How Patricia McLeod turned corporate governance into a full-time job — even though she didn’t fit the typical board member profile.
The ex-lawyer and EMBA grad is following her passion.
By Hailey Eisen
The advice that Patricia McLeod likes to give — “Pick things you’re good at, because if you love what you’re doing enough you’ll find a path forward” — sums up her own journey over the past five years.
Patricia spent 23 years as a lawyer and executive in Calgary and Vancouver before making an unusual career pivot. Armed with an Executive MBA, plus years of legal, privacy, compliance and corporate responsibility experience, Patricia began to expand on her volunteer experience. She took board positions with organizations focusing on community and economic development, arts, innovation, and vulnerable women and families.
In 2015, she began to feel that her board work was more strategic than her job. The variety of challenges and opportunities was exciting. Patricia wondered if she could turn governance into her full-time career. She asked a handful of women directors for their opinions.
Their responses were not reassuring. “I ended up with a long list of reasons why I wasn’t likely to be successful in corporate governance,” she says. “They weren’t being negative, they were just coming from a different place — C-Suite executives who’d been specifically tapped for their board positions.”
As it was pointed out, Patricia wasn’t even 50, had never been a CEO, and wasn’t ready to retire. Plus, she had no experience in the oil and gas sector — a bit of a problem for someone wanting to serve on boards in Calgary. “I remember thinking: They’re right, but where am I in the board world? I’m the gap.”
Nevertheless, Patricia was undaunted.
Within six months, she secured her first paid governance position and within 18 months, she was appointed as Chair of the Board of Calgary Co-op, one of the largest retail cooperatives in North America with annual revenues of around $1.2 billion and 440,000 member-owners. In two years, she resigned from her general counsel role, had a full portfolio of board positions and was making more money than she’d earned in her previous job.
“I’m not a pioneer on boards because I’m a woman. Women on boards is now a much more well-known and supported concept. But I’m a pioneer because I treat my board work as a profession,” Patricia says.
And following her passion has made her happy.
“With board work, you’re doing strategy, leadership, issues management — all of which is so motivating to me,” she says. “And it’s a balancing act, like being a consultant.”
Today, Patricia sits on a wide cross-section of boards, including Calgary Co-op, the Beverage Container Management Board, Alberta Innovates, and the Calgary Film Centre.
“I’ve learned to describe myself not by what I do, but by how I can transfer my skills.”
She says her prior board roles with First Air and Air Inuit proved especially satisfying. Based in Quebec and Ontario, the airlines operate passenger, charter and cargo services in Nunavik and Nunavut. “This was the first time they’d opened up the organization to non-Inuit board members, and there was a great deal of learning on both sides,” Patricia says. During her term, First Air merged with another Inuit-owned airline and Patricia brought her experience in governance, legal and relationship-building to the merger process. “It was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had.”
But with no airline experience (or experience in many of the industries in which she now serves on boards), Patricia has had to market herself differently. “I’ve learned to describe myself not by what I do, but by how I can transfer my skills. For example, I worked in utilities, a highly regulated, high-hazard industry, which transferred nicely to the aviation industry.”
Patricia says she’s also needed a lot of self-confidence in applying for board positions — “for every ten interviews you’ll get one position” — and taking on a wide range of roles. She also needed to be willing to put her name forward for board leadership opportunities. She credits her Executive MBA with giving her the confidence to make the leap into governance and the success she’s having as a leader.
With an undergraduate degree in business, a law degree, and years of work, Patricia went back to school in 2009 to earn her EMBA at Smith School of Business. “I knew I was a strong lawyer but felt the MBA would give me the business credibility I was lacking.” With two young daughters at home and a full-time job, Patricia joined the EMBA program from Calgary, with the strong support of her company.
“The program not only helped me rethink the language of business writing, which was really important for me coming from a law background, it also put a huge emphasis on group work and leadership,” she recalls. “I literally use the skills from that program on a daily basis, when I’m chairing boards and leading groups, public speaking, leaning into difficult decisions and facing down big issues.”
Completing the EMBA, she says, made her courageous enough to step into governance and gave her the skills to feel comfortable doing so. But first, it gave her the confidence to put her hand up at AltaLink, where she worked, to take on different roles beyond her existing scope.
“Sometimes in an established career you are seen in a certain way, and you have to jar people out of that. You have to raise your hand and step outside of your comfort zone.”
And staying just beyond her comfort zone is what keeps Patricia engaged. “It reinvigorates me, this board work,” she says. “I was recently offered a prestigious role back in legal, and while I was tempted, I decided to be brave and continue on the path I’m on.”