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A conversation with former Ivey dean Carol Stephenson, O.C.

  • Dawn Milne
  • |
  • Jul 24, 2019
A conversation with former Ivey dean Carol Stephenson, O.C.

Former Ivey dean Carol Stephenson (left) with Ivey Dean Sharon Hodgson

While she was CEO of Stentor Resource Centre Inc. (now the Stentor Alliance), Carol Stephenson, O.C. wondered why there were so few women in leadership positions. So she and a group launched a study that looked at the barriers for women in senior management roles. It was the start of a life-long commitment for Stephenson, Ivey’s former dean, in supporting women in business.

“I remember a colleague of mine saying you can’t just dip your toe in the water and take it out again. You’re either all in or don’t even dip your toe in the water,” she said. “So I dipped my toe in the water and never took it out.”

As part of the inaugural Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program event on July 23, the decorated leader shared her insights on being a powerful female in a predominantly male world. It was a historic moment that brought together the only two women to lead Ivey as dean. Ivey Dean Sharon Hodgson interviewed Stephenson about the ongoing issues women experience in their workplaces and in pursuit of leadership roles. Here are some highlights:

Barriers are meant to be broken – Listen and learn, to add value

“To break those barriers, the first thing I did that was really important is that I listened. I didn’t know the job so I had to listen and I had to learn, too … I listened. I learned. I set goals. I found ways to support people so they could do a great job.”

Dealing with discrimination – Note it and move on

“One of the things that you don’t notice much in an entry-level job is prejudice or discrimination. It’s when you get more power that you’re suddenly kind of a threat to others. Some of the more subtle things were harder to deal with. For example, there would be a meeting and you’ll have an idea and nobody even reacts to you and they move on to someone else and you realize they’re not really listening to you. You’re not being taken seriously … And then at the next meeting, say three months later, someone would put forward the same idea … I’d just say something like, ‘It’s too bad it took us three months to implement this,’ and would move on.”

Mentorship is a two-way street – Have a plan

“Know what you’re looking for from a mentor so they [mentors] can be helpful. They won’t be as effective as when you really focus on what it is you want to understand more about. Chemistry is also important.”

Power and presence go hand in hand – Confidence is critical

“On the power side, you need to exude confidence. Develop your presence and your confidence, and go into a room knowing what you want to do in that room and how to take command of that room … It makes a huge difference in how you will be perceived in terms of your power and abilities, if you can communicate effectively.”

Get involved and get noticed – Show them you can get results

“If there are some fairly important issues at your company, get involved. When a task force is formed, ask to lead it, not just be on it. Do the job well and you’ll get noticed as being a good leader. You’ll show people that you can collaborate and generally get very quick results.”

Women on boards – There is power in numbers  

"If there is just one woman on a board, she can be treated as the representative 'female' voice. Three or more is different. It becomes more normal … Boards are spending more time looking at diversity and succession planning. I think that’s very positive."

Lessons on leadership

Stephenson also shared her top leadership tips. Here are a few:

  • Investigate opportunities that might take you out of your comfort zone – They might turn out well for you;
  • Be self-aware – Know your limits, but don’t let them limit you. Surround yourself with the right people; and,
  • Have courage – Courage is a muscle that you have to exercise every day.

She closed with a quote from Winston Churchill that summed up her views on courage:

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.