Thinking of exporting? Three Canadian women business owners share details about their export journey.

When it comes to exporting, you don’t need to have a big business to benefit. From growing your customer base to creating new revenue streams and increasing resiliency, expanding to foreign markets can have a substantial positive impact—no matter your company size.    

To better understand the opportunity, we spoke with three small business founders—Muna Mohammed of Eight50 Coffee, Felicia Lekan-Salami of Milton Food Group, and Shivani Dhamija of Shivani’s Kitchen—about the benefits they’ve realized from exporting. 

Their journeys all started with the iLaunchHERproduct program. Developed by de Sedulous Women Leaders, an organization committed to empowering, mentoring, supporting, and educating immigrant women in management and entrepreneurship, Export Development Canada (EDC) was a sponsor of the 2021 year-long program. It was designed to help Black women, women of colour, and immigrant women entrepreneurs who are retail-ready receive the necessary training, support, and tools to connect with buyers and grow their business.

It’s just one way EDC is deepening its impact on inclusion, diversity, and equity through a dedicated strategy to further engage with women entrepreneurs who also identify with other dimensions of diversity—and who face even more barriers when scaling a business. 

Here’s what Muna, Felicia, and Shivani had to say about their exporting journey and the valuable insights they’ve gained from working with de Sedulous Women Leaders and EDC.

Muna Mohammed | Eight50 Coffee

Tell us about yourself and your business…

Eight50 Coffee is a purpose-driven coffee company with deep coffee roots. We named our business after the year 850 AD when coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia. To continue a family legacy in coffee and pay homage to my late grandfather, who was a coffee farmer, Eight50 Coffee was born in 2020.

After working in various organizations and leading marketing teams for 15 years, I decided to take a leap of faith and leverage my knowledge of coffee and expertise in marketing and branding to launch Eight50 Coffee. My passions include sharing ancient coffee traditions, discussing coffee’s origins, and working with coffee farmers and local artisans to create various sustainable coffee byproducts. 

From flexible subscription options to brewing method resources, we also provide an array of premium, functional, and meaningful home, lifestyle, and coffee equipment products—from specialty brewing tools to traditional Ethiopian coffee cups—to complete the home brewing experience. Our focus is to provide responsibly sourced specialty coffee from around the world, all locally roasted here in Ottawa, so customers can truly enjoy our single origin and unique blends at home.

 

How has exporting impacted your business, and what’s next for you?

Exporting allowed us to access more diverse business partners and also broaden our product offering. Exporting has also helped increase sales and volume which allowed us to work with larger manufacturing partners, resulting in a decrease in production costs. We’ve been fortunate enough to grow our business from online sales and move into retail stores, gaining the interest of large retailers in the last two years while also growing our business opportunities in the U.S. market. This shift has been a game changer in how our business has grown and will continue to scale.

Training sessions, business seminars, specialist trade services, and support provided by EDC and organizations like WeConnect International and the de Sedulous Women Leaders iLaunchHERproduct program have been critical. There were some great workshops we accessed while working with iLaunchHERproduct where we learned about tools of the trade. 

Accessing the resources and information EDC shared about international markets helped me  make more informed decisions when assessing to work in international markets. Learning about EDC services definitely gave me more confidence to access markets I had not previously considered due to risk and lack of knowledge around the benefits of exporting. There are a number of untapped international trade opportunities we’ll be exploring, and building strong export strategies for each of those markets will be key to our ongoing success.

 

What advice would you share with other small businesses looking to export?

Begin by connecting with resources available to businesses through organizations, like EDC and your local Board of Trade available in your city. Work on creating an international marketing plan with clear objectives, and seek advice and help to discuss the legal and tax implications of going global with professionals early on. 

The U.S. can be a great start for exporting, but being open-minded about exporting to markets overseas where your business may have additional potential for growth is key. By diversifying your reach outside of North American markets, the benefits can far outweigh the risks.

 

You were selected as one of the 25 iLaunchHERproduct entrepreneurs. What did you learn from the program?

The program challenges you to think in-depth about your business and capability when approaching large-scale suppliers. I learned about the power of collaboration between businesses as an entrepreneur, that you’re never too big or too successful to join new accelerators/business programs, and that there’s always something new to learn. 

This program also prepared me to successfully pitch to buyers in ways I hadn’t previously done, and it led to successful outcomes for our company. Additionally, there’s a unique dynamic created when you bring 25 different women with successful businesses together—don’t take any of it for granted. Programs, like this, allow you to build deep business connections and a strong network of support.

Felicia Lekan-Salami | Milton Food Group

Tell us about yourself and your business…

Milton Food Group is a Toronto-based health-conscious snacking company that I founded in 2020. I started with Milton Pies, offering sweet and savoury options using traditional family recipes. Later in the year, after struggling with an intolerance to gluten and dairy, I discovered Galt Bakery and their gluten-free, dairy-free, and additive-free cookies. I knew that I had found the right products to promote and added them to the Milton Food Group portfolio. We have grown more than 20% every year since our inception. 

Currently, with Galt Bakery, we have five cookie flavours and are rapidly innovating and increasing our product lines. This summer, we launched our super seed crackers in five flavours, debuting online at Costco. Our goal is to keep providing healthy snack options for our consumers nationally and internationally as we expand into the U.S. in October 2022 and launch our frozen pies as part of the Milton Pies brand in the spring of 2023.

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How has exporting impacted your business, and what’s next for you?

Exporting has opened us up to a new growth engine as we develop this avenue for revenue, and it has given us the opportunity to discover new consumer needs that are inspiring us to innovate for the years ahead and scale. We’ve experienced increased interest and uptake for our brands in not only Canada, but also the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and three African cities. What is critical to our ongoing success is increased production capacity to cater to our expansion goals and consumer demand across markets.

Through de Sedulous Women’s iLaunchHERproduct program, we were introduced to EDC’s exporting solutions, which we’re now exploring for further growth and expansion. One of the EDC webinars, How to build a winning export strategy, was very helpful as well; this helped identify the most effective and profitable exporting approaches to consider. 

 

What advice would you share with other small businesses looking to export?

Start by researching your product’s unique market needs and define how you can creatively cater to them. You can get feedback from potential customers—which will help you streamline profitable opportunities—by participating in sampling at trade shows, pop-ups, and store demonstrations. Lastly, be bold and confident enough to reach out to foreign channels, and when you do, be clear on what you can offer and how you can add value and diversity to their portfolios.

 

You were selected as one of the 25 iLaunchHERproduct entrepreneurs. What did you learn from the program?

Networking is gold—together, we all can achieve more and better! Also, I learned that rising by lifting others is possible.

Shivani Dhamija | Shivani’s Kitchen

Tell us about yourself and your business…

I moved to Nova Scotia in 2011 with a diploma in public relations from Fanshawe College and tried working at various media and PR companies, but had no luck. It was while working at the Canada Games Centre in Halifax, NS, that a friend of mine told me that a trucker friend of hers was missing home-cooked Indian food and wanted someone to make food for him to take on his trips. He was my first client. I created a Facebook page publicizing my meal delivery services and got a tremendous response—people tried my food and wanted to learn to cook it as well. I created cooking classes as the second offering in my business in 2015. 

Another opportunity presented itself after listening to the feedback from the cooking classes. People absolutely loved the classes, but found it difficult to find the spices to prepare the meals at home. Understanding the needs of my customers, we launched spice blends in 2016 and ready-to-use sauces in 2018. Just like our spice blends, our sauces are salt-free, gluten-free and have no preservatives. Now, my products can be found in The Real Canadian Superstore, Sobeys, online at Walmart, and on our website.

 

How has exporting impacted your business, and what’s next for you?

Many people, government agencies, and non-government organizations helped me and my business. Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI) assisted me, both by providing training and financial support. Additionally, the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) is a great resource for immigrants to build their life in the province; they’re so committed to their clients and helped start and grow my business. Now, I work with them as a mentor and try to do my social responsibility by supporting new immigrants, who have an eagerness for entrepreneurship—women, in particular. Additionally, I have had support from EDC. When I go out for conferences and meet any big retailers, I know I can tell them EDC is there to support me if they make this deal.

At Shivani’s Kitchen, we’re trying to export our products across the world. We just started by exporting to parts of the U.S. and Asia. Exporting means more revenue, but it also means more work on the marketing side. From my perspective, marketing and having adequate knowledge about our target market are essential to keep the business going smoothly.

 

What advice would you share with other small businesses looking to export?

It’s important to search and find your target market’s needs, recognize potential customers, and have an awareness of your competitors.

 

You were selected as one of the 25 iLaunchHERproduct entrepreneurs. What did you learn from the program?

Maintaining your ambition, self-confidence, and trusting yourself and your abilities. Also, believe that your dreams don’t have an expiration date.

I am a woman because I do womanhood.

By Junia Joplin

 

“To be fully alive is to act… I understand action to be any way that we can co-create reality with other beings and the Spirit… Action, like a sacrament, is the visible form of an invisible spirit, an outward manifestation of an inward power. But as we act, we not only express what is in us and give shape to the world, we also receive what is outside us, and reshape our inner selves.”

Parker Palmer

Upon reading those words as quoted in a bell hooks book last spring, you might say I better understood my identity. But I won’t say that, because I’m not using that word like I used to.

Like other trans women, I will point out I don’t identify as a woman. Rather, I am a woman. Somehow, rightly or wrongly, identity has come to connote a kind of disembodied, decontextualized totem of sorts.

Maybe it’s because of that tired, transphobic joke that goes “I identify as an attack helicopter.” Now, claiming to be an attack helicopter is absurd, but claiming identity is unrelated to experience, that it’s somehow akin to playing make-believe, is harmful. Language evolves; sometimes it evolves because of prolonged abuse.

I came out and socially transitioned more than two years ago. What I mean when I say that is, as of June 14, 2020, I stopped living as a man in every way I could conceive. To borrow Parker Palmer’s language, I made it known that I was dedicating my aliveness and action to my womanhood. From that day forward, I have been working full-time with pretty much everybody in my life to co-create this reality.

“Even though I didn’t understand it at the time, I’ve been doing womanhood throughout my life.”

Yes, my action aligned with an inward power. It was, and is, a visible form of an invisible spirit. And I guess you could call that inward power, that invisible spirit, identity. But the action  the outward, world-shaping expression of what’s inside — is important to me.

I am a woman because I do womanhood. And even though I didn’t understand it at the time, I’ve been doing womanhood throughout my life.

Like when I was a child everyone perceived as a boy, but who constantly dreamed of being a girl.

Or when I was a teenager trying on dresses in secret.

Or that awkward moment when a Cracker Barrel server asked me “Can I top off your coffee, ma’am?” even though I hadn’t transitioned yet.

Or those times when, even though I wasn’t ready to come out to everyone yet, a handful of trusted friends greeted me with an inconspicuous “Hi, June.”

Or even when, in my ignorance, I spent decades unhappily accepting I was just a man who wanted to be a woman, but who couldn’t possibly be trans.

In my limited but experienced perspective, it’s easy now to affirm that I am a woman because I do womanhood. And while universalizing one’s experience can be problematic, I will offer that a woman is a person who does womanhood.

I will say that a woman is someone who womans.

When someone suggests I’m not a real woman, or gets up in arms about my chromosomes, or refuses to get my name or pronouns right, or insists it’s wrong for my kids to call me mom — and each of these things has happened to me this year — it does sting a bit. There is no place for this type of transphobia in the world.

But then, it’s also hard to take this stuff seriously.

Because my youngest child isn’t going to stand in front of his class and say “Actually, everybody, that extra Mother’s Day card I was so proud to make back in May was just a lie.”

And because that friendly couple who said, “You remind us of our granddaughter” that time I visited an out-of-town church didn’t pause to add “on second thought, we should walk that back until we’ve seen your birth certificate.”

And because the hospital nurse who mistakenly paged me using the boy’s name on my outdated records didn’t say “What brings you in today, Mr. Joplin?” when I sat down at her window. Instead, it was “I’m sorry, miss, but you’re not the person I just paged.”

And because the people who find me attractive — be they straight men, gay women, bisexual or pansexual folks — aren’t checking me out with the type of microscope they’d need to see my chromosomes.

“Some women — cisgender and transgender alike — will have their womanhood disputed no matter how they woman. This happens all the time, sadly.”

I know there are lots of ways a woman can dedicate her action to womanhood. I know there are lots of ways for a woman to woman. I know some of those ways are more societally acceptable, and some less.

I know gender is neither as binary nor as fixed as many of us have been taught.

And I know, even if none of the experiences of womanhood I’ve recounted had happened, I’d still be a woman.

Because even though what you do is an important piece of who you are, it’s not the only piece. And because no two women woman exactly alike.

Some women — cisgender and transgender alike — will have their womanhood disputed no matter how they woman. This happens all the time, sadly.

Sometimes it happens when a woman has broader-than-expected shoulders or shorter-than-expected hair. Sometimes it happens when a woman demonstrates assertiveness or strength. Sometimes it happens when a woman hasn’t transitioned as fully as she wants to, or as fully as others expect her to.

Not every woman can count on society’s help in rightly co-creating her reality. But when this happens, it’s not a failure at womanhood — it’s a failure of society.

I understand a woman to be a person who womans. Womanhood isn’t some academic tenet or philosophical kernel. It’s not an ethereal, imbued, deterministic spark. It’s not even a biological category — not exclusively, anyway. Womanhood is simply what women do.

Womanhood is what I do. I’m grateful — and let’s face it, privileged — to report that it is what my world cooperates with me in doing. It is a reality every single person in my life — except a few who are devoted to hateful, ignorant ideology — joins me in co-creating.

This longer-than-I-expected article notwithstanding, I don’t really want to dedicate much of my energy to elaborating on my womanhood. I guess I’m just too caught up in doing womanhood to care about debating womanhood.

To borrow words from that famous quote by that famous dancer Isadora Duncan, I’m not going to explain the dance; I’m just going to dance the dance.

Hey Siri… play Lizzo.

Junia Joplin

Junia Joplin

Junia Joplin (she/her) spent most of the first year of Covid speaking to faith communities around the world about authenticity, grace, and welcome. In March 2021, she joined the clergy team at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto – a vibrant, inclusive, and progressive faith community and human rights church. Junia was recognized among WOI’s Top 25 Women of Influence in 2021, and she is a past recipient of the Canada 150 Leadership award. A stirring communicator, Junia draws from her own experiences of vulnerability, perseverance, and joy to inspire others to take their next step of faith. She loves playing a good tune on her banjo, reading poetry, and waking up early enough to watch the sunrise.

Isabelle inherited part of the family business at 19 — here’s how she’s set herself up for the future.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

A trained accountant, Isabelle is someone who understood the value of money at a young age. 

As a child, she watched her father manage a successful tool manufacturing business for the woodworking industry and often witnessed conversations about sales, costs, and the risks of being an entrepreneur. The exposure to certain business operations helped Isabelle and her brother run the company after their father unexpectedly passed away when she was just 19. 

But even with her knowledge of budgets, balance sheets, and a wealth of support from family members and business advisors, when it came time to sell the family’s company after 10 years of running it, she realized she needed some expert-level help. 

“Accountant and financial advisor are two very different jobs,” Isabelle says. “With the sale of the company, my financial focus shifted away from making decisions for the business toward investing in my personal and familial future outcomes.” 

She was introduced to Catherine Laurin, CFA, Senior Portfolio Manager and Investment Advisor with BMO, by a family member. The two started talking about Isabelle’s situation and goals and began a trusted money management partnership that has lasted over a decade. 

Catherine’s first step in helping Isabelle was to establish a financial plan that would meet her overall objectives and needs. “We put in place planning strategies that would protect and maximize her wealth on an after-tax basis,” explains Catherine. She also offered counsel on how to best weather turbulent financial storms. “Staying the course has served Isabelle well,” she says. 

“Catherine is very frank with me,” Isabelle says, “and she needs to be. If something isn’t working in the short-term then I know she’ll tell me. We have chemistry and I’m at ease when talking to her about my dreams and aspirations. There’s trust, and over time, our professional relationship has become a personal one, too. She’s gotten to know my kids.”

“You need to properly understand what’s happening. Understanding will lead to trust, which is key to long-term success.”

Catherine says that the relationship between an advisor and their client is a partnership. “It’s important you find a person that has the competence to address your needs and support you.”

She also notes that a client should feel comfortable asking their advisor questions. “These should be welcomed. You need to properly understand what’s happening. Understanding will lead to trust, which is key to long-term success.”

Today, Isabelle says she’s working with Catherine to achieve her long-term goals and relies on a variety of BMO resources — like investment management services — to facilitate the growth of her portfolio. 

With many more work years ahead of her, she is hoping to focus on accomplishing something that makes a difference. Longer-term, her aim is to ensure her family is taken care of. That includes educating her children on how to make their own financial decisions by introducing them to money management, and specifically the approach she’s learned by working with BMO. 

“Through my experience with BMO, I’ve been introduced to a different way of managing my money. It’s a holistic investment approach, and it differs from traditional portfolio management where you get reports every few months from someone at an investment firm,” Isabelle adds. “Here, you’re more integrated into the process and work with a team to develop the best strategy to approach your finances.” 

Catherine says many people may feel reluctant to reach out to someone for financial advice after a life-changing circumstance (be that a business sale, divorce, or the loss of a job), but says there’s no need to feel overwhelmed because she and other BMO advisors are there to help. 

“To be supported and guided through this process can really lift a lot of pressure on an individual going through a difficult time,” she notes. “To know you are not alone and will be walked through the process step-by-step usually helps lift a tremendous amount of pressure. We want to be in the position to provide unbiased advice to our clients to meet their needs.”

Struggling to demonstrate your value as a board member? Develop your readiness for a crisis.

By Kristi Honey

 

On May 21, 2022, a devastating tornado touched down in the Township of Uxbridge in Ontario, with wind speeds capable of downing trees, toppling power lines, and tearing roofs off buildings. Within minutes, the Township’s Emergency Operations Centre was activated, putting into effect plans that we had practiced only weeks previously. All our emergency preparedness work allowed the municipality’s senior staff and council to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Everyone knew their roles, and our approach to communications was aligned with our practiced plans.

We are fortunate that we rarely have to face an emergency at an organizational level. But when it happens, the most effective responses are from organizations whose senior leadership and board have planned for the crisis, providing a clear understanding of the organization’s role and each individual role within the emergency response. 

As a board member, being asked to step up in an emergency and put your plans and preparations into effect can be a fulfilling part of your journey on a board, one that allows you to develop and demonstrate leadership. But before a crisis happens, there’s also an opportunity to develop and demonstrate your value as a board member, through a commitment to readiness — knowing your role in the event of an emergency, understanding the organization’s enterprise risks and response plans, and going the extra mile to help optimize both.

As an experienced board chair, I’ve spent years figuring out that extra mile. My goal now is to help other women compress the learning curve (from getting on a board to succeeding once there). If you want to better understand how you can practice good governance to optimize your and your organization’s readiness for a crisis — and quickly demonstrate your value to the board — read on for my best advice. 

Know your board, know your role.

First, take the time to understand your board, and your role as a board member. You should have clarity on your board’s model is it an advisory board, an elected board (or council), a not for profit, or a corporate board? Also, what governance model has been adopted is it a traditional, hybrid, or policy-based governance board? 

To learn this, thoroughly read the board’s by-laws, committee structures and mandates, and the boardroom rules of order.  Be sure you are familiar with the board’s Directors & Officers (D&Os) insurance and indemnification agreements, to limit your personal liability. Knowing your role is essential to good governance. If you lack governance experience, seek formal education such as the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) Director’s Education Program, and Women Get On Board.

At the Township of Uxbridge, our council orientation is essential to onboarding new members.  Further, our council is governed by the Municipal Act. Ongoing annual training is essential to ensuring our council members understand their roles and the segregation of duties between staff and the mayor and council during regular operations, and how authorities change when we declare a state of emergency.

Understand your organization and its approach in a crisis.

Success in your board journey requires a solid understanding of your role and the organization. Do you know the organization’s vision, mission, and values? Have you read their annual report and strategic plan? Do you understand the organization’s financial position? Are you current on competition and industry drivers that need to be addressed in the strategic plan? These are all essential to your onboarding journey.  

To become an effective contributor, be sure you go beyond the basics and seek to understand the organization’s:

  • Enterprise Risk Management Framework & Ongoing Monitoring:  Review the board work plan and be sure it includes enterprise risk assessments and reporting to the board. Understand what committee is responsible for ongoing monitoring and board reporting. As a board, are you clear on what risks the organization has mitigated, outsourced, insured, or accepted? What level of risks are reported to the board, and what triggers a requirement for board reporting when incidents occur?
  • Crisis Communications: Who can speak on behalf of the board (hint: the Chair!)? Does the organization have a communications plan with pre-written responses approved by legal counsel or insurer to address foreseeable controversies or crises? Who is monitoring what is being reported about your organization on various forms of media?  Are tools in place to monitor the sentiment of your brand? How and when are these regularly reported to the board?
  • Crisis & Disaster Preparedness Scenarios and Tabletop Exercises: Ensure role clarity ahead of a crisis. Does your organization conduct scenarios or tabletop exercises for emergency preparedness, if so, what role can the board play to support readiness? Be clear on your role in a crisis or emergency (if any). A board should contemplate issues that might come to the board for decisions ahead of an emergency, and have contemplated ramifications (legal or insurance, reputational risk, communications) ahead of an emergency. You don’t want the first conversation on critical issues — such as the board’s position on paying ransomware — to be during a crisis. Good planning, including scenarios and tabletop exercises that involve the board, ensure better focus during a real event. 

Be sure the Board Chair is familiar with the skills and experience you can contribute at the committee or board level, and particularly what expertise the organization may want to rely upon during an emergency or crisis.

During our Township of Uxbridge weather emergency, I was able to pull in key capabilities of our councillors to help us respond. We have a comprehensive emergency response plan, pre-written crisis communications, and had recently (only two weeks before) conducted additional refresher training. This ensured we could focus on what was most important in our response. We were able to work with the local paper, the COSMOS, to have an early edition printed and distributed to over 8000 homes to get critical information into the hands of our residents at a time when the local radio station was down, and many of our residents were entirely without power, internet, or phone systems.

Prioritize relationship building.

Demonstrating you’ve arrived at the boardroom table well prepared — understanding the organization, your role, good governance principles, and of course, that you have thoroughly read the agenda materials and actively listen, will help you build credibility with your boardroom peers quickly. 

I have had the opportunity to mentor several new directors during my tenure as chair of multiple boards. While it does involve an investment of time, it builds relationships and creates a safe space for new directors to ask questions, seek guidance, and find their voice faster at the table. It accelerates their inclusion and ability to fully contribute to the team. 

Relationships are at the heart of our ability to contribute effectively, particularly in times of crisis:

  • Build relationships with the Chair, other board members, and senior management.  
  • Seek clarity on the organization’s key vendors on contract for emergency preparedness.  Does the organization have contracts with the expertise required under a number of foreseeable scenarios such as legal, insurance, negotiators, public relations and crisis management teams? 
  • Make sure the board knows your area of expertise and how they can lean on you to support board goals or in an emergency (cyber security, legal, human resources, public relations, government lobbying).
  • Seek a mentor and offer to be a mentor in an area where you have expertise. 

Relationship building means taking the time to learn, socialize and network together. Take the time to arrive early to board and committee meetings — getting to genuinely know your boardroom peers makes a difference. Attend the social events. Attend the optional learning or educational sessions, and facility tours. Let people know who you are and what expertise you can offer.  

Knowing your board, your role, and your organization is essential to onboarding to a new board.  Building relationships ahead of an emergency or crisis dramatically improves an organization’s ability to respond. In fact, aside from our extensive emergency planning, our rapport was the only thing that truly mattered when the Township of Uxbridge put a call out during our community’s most dire hours of need. The tremendous response ensured no loss of life, the safety and security of all, and a community united.

 

Kristi Honey

Kristi Honey

Kristi Honey is the Chief Administrator for the Township of Uxbridge and a governor on the Trent University Board. She is the former Chairperson of the Durham College Board of Governors and College Employers Council Board. Kristi built and sold several tech start-ups, and is a globally recognized cyber security, risk management, and governance expert. Kristi is a champion for human rights, the environment, and the economic empowerment of women and communities.

How to combat long-term exhaustion.

By Rumeet Billan, Ph.D.

 

For many of us, stress became a lifestyle. Beyond the glamourization of hustle culture, society normalized the body’s warning signals as the price you pay to be successful and we accepted it as a collective.

But then we hit our tipping point, and no you’re not imagining it. Something is different. People are more irritable. Your colleagues are less conversational — even more so if they were forced back into the office. You may have even noticed a change in your ability to concentrate, stay focused or complete a task. Believe me, you are not alone in this. According to a recent poll by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 48 per cent of moms are reaching their breaking point, and a staggering 67 per cent said they were concerned about their mental and physical health. I can raise my hand and say that I fell into this category the past few months, which necessitated a break.

These are the consequences of a society stretched too thin, and the behavioral changes we are witnessing are to be expected in the third year of the pandemic. Stress moved into exhaustion, and we’re feeling it as a collective. According to the World Health Organization, symptoms of exhaustion costs the global economy $1 trillion dollars each year. It’s time to change that.

Stress or Exhaustion?

First, what is exhaustion, and how is it different from the daily stress we’ve become so accustomed to? For starters, stress is generally directed at an event or a deadline. As a result, there’s a foreseeable end where life can return to our routines. However, with exhaustion, the symptoms are more subtle, progress gradually and have a cumulative impact on our well-being. Exhaustion is the product of months, or perhaps years of compounded stress.

According to health professionals, symptoms of exhaustion may include:

  • Depression
  • Difficult concentrating
  • Low motivation
  • Nervousness or general anxiety
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stiff shoulders
  • Whole-body tiredness
  • Insomnia
  • Alienation

Exhaustion also has a longer recovery time. When I went on my break with my son, I slept 30+ hours in the first three days. I didn’t even know I needed that. Psychologists suggest it may take up to five years to heal all exhaustion-related symptoms. The key to combating the triggers and environments that lead to burnout and exhaustion is prevention. It starts with identifying the causes and implementing better systems. Something I am working on personally, and really thinking about professionally.

Building Better Work Environments

For employers, creating a healthy work environment starts with acknowledging all the various ways the last three years have affected their team. It’s also understanding that we may have no idea what someone on our team has experienced during that time. Your colleagues have experienced loss in its varying forms – loss of loved ones, loss of time, certainty, opportunities, and in some cases perhaps a loss of identity. Ignoring that is not an option. Here’s are some suggestions for employers:

  • Get to know your employees again. Ask questions, but then (actually) listen. Ample studies show that employees are happier in workplaces where they feel included, supported and have a sense of belonging. Research also shows that 77 per cent of employees have suffered from ‘zoom fatigue’ since the beginning of the pandemic. Take the time to have conversations with individual team members and facilitate opportunities for co-workers to get to get to know one another again. We’ve gone through a lot.
  • Be flexible. After 2+ years of working remotely for most of us, being back in the office can be a big adjustment. While some employees may be excited to be back in a structured space, others are anxious. Be considerate.
  • Reduce workplace stress. There is so much to say about this, and the study I co-led on Happiness at Work in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association, showed that we needed to reduce workplace stress even before the pandemic. We needed to adjust workloads before the pandemic, and this still applies today. A few practices employers can implement include: making sure employees are taking regular breaks (and their full lunch breaks), encouraging taking time off, and not expecting responses to emails/messages after work hours.

The consequences of ignoring the exhaustion that is plaguing many right now is dire. Research shows that the effects are cumulative. It doesn’t matter if an employee’s stressors are occurring outside of the workplace, they carry it with them regardless of its source and it shows up in how we are able show up each day. That means employees are carrying the stress of the past 2+ years into the office with them, especially if we haven’t had the opportunity to process what we’ve experienced. Compassionate and empathetic leadership is required, and the pandemic has shown us there are multiple ways of doing things. That’s a lesson I believe we can continue to apply as we continue to tackle exhaustion in the workplace.

Rumeet Billan, Ph.D.

Rumeet Billan, Ph.D.

Dr. Rumeet Billan completed her PhD at the University of Toronto and has designed award-winning programs, courses, and training sessions across industries and sectors. She led the groundbreaking national research study on Tall Poppy Syndrome which reveals the impact of the silent systemic syndrome on women in the workplace. In 2020, she co-led the Canadian Happiness at Work study, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association. Named one of Canada’s Top 100 Health Leaders in 2021, Canada’s Top 10 Power Women in 2020, and twice named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, she serves on the Board of Directors of CODE and Fora Network.

On December 1, 2022, Rumeet will be taking the helm of Women of Influence as CEO and owner, and she's looking forward to leading the organization into its next chapter.

An emergency pushed this sole breadwinner to seek financial advice — here’s what she learned.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

Like many of us, Heather, an executive at an insurance and financial institution, was raised to keep financial discussions in the vault. Her mother and father are in their late-80s and -90s and kept financial matters private. 

Then her mother, the manager of the household finances, had a stroke. Heather was left scrambling to untangle a complex web of puzzle pieces — from powers of attorney impacts to bill payments and bank statements — that needed to come together quickly.

The situation was amplified given that Heather is a longstanding single parent to twins and was in the middle of contemplating a career change. 

“I realized if something were to happen to me, I wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of and the details were communicated to my children,” Heather says. “I had to work with someone to get everything organized.” 

Enter Jamie Keenan, a Wealth Advisor and Portfolio Manager at BMO. Heather was introduced to her through friends at the International Women’s Forum. 

“Heather is an incredibly successful professional who climbed the corporate ladder while raising twins on her own,” says Jamie. “I noticed from the get-go she was very disciplined in her savings and budgeting approach. Despite being diligent, Heather needed advice on how to put the pieces of her financial puzzle together.” Her estate plan was also out of date — something that Jamie says is very common — and it made sense given all of her financial obligations at the time. 

Together, Heather and Jamie worked to “peel back the onion layers” of Heather’s finances. They spoke candidly about what was needed for Heather to feel more organized with managing her money and Jamie asked her questions about what she wanted for her next chapters in life beyond working. From there, they laid the foundation and set a path that would allow Heather to accomplish all she wanted to do smartly and in a financially safe way. 

“We completed a comprehensive financial plan so she could maintain choice, oversight, and independence on a potential career change and her eventual retirement. Our action items were clear and achievable.” 

“My first goal with Heather was to get a sense of her financial situation. We completed a comprehensive financial plan so she could maintain choice, oversight, and independence on a potential career change and her eventual retirement,” says Jamie. “Our action items were clear and achievable.” 

One goal, for example, was for Heather to update her will and powers of attorney. Through seeking advice, listening to alternatives, and creating her financial framework, it showed Heather she could maintain autonomy and get things done. 

Slowly and surely, Heather says she started to feel more confident in her financial plans. She also started to have open discussions with her kids about money and what that meant for them. 

Today, she says she has an annual “meeting” with her twins where she walks them through everything from her assets to her will. She’s also introduced them to Jamie.

“Single women have the autonomy to make their own financial decisions. When you don’t have to worry about a partner who has different spending or savings goals, you can create your own financial destiny. It sounds dreamy, right?” says Jamie. 

The only problem is when her clients put the financial needs of others before their own — which is very common — they tend to shoulder too much. They need to ask for help and do as Heather has done: surround themselves with a solid “board of directors” to guide them through must-have legal and financial documents. Jamie was in full support to work with Heather’s accountant and helped her secure a strong estate lawyer.

“Gather the courage to ask for help and make a business decision like you would anything else. It will give you that peace of mind and alternatives. Why wouldn’t you have someone join your team?”

“Jamie recognized it was hard for me to let go because I was accustomed to making all the decisions as the single point of accountability in our family,” Heather says, adding that it took time, but they eventually built the trust required for her to embrace the financial planning process. “Gather the courage to ask for help and make a business decision like you would anything else. It will give you that peace of mind and alternatives. Why wouldn’t you have someone join your team?”

She adds: “You can’t go back, but I wish I had met Jamie sooner. I wish I had had guidance when I was making money decisions earlier in my career — the tax implications and what things are good investments. I also wish I had changed the status quo and talked more about money with my family.”

Heather says she’s still in chapter one of her financial plan. Her long-term goals include taking care of her elderly parents and being in a position to help her kids with housing. She’d also like to travel, a personal passion.

Looking back on her financial journey, she offers two final bits of advice. 

First, interview a couple different advisors before you settle on one. She knew Jamie was “it” when their convo left her feeling like she “walked into the perfect home while house hunting.” Jamie also asked questions that “provoked some thinking” Heather hadn’t thought of.

Second, it’s never too late to make sense of your finances. “You can do things the ‘right’ way. You need to ask for help — and to be open to support. And you need to start talking openly about your finances with the right people. You can chart your own course.”

Struggling with difficult conversations? Here’s how to ease the discomfort.

Difficult Conversation

By Amanda Hudson

Having worked with many women business leaders while running A Modern Way to Work these past eight years, one thing is abundantly clear: we don’t love having difficult conversations. Not only would most of us do anything to avoid them, those who claim to do them well generally take an “I just tell it like it is” approach that doesn’t always get them the outcomes they’re after.

It’s tough to feel in control of your business when struggling to carry out difficult conversations while keeping them productive. So, if your aim is to become a more effective business leader, it’s worth taking a closer look at why some discussions are so difficult and what you can do to ease the discomfort they cause.

Why do we find certain conversations so difficult? 

Most difficult conversations are the result of one person wanting another person to change. Not only can it be tricky to handle such a proposition diplomatically, it almost always involves a breakdown in trust. This can make the stakes for getting the conversation right—and not breaking the relationship down even further—feel exceptionally high. 

Many of the women I work with also identify as ‘people pleasers’ who don’t like the idea of upsetting others. Mix all these factors together and it’s easy to see why a simple ask that someone improve their performance can turn into a difficult conversation pretty quickly.  

Is there a legitimate way to avoid having difficult conversations?

It’s not uncommon to avoid addressing an issue we have with another person the first time it happens. In fact, many of us secretly hope that by ignoring a certain situation, it will end up resolving itself. What happens in most cases, however, is that the issue persists while the conversation required to address it becomes increasingly difficult.

There is one legitimate ‘hack’ business owners and leaders can use to avoid having a difficult conversation that doesn’t involve ignoring the issue. The next time you’re faced with an uncomfortable discussion, try assuming the behaviour you want the other person to change is completely your fault. 

As leaders, it’s easy to blame others for outcomes we don’t like or want. By accepting 100% responsibility for those outcomes instead, you’ll likely discover that shifting some of your own behaviours will get you closer to the results you’re looking for. 

3 Tips for tackling difficult conversations you can’t avoid.

If you’ve determined that a particular difficult conversation is unavoidable, here are a few strategies for making your discussion more rewarding.

  1. Know your purpose. Many people initiate a difficult conversation because they’re unhappy or annoyed with someone and want an opportunity to air their grievances. It’s important that you only enter into a difficult conversation when you’re clear on its purpose and what you want to achieve.

You’ll know you’ve identified your purpose when you can articulate what you want the other person to change in a single sentence. If your ask is unclear, they’ll never be able to meet it, and your conversation will likely only increase any tension or frustration. 

  1. Focus on gathering—not giving—information. When we initiate a difficult conversation, it’s usually because we have a lot on our minds that we want to share. But what if you entered the conversation from a different place? 

You could, for example, assume the other person wants to do a good job—rather than telling them how they aren’t living up to your expectations— and acknowledge that it’s your role to find out what’s getting in their way. Then you could make it a point to gather great information by asking open-ended questions, listening—and then listening some more. 

The truth is that the better you can understand the other person’s situation and perspective, the more likely you are to craft your message in a way that will resonate with them.   

  1. Drop your assumptions. Most of us are very good at telling ourselves stories about why someone is acting a certain way—particularly when it’s not the way we want them to be acting! One of the many things we assume about other people’s distressing behaviour, in fact, is that it’s meant to be a personal attack. 

Taking the time to identify, label, and then drop your assumptions before entering into a difficult conversation will give you an unfiltered view of what’s really going on. This open-mindedness will serve you better in turn by making it easier to see potential pathways to achieving the outcome you want.

There will always be situations where having a difficult conversation can’t be avoided. If, however, you find yourself having the same discussion with someone over and over, there’s a good chance you’re not having the real conversation that will help get the issue resolved. 

In any difficult conversation, the key to communicating well is ensuring your message is clearly understood while remaining empathetic to the receiver. To help steer ritualistic exchanges in a more productive direction, make sure you go into every difficult conversation prepared to listen and armed with open-ended questions that will help the other person feel heard and acknowledged.

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson is the founder of A Modern Way to Work, an HR consultancy and antidote to outdated HR that delivers forward-thinking recruitment services, manager training and fractional HR. She and her team are also the creators of the Difficult Conversations Card Deck, a leadership tool for navigating tough conversations with ease.

Years of deceit left Dana in extreme financial trouble — here’s how she worked through it.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

What do you do when you realize the person managing your company’s finances has been lying to you? Worse yet, what do you do when that person is your spouse and they’ve also been unfaithful?

That’s what happened to Dana, VP of business development at a tech company, on Easter weekend four years ago. Overnight, she became the person responsible for cleaning up a very sticky financial situation — her husband hadn’t filed her business’ taxes for several years, and she owed upwards of six figures to Revenue Canada. She also became the sole provider for two kids.

“It was a long weekend, so I gave myself a few days and allowed myself to cry and drink wine, then I realized I had to get going,” Dana says. “For the first month, I focused on getting my affairs in order: new wills, insurance beneficiaries, etc. Then, I moved to the finances. I met with my accountant and he referred me to John.”

Dana connected with John Sacke, an Investment Advisor and Portfolio Manager with BMO. His focus is on helping women step into their own as money managers.

“Dana had a lot of concerns with respect to paying her bills and keeping current with her finances. She was living with a lot of uncertainty as a result,” John says. “I have numerous clients going through marital discord. The notion of taking baby steps is very important. I told her to expect emotional turbulence.” 

Dana says she and John worked together to figure out a step-by-step plan for her to not only repay the debts she inherited as a result of her marital situation, but also how to ensure she and her kids were taken care of long-term. 

“The way he went about asking me what I wanted to achieve short- and long-term was never patronizing. He helped me build a new strategy for a way forward based on my goals.” 

Today, through the analysis and the work they did as a team, Dana is months away from paying everything she owes in taxes and has been able to provide for both of her kids, helping her daughter achieve her dream of becoming a skateboarder with Team Canada and assisting her son in a big move to New Brunswick with his girlfriend for new jobs. She now has a holistic tax strategy that’s setting her and her family up for success. 

“The way he went about asking me what I wanted to achieve short- and long-term was never patronizing,” she says. “He helped me build a new strategy for a way forward based on my goals.” 

Naturally, that doesn’t mean the process was always easy.

Dana admits to being frustrated over putting too much trust in her ex-husband and for how long it took to reset her finances; John says he had to gently remind her to trust the BMO process — things take time, but they work out.

“First, I always suggest we do a financial plan, which is a core part of my services. Without cost or obligation, it sets out the vulnerabilities in one’s financial tapestry,” says John of the steps he uses when dealing with these kinds of situations and new clients. “Second, I’m a big believer in consolidation, meaning the less accounts one has, the better one can plan a strategy.” Lastly, he counsels clients to take a holistic look at their finances and to think about what that means long-term.

Dana now says she wouldn’t have been able to survive the past few years if she hadn’t been open to accepting help and finding some space to re-evaluate her life.

“Nobody anticipates that this will happen. Taking steps doesn’t make you disloyal — it makes you smart.”

“I don’t think anyone gets married thinking they’ll get divorced. You have a vision and goals and you picture yourselves in rocking chairs on the porch. When that’s taken out from under you, you need to take time to think about what you want,” she says. “When things exploded, I remember sitting there wondering what I wanted. I was so caught up in bills and working and I didn’t take enough time to take a breath and say, ‘this is your new reality. What do you want to do, where do you want to live, work, and do with your personal time?’”

To help, she began journaling, keeping a good journal for her wins and triumphs and a bad one that she now describes as an “outpouring of feelings and raging on paper.” “Both journals allowed me to get things out of my head and helped me remember and celebrate the wins,” Dana says.

Dana says her biggest learning and piece of advice is to get on top of your finances early, regardless of your marital situation. 

“You should know what you need to do in any situation. If you get an inheritance from your parents, keep it in your name because then it doesn’t become co-mingled with your partner’s finances,” she says. “Literacy and knowing your rights in comparison to your obligations is key.” 

She adds: “Nobody anticipates that this will happen. Taking steps doesn’t make you disloyal — it makes you smart. I wish I had taken a better beat and understood things from the outset. But hindsight is what it is. I’m so lucky I am where I am now. I’ve moved on and am looking forward to what’s next.”

Seven tips to prepare for and get the most out of your professional portrait.

By Kathryn Hollinrake | Photos by Kathryn Hollinrake

As a professional photographer, I’ve learned there are so many little things that can impact the success of a portrait. Fortunately, some of these things are fully in your control. 

No, I don’t mean with Photoshop. It’s true almost anything can be fixed in post-production — with a certain budget. Not only is that budget rarely available for difficult problems in corporate portrait-land (my current specialty), I think it’s a waste of time and money to fix something that could have been avoided in the first place with some care and planning. 

To help you prepare for and get the most out of a professional portrait session, I’m sharing guidelines based on what I’ve encountered over 25+ years as a photographer and retoucher. I am sure some will seem, and in fact are, relevant only to some — and I hope nobody feels excluded or offended. (If you’d like a broader range of tips, you can find them on my LinkedIn and my blog.) 

I also know, from the many times I’ve been the one in the photo, that it’s not easy to just wear the right clothes, have the perfect hair and makeup, and project nothing but confidence with your pose. But with a bit of prep (and help from the right photographer) getting a shot you want to share with the world is possible. I know you will look great for your next shoot — especially if you follow all of my suggestions!

Tip #1: Breathe

Once you arrive at your photo session, breathe. Why would I say this? Because people filled with dread hold their breath. I work with people all the time who come to portrait shoots geared up for what they anticipate will be a fairly short but painful nightmare, “knowing” they are unphotogenic and they will probably hate the results. Determined to get this thing over with (and make it count!), they stop breathing.

Remember it’s your photographer’s job to help you find your way through and past this first and very real obstacle. I encourage you to embrace the idea that you are in good hands, take a deep breath or twenty, and keep breathing. Slow down, listen, and trust. When people stop breathing they tend to tense up, their shoulders go up, their neck tendons flex, and they positively, silently scream “uncomfortable!” Nothing can suck the power out of a portrait faster than the appearance of overwhelming and unmitigable discomfort. 

Tip #2: If you wear a suit, make sure that it fits. 

A portrait in which the suit fits perfectly will outshine a portrait featuring a lumpy suit every time. This might seem obvious, but for many of us it can be incredibly difficult to find a jacket that doesn’t bunch and pull in various spots. I have photographed myself to illustrate blog posts and articles for years now, and I always start with a jacket I’m pretty sure fits fine — but often discover it does something in a photograph that I consider distracting and unacceptably imperfect. You can try posing and pinning to mitigate wrinkles, but sometimes it is impossible to get rid of them. They make successful retouching too difficult and time consuming to be practical, especially if the suit fabric is textured or patterned.  

How do you know if it fits? Make sure you can comfortably do up a button. You will look more polished and pulled together with a neatly closed jacket. You will feel more confident if you are comfortable and you know you look good. And if your portrait is cropped as a head and shoulders image, your face will be nicely framed by the ‘v’ of the neckline. If you are not sure what works best, and time allows, bring options for your shoot. 

Tip #3: Higher necklines are always the safer option.  

Ideally a neckline will be fully contained within the frame of a portrait. This way your wardrobe helps to frame your face and the viewers eyes aren’t pulled off the edge of the frame. It is not terribly unusual to find that the neckline of a top that seems business appropriate in real life disappears off the bottom edge of a typical head and shoulders portrait crop. This can catch people by surprise, as can the apparent disappearance of the top under a jacket when that jacket is closed; we generally want the jacket closed to make a nice ‘v’ to frame the face. 

My advice is to play it safe and opt for a higher neckline, and remember, you can think beyond tops. If you have a dress that works — even if it’s one you’d never wear to work — try wearing that. With a head and shoulders portrait nobody cares what’s going on below the crop. 

Tip #4: Wear long sleeves for head and shoulders portraits.

If you plan to wear a dress or top without a jacket, avoid short sleeves for head and shoulders portraits. Why? The crop is probably going to be somewhere above your elbow. As such, it can be a bit distracting for viewers if the bottom left and right corners feature the skin of your arms, especially if your skin is noticeably lighter or darker than your clothing. 

As for sleeveless dresses or tops, it’s pretty universally advised to avoid them for business portraits. Some companies’ corporate photo guidelines even expressly forbid them. Long sleeves will almost always be the most flattering and most professional looking option. 

Tip #5: Work with a professional makeup artist.

There are typically three options for portrait makeup: DIY (free), department store makeup counter (token product purchase), and professional makeup artist (professional fee). Whichever option your budget allows, remember what you are trying to do: Show your best authentic self to the world, refreshed and maybe a bit enhanced. You don’t want to end up looking unrecognizable. 

In my experience, a professional is worth the investment to meet that goal. A good make-up artist (paired with good moisturizer and communication!) can help you show up as your best self while still looking like yourself. That means wearing just the right amount of make-up for you, wherever that is on the spectrum — from full glam to practically none. 

With the same goal of authenticity in mind, try to avoid getting a haircut from a new stylist right before you get a new portrait done. A professional make-up artist may be able to rescue you, but if not, I think most people know the potential for distress and disappointment here. I have seen it! 

Tip #6: Keep jewellery simple.

Unless you are a jeweller looking to advertise your work via your business portrait, then the general guideline is to stick to more understated jewellery. I acknowledge the welcome movement towards people bringing their whole, unique, authentic selves to work, personal style and all. But the most consistently you part of you is your face. So to a large extent that’s where you want people’s focus. The added advantage of wearing subtler jewellery is that it will be less likely to date your portrait when styles change. While Fashion magazine’s May 2022 issue said that “statement necklaces are back in style,” I suggest that this be considered less relevant to us in business portrait world. Avoiding wearing trendy jewellery or wardrobe is one good way to stave off having to do a new professional portrait every year.

Tip #7: Lean in. 

Yes, this one’s really simple. Particularly when someone is really not excited or is, more accurately, filled with dread at the idea of being photographed, but is also committed to doing their best to get through it. Their default posture can be rigid, back straight up and down, chin sucked in, at attention! But this stance can make people look timid, uptight, and freaked out. You may be all these things, but you don’t want to look like it!

You can make great headway towards appearing to be the total opposite by merely leaning in. You want to look relaxed, confident, and engaged, and step one to appearing to be those things is a bit of a tilt forward, back still straight, shoulders back, hinging from the hips, allowing the chin to come forward a wee bit so the angles of your jawline will be nicely defined above your tension-free and extra-chinless neck.

Tip #7: Lean in. 

Yes, this one’s really simple. Particularly when someone is really not excited or is, more accurately, filled with dread at the idea of being photographed, but is also committed to doing their best to get through it. Their default posture can be rigid, back straight up and down, chin sucked in, at attention! But this stance can make people look timid, uptight, and freaked out. You may be all these things, but you don’t want to look like it!

You can make great headway towards appearing to be the total opposite by merely leaning in. You want to look relaxed, confident, and engaged, and step one to appearing to be those things is a bit of a tilt forward, back still straight, shoulders back, hinging from the hips, allowing the chin to come forward a wee bit so the angles of your jawline will be nicely defined above your tension-free and extra-chinless neck.

Kathryn Hollinrake

Kathryn Hollinrake

Kathryn Hollinrake has been “making people and things look pretty” as a professional photographer for over twenty-five years after graduating at the top of her class with a Bachelor of Technology in photography from TMU (then Ryerson). During her long and diverse career she worked briefly for Kodak, then started her business as a commercial and editorial photographer shooting everything from food to dogs to people, shot weddings, produced and exhibited fine art, acted in TV commercials and finally found her tribe in corporate and portrait photography where she collaborates with businesses and individuals to make their branding imagery shine. To learn more about Kathryn’s work, connect with her on LinkedIn or find her online at hollinrake.com.

Women online are facing harassment — the #ToxicHush campaign is addressing it.

By Shari Graydon

The TV reporter was telling me over the phone that he needed someone to interview who was not a beauty contestant. I qualified. 

It was 1992 and I was serving on the board of MediaWatch, a national organization working to improve women’s representation by the media. The reporter thought my view on the cancellation of the Miss Canada pageant might differ from the perspective of the previous winners he’d also interviewed. 

I looked into his camera and said how encouraged I was that a contest treating women’s bodies like cattle at an auction was no longer popular enough to attract advertisers. My sound-bite aired between equally brief clips of Miss Canada 1991 and Miss Canada 1992. 

But I had a lot more to say about how society objectifying women makes it harder for us to accept our physical imperfections, or be taken seriously at work. So I channeled the rest of what I thought into a newspaper commentary. 

Its publication emboldened me. I began regularly scanning the news looking for opportunities to write about the stuff I knew and cared about. As a result, I did lots of commentary on CBC Radio and TV, and for three years, wrote a weekly column for the Vancouver Sun. These experiences led to a 13-part TV series, a job in the BC Premier’s Office, and many invitations to speak. 

What I learned was that when you have a public voice, it’s much easier to get your phone calls returned, to convince people to fund the causes you believe in, or to change policies to reflect your research. And this realization inspired me to start Informed Opinions to support other women to increase their influence. 

The newspaper column also gave me experience dealing with hate mail. The envelope of the very first letter sent to me care/of the Vancouver Sun was addressed to “Shari Graydon, Bitch of the Year club.” Inside, my correspondent continued, “You are a dog-faced slut.” 

“The envelope of the very first letter sent to me care/of the Vancouver Sun was addressed to ‘Shari Graydon, Bitch of the Year club.’ ” 

Other readers sent me religious tracts making clear I would roast in hell for supporting gay marriage or for demanding action on women missing from the Downtown Eastside. One male columnist called me “feminazi”; another — employed by my own paper — publicly described me as the kind of person who “can’t stand to see others have fun.”

So I thought I knew what it was like for women targeted by ugliness. But I was wrong.

Two years ago, Informed Opinions convened a roundtable discussion with a group of accomplished women with intersectional identities featured in our experts database for journalists. I told them we were tracking how well we reflected Canada’s diversity and asked how we might better reach out to and support others in their communities.  

“We don’t want to invite women in our networks to join your database,” they told us. “It’s brutal out there. Can’t you do something about the toxic hate we’re getting?”

They shared stories I wasn’t capable of imagining about un-repeatable insults, physical and sexual threats, and despicable lies, all pouring onto their Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or into their email inboxes by anonymous trolls bent on shutting them up. And their experiences reflect international research findings that Black, Indigenous, Asian, Muslim and immigrant women, those who identify as LGBTQ+ or live with a disability, are much more likely to be targeted than their white, cis, hetero sisters. 

Because these high-achieving women had careers they’d fought for, families they cared about, and reputations they needed to protect, sometimes the trolls succeeded. Sometimes the emotional and psychological impact of the degrading, sexist, racist, homophobic, or anti-Islamist assaults they were receiving became physical and financial, costing them not just productivity and mental health, but the ability to travel or the willingness to take on new opportunities.

That’s why Informed Opinions has invested in measures to address the unique hate speech specifically aimed at women. Last year we released our #ToxicHush Action Kit to provide a free, online resource to support those targeted in knowing how to respond and where to complain.  

“Sometimes the emotional and psychological impact of the degrading, sexist, racist, homophobic, or anti-Islamist assaults they were receiving became physical and financial, costing them not just productivity and mental health, but the ability to travel or the willingness to take on new opportunities.”

And in June we streamed “A People’s Tribunal: Every Woman’s Right to Speak Free from Online Hate” to draw attention to the human rights abuses affecting thousands of women every day, and to encourage change. The event featured moving testimony from courageous women speaking to their experiences in the context of their work in journalism, advocacy, politics, and healthcare.

In opening the Tribunal, the Honourable Marci Ien referenced the nastiness she’d received as a result of her visibility as a Black woman in television and politics. 

Award-winning Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin quoted a gut-punching death threat in her email inbox, and affirmed her intention to use her voice “for those who cannot speak.” 

And prominent human rights advocate Amira Elghawaby spoke of having been threatened so often that she’s met with police and installed a security system. 

“The fear of being attacked on social media and for that hatred to spill into real life,” she said, “means that I have to often second-guess myself about what I say online in case it is used against me… to justify hate and violence.”

Senator Kim Pate, in her role as one of three ‘Citizen-Judges’, gave legal context to help inform the action we’re urging the government to take. She spoke of the constant assault on women’s rights to participate freely and fully in public debate. 

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” she noted, “does not guarantee a carte blanche freedom of expression… There is no constitutional right… to threaten to rape or kill a woman because you disagree with her politics.” But she also observed that in the absence of any formal regulation, the default practice is that anonymous attackers can say whatever they want, while the impact on women is “speak at your own risk.’ ”

The event was moving, illuminating, and infuriating. And as part of our #ToxicHush campaign against online hate, we’re complementing the Tribunal’s powerful stories with data gathered from many others about how they’ve been targeted, where, and what impact the abuse has had on how they feel and act. 

So if you’re affected — or know someone who is — help enrich the stories our data can tell by completing this simple survey.

“Unchecked online abuse threatens not only to stymie much-needed progress, but to actually reverse decades of equality gains.”

To date, 76% of the 270 respondents say they’ve seen an increase in online hate over the past two years, with Twitter and Facebook cited most often. More than half are being targeted with insults and slurs, and almost 20% have received threats of physical or sexual violence. 

Individual attacks retraumatize survivors of sexual assault, and the cumulative impact of having your mobile phone transformed into a delivery vehicle for abuse becomes a serious deterrent to women who might otherwise be willing to share their insights publicly and increase their visibility and influence. 

Indeed, unchecked online abuse threatens not only to stymie much-needed progress, but to actually reverse decades of equality gains. Despite the advances made, Informed Opinions’ Gender Gap Tracker shows that Canada’s most influential news media continue to quote men almost 70% of the time. 

We’ve devoted the past 13 years to bridging that gap, amplifying the voices of women and gender-diverse people, connecting them with journalists, supporting them to increase their impact. Because we all understand the truth behind “if you can’t see her, you can’t be her…” 

And if women’s realities and experience-informed perspectives aren’t part of our public conversations, helping to set agendas, shape policies, and impact spending, the resulting imbalance will continue to profoundly undermine our democracy.

Shari Graydon

Shari Graydon

As a print and broadcast columnist, best-selling author and award-winning women’s advocate, Shari Graydon has spent 30 years using media to draw attention to issues she knows and cares about. Now she motivates, trains and supports others to do the same. Since founding Informed Opinions, she’s helped thousands of subject matter experts share their knowledge in engaging and persuasive ways, and built a database of diverse, qualified sources to make them easier to find. She previously taught communications at Simon Fraser University, wrote speeches for cabinet ministers and the governor general, and was president of two national women’s organizations.

Hybrid teams come with risks — here’s how to make them thrive.

Hybrid team meeting

By Liane Davey

Has office life changed forever?

Many teams won’t return to the same office-centric approach that existed before the pandemic. Instead, the future of work will include a melange of arrangements, on a continuum from permanent work-from-home to full-time in the office. The middle ground will be occupied by employees who split their work weeks into a mix of remote and in-person days.

I think hybrid is a great answer for most individuals — but I’m nervous about the impact of hybrid models on teams.

When we all worked together in an office, we had a shared experience with our teammates. When we all worked remotely, we had a (mostly) shared experience. But now, people on your team might have vastly different experiences, which might cause rifts. Here are the risks to look out for: 

Challenges in forming trust

Trust is critical to all teams, but research suggests it’s even more crucial to virtual teams. The irony is that it’s harder to build trust when you aren’t physically together. Now play out the hybrid scenario. Some coworkers are physically together. They have downtime at the coffee machine. Perhaps they sit together while they eat (studies suggest that eating together forges connection). At the very least, they can observe one another’s body language and pick up contextual cues that help them interpret each other’s behavior more accurately. It’s a significant disadvantage for the remote workers who don’t have the same informal contact. The gaps in trust are sure to have consequences. 

Disparate Access to Information

Remote employees must rely on meetings, email, or activity in the Slack channel for their content. In contrast, in-office employees can chat in the elevator, learn from overhearing conversations between two other colleagues, or get an update from the boss as they come out of a meeting. That likely means that in-office employees are more in-the-know than those at home because they have access to more content. Being better informed can translate into greater productivity, efficiency, or innovative ideas. 

It’s not just more content that advantages in-office employees, it’s also the context they pick up. Imagine that the boss coming out of a meeting is conscious of the communication gaps, and therefore chooses to forego the chat with the in-office employees and replaces it with an email to everyone on the team. Although this solves the problem of different access to content, there are still imbalances. The in-office team might see the boss walk out of the meeting looking frustrated and red in the face. When they receive the email with the boss’ description of the meeting, this context will make a meaningful difference in how they interpret it. Without the contextual cues, the remote employees might interpret the tone in the email as hostility toward them. Both content and context matter. 

The Friction of Asking for Help

Research has shown that remote employees experience more ‘social friction’ in asking for help than people in the office. It’s difficult for them to know what information they need or whom to ask when they know what they don’t know. Social friction also includes the embarrassment of admitting you need help and the fear of being seen as incompetent. As a result, remote employees are less likely to ask for help.

It’s not all about whether someone asks for help or not. When you’re working side-by-side with someone, and they’re grunting and groaning over a task, it’s easy to know that they might need a hand. When a remote teammate is out of sight, you miss these cues and the chance to offer help. Over time, the cumulative impact might cause you to assume that in-office people are more talented, more effective, or more efficient than remote workers when the issue is really that the remote team hasn’t been set up for success.

“I’m glad that the future of work can work better for each of us. I just want to make sure that while it works for each of us, it also works for all of us.”

How to Minimize the Issues with Hybrid Teams

The genie is not going back in the bottle, the toothpaste is not going back in the tube, and the whole team is not going back to the office, so we’ve got work to do to make hybrid teamwork work. Here are a few things to try to get all the benefits of hybrid teams while minimizing the downsides:

  • Invest in bringing everyone together when forming teams or hiring new employees. Relationships that start with in-person connections can be sustained remotely for a long time.
  • Try to coordinate days where everyone is in the office, preferably weekly, but if not, monthly.
  • Have pictures of your whole team in prominent places in the office and shared online spaces. Out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind.
  • Avoid hybrid meetings. If you’re meeting while some people are remote, have everyone join through technology rather than having some people together in a room and others on the screen (or phone).
  • Use an exercise at the start of your meetings to share contextual information that helps reduce miscommunication and judgment.   
  • Establish buddies that pair in-office and remote employees and encourage them to have at least a weekly check-in to share their experiences informally.
  • Use the virtual knowledge-sharing approach to reduce social friction. Pair people up for weekly or bi-weekly sessions to share one thing they’ve figured out and one thing with which they’re struggling. This approach was shown to be highly effective in removing the social friction of asking for help and showed enhanced performance for almost all employees.
  • Provide unscheduled time for the team, including open, agenda-free time for team members to talk about what they’re working on or ask for help and off-task time where everyone can socialize.

I’m glad that the future of work will look different than the past. I gave up full-time office work more than six years ago, and I would never want to go back. I didn’t like the hour spent commuting, the inability to fit in personal tasks during my day, or the exorbitant amount I spent on pantyhose (seriously!).

I know other people who are just as keen to abandon the work-from-home phase and get back to the joys of instant communication and collaboration, the convenience of grabbing lunch in the food court, and the time between home and office to decompress. I’m glad that the future of work can work better for each of us. I just want to make sure that while it works for each of us, it also works for all of us. 

Liane Davey

Liane Davey

Liane Davey is a New York Times Bestselling author of three books, including The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track and You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. She is a contributor to the Harvard Business Review and frequently called on by media outlets for her experience on leadership, team effectiveness, and productivity. As the co-founder of 3COze Inc., she advises companies such as Amazon, TD Bank, Walmart, UNICEF, 3M, and SONY. Liane has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology.

Are you stuck in the expertise gap?

By Cloé Caron

Through my many years of coaching and management experiences, I have come to realize that most leaders, from first line to C-Suite, experience the same struggle: they find it difficult to step out of their expert role to focus on their leadership role. Rather than play at the right level, they get stuck in what I call ‘the expertise gap.’ 

How do you know if you’re in the expertise gap? You feel you must know all the answers, make most of the decisions, and be part of many meetings. You think getting involved in the daily grind will get things done and set the pace for the team, so your To-Do list gets filled with expert operational tasks. And you don’t have time to get the most important strategic stuff done — like reflecting, setting orientations and goals, creating strategies, giving feedback, and owning your development and that of the team.

To help leaders grow out of the expertise gap and focus on the true impact they can have, I have developed the Unique Strategic Contribution (USC) concept. It allows you to focus your intention and attention in the right place, maximizing your impact on a day-to-day basis. 

Generally, if you’re not doing what you should, you’ll feel it. You will shortly become overwhelmed by your workload. And that is a sign that you should be defining your USC. 

What is a Unique Strategic Contribution?

Your USC determines your contribution at your highest strategic level — what only you can and should achieve on your team. It is the element on which you should focus your attention and energy to create the most strategic impact in your organization.  

There might be many responsibilities you can and are able to do, but do they create the most impact? Are they at the core of your role?

For example, as a manager, what should you focus your attention on? Is it managing your agenda? Is it the daily emergencies of clients? Should you rather focus on giving your team a goal and sense of direction so that they know where they need to go? Should you rather focus on creating a work climate where they can strive and succeed, where you coach them so they can learn and grow?

Defining your own Unique Strategic Contribution will help you take a step back and look at the bigger picture of your daily focus.

Determining your own USC  

First, take the time to answer the following questions:

  • What is the ‘’why’’ of my role? 
  • In my team, what is it that only me can and should accomplish? 
  • What should be my contribution to my team and organization, at its highest strategic level possible?  

This exercise may not be easy at first. If it’s difficult to determine what only you in your team should do, think of it in terms of the impact you want and need to have. Having experienced it in many organizations, I know that determining your USC will change your state of mind and allow you to achieve results you did not think possible at first.   

You can now fill the following sentence to get you started: 

My USC is to ______________ in order to create ______________ and influence my team by______________.

You can also think about your team’s Unique Strategic Contribution. What is the thing only your team can do in the organization? How is your own USC aligned with your team’s?

Are you up for the USC Challenge?

It’s not easy for a leader to focus on their USC because our expertise gap often takes over. We want to give the answer, to make the decision, and to be involved in the operations because we often know the “how to” (or we think we do). I face this challenge in my own leadership role, and have to remind myself: Is this how I should be focusing my attention? 

To focus on your USC, you must delegate, rethink where you spend your time, and challenge your priorities — even when it isn’t easy. Otherwise, you will not be able to create the real impact you want to have in your organization. You must therefore learn to make room for your team so that each member can make decisions in their field of expertise and at their level.   

As your coach, allow me to challenge you:

  • Should you be attending all the meetings in your agenda?
  • Which decisions should you leave up to your team?
  • Which responsibilities and projects should you be delegating?

The advantages of the USC 

Once your USC is determined and you decide to put your focus on it, you will discover that you have time in your schedule to do the things that are core to your role. This will contribute greatly to making your team more accountable. It will give you a clearer vision of the impact you want to have, and it will make it easier for you to establish and track your KPIs to measure whether you are achieving your USC.

Your mindset will shift, enabling you to say “no” to what does not belong in your USC and say “yes” to what really matters to your team and organization. You will waste less energy on issues that do not help you make the impact you want to make. You will feel you are playing your role at its highest level, which will be fulfilling for you and create value for your organization. 

So, I’ll ask again: are you stuck in the expertise gap? Get started on your Unique Strategic Contribution!

Cloé Caron

Cloé Caron

President and founder of o2Coaching, Cloé is an executive coach, podcaster, and author. In her latest book, Dare to Empower — Women in the Lead, she helps professional and entrepreneur women operate five essential shifts to gain confidence to fully empower their career and their business for maximum growth and impact​.

What a muffin tin taught me about working mom guilt.

Cupcakes with "Best Mom" on them.

By Tammy Heermann

What do you think of when you look at a muffin tin? Go ahead, get the image in your head. What images, associations, or memories come to mind? For me, it was the smell of my mom’s homemade baking. The kitchen filled up with the scent of oatmeal, bran, and butter. Fond memories of childhood, homecooked meals, canned and frozen produce from the farm and garden. 

I used muffin tins when I was on maternity leave and when my daughter was young. I whipped up healthy, modernized versions of the classics. Heart-healthy fats and shredded vegetables replaced the oily version of the Morning Glory Muffin past. What a great mom I am. But then I advanced at work, started traveling more, and the muffin tins got tossed aside. They were replaced with boxed granola bars… and guilt.

Once a symbol of nostalgia and comfort, the muffin tin had become a reminder of all the ways I was failing. 

The making of mom guilt.

Both men and women feel guilt; however, numerous studies have found that women are prone to feelings of guilt across all age groups. 

My house is a disaster. I haven’t called my mother in weeks. Should I eat more vegan meals? I didn’t exercise again. Am I progressing in my career enough? My kids are getting too much screen time. I’m not taking enough time for myself. I am taking time for myself, and it feels selfish. I still haven’t responded to my team’s email. 

And if you are a working parent, at home you feel guilty for not doing work. And when you’re at work, you feel guilty for not being at home. It’s a relentless, inescapable cycle of guilt. 

Girls have been socialized to take care of the physical and emotional needs of others. This dynamic has been given a name: the human giver syndrome. The term, initially defined by Kate Manne, an associate professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, describes how women are more conditioned to believe they have a moral obligation to fulfill the needs of others at the expense of their own needs. 

The resulting guilt and anxiety lead to physical and emotional exhaustion. Are you a human giver who has given so much that nothing is left in the pantry for yourself? Are you ready to tell yourself a different story — a story that you get to receive too?

Reclaiming the muffin tin.

Imagine you’re stuck in a long-running Zoom meeting. Your stomach is growling because you skipped lunch again to finish an urgent task. It’s the witching hour — kids fighting, dogs barking. You’re angry at your colleagues because they won’t stop talking. You’re angry because dinner will be late again. Your guilt sets in. Why didn’t I leave out the frozen chili that I made for hectic moments like this? 

Your mind starts spinning out of control. You recall the perfect meals from your childhood. You hear the voice of an acquaintance who said, “Oh, no, we have a hot meal on the table every night.” You tune back into the meeting and realize you missed a critical comment; go figure. You feel increased dread as the seconds tick on.

We’ve all been there many times. The guilt, shame, embarrassment, anger, resentment — take your pick, you’ve felt it. I sure have. Then I remind myself of a fellow working parent who told me to cut myself some slack and stop making things so hard. She shared a tip that could save not only a single night’s dinner, but years of meal guilt. It was the muffin tin dinner. 

My colleague’s tip wasn’t just about making a quick dinner. It was about cutting myself some slack, seeing there was another way, lightening my mental load. 

The muffin tin returned! Could I rekindle my love with this kitchen staple? Reframe my resentment? 

She told me to open the fridge and cupboard. Fill each hole in the pan with vegetables, fruit, protein, or dairy. Crackers or pita; dips or sauces. Leftovers, hot or cold. Anything goes. Save a hole at the top for a drink. A small glass, sippy cup, or juice box fits in perfectly. The last spot is for a yummy treat that must be eaten last. That’s the only rule. 

Spread out a blanket and have an indoor picnic or place the tray on your kid’s lap for a midweek movie night or a pretend flight to an exciting destination of their choosing. Watch as they zigzag through the holes in the tin or follow an orderly path. There’s a personality test hidden in there somewhere, I’m sure. They will love it. My daughter is a teen and still asks for muffin tin dinner. 

My colleague’s tip wasn’t just about making a quick dinner. It was about cutting myself some slack, seeing there was another way, lightening my mental load. 

Muffin tin dinner was now a metaphor for all the small acts that helped me rewrite my stories of guilt. Tonight, I’m not failing; I’m exceeding expectations by doing something fun. (And healthy and easy and fast, but they don’t need to know that; they just know I’m awesome.) 

Tips for reframing mom guilt.

The burnout and emotional exhaustion that women experience are about more than dinnertime struggles and will not be fixed with a single muffin tin dinner. Obviously. This story highlights a critical component to tackling this age-old guilt challenge: self-compassion. And self-compassion has been shown to have the most significant impact on our happiness, resilience, and ability to deal with stress. What stories do you tell yourself? Do you criticize and judge instead of having compassion for yourself? If you do, it’s okay; we all sometimes do. Try these ideas for reframing guilt and making your head and heart lighter. 

Understand where guilt stems from.

When you feel guilt, you need to determine where it’s coming from. My meal-time guilt stemmed from not living up to my “homemade slow-cooked” childhood. Looking at the unused muffin tin not only triggered guilt but also triggered anger some days. It conjured up images of the 1950s housewife in a shirtwaist dress and apron, donning triangle-shaped hair made immoveable by Spray Net. She made pot roasts in a Corningware casserole, Betty Crocker muffins, and martinis on demand for her husband when he got home. My association with the fondly remembered muffin tin turned sour and jaded. The muffin tin became a symbol of inequality. I needed to modernize the muffin tin because I needed to modernize motherhood for myself. That’s where my reframing began.

Realize your guiding values.

I benefited from a conversation early in motherhood with a mentor of mine. When I described my idyllic childhood with a stay-at-home mom, her guilt radar kicked in, and she reminded me that I learned many great lessons from my mom that have shaped me. If I decided to return to work, I would teach my daughter lessons too — not better ones, not worse ones, just different ones. That realization was transformative for me. I could honor and pass on many values and qualities from my upbringing and shape new ones.

Remind yourself of the benefits.

Being a working mom can have positive impacts on children that outweigh the benefits of staying home. A Harvard study undertaken by Kathleen McGinn and her colleagues found that daughters of working mothers grew up to be more successful in the workplace than their peers. They earned more and were more likely to take on leadership roles. Sons of working moms were more likely to grow up making a more significant overall contribution to childcare and household chores. Furthermore, children under fourteen exposed to mothers who worked for at least a year grew up to hold more egalitarian gender views as adults. Remind yourself of the role model you are and the benefits that your children experience.

Do a guilt check.

Guilt is an emotion we feel because we’re convinced we’ve caused harm. Guilt comes from many triggers: something you did (I ate the entire cake myself); something you didn’t do but wanted to (I forgot the school fundraiser again); something you think you did (Did my comments make him angry?); something you didn’t do as much as you could have (I should donate more to that charity; they send me so many blasted beautiful return address labels I will die before I use them all up — I know because I’ve done the math based on my average yearly mailing consumption); or something you receive instead of someone else (Janet’s been here much longer than I have, she deserves the promotion more than me). Check-in with your manager, partner, kids, parents, or friends about what you worry about. Are you really letting them down? Are the expectations you think they have of you aligned with the expectations you place on yourself? If not, reset expectations — yours or theirs. Make a plan to address or let it go and tell yourself what a great job you’re doing.

Avoid passing on the guilt.

Guilt takes its toll on our mental health and our performance. It can also impact our family, leading them to feel guilt too. Here’s some ways I have learned to reframe my thinking and avoid passing on the guilt.  Instead of telling my daughter that I wished I didn’t have to go on a business trip, I tell her about all the exciting things I’ll do when I’m there and how I can’t wait to share them with her when I’m back. Instead of complaining about another networking event, I teach her the importance of getting to know people and making friends. Instead of lamenting how I missed yet another opportunity to volunteer at a school function, I helped her give the best darn presentation on her school project because that’s my strength. Instead of feeling shame over not having a hot homemade meal every night, we make the best 5-minute homemade granola bars with creative custom labels.  

Swap guilt for gratitude.

When guilt creeps in, catch it quickly with a gratitude reframe. My house is messy, but I’m grateful my family is healthy and happy. You missed that bake sale? Oh well, put the next one in your calendar and pick up cupcakes or donuts. Be grateful you remembered. Haven’t responded to your team’s request yet? Tell them you’re thankful for their work and their patience. Stop apologizing while you’re at it too. Late to the meeting? Don’t apologize; say thanks for your patience or nothing at all. No excuses, no apologies, no guilt — just gratitude.

The muffin tin is my metaphor for self-compassion. My love-hate-love journey with the trusty tin is a reminder to drop the guilt and give myself a break. What story do you need to reframe?

This article contains excerpts from chapter 7 (Lighten Up, Brain!) of Tammy’s book Reframe Your StoryReal Talk for Women Who Want to Let Go, Do Less and Be More—Together.
Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann is an award-winning leadership expert. She’s the author of Reframe Your Story: Real Talk for Women Who Want to Let Go, Do Less and Be More-Together. For over twenty years, she has helped change thousands of mindsets around what it takes to lead, both self and others. Tammy transforms her audiences with alternating moments of humor and heartache as she shares stories of her own journey from senior consultant to senior vice president.

Why our working hours should match our kids’ school schedules.

mom working with child

By Ellen Joan Nelson

As a working mother, have you ever fallen into a heap on the floor, in tears, because the ‘wheels have fallen off’? You have miraculously organised to fit everything in, but then the unexpected occurs and your perfect plans become unraveled; a child becomes sick, a plumbing emergency happens at your house, or your boss needs you to stay late. Have you ever thought to yourself that being a working mum is extraordinarily tough? 

As a manager, are you struggling to attract and retain the best talent? We are in the middle of the Great Resignation, and getting good staff is tough. Have you noticed that your staff are super stressed, especially those who have children? And further, do you have a good handle on how that stress is negatively impacting their performance? 

What if there was a way to improve the experiences for working mothers at the same time as improving organisational metrics? 

Following speaking engagements discussing my PhD research, which focused on the authentic leadership experiences and social well-being of women in the workplace (with the case study examining women in the New Zealand Army, and the research being listened to, and acted on, by the NZ Army), I conducted — unintentionally — further research focusing on the experiences of working parents, primarily mothers. During 2020, 82 corporate sector working mums reached out to share their experiences with me. When I kept hearing the same story over and over, I couldn’t help myself from applying my ‘research hat’ and note the findings. 

I now share this information with pretty much anyone who will listen to me, and I now have supporting data from more than 500 (and growing) further working parents (mostly mums, and some dads), across NZ, Australia, UK, US, Singapore, and Canada. 

The stories from these parents fall into two broad categories, with a relatively even split between the two. Parents either: 

  1. Return to work full-time and resent the fact that they barely see their children during waking hours in the week, as well as the associated financial cost of childcare. 
  2. Or they negotiate some kind of part-time arrangement, working less hours to spend more time with their children. They might become a 0.8 or 0.6 FTE (full time equivalent), for example, which comes with a corresponding reduction in their pay. 

What happens in practice for (b) though, is that their workload or outputs are not reduced, so these parents often work on their day(s) off, or in the evening — or, most prominently, they become far more efficient at their job, completing their work in fewer hours. In fact, when their manager agrees to ‘allow’ them to work less hours, the response inevitably goes something like this: “Yes, sure, happy to support your desire to spend more time with your kids, just as long as you still get all of your work done.” The parent responds with, “yes, yes, of course — thank you so much.” 

The parents who proceed with this second option all speak about how lucky they feel, and express gratitude for being able to work in an organisation that allows a reduced-hours contract. After hearing this story over and over, my rage set in. There is nothing lucky about getting a pay cut to do the same job — it is an absolute con! 

I knew there had to be a better way, so I did some more research about the construct of work, and realised that it is hugely archaic. The concept of ‘9 to 5’ is just made up. That’s right — it was literally dreamed up 200-ish years ago, around the time of the industrial revolution, and was cemented 100 years ago, in line with Henry Ford’s car manufacturing era. 

“The ‘9 to 5’ construct is based on the assumption that workers do not need to tend to children. The father goes to work, and the mother takes care of the children. However, the demographics of our workforce today are vastly different.”

At that time, women were barely in the workforce and men were barely in the home force. The ‘9 to 5’ construct is based on the assumption that workers do not need to tend to children. The father goes to work, and the mother takes care of the children. However, the demographics of our workforce today are vastly different. Most parents work. Most households do not have a parent dedicated exclusively to childrearing. Workers are responsible for looking after children, as well as their paid role. 

The heart of the issue became glaringly obvious to me. The societal mismatch between work being ‘9 to 5’ and school being less than that is absolutely bonkers. Why on earth would we operate in a modern society where the schedule of the adults is different to the schedule of the children? This means that every single working parent — and around 80% of people do become parents — have to stress about “what the heck do I do with the kids after school, and what the heck do I do with the kids during school holidays?” 

Working parents are experiencing significant and enduring stress, every single day, spanning over approximately two decades of their working life, because of this misalignment, and because they are missing their kids. Young people who are not yet parents are already stressing about this potential future conundrum. This is a huge concern for our society. 

Introducing #workschoolhours. 

Why not try and align the two schedules, by reducing the workday for all staff (without reducing salaries), and making more accommodations over the school holiday periods? 

Now, this is where things get really exciting. This is not just a ‘pie in the sky’ idea, aimed at making things better for staff (parents and non-parents), as well as wider society — which it would do. There is actually a business case to do it. 

The business case for change.

There is plenty of research to support that outputs can be achieved in less than 40 hours. For example, the 4-day-work-week movement is already demonstrating this increase in productivity. The most productive members in the workforce are often part-time workers, as they are already completing their workload in less time. 

Further, if the stress regarding the misalignment of work and school could be taken away from working parents, just imagine how much happier they would be at work, how much more innovative and creative they would be, how much better their focus and concentration would be? We know that staff well-being is important, not just because we care about our staff (which we should), but because it also impacts organisational performance. Happier staff generate more profits. 

Given the current pandemic, flexible working is now mainstream. Many staff now expect this to be a basic condition of their employment. Imagine the competitive advantage you could achieve, by being able to attract and retain the most talented staff, if your organisation operated within school hours? This doesn’t just apply for current working parents, but you would also be able to attract the best people, regardless of their parental status. 

Did you know there are already organisations doing this? There are, and they are raving about the positive impact it is having on their organisation. My latest research project is now collating data about these case study examples, to determine the most effective ways to implement and operate within this new #workschoolhours paradigm (if your organisation is already doing this, I’d love you to participate in this research project).

How to get started.

I now help organisations to understand how they could implement #workschoolhours. It doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach. 

Talk with your staff 
  • Find out if they are actually interested in working this schedule. 
  • Ask for their input regarding how this could work in your organisation. 
  • You might be surprised by the creative ways staff can increase productivity, to do the same in less hours, when they are sufficiently motivated! 
Phasing 
  • I don’t, necessarily, recommend switching to #workschoolhours schedule overnight. 
  • Try finishing in time for school collections 1 or 2 days per week. 
  • See how that goes, test, adjust, progress. 
Measuring outputs 
  • Get clear about the outputs you want your staff to achieve. 
  • It’s important to be able to measure these 
  • Instead of focusing so much on paying for staff inputs, (hours), we want to pay for their outputs. 
Scheduling 
  • Work out, as a team, when you genuinely need to be connected with each other. 
  • Determine the requirements for team meetings and co-working periods, and only set them within the school schedule. 
  • Stop setting 4pm team meetings! 

I am convinced that transitioning the work schedule to align with the school schedule is not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’. Get on this bus, and experience the significant benefits to staff, organisations, and society as a whole.

Ellen Joan Nelson

Ellen Joan Nelson

Dr Ellen Joan Nelson is an ex-army academic business mum, with deep expertise and experience in leadership, well-being and the future of work. Her research focuses on the experiences of women in the workforce. Convinced the working world can, and must, be better, Ellen started the #workschoolhours movement. Ellen helps organisations, including the NZ Army, to remove structural barriers facing women and parents, while simultaneously improving organisational metrics such as: wellbeing, retention, leadership, productivity, innovation and business performance. ellenjoannelson.com

Five tips to position yourself for a board seat — from the chairperson of two boards.

Kristi Honey

By Kristi Honey

As chairperson of two boards, I’m often asked: “How do I get started in governance?”

When I get questions from ambitious women about how to position their profile and professional brand, and see more success in their professional lives, “giving” is often my answer. It pays dividends to give back to the community and those around you, and provides a way to build your professional circle and brand. I suggest people examine their own communities for opportunities first. In today’s virtual age, there are still numerous ways to contribute, while also building your own portfolio.

I had to learn this myself too.

In my 20’s, when I had my own tech startup businesses, I quickly learned the more I gave without expectation, the more meaningful connections, and opportunities I received. When I attended events and met people, I spent time listening and getting to know them, versus waiting for a pause to get in my own elevator speech. By taking an altruist mindset — genuinely concerning myself with the happiness and welfare of others — I noticed that others genuinely wanted to partner on opportunities, work together, and support one another in purposeful ways in return.

By establishing long-term and sincere relationships, I was able to be introduced to new people and grow my network. This led to opportunities to get involved with local groups, such as Girls Inc. of Durham, the Optimist Club of Brooklin, and Whitby Chamber members. By volunteering my time and expertise locally, I developed a reputation for myself. I became known for my bright, positive, and giving nature.

After my first meeting, I shared with a friend, “I want to be the Chair of the Board one day.” She laughed and said, “You’re not an old white man.” It was all she had ever seen.

Through my experience of being recognized and awarded the Durham College Alumni of Distinction award in 2008, I knew that I wanted to be on their board of governors. This would allow me to give back to a local institution that has a tremendous impact on the community and economy where I both live and work.

I applied for the Durham College Board of Governors in 2009 and was invited to an interview. As a busy wife, mother, and entrepreneur, I hadn’t spent the necessary time learning good board governance or understanding governance models, and naturally when these questions were asked, I wasn’t able to answer them fully. That was a learning experience for me — I knew I needed to sharpen my skills in this area, and gain board experience.

Over the next several years, I stayed in touch with the President of Durham College who I had met in 2008. I sent hand-written annual holiday cards and connected when we attended the same events — whether virtually or in person. In 2014, I applied again, and this time I attended the interview fully prepared. I had also pre-established relationships with others on the board and had gained the necessary experience and governance expertise.

By 2015, I was appointed to the board. After my first meeting, I shared with a friend, “I want to be the Chair of the Board one day.” She laughed and said, “You’re not an old white man.” It was all she had ever seen. Four years later, I was nominated and then elected by my fellow peer governors as Vice-Chair and in 2021, I became the Chair of the Board.

Last Fall I was appointed as the Chairperson of the Board for the College Employer Council, the governing body that oversees collective bargaining for the 24 colleges in Ontario, which includes all Ontario College Board Chairs and Presidents. Chairing a board of more than 50 people virtually is a new challenge, and I am taking the same principles of finding ways to connect with and support others, while listening and learning.

Here are my top five tips to help you position yourself to get a seat around today’s boardroom table:

1. Build your profile, establish your brand, keep focus.

  • Mindfully and purposefully identify your passion. In today’s world, time is our most valuable commodity — especially while balancing home and career responsibilities. We can’t be passionate about everything. Focus on what lights you up and has meaning to you.
  • Ensure your online and in-person persona align. When you post on social media or are asked to participate in speaking engagements, be purposeful and ensure it relates back to your passion, the industry you are targeting, or your key priorities/messages.  If you aren’t asked to speak, volunteer! Step out of your comfort zone and ask to be on panels within your community or workplace.

2. Grow your network by supporting others.

  • Find ways to help and support others (ask if you need to). Helping others is one of the best ways to establish connections, meet new people, and create a good, reliable reputation for yourself. 
  • Be intentional by introducing yourself to others and attend virtual or in-person events where there are key attendees you want to meet. In virtual spaces, just as in real life, you don’t need to dominate chat rooms — instead have a meaningful presence, listen actively, and support others (think quality over quantity).
  • Identify key contacts by learning who the influencers are on the board(s) you are targeting. If you are able, find out what they are passionate about and use this knowledge when you meet them to engage in conversations of interest to them. If you are able, find and share common interests.

3. Get involved in your community.

  • Volunteer your time and expertise, particularly to organizations that align to your passion, and where key influencers will be in attendance.
  • Attend local virtual and in-person events and be visible in your own authentic way. You don’t have to be the person that “works the room” to be visible. Meet the people at your table, in break-out virtual rooms, and establish one or two meaningful connections. Find out what others are passionate about and seek ways to help or support them first without any expectation in return.
  • Stay connected by mailing personal thank you or holiday cards when you’ve worked with someone in the community, or you’ve received assistance or support from others. If you hear of another’s accomplishments, send a hand-written congratulations card to recognize them.  I mail 2-3 hand-written cards weekly to staff, colleagues, community members and sometimes to people I’ve never met who impress me. Pro-tip: keep a list of who and when you send cards and card’s sentiment to ensure you aren’t sending multiple cards to the same person (whoops, I’ve done it!).

4. Invest in your own learning.

  • Take courses or self-study good governance, learn the different governance models (for example, working, traditional, hybrid, policy (Carver)), and be ready to answer questions on good governance during board interviews. 
  • Attend public board meetings and/or read the previous agendas and meeting minutes, particularly if there is a board you’d like to learn more about or apply to.
  • Always read the organization’s strategic plan and priorities, annual report, and most recent news articles.
  • Engage a recruiter and join a forum or community, such as Women of Influence, Women Get on Board, Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), or Next Gen Board Leaders.

5. Be a mentor.

  • Be a mentor to support and lift others. Offer growth opportunities for those you mentor, introduce them to your contacts, and grow their network.
  • Recognize exceptional contributions, celebrate the wins of others, and nominate people for awards — without asking or expecting anything in return. 
  • By supporting others, your network will also grow, and you will continue to learn (and because it just feels so good to do!).

Recognize it takes time. Be strategic and patient. Don’t give up. Getting on a board is a journey and through giving and purposeful interactions, you will position yourself for success.

 

Kristi Honey

Kristi Honey

Kristi Honey is the Chief Administrator for the Township of Uxbridge and Chairperson of both the Durham College Board of Governors and College Employers Council Board. She has led several startup businesses to their successes and is a champion for education, the environment, and the economic empowerment of women and human rights.

Simone Giesen on how to keep reinventing yourself in life and business.

Simone Giesen

By Simone Giesen

Did you wake up in the wrong life today?

I know what that feels like: a couple of years ago, I had lost my way and found myself stuck in the wrong career. I could not help but wonder how I had gotten myself into this mess and where exactly I went off track. 

I’m a planner — to the degree that I schedule tasks for exact times. Of course, I had safely mapped out and planned my future. I thought I had done “everything right,” but why did the life I had envisioned for myself feel so bad?

After training as a banker in Germany and completing my degree in International Business Administration in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, I started my career in the finance sector one month after graduation — while most of my friends from Business school were struggling to find a job. 

Three years in, I felt not only lost and out of place, but uninspired, unfulfilled, and miserable. One day, the suffering became unbearable and I was desperate for a change. So I quit my job without a plan B, and within six months I started over: I moved from Germany to Switzerland, pursued a new education, jumped into a new field, and landed my first job that would finally put me on my path to becoming a coach. 

When making that leap, you do not have to do such a drastic switch like I did. The stakes are high, and there are constraints like financial implications or losing status — but it is your life and you deserve to be happy. 

If you are contemplating a career change as well, here’s what I have learned.

LESSON #1: Always trust your gut feeling.

When I signed my first employment contract, my gut feeling told me something was off. It just did not feel right, even though on the surface, I had landed a good entry-level job in a well-known and reputable company. Deep down I knew that this was not right for me and that I was settling. I chose the alleged security and financial stability that this job would provide over an unknown future and the stress of an on-going job search, which scared me at that point. So I ignored that nagging feeling, not knowing that feelings are designed to alert us to pay attention to potential dangers — but also opportunities. Research suggests that your gut-feeling draws on experience and intuition and can help you make a bold decision, if you listen to it. 

LESSON #2: Do a thorough reality check.

Make sure the vision you are following is really your own, and it is truly aligned with your passion, talents, and personal preferences. We are constantly influenced by the media, friends, and family — and it can be overwhelming to choose from all the options that are available to us. It is important to raise above the noise level and make sure that the path you are following is yours, rather than somebody else`s idea of a great life for you (even though they might mean well). For the people pleasers among us: this is your kind reminder that you are not here to fulfill other people’s expectations. Know yourself, accept yourself, then decide what you want and go for it. 

How do you know what’s right for YOU? Follow the energy! What really excites you?  What are you passionate about? What is the topic you could talk about all day long? When do you feel most alive? When do you lose track of time? 

The answers to these powerful questions might be some indicators to point you in the right direction. Then, do your homework. Research as much as you can, and talk to people in the field you want to work in. The new career might look very glamorous from afar, but what would an ordinary day in this line of work really feel like? 

LESSON #3: Manage the process and prioritize self-care.

While you are figuring out your next move, you will experience some uncertainty, insecurity, and most probably some anxiety. It is important to be gentle and patient with yourself in the process. 

Keep your inner monologue positive, and show yourself some compassion. You are doing the best that you can. Set realistic and achievable goals for yourself. What could you do today that will bring you one step closer to your goal? This transition phase might be a good time to put some healthy self-care routines in place to keep your energy levels up and keep you sane along the way. 

LESSON #4: Be your own cheerleader and celebrate every tiny victory.

In his book, Choose Yourself, James Altucher stated: “We’re taught at an early age that we’re not good enough. That someone else has to choose us in order for us to be… what? Blessed? Rich? Certified? Legitimized? Educated? Partnership material?” 

The truth is that you do not need anyone’s approval to do what you love. Show up for yourself and cheer yourself on. Every single day. Your mindset is your most precious asset. A strong sense of self-esteem combined with an unwavering belief in yourself will define how you face the world. 

It’s not about being arrogant, it is about having a realistic and healthy self-image that does not need constant approval from the outside. Stop waiting for anyone to choose you. Step forward and claim your spot. Whether you are dreaming of becoming an artist, a writer, a designer, an entrepreneur, or — fill in the blank — you already ARE that person. Give yourself permission and start showing up as her!

LESSON #5: Authenticity — own your story.

It’s your life and it’s never too late to course-correct. In my career, I have interviewed and assessed hundreds of people and have come to the conclusion that an apparent “rupture” in a CV is rarely a deal-breaker, if explained well. The skills that were acquired in one field in combination with life experience and your personality are transferable. As Steve Jobs put it, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.” Be true to yourself and own your experiences! 

I hope you could find some inspiration in my story. For those of you who feel stuck or lost, please keep searching. Things will eventually fall into place when you are on your path. How you feel about work and your career rubs off on your mental health and well-being, your relationships, and the way you show up in life. Never stop learning and thriving. We all will have to reinvent ourselves many times in life, but that’s really the point isn’t it?

Simone Giesen

Simone Giesen

Simone is an executive coach & organizational development (OD) consultant based in Zurich, Switzerland. Over the last 12 years she has worked in the field of leadership development for multinational companies in the finance, hospitality, technology and engineering sector. She now runs her own business, SGC Simone Giesen Consulting — specialized in personal & leadership development, coaching, and change management. Simone works with individuals, leaders and teams around the globe to empower them to reach their highest potential in life and business.

Lauralee Sheehan on the parallels between being a rock star and an entrepreneur.

Lauralee Sheehan

Lauralee, Founder and Chief Creative Officer oDigital 55 explains how standing out from the crowd and maintaining an edge as a musician helped her achieve entrepreneurial success in digital media and STEM.


By Lauralee Sheehan

Rockstars and entrepreneurs are idolised in society because they are considered “exceptional,” and maybe even superhuman since they represent a small percentage of the population. Similar to musicians, entrepreneurs represent the risk-takers who humbly work towards their goals everyday, without ever knowing whether things will lead to success. They need to be all-in on whatever they’re doing and not be afraid to express abstract ideas. This kind of passion and commitment is inspiring to the public eye, and serves as the fuel that keeps me going everyday. Many assume that the rock star life couldn’t be further from that of a digital entrepreneur, but in my experience, the two are eerily similar and intertwined with one another. 

The Art of Continuous & Incremental Risk-Taking

During my early band days in the indie duo Lovely Killbots, we were essentially entrepreneurs — we had to build everything from the ground up from music to media (lots of modular development), experience design to marketing and social media and it was all about taking incrementally bigger risks. I learned a lot from the idea of building slowly and pushing further as you go and this meant building not only a band but a brand. 

Over time, this transformed me into a digital entrepreneur running Digital 55, a media agency focused on producing knowledge-based, social purpose content, edutainment and learning experience design (LX). It started off as a one-woman show, but things quickly grew and now I’m leading a growing core team of 6 people and an ever-expanding collaborator roster who work closely with us on our portfolio of projects. 

I’ve also been learning to maintain my edge as the company grows. As you grow it’s easy to forget the ethos of what you were trying to build, so I like to think about bands and labels that were able to always “keep it cool” no matter how much exposure they got or how the industry changed around them. 

“In a song, you have layers upon layers of concepts and ideas and I think building a business is the same.”

Follow the Rules to Break the Rules

Another thing that translated from band days to entrepreneurship is the idea of following rules and patterns to eventually break them. In music, you have boundaries you work within like time signatures and beats per minute (BPM), but from these boundaries you are able to create the art and abstraction of songwriting through melodies and lyrics, riffs and licks. 

I think entrepreneurs do a similar thing in terms of setting up a business, working within industry regulations and taking on a lot of responsibilities — but you have to colour in the lines first in order to paint outside the lines later. In a song, you have layers upon layers of concepts and ideas and I think building a business is the same. Recently, we wrote a song, Bliss and Nothing Less, that is about the Toronto indie scene circa 2008. We layered musical patterns, sounds, textures and lyrics and I think that idea is similar to how Digital 55 was built and continues to grow. It’s a little bit technical, a little bit abstract, a little bit badass.

Discipline Daily

Everything starts with daily habits. I’ve always considered exercise and fitness an important aspect of my life then and now. I exercise and walk daily to get my endorphins in. Pre-pandemic, I’d go boxing four times a week — this was my analog, no tech time.  I think getting physical and spending some time with your thoughts without the distractions of social media, tech and all other things that might allow you to avoid thinking about things that are uncomfortable, uncertain or not immediately satisfying is a huge way for me to dedicate some time for growth in my mindset. 

During my band days, performing in front of a live audience was a workout in itself — lugging gear, jumping up and down on stage and singing my heart out takes dedication and physical and mental stamina. Nevermind all the behind the scenes work that people don’t see, like rehearsing three times a week, using vacations to work on band strategy (and now business strategy), practising scales, listening to music constantly from a research and inspo perspective. If it weren’t for the grit, work ethic, and unending determination instilled in me from my early band days, I wouldn’t be where I am with Digital 55 today.

“I used to think that the most important aspect in running Digital 55 was to become known for producing fresh, innovative digital design and interactive media — but its true value comes down to the original stories we are putting out into the world and the content we get to produce.”

Standing Out From the Crowd with Social Purpose

Rockstars and entrepreneurs are educators who share diverse perspectives of the complex human experience and storytell in a compelling and provocative way. I used to think that the most important aspect in running Digital 55 was to become known for producing fresh, innovative digital design and interactive media — but its true value comes down to the original stories we are putting out into the world and the content we get to produce. 

Like a rock star, the meaning of the lyrics is what resonates in the hearts and minds of your listeners and gets you indie darling status. Whether I’m composing a new single or leading my team to produce digital content across subject matters, the intention is the same — to “leave everything on the stage” and tell a great story that leaves a lasting  impression that connects experiences, cultivates understanding, provides access to knowledge, and ultimately, to influence social change. 

It is arguable that the pandemic has shifted what society traditionally admired about celebrity culture — excess, glamour, beauty, and social influence based on “non-essential” talents. As a result of lockdown restrictions, people struggling to make ends meet, businesses being shut down all around us, and our world forever changed, the pandemic has humbled us all. Now more than ever, we’ve put a greater emphasis on older values such as community, local living, mental health, wellness, humility and the gift of time. Most recently, Digital 55 produced several digital courses with PowerED by Athabasca University: Navigating Extraordinary Times and Digital Wellness 101: Optimizing Your Time & Energy which covers the aforementioned values in the context of wellness during the global pandemic. 

Considering the rise of our dependence on technology which has only been accelerated during the pandemic, digital entrepreneurs and content producers are the new rockstars of our time. The public’s attention has now shifted towards what used to be seen as an unassuming group of brilliant nerds who live online — a.k.a. tech entrepreneurs.  Although I agree that tech has taken over our lives and will be the future of business and life in general, music will always have a place in my heart. 

It will forever influence how I show up as an entrepreneur and has a profound impact connecting with people on a deep and personal level in an inexplicable way. I’ve paid my dues in my past life as an indie-famous rocker, and I wouldn’t be who I am today, leading the award-winning team at Digital 55 if it weren’t for my rock star days. Being a musician taught me how to pour my heart and soul into projects that wouldn’t be understood by the mainstream, develop genuine self-confidence after experiencing failure, and adapt in an ever-changing digital world. These formative experiences shaped me into the fearless businesswoman that I am today, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. 

Lauralee Sheehan

Lauralee Sheehan

Lauralee is passionate about instigating societal change towards diversity and inclusion, anti-discrimination, and advocating for women in STEM and digital media. As the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Digital 55, she leads her rapidly-growing agency to address these issues through producing digital content, cross platform media and digital learning course modules to educate, entertain, inspire critical thinking and instigate social change.

Now is not the time for toxic positivity.

toxic positivity

By Rumeet Billan, Ph.D.

It can be difficult to watch someone you care about go through a challenging time. Whether they are struggling with depression and anxiety, grieving the loss of a loved one, or having a rough day, our immediate reaction is to try and alleviate that hurt. We want to show up for the people that we care about and remind them of all the good they have in their life. But it’s time to start unpacking how we process life’s harder moments.

Think of a time when a friend has opened up to you about a hardship they were experiencing. What was your immediate reaction? Did you tell them not to worry so much? Or remind them to count their blessings, and look for the silver lining? We respond to uncomfortable emotions with positivity as a form of support; we want to make our loved one feel better, and to remind them that things won’t always be this way. But who are we actually helping?

We want to skip past the grief, the heaviness, and the difficult conversations, and go back to how things were before. But in doing so, we are erasing moments that define someone’s life.

According to research, this type of misdirected positivity can be damaging and can cause additional feelings of stress and isolation. It’s called toxic positivity, and it happens often. We see it on our social media feeds, in our relationships, and in our everyday interactions. In many ways, it’s actually become the normal response to any display of heavy or uncomfortable emotions.

We want people to cheer up. We may get awkward because we don’t know how to show up for those who are grieving. We ask how someone is doing, and then immediately follow up with a solution that they did not ask for. We want to skip past the grief, the heaviness, and the difficult conversations, and go back to how things were before. But in doing so, we are erasing moments that define someone’s life. We are asking them to ignore their very real and very raw experiences, because they make us uncomfortable.

Oftentimes when people engage in toxic positivity, they do so because they care and want to be part of the solution. But what if we resisted that temptation? The most powerful action you can take when someone is sharing their hardship with you, could be to take no action at all. Human beings crave belonging. We want to know that there is space for us when we aren’t feeling like ourselves, and that our loved ones want us around even when we aren’t our best. So what should you do, when a friend/peer is sharing their struggles with you? Hold space for it, both my listening to them (not just hearing them) and letting them to feel the way they do.

Some Suggestions:

  • Listen to understand, rather than listening to respond. It’s not our job to “fix it” or solve the problem and it is likely that the other person does not want us to. When we share our vulnerabilities, we aren’t looking for a solution, we are looking to be heard. The best thing you can do is listen and feel into what’s being shared. By doing so, you’re able to validate feelings.
  • Avoid inserting yourself in the conversation. We tend to want to relate to people’s experiences by telling them about a situation when we’ve experienced a similar hardship. This shifts the conversation from what they are currently going through, to what you once went through. While it may seem like you are bonding over a shared experience, it decentralizes who the speaker is. Instead, respond by affirming that you’re listening and if the conversation and relationship warrants it, ask how they would like to be supported.
  • Use informed optimism. Unlike toxic positivity, informed optimism is rooted in reality. With informed optimism, you acknowledge and validate the emotions present, while acknowledging that things can get better. This can be a powerful practice because of the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health.

If you are on the receiving end of toxic positivity, it can be disappointing and isolating. But know that your feelings are valid. It’s okay to not be okay. Our ability to feel is what makes us human, and that includes emotions — which can make some people uneasy. Your job isn’t to minimize your feelings for the comfort of others; it’s to be who you are.

As we begin to become more comfortable allowing ourselves to be emotionally present and vulnerable, we will naturally give others permission to do the same. The next time someone you care about is telling you to look on the bright side, tell them how that’s making you feel. We learn in community, and we heal this way too. By teaching others how they can show up for you, you’re indirectly teaching them how they can show up for themselves as well.

The most powerful thing you can do is hold space for the people that you are connected to and be with them in their vulnerability. In a world that prioritizes actions, there is power in being still. 

Rumeet Billan, Ph.D.

Rumeet Billan, Ph.D.

Dr. Rumeet Billan completed her PhD at the University of Toronto and has designed award-winning programs, courses, and training sessions across industries and sectors. She led the groundbreaking national research study on Tall Poppy Syndrome which reveals the impact of the silent systemic syndrome on women in the workplace. In 2020, she co-led the Canadian Happiness at Work study, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association. Named one of Canada’s Top 100 Health Leaders in 2021, Canada’s Top 10 Power Women in 2020, and twice named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, she serves on the Board of Directors of CODE and Fora Network.

How to know when it’s time to go.

Kimberly B Cummings

By Kimberly B. Cummings

Not every opportunity is a great one. This may be an unpopular opinion that perfectly fits into the “millennial mindset” that many other generations frown upon, but I’m going to say it anyway: You don’t have to stick it out. If you are unhappy, feel like your growth is being stunted, or learn there is a proverbial glass ceiling at your job that does not support your growth, you do not have to stay.

Like Jim Rohn once said, “If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree.” Sometimes, leaving a job can seem like an easy decision. However, I want you to be strategic and allow this to be a conscious decision, not just because you are frustrated, feel underemployed, undervalued, and underappreciated, which are all valid reasons, but because you are consciously choosing to embark on a job search to ultimately find a career for yourself, rather than just another job.

Before some folks tear me to shreds for encouraging you to leave your job, I will share that I believe it’s important to exhaust your options and have a strategic career conversation before leaving. I also do not advocate leaving a job before you have another one lined up unless it’s an extremely dire circumstance or you have six months to a year’s worth of savings and you like playing Russian Roulette. Before submitting your letter of resignation, it’s important to have honest conversations about your career trajectory with your manager or skip leader.

  • Ask for feedback about your performance from your manager or skip leader.
  • Understand the trajectory of your career at your current company.
  • Understand the current climate of your industry and how that would impact a job search at that time.
  • Ensure you have built strategic relationships with mentors and sponsors who can advocate for your next career move, regardless of whether it is internal or external to your current company.

Before making a career move, I stress to my clients that the work needs to begin well before any moves are made. This theory is one of the main reasons that I wanted to write this book! Too often, we try to fast track the next move because we’ve reached a certain place in the current role where we feel we can no longer be happy. If you are already at that place and know it’s time to go, I will not advocate for you to stay.

“You can create a career that rewards you with opportunities, rather than waiting for someone in your current company to tap you on your shoulder and indicate it’s time for you to rise.”

It wasn’t until I was preparing for my fourth professional move that I felt myself make a truly strategic career decision. Earlier I had shared that I was performing well — basically overperforming. I was also in classes to complete my Master of Science in counseling that required an external internship, all while innovating various ideas and strategies that the career-development office was working toward executing. I exceeded my goals, but my manager felt I had untapped potential and could further exceed my goals. It goes without saying that I was pissed. I was angry beyond measure. I had worked so hard that year. I could not understand why I was not being promoted when others in the office received promotions while doing less work and made fewer contributions to the office than I had in the past year.

At that moment, I felt that I had to take control of my career versus waiting to be recognized and provide an opportunity to myself. Women and people of color often wait to be recognized as high performers to be promoted and rise to the next level in an organization. I want you to switch that mode of thinking. You can create a career that rewards you with opportunities, rather than waiting for someone in your current company to tap you on your shoulder and indicate it’s time for you to rise. This is why having this book in your hands is so important. We need tactics in our careers, so we know what to do.

This was the first time I felt like I truly made a strategic move in my career and not just moving because I was unhappy or simply believed my time had come to an end with a certain employer. I was performing at an organization, doing work that I thought was meaningful, and was excited to continue to excel as a leader in the industry. I had to sit back and think, “How can I grow my career in the same field but just not at this organization?”

“It’s essential to understand when it’s time to leave and assemble a career strategy that allows you to be ready at all times.”

It’s essential to understand when it’s time to leave and assemble a career strategy that allows you to be ready at all times. You should always have options, even if you are happy in a job. Options don’t always have to look like a way out either. Each new relationship you build may provide you with options. Each task you complete in your career strategy may provide you with new possibilities. Each time you add a new skill to your toolkit, you are creating an option. That is why developing a career strategy is so important. Logging into your work computer each day with your head down, hoping that change will happen, is the farthest thing from an option. If you are on the fence about embarking on a job search, there are several reasons that you may think it’s your time to go.

Let’s examine the seven most common reasons that may serve as signals to either start your job search to get a new job or have a serious conversation about getting promoted or increasing your current responsibilities.

1. Suddenly feeling bored at work.

I’m not talking about being bored on a particular assignment or if things are slow in the office and you find yourself doing more online shopping than working. I’m talking about that feeling of being bored to your core, and you feel like you are still exceeding the organization’s goals, but your mind craves more. The example I like to give is about a mother’s feeling that her child needs more learning opportunities. She can see that her child has an aptitude for more, and she looks for additional books and resources, or it’s time for her child to go to school even though he or she is only three and not ready to go to preschool. Moms talk about seeing the “light bulb” turn on in their child and knowing they need to do more for them because watching Frozen for the 28th time will not cut it. The same goes for your career. If you are bored beyond belief because you’ve mastered your role, and this boredom is also causing overall dissatisfaction, the time has come for you to think about your next move.

2. You have been there for a while, but you feel like you finally started to outgrow your work.

If you’ve accomplished all there is to accomplish in your position, and you begin to feel constrained by your title and role, it may be time to start looking for options. Maybe you need to have a discussion with your manager about a power lateral or promotional opportunity, or maybe it’s time to start looking at job boards if you know upward movement is not a possibility for you in your current company. The key is knowing you have done all you could do within the constraints of the role you currently hold.

3. If you put in the time, but the pay still isn’t where it should be. 

Maybe you negotiated to the best of your ability, but two solid years have passed, and you are a consistent, high performer, yet you have not received more than a cost of living increase. The key is ensuring you put time into your role and you’re performing well because you cannot complain about a pay level you accepted when you were hired, especially when you haven’t put in enough time to showcase your professional value. Once you have been in a job for at least a year, observed how the business operates year-round, and you’ve mastered your job, it’s more than acceptable to start looking for money inside and outside of your company. However, having the experience and impact to back that desire to increase your salary is essential. Many professionals have had a situation in which they quickly said “yes,” and were excited about a job opportunity but realize they would be underpaid but that is not enough in this case.

4. Having a conflict in the office that is not fixable. 

This is tough. Sometimes, conflicts at work are difficult to navigate. If you’ve had a conflict with a manager or co-worker that is truly affecting your ability to perform in your job, then you may want to consider your options. However, I am a huge advocate for making sure you find a job before leaving your current job. It also helps to develop relationships with other colleagues to make sure you are guaranteed a quality recommendation, if needed. There are many types of conflicts that can happen in the office. It goes without saying that if it’s impacting your work, your ability to continue contributing, or someone is retaliating against you, you must go through the proper channels, generally through your human resources office, to document and share this. However, there may come a time when it may be best to either leave the department or leave the company to pursue your next role in an environment that supports your growth.

5. You work for a department or company you do not like. 

There is no use in working for a department or company that you cannot stand to be in for 40-plus hours per week. If you know you do not support the mission, the vision, or the work you are completing every day, it may be time to leave. Even if the economy may not be great or you feel as though the job you are looking for may be hard to come by, this must be a strategic move. Do not just pack up and quit today. Start applying for positions in other departments in your current company that could make you happy or at a new company that you feel aligns with your career strategy and has what you need to thrive. When it comes to making career decisions, consider everything involved– the people, company, your work, and the trajectory you will have when doing this work. All those factors come into play.

6. Circumstances in your personal life make your job harder.

Changes in your personal life can be even harder if your job is making it more difficult. Maybe you got married and with your spouse bought a house that is super far from work. Maybe you were thinking of starting a family and know your office could care less about work-life balance for its employees. Maybe you have a health concern, and the long hours and late nights in the office won’t allow you to care for yourself properly. Maybe COVID-19 significantly impacted your responsibilities for your family and you need to reevaluate your work situation. Those are all valid reasons, and there are probably hundreds more, that can make it time for you to start thinking about navigating and building a career that supports your current life stage. Evaluate whether you can do anything to stay at your current job if you would like to stay, such as reduced hours, an alternative schedule, or a permanent remote arrangement. Still, if your current job does not fit your lifestyle, it may be time to think about leaving.

7. You’ve found out there’s a glass ceiling at your company. 

If you’ve hit a glass ceiling at your job, and you know there is no possible way for you to get promoted, develop further, and reap any of the benefits that that company provides, you may need to explore outside opportunities where you can spread your wings. One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Barbara Ross Lee, a nationally recognized expert on health policy issues. Dr. Lee spoke at a women’s leadership dinner when I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree, and she said, “When you feel that you’ve hit a glass ceiling, find a bigger room.” There is always the option to take your next move outside of the company.

Excerpted from Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You’ll Love by Kimberly B. Cummings. Copyright © 2021 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Reprinted with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ. All rights reserved.
Kimberly B. Cummings

Kimberly B. Cummings

Kimberly B. Cummings is a career and leadership development expert as well as an accomplished speaker and podcast host. Her mission is to empower women and people of color get seen in the workplace, make more money, and become industry leaders. Founder of Manifest Yourself, LLC, Kimberly provides organizations with tailor-made solutions to hire, develop, engage, and retain women and people of color. Her book, Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love, teaches professionals how to navigate the working world.

Good Question: Can contradictory personality traits combine to become super powers?

In a special edition of Good Question, we’re sharing an excerpt from When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership. The book is unconventionally co-authored — through an exchange of emails — by Harvey Schachter, a management columnist, and Sheelagh Whitakker, a board member and retired CEO (notably, the first woman CEO of a TSX listed company). The pair have never met, but through emails share what they have learned over the years while challenging conventional wisdom on notions of ambition, success, ethics, getting communication right, gender at work, and legacy. In Chapter 10, they both explore a very good question: can contradictory personality traits combine to become a superpower? You can use the same exercise to meet your oxymoronic self — and perhaps discover that your contradictions aren’t self-defeating.

 

OUR EXPERT: 

Sheelagh WhittakerSheelagh Whittaker
Retired CEO, board member, and author. 

Sheelagh Whittaker loves to laugh. A savvy strategist and CEO, shrewd observer of the zeitgeist, and engaging storyteller — imparting wisdom from her invariably humorous stories — she rose to corporate top echelons back when people thought the glass ceiling was an observation deck. She has served as CEO, board member, and mother in Canada, the US, Britain and Australia. Her co-author, Harvey Schachter, is the dean of management column writers. Specializing in leadership, management and workplace issues, Harvey curates and synthesizes business how-to books and missives full of purported insights, and directs the reader to those worth consideration. Trenchant and practical, his delivery is sensitive to his reader’s need for insights delivered in small doses.

 

Hi Sheelagh,

Journalist Stewart Alsop called Bill Gates a “practical visionary.” That’s an odd combination, an oxymoron. But if he had just been a visionary without that practical side, he may not have been as successful as he was. If he had just been practical, there would be no Microsoft powerhouse today. The oxymoronic combination of traits was critical.

Walmart founder Sam Walton embodied not one but three critical paradoxes. He was relentlessly focused on winning but totally flexible and willing to try anything that seemed reasonable. He was creative but also willing to copy anything that worked well elsewhere. And he was an excellent motivator, willing to give people space to try out their own ideas but he also checked up on everything anyone did.

That comes from a 1997 sleeper book I loved, Paradoxical Thinking by Jerry Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler, which argues “the route to sustaining high performance is to consciously and actively encourage yourself to be paradoxical.” 

To find your core personal paradox, they suggest listing your personal qualities and characteristics – at least twenty – such as the types of actions you like to take, roles you like to play, and words that might be used to describe you. Then combine those into paradoxical pairs using oxymorons. For example, in one workshop they unearthed the following from participants:

  • attack sheep
  • lazy do-it-all
  • spontaneous planner
  • ruthless helper
  • creative imitator
  • passionate robot
  • hesitant risk-taker
  • velvet jackhammer
  • insecure tower of strength
  • ambitious slowpoke

Look for combinations of words on your list that are already opposites. You may, however, need to invent a phrase to describe yourself. The authors note that names of animals can be helpful – shy and timid making you a mouse, powerful and fearless turning you lion-hearted.

You’ll probably be uncomfortable with some of the characteristics you’ve named. “If one side of your core personality paradox seems like a limitation, you probably have felt for much of your life that you ‘shouldn’t’ act that way or you would be ‘better off’ if you were different. It is likely that you have tried to suppress or eliminate that quality of your personality. Yet this is not the direction to go,” they insist. 

Instead, reset your perceptions by listing the positives and negatives of the preferred and disliked sides. From those, develop a high-performance oxymoron combining the best of both sides, and a negative oxymoron combining the not-so-goods. In an example in the book, a woman defines herself as a “self-doubting overachiever,” liking the overachiever but disliking the self-doubting element. However, when she completes the self-examination, her high-performance oxymoron is quite helpful: “Thoroughly prepared expectation exceeder.” The nightmare scenario, though, is when she becomes a “hopeless wheel-spinner.” She has to try to be the former and not the latter.

Enough!

When I first read the book and for many years afterwards, I considered myself a “gentle tiger.” I still do, but recently I have focused more on a newer oxymoron: “rebellious loyalist.”

What about you? 

 

Hi Harvey,

I’d be interested in understanding your loyalties.

Meanwhile, I had a lot of fun with performance oxymorons. Right off I tried on “likeable bitch” with a good friend of mine who responded quickly but kindly, “Sheelagh, we are who we are. But maybe there are other ways to phrase it.”

Undaunted, I experimented with “irrepressible?” and came up blank. I guess I am simply irrepressible.

Other ideas included:

  • insightful boss
  • feminine feminist
  • ambivalent disciplinarian
  • effervescent recluse

While playing with performance oxymorons I was reminded of a very clever job category that existed in EDS – that of EDS Fellow.

EDS Fellows could be described as corporate individual performers. Early on, someone (maybe Ross Perot himself) recognized that we needed to attract and nurture brilliant mathematical and operations research minds to help us stay ahead of the game. Clearly, we did not want these people to spend their time managing others. We could handle that; we wanted them to spend their time experimenting and coming up with new ideas. 

A career path entitled Individual Performer was created, to which a very special class of IT artiste could aspire to be promoted. An EDS Fellow had the status, salary and perks of a vice president and no mundane day-to-day responsibilities. It was a brilliant solution to a motivation and retention problem and the EDS Fellows were revered by the organization.

I’ve got it – “irrepressibly curious.”

 

Hi Sheelagh,

You never follow the rules, do you?

But maybe you’re, as they say, aligned! Unlike me.

I’ve always worried my contradictions hinder my leadership, compared to others who are not as divided within themselves. The book offered me hope that maybe my contradictions aren’t self-defeating. You may be the model I need to follow. Together, we are probably an oxymoron.

 

 

Why we need time to disconnect — and how leaders can (and should) make it happen.

A woman relaxing with a book and tea.

By Christine Laperriere

Do you regularly shut off your devices and “leave work”? Do you have specific and agreed-upon hours in which you are no longer “on-call” for answers to work questions? Are you thankful you are not working 24/7 these days like others you know? If you couldn’t answer yes to at least one of these questions, you might need the right to disconnect.

It appears that before the pandemic, many of us were overwhelmed with the demands of work. I was so frustrated with this problem, I chose to write, in my spare time, a book entitled Too Busy to Be Happy. Thousands of people worldwide bought it, and many admitted that it was the book’s title that caught their attention. It was like I had identified a feeling that so many people had but couldn’t articulate. Ironically, some who have bought my book are — wait for it — too busy to read it.

Then came the pandemic — which forced hundreds of thousands of knowledge workers (a clever new name for office workers) into their homes, stuck behind their computers for hours on end. This had another massive impact on the way people worked.

When knowledge workers shifted to work-from-home, you could encapsulate the new phenomenon that developed in one catchphrase: “If I’m awake, I’m working.” Many employees were not accustomed to working from home and wanted to let their bosses know they were indeed working, so they fought to respond to email and text messages as quickly as possible (i.e. what I like to call digital facetime). With that, serious challenges started to arise:

  1. People did not get more productive. Although people felt they were “always on,” they didn’t have dedicated time to focus and accomplish more significant tasks because meetings filled their days. Any significant blocks of time were fractured. High-value tasks were constantly being stopped and started again, as people often urgently responded to non-urgent texts and emails.
  2. People extended their workday. I noticed that many people I work with started to do “high-focus work” in the evening or late at night because this became the critical time they were not meeting or responding to daily information, and they can finally focus without interruption.
  3. People felt more pressure to work around the clock. As more people started tackling mission-critical work in the evenings, those who were not online started to feel like maybe they should be. As some played late-night catch-up, other well-intended employees felt like maybe this was the expectation. I don’t blame those who posted late-hour work—they wanted people to know how hard they were working!
  4. People stopped fully disconnecting. Ironically, many well-intended team members would see things coming in after hours and they’d opt to send a quick answer or acknowledgement. Who wants to look like one of the “slackers” who are busy eating dinner with their families or hitting their home gym for the 410th time?
  5. People burnt out. This never-ending cycle of work mixed with a global pandemic was the recipe for depression and a deep level of anxiety.

When I challenge my coaching clients to designate specific times to disconnect, they often say that they find that challenging because of the lack of alignment with those committed to digital facetime — sending messages and emails at all hours of the day. Given that most people can’t complete their full workload these days and constantly run behind schedule, they at least want to give their organization the impression that they are doing their best.

Here are a few solutions I’ve been challenging companies to implement:

  • Designate company-wide blackout hours, where no one is expected or required to be online or working (i.e. 8 pm – 8 am).
  • Allow employees to clarify their blackout hours themselves (i.e. an employee who works from 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. could dedicate 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. as their “disconnect” hours.)
  • Designate meeting-free blocks of time during the work week dedicated to getting big assignments done. For example, Tuesday is meeting free or no meetings from 3 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Why is it important to make this a cultural concept versus letting everyone manage this independently?

  • We need to remember the power of culture — people subconsciously mirror one another. Therefore, when we work in an environment where people work around the clock, even if we implement healthy boundaries—by nature—we feel either guilty or disconnected from the team in our efforts to uphold those boundaries.
  • Unspoken permission is a thing. I have noticed that culture can be powerful in setting up what feels like unspoken permission to do or say specific things. Setting the precedent that encourages people to disconnect each day—even if they choose to take a different path—will eliminate the unnecessary guilt and resentment when they choose to take a much needed break.
  • Life is short. In the last twenty months, many of us have lost or lost time with loved ones. People have been acutely aware that our time on earth is finite. And with that, many have come to enjoy regular family dinners, skipping rush hour, growing a herb garden, and seeing that even weekdays deserve moments of enjoyment.

Whether or not you’re in Ontario — a province that has just passed the “right to disconnect”  I encourage you to take the lead. Spot those hours when you will disconnect from work and be present with your friends, family, or yourself. Block out times in your day to focus on what matters at work and unhook from the need to respond to pointless emails and text messages. Last but not least, give yourself permission to enjoy any newfound peace and freedom these practices create.

Christine Laperreriere

Christine Laperreriere

Christine Laperriere is president of Leader in Motion and focuses exclusively on developing great leaders. She hosts the Best Boss Ever podcast on Apple Music and Spotify where she interviews top professionals on who their best boss ever is and why. She offers advice through her blog "The Whipp" (Wisdom, Humour and Inspiration for Professional Peeps) and she is the author of Too Busy to Be Happy — a guide to using Emotional Real Estate to improve both your work and your life. A seasoned expert in helping women professionals advance their careers, she’s had the honour of guiding hundreds of women in various companies and roles to reach their full potential.

Tips on stepping over the pay gap.

A woman negotiating

It is an undisputed fact that women earn less than men. The gap varies by age, industry, location, and the method by which you measure it, but most estimates fall within a 10 to 25 per cent range — and that number grows for women who are Indigenous, living with a disability, racialized, or newcomers.

What is less clear is why this problem continues to persist. One common explanation is that the blame lies mainly with women themselves, for failing to ask for the compensation they deserve. In their 2003 book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever cite a study of recently graduated MBAs from Carnegie Mellon University. Only 7 per cent of the women had attempted to negotiate their starting salary, compared to 57 per cent of the men — resulting in compensation that was nearly $4,000 higher, on average. That amount, invested at a modest return of four per cent, would be worth over $60,000 in 25 years. And that doesn’t account for other increases of income that are negotiated over time.

As this statistic and others like it continue to be shared, what gets critically lost are the systemic explanations behind it: Women are socialized not to self-promote, and are punished when they do so, including when advocating for compensation in the workplace. Plus, more recent research finds that women are now in fact asking for increased compensation about as often as men — except they’re 25 per cent less likely to be successful.  

“These days it seems like there is zero negotiation allowed for new employment,” says Celeste, a network professional based in San Diego, California, who has been in the industry on and off for over 23 years. “Maybe it’s where I am in my career and career search, but it has yet to be presented as a dialogue. More of a take it or leave it.” 

What to ask for, and how to ask for it

Telling women to simply act more like men is not the solution to close the compensation gap. But while we work on the necessary systemic change, women need a better understanding of what to ask for, and how to ask for it. 

Fotini Iconomopoulos is a speaker, trainer, and author of Say Less, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get What You Want. She has spent more than a decade teaching negotiation and communication skills, including advising clients on getting the compensation they deserve.  

“Both studies and anecdotal evidence show us that women are treated differently when it comes to negotiation, so we need to be more savvy.”

“Both studies and anecdotal evidence show us that women are treated differently when it comes to negotiation, so we need to be more savvy,” says Fotini. “We need to find ways to get creative on compensation as well, because salary is one piece of it — you can’t pay your mortgage except with the money in your bank account — but there are ways you can increase your wealth in addition to salary.” 

She recommends starting with considering your everyday or occasional expenditures that the company can be covering. Things like parking, transportation, and home office expenses, including your Internet and cell phone. When you take income tax into account, you have to earn more than $100 to pay that $100 mobility bill — while your company might be able to take advantage of bulk rates or tax incentives. 

You can also negotiate for education or training funds, from conference allowances to professional certifications to getting your MBA. “There are lots of things from a personal development perspective that will not only help you save money, but also help you to advance your career.” 

Career advancement

From the perspective of future career advancement, there are also non-monetary items to consider that are really important, like your job title. “If you do have to leave this company someday, or if you want to get promoted internally, which job title you are starting from determines your jumping off point,” advises Fotini. She also recommends asking what kind of access you’ll have to interesting projects, and what exposure you’ll have to potential mentors and sponsors. “All of those things are going to help qualitatively and quantitatively to advance your career, and hopefully make you a lot more money a lot faster.” 

Some employers may hesitate to give you the title or salary you’re asking for until they’ve seen you in action. It’s an issue Fotini sees happening more often with women than men — “men are often hired on their potential, women on their proof” — and she recommends countering with a starting bonus. “It’s a great way to bridge the gap, as they don’t have to commit to higher compensation fully.” 

Approach to negotiation

When it comes to your negotiation approach, Fotini says a lot of it is based on gut instinct. “You need to know the person that you’re dealing with, and what the right timing should feel like,” she says, adding that there are some general guidelines to follow if you’re unsure. Some elements, like job titles, might be easier to bring up sooner compared to a benefits package. “It’s very common to have salary be an early part of the conversation, so people shouldn’t be shy about doing that. If they’ve made an offer, or you know they really want you, that’s when it would be appropriate to be talking about all these extra details.”

Depending on your industry, there might be established norms with respect to perks, but consider them a starting point. “As much as I would recommend people do their homework to understand what’s standard in your industry so you’re at least getting the bare minimum — don’t let that limit you in terms of what you should be asking for,” says Fotini. “Just because it’s normal in consulting but not normal in manufacturing doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for it or that you won’t get it.” 

She has similar advice for seniority level. “Usually, the more senior you are, the more extra signing incentives you can get, because you’re going to be leaving behind some serious job security. You have to be thinking of what they can do to minimize some of that risk,” says Fotini. “It’s compensation, it’s starting benefits from the very beginning, versus a trial probation — all things that can add to your bottom line, and may very well be standard costs for the business. They’re more expected in senior roles, but not impossible in junior roles.”

“The greatest resource we have is people. The hiccup with that is, people are very uncomfortable talking about salary.”

Diane has spent two decades in the advertising industry, in Toronto and abroad. It’s common to switch agencies every few years, either to gain experience on new clients or to move up the ladder, so she’s been through the process more than a handful of times. She now approaches each offer as a negotiation, and recognizes that companies have the leeway to bend their own rules, especially when it comes to more senior positions. 

“I’ve asked several times to waive the three-month probationary period to get access to health benefits right away,” says Diane. “And when I started in my current role, it was a standard part of the package to have a car allowance and parking spot — except I don’t drive. So, I negotiated for a metro pass instead.” 

Tailoring the offer to her needs is a tactic she recommends to others. “I always look through to see if there are any benefits I won’t be able to use, and think of what else I can negotiate for in its place,” Diane says. Her savvy comes from experience, but she says she has learned the most about what to ask for and how to succeed at negotiations by talking openly with friends and mentors. It’s the approach that Fotini recommends everyone take. 

“The greatest resource we have is people,” she says. “The hiccup with that is, people are very uncomfortable talking about salary.” To overcome that hurdle, she suggests carefully crafting your questions in more general terms, such as ‘what would you expect someone of my experience level to get in this organisation, or in my industry?’ 

“Without those conversations, I fear that even with Google and Glassdoor and all of those resources, we’re missing a really important piece of the puzzle to get women where they deserve to be,” says Fotini. “There are wonderful people out there who want to see you be successful, so tap into those people, ask great questions, and you won’t be held back by some of those obstacles put in your way.”

Q et R: Katell Burot, la PDG et cofondatrice de Carrément Tarte a choisi ses priorités: la santé de ses employés et de ses fournisseurs avant tout et malgré les circonstances difficiles dans laquelle elle navigue.

Katell Burot

Katell Burot est cofondatrice et PDG de Carrément Tarte, une entreprise de transformation alimentaire primée et en pleine croissance, spécialisée dans la fabrication de produits gastronomiques prêts à garnir et prêts à servir. Comptable professionnelle agréée en France et au Canada avant de se lancer dans son aventure entrepreneuriale, Katell s’engage désormais dans le développement du secteur agroalimentaire, travaillant à bâtir son entreprise et à changer l’image et la perception de l’industrie.

 

Comment avez-vous géré les finances de votre entreprise pendant la pandémie?

L’arrivée de la pandémie a fait peser beaucoup d’incertitudes : pertes de certains marchés (la restauration), ralentissement de notre croissance et mise sur la glace de notre projet d’agrandissement, risque sur plusieurs comptes clients à recevoir. L’approche a tout de suite été réactive au niveau du cash-flow. Quelle est le risque pour les 3 prochains mois, y-a-t-il des facilités dont nous pourrons bénéficier? Le partage entre entrepreneur a été clé dans cette période, pour partager les bons et mauvais coups. Nous avons utilisé les possibilités de financement qui se sont offertes à nous : prêt d’urgence, moratoire…Heureusement pour nous, les effets des premières semaines se sont rapidement estompés au profit d’une croissances des affaires sur le marché du détail et des épiceries en ligne.

Votre approche des ventes et du marketing a-t-elle changé? 

Nous avons en effet recentré l’ensemble de nos ventes sur le marché des épiceries, et à l’intérieur de celui-ci avons fait grandir nos partenariats avec des joueurs de l’épicerie en ligne. La stratégie était simple, puisque le développement des affaires et le démarchage traditionnel, via les visites de magasin, n’était plus possible, concentrons-nous à faire grandir nos partenaires actuels. Malheureusement ce recentrage nous a obligé à mettre certaines de nos forces de travail à temps partiel. 

Nous avons aussi participé à de nombreuses initiatives de plateforme de ventes en ligne. Certaines avec plus ou moins de succès, il faut avouer…chaque jour une nouvelle plateforme apparaissait ! Aujourd’hui, il ne reste pas beaucoup de ces initiatives encore actives. Mais cela a initié la réflexion de la vente en ligne au sein de l’entreprise.

Quel rôle la technologie a-t-elle joué dans votre entreprise pendant cette période? 

E-commerce, E-commerce, E-commerce…le maitre mot du tournant qu’à fait prendre la pandémie aux entreprises de la transformation alimentaire. Carrément Tarte suit cette tendance, après avoir procédé à une planification stratégique, nous travaillons actuellement à la mise en place d’un site transactionnel et d’une stratégie digitale, qui viendra s’intégrer à notre modèle d’affaires de manufacturier. 

Comment avez-vous préservé votre moral (et celui de votre équipe)?

Définitivement, « care/porter attention » est le mot qui décrit le plus l’état d’esprit de ces mois tumultueux! Porter attention à nos employés, qui attendaient des gestes forts pour répondre à une certaine anxiété. Carrément Tarte comme transformateur alimentaire n’a jamais arrêté ses opérations.  Porter attention à nos clients, dont certains en restauration, ont vécus des mois extrêmement difficiles. Porter attention à nos fournisseurs qui subissaient des arrêts d’approvisionnements, des réductions de main d’œuvre. Et pour finir, porter attention à nous en tant qu’entrepreneur! On est des tout-terrains, la gestion de crise nous apporte de l’adrénaline…mais nous ne sommes pas tous égaux dans cet environnement.  

Quel conseil donneriez-vous aux entrepreneurs de votre secteur aujourd’hui?

Mon mantra depuis le début de notre aventure est « make-it happen! ». Il n’appartient qu’à nous de réaliser notre rêve. Évidemment, c’est un peu comme faire l’équilibriste, car nous savons tous qu’il faut aussi avoir une dose de réalisme er de pragmatisme. Une chose est sure par contre, il ne faut pas écouter tout le monde et encore mois au début. Les bonnes idées et les opportunités n’existent que parce qu’elles ne sont pas vues par tout le monde justement!  

Q&A: Katell Burot, CEO of Carrément Tarte, put the health of her employees and vendors first when navigating difficult circumstances.

Katell Burot

Katell Burot is the Co-Founder and CEO of Carrément Tarte, an award winning and fast-growing food processing company specializing in the manufacturing of ready-to-garnish and ready-to-serve gourmet food products. A professional Chartered Accountant in both France and Canada before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey, Katell is now committed to the development of the agri-food sector, working to build her business and change the image and perception of the industry

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

The onset of the pandemic created many uncertainties: Losses in certain markets (the restaurant industry), the slow down in our growth, the shelving of our expansion project, and the risk to a number of accounts receivable. The approach was immediately reactive to cash flow. What was the risk for the next three months? Were there any facilities we could take advantage of? Entrepreneurial sharing was key during this period, to share the good and the bad. We used the financing opportunities available to us: an emergency loan and moratorium. Luckily for us, the effects of the first few weeks quickly diminished in favour of business growth in the online grocery and retail markets.

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

We refocused all our sales efforts in the grocery market, and in that market grew our partnerships with online grocery players. The strategy was simple: business development and traditional canvassing through store visits are no longer possible, so let’s focus on growing our existing partnerships. Unfortunately, this change in focus forced us to put some of our workforce on part-time hours. 

We also participated in numerous online sales platform initiatives. Admittedly, some with varying degrees of success — every day a new platform emerged! Today, few of these initiatives remain active, but this did stimulate thinking about online sales in the company.

How has technology played a role in your business during this time? 

E-commerce, e-commerce, e-commerce — the key word for the new direction that the pandemic is leading food processing companies to take. Carrément Tarte is following this trend. After having engaged in strategic planning, we are currently working on implementing a transactional site and a digital strategy, which will be incorporated in our manufacturing business model. 

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?

“Care” is definitely the word that best describes our mindset during these tumultuous months! Care for our employees, who were waiting for strong action to address a degree of anxiety. As a food processor, Carrément Tarte never stopped operating. Care for our customers, some of whom are in the restaurant business, who experienced extremely difficult months. Care for our suppliers, who were experiencing supply disruptions and workforce reductions. And, lastly, care for us as entrepreneurs! We’re all-terrain vehicles — crisis management gives us adrenaline, but we’re not all equal in this environment.  

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?

My mantra since the beginning of our adventure has been “make it happen!” It’s up to us to make our dream a reality. Of course, it’s a bit of a balancing act, because we all know that a dose of realism and pragmatism is also necessary. One thing is for sure though: You shouldn’t listen to everyone, especially at the start. Good ideas and opportunities only exist because not everyone sees them! 

Q&A: Natalie Dusome, founder and designer of Poppy & Peonies, is making life easier (and more stylish) for moms.

Natalie Dusome

Natalie Dusome is the founder and designer of Poppy & Peonies, a sustainable, functional Canadian accessory brand named after her daughter Poppy. With dreams of becoming a fashion designer since she was a young girl, Natalie founded her brand in response to a direct personal need of hers: Functional accessories that could accommodate being a new mom. Confident she wasn’t alone in that need, Natalie created Poppy & Peonies to design practical pieces that would help other women navigate motherhood a little easier and much more stylishly. Since the brand’s formation, Natalie has appeared on Dragons’ Den and Poppy & Peonies continues to grow rapidly, collaborating with other brands and influencers in the process. 

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

COVID really affected our business — we had to examine our entire business model and pivot quickly to survive. We had to preserve cash flow and lean out on all aspects of the business, from our marketing spend to our inventory purchasing. We participated in and were very grateful for the government programs available, including wage subsidy, rent subsidy, Métis Business Recovery Financing loan, and the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan. We didn’t want to take on any more debt, but we couldn’t turn down the forgivable portion of these loans — especially when we really needed the cash flow to offset the slowdown in sales. These funds came in handy to optimize our website and get in front of our audience who was now spending more time online shopping.

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

Social media platforms play a huge role in how we connect with our customers. As a brand, we had to get crystal clear on our brand values so we could connect with our customers on a deeper level. Our marketing strategy has definitely shifted since COVID. Video content has never been more important, especially since Instagram is competing with Tik Tok and is no longer a photo sharing platform, but an entertainment platform. We had to get more comfortable in front of the camera talking to our customers on Instagram stories and creating videos and reels. We also launched an affiliate program where we could partner with, empower, and reward brand ambassadors for creating and sharing user generated content. 

How has technology played a role in your business during this time? 

We made the decision a year ago to have our entire team work remotely permanently. Women need more flexibility in the workplace to juggle the new, ever evolving landscape of school, work, kids’ activities, and trying to balance it all. Our team is more productive and much happier working from home. Having a remote team requires technology to keep us connected; we use a number of software tools for that. We use Shopify and a ton of apps to optimize our website. We also switched our bookkeeping to cloud accounting, which means less paperwork, more efficiency, and better monthly finance reporting.

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?

As a company, we really try to focus on the silver linings of COVID. We believe in gratitude, and express it regularly to our community of customers and our team. When you come from a place of gratitude there is so much to be thankful for, so the energy is high and positive. We believe in a growth mindset, always learning new ways to work and optimize the business, and new ways to grow — this keeps us curious and sharp. 

For personal care, I really value meditation. I try to squeeze in one or two five-minute sessions a day; it resets my mind. Time blocking has really helped with my productivity. Instead of bouncing around between five different tasks, I’ve learned to focus on one task at a time. This allows me to get into a flow and produce a higher quality result. I’m also learning that rest is productive — our brains do a lot of problem solving when they’re resting, so now, instead of burning the midnight oil, I go to bed. 

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?

This year, I got a mentor and it’s changed everything. She’s someone who really inspires me; she’s in my industry and is where I want to be. She’s also a mom, a CEO, and is running a huge online Canadian brand, and the advice she gives me is like gold, because she’s been there and done it. My advice would be to find a mentor in your industry who inspires you and is where you want to be. You’ll probably talk yourself out of it by thinking, they’re too busy — why would they want to help me? But be bold, reach out, and just ask and see if they’re interested; 30 minutes once or twice a month isn’t a lot to ask, and it’s rewarding for them too.  

My other advice is to get clear on your business goals. Write them down, hang them in front of you, look at them every day, and ensure every step you’re taking that day is getting you closer to that goal. 

Lastly, get out of your comfort zone as a business. The opportunities that gave me the biggest rewards were the ones that scared the shit out of me the most — like going on Dragons’ Den or collaborating with Jillian Harris. Get comfortable being uncomfortable; that’s where the growth happens.