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One of BMO’s most senior women leaders shares her advice for success

By Sarah Kelsey

As Group Head at BMO Wealth Management, BMO Financial Group, Joanna Rotenberg is one of the bank’s most senior women leaders. She’s on BMO’s Executive Committee, sits on several boards, is active in the community, and is also a mother of three. How did she do it? We asked Joanna to share the key lessons she’s learned on her path to success.

There are two parts to success, Joanna Rotenberg, Group Head at BMO Wealth Management, BMO Financial Group, explains to me as she waits to catch a plane to Europe for business. The first is embracing risk. “I could not have predicted any of the twists and turns my career was going to take,” including a shift in focus from law to business. But in 2010, at the end of her first maternity leave, she got a call that changed everything. 

“I was contacted by a board member at BMO about a position within the organization that was different than what I was doing,” she says. At the time, she was a partner at McKinsey & Company’s Toronto office and led the organization’s Wealth Management and Retirement practice. BMO was one of her clients. Though she knew changing careers and juggling a young child was a huge risk, she realized the opportunity was something she “couldn’t pass up.” 

Today, Joanna is one of the most senior women leaders at BMO, the program executive sponsor for BMO for Women, and is widely recognized as a champion of women in finance. She sits on several boards, was named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network, and in 2018 was named ‘Women in Capital Markets Champion of Change’ for her focus on diversity and inclusion. And she’s a mom to three. 

How she’s been able to accomplish so much at such a young age is in large part due to the second part of her success equation: surround yourself with great people. “Some of the best work I’ve done has been because of the people I’ve worked with,” Joanna notes. “Find people who complement your skills.” 

She encourages everyone to live by the “airplane test.” Before taking a risk on a new job or project, ask yourself if the people you’d be working with are folks you’d want to spend five hours stuck on the runway beside. If they’re not, the opportunity may not be the right fit. 

“For BMO, our best-kept secret is our people. It’s something I saw a little of when BMO was my client,” she says. “People are generally very smart and collaborative, and we attract those who think about the community.” 


“Never underestimate the impact your voice and actions can have, I think it’s the little things that matter just as much as the big things.”


The “airplane test” also applies to sponsorship — something Joanna is a huge advocate for. She actively works to create the conditions for success for those who are keen, ambitious to deliver impact and growth, and will pay it forward to sponsor others to win. “I make it my business to sponsor men and women inside and outside of the wealth team,” she says.

Case in point: she recently coached a woman she’d been sponsoring to take a risk on a career opportunity that would be a stretch for both her knowledge and experience. But Joanna knew she’d excel in the position (which she did). “It’s about giving people that ‘at-bat’ — a seat at the table, to challenge our views, and opportunities to shine or fail in a safe environment.”

It’s here that Joanna pauses to very helpfully explain the important distinction between sponsorship and mentorship; they involve different levels of risk and one is more impactful than the other. 

“A mentor will give you the advice, but a sponsor is someone who will knock down the doors for you,” she notes. “Sponsorship shows you have some promise — someone will be taking a chance on you — so do the best in every situation.”

She says everyone should know the difference before asking a person they admire for career guidance or support. But it’s also important for leaders to recognize each for what it is, and to remember the power they have to grow and build the next generation of high-performing employees. “Never underestimate the impact your voice and actions can have,” she says. “I think it’s the little things that matter just as much as the big things.” 

Joanna also encourages leaders to check their biases at the door when choosing who to work with, especially when it comes to women. “When my daughter comes of age, I want her to have the same opportunities as her twin brother. No more, no less. I want her to not think about gender equality as an issue,” she notes. 

Her last piece of advice applies to everyone — whether they’re in finance or the arts — and is tied to her first requirement for success: don’t let fear of failure prevent you from taking risks. 

“Everyone fails in their personal and professional lives at some point… if you’re not failing enough, you’re not pushing it enough,” she says. “Failures are setbacks in the moment. We’re not surgeons, they’re not irreparable — they’re usually things that can be corrected, fixed and learned from.”