Canadian Presidents Share from Experience

“Master gardeners” cultivate and nuture the next generation of women leaders.

 "Master gardeners” cultivate and nurture the next generation of women leaders. At the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) conference in Victoria BC in May 2006, three women presidents shared their growth experience and life metaphors.

They were:

  • Dr. Liz Ashton, president of Camosun College on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
  • Dr. Sheila Brown, outgoing president and vice-chancellor of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who retired June 2006
  • Dr. Martha Piper, outgoing president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver BC, who retired June 2006

Believe it can happen

When President Liz Ashton got her bachelor’s degree in physical and health education, she knew she didn’t want to teach. Those were the days of teacher as facilitator of free-form, self-directed learning. “Not for me,” she thought.

Horses were more like it. On the Canadian Equestrian Team from 1969 to 1986, she won regional and world medals and rode on three Olympic teams. The December after graduation, she got a job directing a new equine studies program at Humber College in Ontario.

A racing philanthropist had given a brand new facility and 84 students were ready to start in January. Otherwise she had nothing: no equipment, no faculty, no staff, no curriculum and no horses.

“If you believe it can happen, it will happen,” Ashton said. The students were her only resource, so that’s where she began. She took them to farms to evaluate and select horses and paired them with vets to learn about horses’ health. She involved them in drawing up a business plan.

By year’s end, they had a functioning program with faculty, curriculum and horses. She appreciated the value of experiential learning, which gave students the skills and confidence to manage a start-up. More than 30 years later, most are still in the horse business.

Out of the barn

Promotion to division chair for applied and creative arts took Ashton out of her comfort zone. The president said he’d taken her out of the barn. She gained responsibility for new areas, from food industry to fashion design.

She learned to listen a lot, ask the right questions and get support from a respected mentor. She also learned the value of graduate school in mid-career, to appreciate the theoretical underpinnings. Her PhD is in educational administration from the University of Texas at Austin.

Her next job at Humber was dean of hospitality, tourism and leisure management. Since the two previous deans had been alcoholics, she figured she got the job as an athlete who didn’t drink.

When Ontario introduced a “standard workload formula” defining how many hours a week faculty spent on teaching, preparation and grading, division chairs became number-crunchers, turning a profession into a bureaucracy. After 17 years at Humber, it was time to move on.

Four years as VP at another college stretched her again beyond her comfort zone and taught her the importance of institutional fit. Ashton experienced a different campus culture and a president whose people skills complemented hers, which she defined as “tunnel vision.”

Lessons as president

Learning doesn’t stop at the top. Becoming president of Camosun College in 1994 brought new lessons. It’s a community college serving Victoria, southern Vancouver Island and neighboring islands of British Columbia.

As president she had the opportunity to build a strong leadership team. She sought a diversity of styles, opinions and skills rather than “yes” people. “They need to feel comfortable enough to challenge you,” she said.

External and internal expectations compete for a president’s attention; the more senior the position, the more strategic the role. The public expects a community college to impact economic and social development.

Academia expects its leaders to be regional and national figures, involved in fundraising and formulating public policy. “Set the strategic direction for your institution and get everyone on the bus,” she said.

To grow women leaders in a school, Ashton seeks to:

  • Help people see the opportunities available in challenges.
  • Encourage taking risks, which leads to innovation.
  • Serve as a mentor, finding teachable moments to guide.
  • Empower up-and-coming leaders to seek personal growth; let them know it’s not disloyal to look for opportunities with other employers.
  • Stress the importance of fit. When an interviewer focused on long-distance phone bills, Ashton knew to say no.
  • Build a leadership team for diversity; avoid groupthink.

Changing times

President Sheila Brown didn’t want to be an educator either. Women had limited choices in the 1960s. An undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, England, she applied to graduate school at the universities of British Columbia and Alberta. Her application to UBC got lost so she went to the University of Alberta as a teaching assistant, not her first choice.

Decades later she’s retiring from Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia after more than 10 years as president. Before that she was VP, with previous positions at Mount Allison University NB, the University of Manitoba and the University of Alberta.

When Brown couldn’t move up, she changed schools. Never let a search consultant talk you into applying for a job you wouldn’t consider, she advised. “There’s no quicker way to lose credibility than to go through the search process and say at the end, ‘I can’t move,’” she said.

The growth of SWAAC coincided with the growth of her career, providing a network of colleagues. SWAAC began in 1987. She’d just become a dean when she attended its first conference, where a speaker asked “Where will you be in five years?” Most of the women said, “Retired.” In 1987 becoming a president seemed too far out to contemplate.

Cultivating women leaders has been important to Brown as president. She identified those with potential and offered experiences to stretch them, such as in-house leadership training, the summer institute for women in higher education at Bryn Mawr College PA and the senior university administrator’s course at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development.

Support the arch

For Brown, arches provide a metaphor for supporting women leaders and scholars. It matters how we construct and maintain the arch. Each stone in the curve helps support the keystone at the top. As an example of a keystone, the first federally-funded Canada Research Chair at Mount Saint Vincent went to a woman who studies public policy on aging and care-giving.

 Stones in the curve holding up the arch include federal research funds and student scholarships as well as physical infrastructure and equipment.

Foundation stones are the basics in strong undergraduate education. “Researchers are born when they get excited about research in the classroom,” Brown said. Teaching and research are interdependent. “The arch will survive only if the pieces are strong.”

Leaders and followers

Brown has known “my way or the highway” type of administrators, and others whose style is so democratic that nothing gets done. After an interviewer asked whether she would lead from in front or behind, she gave a speech on leading from the doorway.

In her preferred environment, leaders and followers orbit around a purpose and everyone’s opinion is valued. “If there are two people in the group who think the same, one of them is redundant,” she said. Surround yourself with good people and they’ll make you look good. She counts among her mistakes the time she left a vice-presidency vacant to save money.

Other lessons Brown learned:

  • Find a routine that fits your life; don’t let school and community service crowd out self and family.
  • Learn from failures as well as successes.
  • Educate and build relationships with the board; participate in choosing the board chair.
  • Recognize when it’s time to leave.

She’s been told she brought peace, order and good governance to Mount Saint Vincent. Now both she and the university are ready for renewal. “I’d much rather go when people say, sorry you’re going,” Brown said. “The last thing a new president needs is an old president lurking around.”

Nerve and hard work

Also stepping down this summer is President Martha Piper, head of one of Canada’s largest and most prestigious schools, the University of British Columbia. “I’m a firm believer in renewal of leadership,” she said.

She wasn’t sure she was ready when the opportunity at UBC came up in 1997. With a PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics from McGill University in Montreal, she’d been a dean and VP at the University of Alberta.

Her mentor told her if she ever wanted to be president of UBC, this was the time. Life brings lots of opportunities but some will never come again. “Can I make a contribution and learn?” she asked herself before saying yes. She doesn’t consider herself creative but is a great believer in listening, reading and sifting other people’s ideas.

Reading At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century by Jennifer Welsh clarified her vision of UBC as preparing students to be global citizens. A critical component was service learning. Despite initial bad press, it’s grown from 30 to 1,000 student volunteers at UBC.

Over her desk a cross-stitched sampler has a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe: “It takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve . . . a kind of nerve, and a lot of hard, hard work.” Work and nerve are both essential, concerning her about women in leadership. “Women work dawn to dusk but we’re not particularly risk-takers,” she said.

It takes nerve to be a leader. To move an agenda, you have to believe in yourself and be willing to stick your neck out. You have to be positive and energetic enough to energize others. During her interview the board chair asked her, “What is your true north?” You have to know what’s important to you. Don’t take a job unless it fits your values and engages your passion.

Learning from mistakes

President Piper listed what she’d have done differently:

  • Put her cabinet together much sooner. You can’t do much without a team that shares your purpose and vision.
  • Give more time and attention to her office staff, assembling a group that also shares your values and vision.
  • Learn a second language, maybe Mandarin Chinese.
  • Take a course in major finance. A large university’s budget is much too intricate for the back of an envelope.
  • Learn earlier how to deal with jet lag; wear blinders and ear plugs and invest in really good sheets at home.

Her metaphor is a jigsaw puzzle, something she’s enjoyed all her life. Jigsaw puzzles are mindless but you can learn a lot, she said: First, never do a puzzle alone. Whatever you’re trying to piece together, do it with others.

Second, notice that everyone does it differently. Some start with the borders, some sort by color and some fit a piece by its shape.

Finally, it’s critical to have the picture on the box top. Keep it in plain view so all the puzzlers—alumni, students, board, faculty and administrators—are working toward the same goal.

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