality drifted into the 1970s and 1980s. She remembers earlier on, in board meetings, having to go outside and convince a male colleague to raise the points she wanted to make, because in the room her points were met with a stony silence. The minute the male colleague brought it up, it was discussed.

“I was once a general counsel for a large corporation and the incoming CEO said to me, ‘If you were a real woman you wouldn’t want this job,’” she says. “In my first job, my boss told me I dressed too well for the salary they were paying me, that it might give rise to the view I had a sugar daddy. He had the nerve to tell me that. But that’s the kind of atmosphere in which I started my professional career. It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that I couldn’t do anything I wanted.”

Sabia has been a leader and has brought about change through subtlety, covertness, individualism, through action, not words. And this took years, building her own path, not by preaching against her oppressors, but by working with them.

“Instead of running to the Human Rights Commission and complaining that I wasn’t listened to and was being victimized, I just got guys to take up my points,” she says. “You rolled with the punches in those days, you got inventive, you made your own way. There was no template, no rules. They don’t teach you this stuff in business school.”

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Soon, her voice in those boardrooms was being heard. Soon she was taking leadership positions.


I have as much respect for the woman who decides to stay at home and look after her family as the woman who wants to be an astronaut. It’s called equality of opportunity. Somewhere along the way equality of result replaced equality of opportunity.”

[woiiconheading type=”h3″]We can’t have it all[/woiiconheading]

These days, meeting her, there is no mistaking that outer toughness, honed by years in the trenches. For someone who has led through action, there is still no confusing her opinions on matters.

“When women started to get on boards, I don’t think many were qualified,” she says. That is changing as more women come out of business schools, and get into business in a bigger way, she adds.

She then becomes pensive.

“I am always saying there are no differences between men and women, and how they think, but women maybe have had a tradition of having to be more detail-oriented,” she says. “Women have to walk and chew gum at the same time. They have had to manage a bunch of tasks, where men have had a world where they could hive off tasks to support groups. The women I have worked with on boards are very diligent. Some people would say they are trying to prove themselves, but I don’t think it’s that.

“(The situation) is getting better, but it’s going to take awhile,” she says. “Things don’t change over night. This is an evolutionary process. Not a revolutionary one. Men have been on boards for hundreds of years. We only have for the past 30. But we have accomplished a lot in that time frame.”

She doesn’t believe in balance. One can’t be effective as a mother and seek the corner office. It’s why she never married. She broke off her engagement during law school, and chose career, because she was unwilling to bridge those worlds.

“We have to make choices, and that is what true equality is all about,” she says. “Women have been misled into believing they can have it all, and they can’t. I have as much respect for the woman who decides to stay at home and look after her family as the woman who wants to be an astronaut. It’s called equality of opportunity. Somewhere along the way equality of result replaced equality of opportunity.”

Getting back to equality of opportunity will affect real, substantive change, she believes.

However so much has already been accomplished since she entered the workforce back in the day. Now, as Sabia sits and watches Mad Men on Sunday nights, she gets a kick out of talking to her nieces about it.

“I watch it and say that’s the way it was,” she says. “They think they are watching ancient history, and are amused by it.”


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