Canadian Women Share Insights on Leadership


When Dr. Ann Saddlemyer, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, introduced a panel of women leaders at the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) conference, she reminded listeners of the four “Cs” of an academic leader: courage, conflict, community and change. “You can’t and don’t have to do it alone,” she said. “We do it together.”

Giving their input on leadership challenges and rewards were Dr. Sharon Cochran, VP for administration and fi-nance at the University of Northern British Columbia; Dr. Judith Osborne , VP for legal affairs at Simon Fraser University and Heather Raven, senior instructor, faculty of law at the University of Victoria. The conference was held in Victoria, British Columbia, in May.

Common themes, challenges

Many themes and challenges are common among different sizes and types of schools, said Sharon Cochran. But the two most important ones are to establish your vision when you start, and then implement that vision.

When she moved into administration, “contributing together” became Cochran’s vision statement. “I like to view what we do as interdependent people who work collaboratively toward the university’s goals,” she explained. They achieve ongoing objectives through service, leadership, responsiveness and staff development.

Cochran suggested that newly minted administrators establish an atmosphere for open accountability. You may have the facts, but it’s hard to put the facts in front of everybody. One way to make sure everyone is on the same page is to continuously liaison with your target groups.

For a leader, anticipating future needs is absolutely critical. Leaders must identify the implications behind the initiatives coming at them and get expert advice. It’s also important to take a strong position in using staff and resources for future development.

She’s seen the results of continuous development in her own career. When she applied for her current job, she felt she lacked the depth and breadth of experience to succeed, so she took several in-depth certificate programs.

Cochran defines responsiveness as challenging an unworkable process. Utilizing positive, constructive advice and encouraging others in their position helps gain greater improvement. Prospective leaders should be involved with a broad range of initiatives.

In a budget crunch, staff development is the first thing to go. Cochran encourages professional development among her staff and urges other administrators to do the same. Take time to nominate staff to committees and write recommendation letters for them.

To implement the vision, you need buy-in from others. Cochran admits, “It’s darn hard when others yell at you.” But if you treat others as leaders, you’ll find a lot of expertise around you. And the reward is seeing a vision that succeeds.

Setting limits

After 20 years in administration, Judith Osborne appeared as a poster child for how to have a successful career by moving up within one school.

She started in administration as an associate department chair before receiving tenure, a route she doesn’t recom-mend. After earning tenure, she became a part-time university harassment coordinator.

The experience was both an incredible challenge and an opportunity, she recalled. Skeptics were waiting to see her fail. Those who were neutral about her promotion wondered if Osborne could handle a political minefield. Those who wanted her to succeed hoped she could do the job.

It was Osborne’s first chance to meet others from outside her department. Having access to the school’s top leadership in her 30s helped her learn not to be intimidated.

In 1992, she was approached to put her hat in the ring for a new position, despite being months away from having a baby. She decided to go through the process for two reasons: to prepare herself for future interviews and to prepare others for what she wanted to do in the future. She got the job.

 Based upon her experiences, Osborne believes that women new to their careers are the ones more likely to have kids and have them early. “We have to convince others that they can do it,” she said. At the very start, her day care cen-ter’s hours limited Osborne’s work hours. This meant leaving work before 5 p.m. and working limited hours on week-ends and evenings, which her male colleagues were also doing but for different reasons. She also refused to check her email on weekends and paid people to do her housework.

Although Osborne wasn’t putting in enormous amounts of overtime, no one ever said she wasn’t getting her work done. “My progress through administration attests to that,” she said.

She shared many secrets of her success.

  • The first is to focus on the task at hand. With limited hours in the office, Osborne had to deliver within that time.
  • Dividing tasks into priorities is key . Identify what must be done versus what could be done. She doesn’t jump at the first request, no matter who asks. If the president or VP really wants it, they’ll ask her again.
  • Osborne also makes sure she plays to her personal strengths. “I’m not good at or interested in the finance side,” she said. “I’m also not good at consulting. However, I am strong in negotiating.” Obviously she’s doing what gives her satisfaction. Often you can move into roles that fit your interests and carve out your niche.
  • Don’t do other people’s jobs for them . Once you start, they’ll let you continue. You need not be an expert in the areas that you supervise. That’s what your staff is for. “You don’t buy a dog and then bark yourself,” Osborne quoted. You’re there to give them tools and space to do their jobs.
  • Risk-taking is part of any job. In 2001, Osborne moved to the legal side of the school. New leaders should also understand that one mistake is not fatal to a career. There are ways to recover and learn from mistakes.
  • Learn how to say “no.” In the interview for her current position, she was told that the incumbent put in 70- or 80-hour work weeks and was asked if she was prepared to do the same. “I said, if that’s the case, then you need two people,” she said. If someone adds to your job, ask what could be dropped to take on the new duties.

Osborne’s experience demonstrates how to grow more women leaders. One way is to do a better job in selling the rewards of leadership, such as making a difference. We complain about the lack of time, when what we really need to do is to make the job more manageable.

Leadership in profound places

A member of the Ojibwa nation, Heather Raven has been a senior instructor on the law school faculty at the Univer-sity of Victoria since 1992. At age three, her tribe identified her as a child with potential. As a result, she’s spent thou-sands of hours working with tribal elders to learn about things like traditional plants, how tribal government works and how to keep the tribe’s genealogy.

“I’m slowly learning,” she said of her work with the tribe. “I am tested many times. Not in writing; there’s no certificate on the wall. But I use that education every day at the University.”

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she unofficially supervises 20 to 25 graduate students. “I’m lucky to have a dean who gets it,” she said. “He gives me fewer committee appointments to make up for the time spent in advising. But I’ve not always had that advantage.”

Raven dropped out of high school in 11th grade and worked at a car wash to pay the rent, stopping by the library a lot to read. A staff member pushed her to pursue a library job opening, she said. After she got the job, the same library staffer encouraged her to apply to the university. Studying part-time, it took her 14 years to get a bachelor’s degree, and she started law school in 1992. She almost dropped out until a peer told her and others, “Even a cheeseburger can get through law school.” It was the peer’s way of telling them to believe in themselves.

“I challenge you to look at the staff member or student that you find exasperating,” she said. “Ask yourself ‘What’s hold-ing them back?’” Get out of your comfort zone and you may be really surprised at what’s there.

Although Raven holds a part-time position, she regularly puts in full-time hours but continues to work with tribal elders. “I find it so renewing and refreshing to spend time with the elders,” said Raven. “It’s so important for indigenous people to be lawyers, but also to do traditional things. It’s part of my soul.”

She challenged SWAAC to broaden its membership criteria to include young academics, whose development into leaders could be accelerated by connecting with the group.

Contact Cochran at or 250.960.5567

Osborne at 604.268.3924

Raven at or 250.721.8185

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