Janet De Silva is the President & CEO of Toronto Region Board of Trade, the chamber of commerce for Canada’s largest urban centre, representing the business interest of 12,000 members and 200,000 business professionals across the Toronto region. Prior to joining the Board, Janet was Dean of Ivey Asia, leading the Hong Kong campus and Mainland China operations of Ivey Business School (Western University), with responsibility for the school’s programs, overall development and expansion in Asia.
Before Ivey, Janet was the CEO of Sun Life Financial’s business in Hong Kong, and its Mainland China joint venture. She also served terms as Chair and President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and Chair of Canada China Business Council, Beijing. In 2007, she was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women.
Raised in Kitchener-Waterloo, Janet holds an MBA from Ivey Business School of Western University and served on its Asian Advisory Board for 10 years before assuming the role of Dean. She is presently a non-executive director on the boards of Intact Financial Corporation (TSX:IFC) and Blue Umbrella Limited.
One of your early roles with Sun Life in Canada was VP of Individual Sales. At the time, that made you the first woman in North America to be running an agency sales system of any life insurance company. How was that experience?
“A Lady? A lady running an agency?” was the reaction from the wife of our top UK agents. Not only was I the first woman, I was also significantly younger than any of the regional heads or branch general managers reporting to me.
You later rose to become CEO of Canadian Sun Life Financial's business in Hong Kong and then its mainland joint venture. What were some of the leadership lessons you learned from those assignments?
My international assignments transformed me. It helped me know what I don’t know. As a “nice and tolerant” Canadian, it helped me understand that when something doesn’t make sense by asking a question or two to understand “why”, there was either a good reason for why things happened the way they did or there was an acceptable case to change things.
With the growth potential of Asia, I was suddenly facing competition from top companies from all over the world. My assignment in Hong Kong was to transform an underperforming business by introducing new products and distribution channels. I learned about the importance of relationship building in an Asian culture. Where the business culture of Canada is more aligned to time management and therefore not wanting to waste other people’s time with idle discussion, Asia was much more about getting to know business stakeholders, personally, before doing business.
Where my previous experience in mature markets like Canada and Hong Kong was to deliver financial improvements through downsizing, operational efficiency projects and costs control, China was all about growth. I was there during the post-WTO era which opened up expansion opportunities to foreign insurers. I had to learn quickly what it meant to attract, develop and retain talent in an environment where all insurers were expanding and so a 30 percent industry average turnover rate would be a business de-railer if we couldn’t fix it. We introduced a “Career Passport” program that was very visible about our growth, our career opportunities and the learning opportunities we could provide. Within 3 years we dropped to a staff turnover rate of 9 percent, the lowest in the industry, and saw 75 percent of our hires coming from staff referrals.
When you were Dean of Ivey Asia, the school aggressively expanded in mainland China. How difficult was that?
We were competing against some of the world’s top university brands – Harvard, Chicago Booth, INSEAD, Kellogg and IMD. Canada has an amazing education system. Among the G8, we invest the highest percent of our GDP in education, but we don’t promote this and therefore haven’t established a brand identity in Asia. Ivey is a case method school. The school’s case library is second in size only to Harvard, and in, fact Ivey’s Asian case library is larger. As with my Sun Life experience, much of developing Ivey in China was about creating a brand identity for Ivey and Canadian education. Ultimately, Ivey’s reputation as a top case-method school became valued for the practical, experiential programs it could offer. And, the willingness of our faculty to deliver programs in Chinese, through simultaneous translation and investments in translating out cases into Chinese, yielded dividends for us.
You have now taken on an exciting role at the Board of Trade. How are you hiring for the organization? What are you looking for?
I’m looking for diversity of experience, commercial experience and a true belief in our ability to make a difference. Two of our recent executive team hires, through the amazing support of Sal Badali at Odgers Berndtson, brought in great complimentary skills. Gillian Smith, our new VP, Membership who was previously CEO at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, is a dynamo who brings outstanding leadership skills and a strong understanding of our amazing newcomer community. Doug Goold, our new VP, Policy, Public Affairs and Communication; brings an amazing mix of experience. He has strong Indian diaspora experience through the Asia Pacific Foundation, and he was the former President of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs and former Editor of the Report on Business (ROB) and ROB Magazine.
What career and life advice do you give to women who want to become CEOs and join Boards?
This is a question I have often been asked. And, I should mention that China was fascinated by the fact that a Fortune 500 company would send a non-Chinese woman to China to run a joint venture. The Chinese Chair of our joint venture told me it challenged their perception of the West and what they perceived was the glass ceiling applied to women in business in the West. I’ve never felt that gender was a pro or a con during my career. Having been asked this often over the years, here’s my top 5 advice points for women who want to be CEOs and ultimately join Boards:
- Get strong P&L experience.
- Get international experience – this will give you amazing perspectives and new ideas to apply to your home market or any market.
- Look for opportunities to build your board experience through subsidiary and non-profit boards.
- “Marry well” (not rich – but well). Choosing the “right” husband has been key to my success and to any of the amazing women leaders I know. My husband has been my strongest supporter and puts the balance in our family home life when I have needed to travel, be on the road for extended periods or even relocate for a new assignment months ahead of the family.
- Completing executive education, like when I completed my Executive MBA, which rounded out my skills and experience and gave me access to similar-stage executives across a range of industry sectors.
What leaders have influenced you the most in your career?
I wouldn’t dare try to share a list for fear of missing someone. My parents, absolutely, influenced my value system and sense of personal accountability. But quite frankly, I find that everyone I meet influences me – some in positive ways and some (in the minority) who show me what I don’t want to be in terms of behavior and relationships. But, overall -- cliché I know -- I’ve learned that the world is an incredibly small place. You never know if the person you initially didn’t “click” with may someday be a major center of influence and network for you. So, I believe I have found a way to work with many different styles. And I’ve learned to take a lesson away from every interaction.
What do people mostly get wrong about Hong Kong?
Canadians without Asian experience don’t always understand the situation facing people in emerging markets and tend to judge things by the way we do things in Canada. Relative to emerging markets, we are a wealthy nation and benefit from levels of lifestyle, political development, healthcare and other social programs that are as of yet unavailable in many Asian countries. People in emerging markets want what we have – the chance to get out of poverty, become self-sufficient and be in control of their destiny. For them, this may initially mean doing things differently than we do in Canada. Because it is different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In many cases it is reflective of a different stage of development, something that Canada went through generations ago. The Economist reports that over the past 20 years over 1 billion people in emerging markets have been lifted out of poverty due to the benefits of globalization and trade. China represents 75 percent of this number. Ultimately, these growing middle classes are influencing the development of their societies and as they progress can be expected to achieve more of the lifestyle conditions we are fortunate to enjoy in Canada.
When we last chatted, you mentioned your strong interest in rugby that came from your experience living in Hong Kong. Explain!
Rugby is to Hong Kong what hockey is to Canada! Rugby has been played there for more than 150 years, a tribute to its British history. Hong Kong is home to the world’s largest mini-rugby league with almost 5,000 children between the ages of 4 and 12 playing. Our son, Jake, got interested through some of his school friends. He and my husband, Yves, spent weeks watching YouTube videos to learn about the game when he first entered the program. He’s now passionate about the sport and was selected for Hong Kong’s National Development Program. With our family move back to Canada, our son will be going to Shawnigan Lake School, Canada’s rugby school!
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