An entrepreneur, a leader, a wife, a mother, and a daughter. That’s how I describe myself, when asked. The second question I often get is, “do you have any advice for women who aspire to leadership positions?” After a lifetime of successes and failures, opportunities and disappointments, in fact, I do. On the 10th Anniversary of Reformulary Group, the company I founded, it seems to be the right time to share my insights and experiences, hoping they will be helpful to women forging their careers and making their contributions.
For most of my life I have been a risk-taker; this, despite growing up in a risk-averse family. As a young woman and graduate of McGill, I packed up and moved to Europe for the summer to teach tennis in a beautiful part of Switzerland. Little did I know that I’d be packing up again two years later to do my MBA in Europe. My entrepreneurial spirit had already taken hold when I was an undergraduate at McGill, having sold promotional swag to students, and having made money typing essays for my fellow classmates. After completing my MBA/MSM in Belgium, I moved to Switzerland – not just for a summer, but for 8 years. In Zug, Switzerland, I founded a healthcare consulting firm. Years later, I moved back to Canada and built a new consulting firm based in Toronto. That’s when the provincial government came calling. I was brought into government to undertake wide-sweeping reforms of the prescription drug system in Ontario. It was an intense time, but while there, I saw opportunity for greater transparency and patient empowerment in private drug plans. The idea for Reformulary was born.
The drug system was ripe for disruption. I had a vision, I had confidence; however, I was the sole supporter of my three children. It was a huge risk to build a company, but I took it believing I had the tenacity and the resilience to build this business. There is no doubt, it was hard. Juggling work and my family meant almost no time for anything else. To be successful as a woman leader, you have to be fearless and clever about taking risks. At the same time you must be committed to working hard, very hard. Success is not for the faint of heart.
If you have ever tried to raise capital, you know what an exciting and yet humiliating and rejection-filled experience it can be. There are disappointments, many of them, but you have to dig deep and move on. Look forward, push forward, stay strong.
More than a decade ago, I challenged my inner strength. I signed up for the Navy Seals’ Leadership Under Fire program which tests mental and physical stamina as well as leadership skills. It was the best and worst experience of my life. Four days, three nights, no more than four hours sleep the whole time. Yes, sleep deprivation is part of the training. We crawled through quicksand, spent hours in the water with waves crashing over us, trained in combat, which tested every fibre of my being. I was the only woman who made it through the conditioning, a crash course in mental toughness. What I learned in that resilience pressure cooker, is that I have the strength and the will to face adversity.
Entrepreneurs need resilience to build a business. I had the passion and the determination, but without investors, Reformulary would just be a good idea. Through my network, I met the CEO of a large U.S. company in the pharmacy benefit management sector. Suddenly I found myself on an airplane, business plan and presentation in hand, on my way to meet him. I was nervous. But I was determined, I made the pitch and it happened on the spot. He agreed to invest; I finally had the capital to rent space, hire a team and launch the business. It was life changing. Without grit and resilience, I would not have secured the capital.
In our turbulent times, authentic leadership is often prescribed as the best approach. The academics say it is positive leadership uniquely suited to our ever-changing contemporary lives. The best leaders are transparent with their intentions; their behaviours are values-driven (Luthans and Avolio, 2003).
In my experience, women are uniquely suited to this leadership style. Many acknowledge that women are better communicators, a crucial leadership trait. They also have more emotional intelligence, according to Daniel Goleman who coined the term. So why is leadership so hard to achieve for women? Well, there is still an old boys’ club, a barrier which is difficult to navigate. Also, studies have shown that for women in traditional male roles, it is challenging to be liked, but also viewed as competent. It’s often one or the other. And finally, there still is a perception that women are not suited to leadership roles. (Javidan, Dorfman, Howell & Hanger, 2010). Women must constantly push back against unspoken bias and rid themselves of that notion.
From my perspective, authentic leadership also means you should show your emotions. Compassion and caring are important for a leader. Even tears. Women should not be afraid to be emotional, but also demonstrate determination and focus.
Have an Unconditional Ally
In 2015, I lost my mum. No matter how prepared I was, her death was a devastating blow. She was my biggest fan – period. To be a leader, you need unconditional love to ground you. My mum had a devastatingly hard childhood – or perhaps, lack of childhood. But she was a safe place for me to express my doubts, my worries, my achievements and be my supporter. I think of her and miss her every day.
For these past 10 years, I have watched Reformulary grow, have taken pleasure working with my extraordinary team, my partners and my clients, and have grown as a leader. In fact. I’m still growing because leadership is a skill that one constantly pursues.
For all the amazing women who are chasing their dreams, my well-tempered advice is to be fearless, have an ally, be resilient, but human and it’s all right to cry, now and then.
Fred Luthans & Bruce Avolio. Authentic Leadership Development. Barrett-Kohler Publishers, Oakland Ca. 2003.
Javidan, Dorfman, Howell, Hanger. Leadership Theory & Practice, Harvard Business Press, 2010