As we continue with March – Women’s History Month – let me tell you that back in the day when I ran my marketing agency, RBC was a client. Working for the biggest of the five Canadian chartered banks was a great experience and because we produced videos for them, I got to work closely with their Board Chairs, all of whom were men. Very few corporate CEOs consider themselves to be good on camera and so, I helped these titans to overcome their angst about appearing credible. Now, I’m not one to boast, but I was very good at this and executives came to trust me because of the credible way I made them appear on camera.
Fast forward to recent times: I’m interviewing Anne Larcade for my recently published book, “Pushing The Boundaries! How To Get More Out Of Life.” As we conclude our time together, Anne says to me, “You know Peter, you’d be wise to consider Katie Taylor as a candidate for your book. Being the first female to become Chair of a Canadian bank, she’s really pushed some boundaries.” Turns out, Anne and Katie are friends so with Anne setting up the intro, I was able to connect with Katie and two weeks later, there I was in Toronto meeting with her for an interview.
I must tell you, Katie Taylor’s one impressive lady. To start with, listen to this: “Winning has always been a big part of how I feel about life.” Ms. Taylor told me that early in in our time together when we chatted in a relaxed meeting room in the Sick Children’s Hospital Foundation building (where Katie is also Chair) Talking that way about winning can be seen as easy to say, but not nearly as straightforward to achieve, yet I quickly discovered that when Katie Taylor makes a decision, it’s press on, full speed ahead, without looking back.
In our discussion, I told her that I think of Katie Taylor as someone who pushes boundaries. “But how about you: do you see yourself that way?” I asked.
“Indeed!” she jumped in. “Lots of people do. The question is why. It’s interesting: I remember speaking with an important business leader shortly after I became RBC Board Chair and he said, ‘I’ve been really interested to meet you to see if you are a trailblazer like everyone says.’ I was surprised. Everyone says that?”
Still, she does acknowledge the claim has depth.
“It is something people say about me all the time: breaking the glass ceiling... first at this and that... But, you know, if I were to ask myself if I ever wanted to be a trailblazer or set out to be a boundary pusher, I’ve never articulated that thought in my mind as a goal. So, when people say, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ I have to stop and think.”
I should tell you that prior to becoming RBC's Chair, Katie worked in the hospitality industry. She spent 24 years building Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, the world’s leading luxury hospitality company, alongside the founder Isadore (Issy) Sharp. She was named CEO in 2010. "Did I have the greatest job at the greatest company with the greatest colleagues running one of the greatest global brands, one of Canada's most famous global brands? For sure! Oh, I had a great career!”
But then, in a very public pronouncement, she was let go by the company's new owners. Frankly, I was a bit skittish about bringing this up because it's clearly opposed to the winning culture this dynamic lady espouses. But I’m not shy, so I asked her about it. She was not at all reluctant to discuss this defining point in her life.
"Did I feel like I had unfinished business at the company?” she told me. “Absolutely. But we'd sold in 2007 to a private equity group, and they wanted to spend more time being involved in managing the business. They now owned the company. So that's fine. That's their right. But it's never pleasant when you go through it."
Before I can ask, Katie anticipates my question: “Do I view my dismissal as a failure? No, I don't actually. If I'd gone into a puddle, or if I had made a different decision... you know, I look back at it and I'm not at all fussed about the decision. And in some weird way, things happen for a reason. As I look at my new life – or my Chapter Two, if I may call it that – there's absolutely no question with the benefit of hindsight that I was totally ready for something new and different. I'd been there for 24 years, I'd been CEO and COO for 7 years. It's a gruelling business because of the travel and time zones management: I had operations across the world with senior leaders, from Singapore to Geneva to Dallas, so everybody in a different time zone. Every Sunday night, I'm on the phone at 9pm with the Asia group, and every Monday morning, the Europe group, and then travelling so much and... yes, I was ready for something new."
"Did you see it coming?" I asked. "Was it a big shock?"
"Sure, shock in the moment,” she says. “But not if you think about it logically. What it did was give me an opportunity to have a long talk with myself about what should happen next. And the threshold question was, long before the Royal Bank decision ever entered into it: was I going to go back to work full-time? My husband had stepped down as a partner at a law firm. And he was absolutely thrilled when I left Four Seasons: dancing the happy dance. Because I'd been away travelling all the time, working all the time... he was at a different tempo in his practice, and it was kind of great that we suddenly had all this time together. So we started to talk about the next phase of our marriage together."
But it wasn't quite that simple. Nothing in life ever is. Especially for someone like Katie Taylor, used to pushing life’s boundaries.
"Having had the best job at the best company in the best industry with the best people in the world, I listened when a colleague suggested that trying to replicate that would be a mistake. So why not do something completely different, if you have the freedom, the opportunity and the financial ability? I knew I had to do something different. Question was: what did that look like?"
Katie then reveals a theme that's run through her life: "Lifelong learning. So the most important element of what came next is how much would I be able to learn."
"Did you ever think you'd become chair of Canada's largest bank?"
"No, no... because you don't really think like that. By the time I left Four Seasons, I knew there was going to be a chair position change – I'd been on RBC's Board for over a decade and had served on a number of the board committees and been Chair of the Human Resources Committee. Frankly, I didn't know if you could be CEO of a global company and be a bank chair at the same time: intuitively speaking, I knew that would be hard. In some weird way you could argue that this was a favour that fate handed me, forcing me to make some very concrete decisions about my chapter two. I was so busy at Four Seasons and hadn't given one thought to what I might do if I didn't work there anymore.”
In a sentence that provokes my smile, Katie sums up this time by saying, “Going home to knit was never an option! Firstly, I don't even know how to knit! Secondly, of all the things I want to learn, knitting was not really on the list."
When I’m interviewing folks, one thing I like to do is be well prepared in advance. And so, I’d read a new book by Richard Nesbitt and Barbara Annis, "Results At The Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth", which explains the folly of approaching gender issues using numbers alone.
"With some exceptions, business as we know it today was structured by men, for men, in the post first war period,” Katie tells me. “And it's remained relatively unchanged. So, when people ask me why is this women on boards thing is taking so long, the reality is we only started a few years ago."
We discussed various changes that were occurring in business, promoting me to inquire, “Are these changes coming about because more women are in positions of control?"
“Peter, I think it's because more organizations are committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in their workplaces, “she says. “And because the war for top talent is so fierce that some of these flexibilities and benefits are almost the price of admission to recruiting top talent out of universities. So some of it is gender related, but some of it is just demographics in the sense that the next generation has different expectations around the structure of work and the need to be physically attached.
There is so much more I can tell you about my time spent with Katie Taylor, but this isn’t the right place for that. Please feel free to check out Katie’s profile in Chapter 19 of “Pushing The Boundaries!” (pushingtheboundaries.life).