You’re in This Position for a Reason with Deborah Rosati
Hello, beautiful lady! That sounded a little bit off key. The good news is what is not off key. What is very on key for you today is my interview with Deborah Rosati. She is the founder and CEO of Women Get On Board, which is a member-based company that connects, promotes and empowers women to corporate boards. So if this is of interest to you being on a corporate board, whether that’s five years from now, one year from now, this is definitely the interview for you.
Debra is well recognized for her work around corporate boards. She was selected as a Diversity 50 2014 candidate and was also recognized back in 2012 as one of WX Ends Top 100 of Canada’s Most Powerful Women, specifically in a corporate director award category. Ms Deborah Rosati is an accomplished corporate director, entrepreneur, fellow chartered professional accountant and certified corporate director with more than 30 years of experience. Yes, so she’s been doing this before women were talking about doing this! And her experience spans quite a few industries: technology, consumer, retail, cannabis, private equity and venture capital.
She is an experienced audit committee and nominating and corporate governance committee chair. Debra provides extensive knowledge as a corporate director in the areas of financial and enterprise risk management, corporate strategy, transformational changes, mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance, CEO and board succession planning. She is the GoTo lady and she is here! So without further adieu, Miss Deborah Rosati!
There’s a couple of things I want to tease out in this interview for you really sink your teeth into. What I love the most and one of the reasons I wanted to chat with Deborah is when I was first getting to know her, she shared with me that the most common area of support she has to offer her members, women who are seeking corporate board positions, is around the area of confidence. And that truly fascinated me because to think that a female CEO or a C suite executive who is maybe retiring or looking to transition to a corporate board position after a full career is struggling with confidence and maybe struggling isn’t the key word, but evaluating her worth and maybe doubting whether or not she has the full skillset or breadth to bring to a corporate board.
And that is really at the heart of why I wanted to talk with Deborah and one of the things I want to, a seed I want to plant in your mind, because as you’ve been listening to the interviews on the show, you’ve heard it from almost, I would say 99.9% of the women, that new level, new devil, this does not go away!
It’s not that as you gain more years and more experience and more wisdom that you don’t have moments of self-doubt, it’s the concept that you don’t overcome self-doubt. You don’t overcome imposter syndrome. You go to the mental gym, you gain a skillset to move through it in a much more efficient way and to recognize it for yourself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to get on a corporate board, start your own business, or get that next level career within your organization. So something to chew on as you listen to this interview.
One of the things I wanted to start with was, I took a look and you’ve been on corporate boards. I mean, you’ve been involved in this work for a long time, almost like your lifelong work.
20 years! 20 years of being on corporate boards, different sizes, stages, industries, etd.
Yeah. So you’re a unicorn.
I’m an ancient one.
I asked you how did you, I was curious, Debra, how did you get into that? That intrigues me.
Well, it really started, I didn’t, you know, this whole concept of professional corporate directors really wasn’t in the book, wasn’t in vogue. And in the early 2000’s, I’d been a CFO of a technology startup. I worked with the board, I worked with a lot of early stage companies. We sold the company and I was being asked to join one of our significant shareholders. They were a venture capital fund. And I knew that I had experience operationally. I knew I had financial expertise and I knew that I understood early stage technology companies. And so, by virtue of joining as a general partner, one of my roles was to serve on the boards of these investment portfolio companies. And so really that’s how it started.
Yeah. Um, there’s, I don’t know, what do we want to say? There’s a lot of assumptions made about what that’s like. Did you get roughed up?
Um, no, I, you know, I’m a professional. I was trained as a CPI. I went into business. I went into business because I wanted to be a businessman, just like my father. So I never went in and said, Hey, I have to be treated differently. Um, I got it. I’m more delicate.
I just went in and, and really tried to understand the business issues and the governance issues and really coming from a place of doing what’s right for the company, not what’s right for me personally has always been a mantra for me as I’ve evolved my career.
I’m a lifelong learner and I love business. So you put those two together and adding governance, layering governance on top of that is pretty powerful. So for me, I’m always intrigued and I always knew I had to show up and be better and try harder and be more informed, at least for myself, right?
Like, I might not know all the answers, but I would certainly be curious to delve down or to understand, how the business was operating and what the issues were. So I always knew that I had to come. I would just show up well-informed, well-prepared to be an effective director.
Yeah, that’s good. And one of the things you said that I want to call attention to that I’m hearing in pretty much everybody I talked to is this lifelong learner piece.
I continue to do this. Education is power. And so, you know, I went to university because, you know, education was really important and I’ve always as a professional, you know, so for me to maintain my, I am, I’m a certified director through the Institute of Corporate Directors. So I have my ICD.D. I also am a CPA Fellow, a chartered professional accountant. And to maintain any of my designations, I have to have a minimum of continuing professional development hours credits throughout the year.
And so, you know, I take thoughts seriously cause I have to sign a waiver to say basically,I have taken these hours. And so for me it’s always like knowledge is power. And so gaining knowledge and being curious. Like in this time of crisis, I’m constantly reading, observing, watching the news, reading, joining webcasts. I just want to stay informed.
In particular as a corporate director and as a Canadian citizen and what’s the impact? So lifelong learning is inherent and rampant and pervasive through my whole life.
Yeah, you just called out your accent right there. The Canadian, what did I know? Just a Canadian citizen. So if they didn’t catch it already, Deborah’s from Canada.
Yes. To be a good corporate Canadian citizen.
Yes. You know, I’m practically Canadian. I grew up in Minnesota, so…
Oh well there you go. Just South of the border just so I lost the accent though, I think.
So 20 year career in corporate boards kind of fell into it but not really. Cause you were always passionate about business. When did it start to shift that there was a little bit of a nudge inside of you or a tap on the shoulder to say, Hey, I’m really passionate about helping other women get on corporate boards. How did that evolve for you?
I think it’s just was inherently there. From day one I was a business leader and women would come to me and ask how did I get on a board or how did I advance myself in to leadership roles?
And so, you know, it would be over coffee, over a glass of wine. I’d speak at conferences. But I think the real sort of impetus was I was asked to join the board of a not for profit. It was called Women in the Lead. This was in 2007 and their mandate was to advance more women to corporate boards. And they had this big directory, like 700 page directory of which they tried to identify all the sort of leading women in Canada that were qualified as corporate directors. And they did three editions of that. I joined that board in 2007 and so I think for me it was, I think that was a pivotal time because I got behind that organization to help advance women to corporate boards. But I also would be asked to speak at conferences. So I think 2007 was a real shift for me. Just the work that I was doing, I was doing a lot about advancing women in technology. And then when I joined the board of women in the lead, it was more of a focus about advancing women to corporate boards at that time.
And what was the, I’m curious because you really have the history of the evolution of what is now I would say a trend, women on corporate boards, but you are really part of it when it wasn’t, we’ll say trendy per se, but really the grassroots movement was stirring up. So what was the conversation around that time? Was it any different?
Yes and no. Um, I think a lot more from a demographic perspective, a lot more women, qualified for sure. A lot more programs to support women In their corporate director roles. So back then there was really no programs, there wasn’t organizations. There was very few, if you’re talking about 2007, and even before. I think a lot of it was you’re left to your own, right. And so you banded together. I had a lot of women that were next generation ahead of me that opened the door for me. That’s how I joined Women In Lead. And so I had women that were ahead of me that I saw as my role models and, you know, we’re opening the doors for me and encouraging me. And so that really then led me to wanting to do the same for the next generation of women corporate directors. Right? Is opening that door and empowering them. There are probably a handful of women that I can attribute to some of my door openers to some of the corporate boards that I did get on and forever grateful for them believing in me.
What were some of your personal challenges?
Being in a room full of men. Knowing their decisions sometimes were made outside the board room. You know, they would go off to the men’s bathroom at breaks and they’d come back with a decision. I, of course, was not going to the men’s bathroom, but, I mean I have stood outside the bathroom waiting for them return, but, I had to try to find other ways to have communication and build rapport. I wasn’t golfing with them. I wasn’t racing sports cars with them. I wasn’t smoking cigars and drinking scotch with them. So I just had to find other ways to build trust and to build relationships and making sure that I showed up before the meeting started, made sure that I wasn’t rushing off at the end of the meeting, making sure I attended every meeting that I could in person. I made that conscious commitment to keep showing up and being present and not going away.
And if there was an issue or concern that maybe wasn’t tabled inside or at the board, I would definitely follow up. And so then I think people started seeing me as, you know, contributing, could be trusted. I had to break down barriers. I joined a board where everybody knew each other. They’ve known each other for years and years. And I came in and I was chairing the audit committee and they were like, well, who is this woman? And so I really had to build my credibility, even though I was selected to join the board. Um, I had to build my credibility and I knew I wasn’t going to break in right away. So I had to just really keep showing up and being present and being engaged. And you can get discouraged by it. Right. But, I knew I was there for a reason.
And I have to imagine, that’s not really changed. It’s huge. Regardless, you still need to develop relationships and build trust. Like that doesn’t ever go.
Yeah. Right. That’s anything you do. And so you just bring that to the board room, you know, and respect for each other. And you know, I think you and I talked earlier, or I’d done a blog on emotional intelligence in the board room. And it’s really about your P’s and Q’s and being respectful of each other and finding mutual ways to communicate in a very respectful environment, right. It doesn’t change, when you’re in the board room, you know, you’ve got to bring those, emotional intelligence skills. And I think as women, we do a very good job of being very collaborative and being very good and some of the soft skills when it comes to communication.
Yeah. And, and the more you can do that consistently, right? Just be who you are. And show up how we do anything is how we do everything! Being authentic. Yeah. What I found really fascinating, um, in our previous discussions is we were starting to go down this, this path of talking about some of the women now that, uh, that you see with your organization, women get on board, uh, looking to find board seats and I don’t want to say struggling, but encountering some different challenges moving out of their role in C-suite or as CEO and transitioning to find a new spot on a corporate board.
Yeah. I call that a transition period and we were talking about it and I think some women do a really great job of transitioning from being an executive to going on boards and they give themselves a window. So let’s use for a partner with an accounting firm. A lot of the accounting firms have mandatory retirement, so it’s either 60 or 62. So you know, you’re coming up to that period in your life. The ones that I’ve seen have been really successful where they know that they’ve got a hard stop in the sense of their exit, they start really working their network about two years prior to that exit date, shall we say, at least known exit dates and they start socializing with their network and they start really preparing. And, and a lot of these, these women by virtue have been very successful in their career.
So they have a great network, but they start socializing that with their network two years in advance. And I’ve seen some women transition where they leave, they’re there whether they’re a partner in accounting or law firm or maybe executive. They actually have a public company that they are landing on from day one when they accept that they were very deliberate and very strategic to make that happen. I find other women get so entrenched and I understand, so entrenched in their executive, in their senior leadership roles that they say, I don’t have time to be networking time to be thinking about this. I’ll think about it when I accept. And then you still have an 18-month to two year period usually. Cause it takes time, get into market, it takes time to start, you know, branding yourself and, and repositioning yourself, as a corporate director.
And so I always say to those women on the latter of the two where they’re starting from Day 1, when they leave there, they’re executive positions is be patient, be kind to yourself. This is a new frontier for you. You’re used to full time executive positions. It’s packaged this way. This is a new, a new reality for you. So how are you articulating your value proposition? How are you reaching out to your network? And, it’s just different mindset and shifting at that, you’re, you’re basically selling yourself, right? You’re selling yourself as a product. Your product is your offering to a board!
And you just started Y-O-U business!
Oh, yes. Yeah, exactly. How to think about that. You’re right. Exactly. Started the new business and it’s called you. You get on corporate boards. I think some women do a great job. Some women need a lot of coaching. Some women need a lot of empowerment, just a new world for them. And it’s not that they can’t do it, they just haven’t been in a place that that’s how they’ve had to, is do the “you” right?!
Yeah. Well, being in an organization and leading an organization is completely different than putting yourself out there and selling yourself. It’s totally different.
It’s completely And so, you know, I am really fortunate that I get to meet these women that are successful in getting their mindset and re-shifting it and helping that like, you know, it could be as little as having a look at their board resume and saying, Hey, how are you?
I just got one from a woman and I know she’s bilingual and in Canada, there are certain boards in certain public sectors, board opportunities where they want people that are bilingual. So I just made one quick comment, I said, you’re bilingual, aren’t you? Yeah. I said, well, I didn’t see it on your resume! And she says, Oh my God, I forgot. And, sometimes it’s something as simple as that. Sometimes they’re trying to market themselves and they’re trying to give a laundry list of everything they do.
And they said at the end of the day, a board’s going to be looking for high, high level. If I use myself as an example, cause that’s, you know, a good example is I’ll get a call. So it’ll be, for me personally, it’ll be like, so we need gender diversity on the board. And you’re like, okay, thank you. So let’s check that box. Then they’ll go, well, we need someone to chair an audit committee. And I’m like, okay, let’s check that box. And then more recently at spin in the cannabis sector for myself personally, and so there’s only three boxes I’m checking. And so I always say be really clear on it. And of course I have a multitude of other experiences that I can bring. But when a board goes to market to renew or add, augment their, the skills on their board, you know, they have a board skill matrix and they go through it and say, okay, what skills are we looking for? And everybody has something unique. But you can’t have a laundry list of what your offering is, you know, it’ll get diluted. Go with your top skills.
I think that’s really powerful what you just said, Deborah. So I want to draw a little bit more attention to it because I always think about everything from an entrepreneurial perspective. And they say the, the money’s in the niche, right? So the, the further you can target, and that’s really what you’re talking about. We’re talking about the business starting a business around you, you getting on a corporate board, and the more targeted you can be about what you’re offering, the clearer and faster and quicker and easier it will be to find a fit.
Absolutely. So I challenge women when they say, I want to go on a board and I say, well, that’s not helping me! You have to be really clear. I want to go on a board. So I call it an elevator pitch. And I always say, try to get you thinking about your elevator pitch. So if I may share my elevator pitch and that gets in the size and I think about it very, you know, and people go, Oh my goodness, it’s simple as that.
So I like to say I have financial and governance expertise in high growth, transformational companies in retail, consumer, technology and cannabis. That’s it! Pretty short, pretty sweet, pretty concise.
And easy to remember!
Well I literally have that conversation with you and I’m going down an elevator yeah, I mean right now we’re not going down in elevators together clearly. But when we will, I like to think of it that way and, and you know, and it is a really hard exercise to go through. But once you get it, it just rolls off your tongue and then people go, Oh, I get it!
So, not every woman is coming out of, um, CEO role, C-suite position, but they’re interested in this path. What kind of advice do you have for them on how to, and maybe they have a bigger runway. Maybe their runway is a little bit longer than two years. Maybe they’re thinking five or 10 years from now. It’s not too soon to start, right?
No! So let’s supposing you had the luxury and I do talk to women that are, you know, not looking for corporate boards today, but I’m about 5-10 years out. And so a couple comments that I would make to them is, first of all, do you have the support of your current board or your executive team? Get their sponsorship! And they go, Oh, I haven’t really thought about that. And I say, well, you’ve got to, you’ve got to add that in as part of your leadership development and get some governance education training as part of your development program and get them introducing you to potential board opportunities while you are an executive because it will give you a different skill set and will give you a broader knowledge. And so that to me is a conversation. If someone’s got that runway 5 to 10 years, they want to make sure that they’re getting that sign off in that commitment and sponsorship.
Maybe it’s a not-for-profit board as a starting point, where the company or the organization that they work for, they are a big sponsor or donor or commitment to a certain organization. Maybe they have a subsidiary, a board that, that individual can serve on. Maybe you’re saying, I really want to get more global experience. How do I build that out? Or I really want to get my, you know, P and L business unit experience. So I think those are conversations that you want to be having these, if you think about what do you need to bring to the, to the board, you need to have financial acumen for sure. And if you haven’t got that in your career, then take steps to ensure that you’re building on that as an example.
Yeah, that’s great. And really, just the way you responded to that question, I just want to give some attention to that because you got really excited! You got really excited to hear that women would be thinking 5 to 10 years out versus once the career has ended. I got the sense that there’s so much more you can do to prepare.
Absolutely! And I’m seeing more women and I’m calling them the next generation of women corporate directors in a 5 to 10 years kind of window, where they are thinking about it. I do these workshops, how to get yourself on a board and I see 20 women that come together and the experience around the table and the peer-to-peer and they realize like, I’m not the only one thinking that way.
We are also building out these board development programs and, and looking for ways to sort of get people thinking about it today, not tomorrow when they have to. And so, I’m very encouraged as you can see, to see that women are thinking about it. I think I didn’t really think about it, it just showed up and I opened that door. Was I ready for it? Probably not. I had to learn a lot by the seat of my pants, but I have no regrets. I started earlier in my career, but every opportunity opened the door to another opportunity for me.
Yeah. It really is just about setting your sights on what you want and then surrounding yourself with more opportunities and chances for success, which is, like you said, getting sponsorship or taking a certification or becoming part of an organization and developing those relationships. I mean, it’s almost just as easy as that.
Well, you know, it almost like you say, that sounds really easy and you know, the women that I’ve seen be really successful. So, coming into the fifth year of Women Get Onboard from when I launched it. And I’m seeing women that came onboard from one of the first workshops I did, which would be December, 2015 and one of them is chair of very large corporation. They were already successful in their careers. They had decided to be in technology data mining. They both, these are two women in particular I’m thinking of and they knew this is my next step and they were maybe late forties, early fifties. And they knew their next path was to be serving on a corporate board and they checked time. And I look at that and I’m so proud of them because they did frontier work.
They were very clear in their offering once they were able to articulate it, but it took time. One of them wanted to get out of mining, one of them wanted to get on our first board. I look at them as examples of women that, to me are that next generation. I pull them in now as corporate director in residence. I pull them into conversations to inspire other women. And so I just look at it, those individuals that you know are now four or five years on the other side of that. And it was a journey and it, you don’t just show up there.
And so I love when we share the stories of these other women on their journey because everyone’s journey is different.
Yeah. And I just love kind of how we’ve crafted this conversation because it’s almost unbelievable to think that a really successful woman who’s maybe retiring or looking to transition, struggles with that confidence to get that next level in her career, or that next season for her. I think it’s really important to call that out because you know, there’s a lot of young women coming up thinking it’s so much easier once you get way up there that you don’t struggle, you don’t struggle anymore.
I don’t think it ever ends. And I think that’s, to me, my biggest conversation that I have is to be confident, to be fearless and you just serve to be in that board room equally to any man. You have those skillsets. So I think women, we very much say we have to have 120% before we apply. You know, and they say men, whether it’s they, maybe they have 40% of it, they’re still applying or still putting themselves out there. And I think we shouldn’t be holding ourselves to higher standards. We should be going outside our comfort zone and we might not have done it. But we’re smart enough, we’ve got enough resources, we have enough support around us to ask the questions. And so I think that’s where women hold themselves back is they feel like they’ve got to have 100% or 120% before they put their name forward.
And I say go outside your comfort zone, do it each and every day. And every time you do it, will you get more comfortable? Probably not. But you have to take risks. It really comes down to that, right? Putting yourself out there and taking the risk. Like what’s the worst you get to know? You get to know we’re not interested, you know. And I always say, we’ll qualify the no. If you get to know, because you weren’t a candidate for that board, ask why you weren’t!
And they may say, well, you know what, we had a w you were down to the short list and you know, I have these conversations with women down to the short list. However, this person had this particular skill set, but we’re going to put you on our evergreen list so that if that other, another opportunity comes up, we’ll reach out to you. So I always say you’ll learn by those no’s. No, we’re not interested because, and take that and learn from it. It’s not a personal thing. There aren’t a lot of board opportunities, corporate boards. There’s a limited opportunity because there’s not a lot of renewals going on. And so it is very competitive and just keep going back out there and, and not to be discouraged. That’s my message is that there’s limited opportunities and there’ll be the right one at the right time. And there is going to be discouragement along the way for sure, but stay positive and stay focused.
Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you Michelle.
As we are wrapping up, beautiful lady, for this interview I was thinking about wanting to also call attention for you to the concept of creating a runway. This comes up in our in our conversation, Deborah and I and I love, love, love first of all.
That one. If your thinking about a corporate board role for yourself five or 10 years out, she gave some really clear and concise tips for what you can be doing right now. For ways you can be using the runway to position yourself for greater success when you’re ready. And I just want to call attention that because I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it and when I reflect back to the time when I was leaving corporate and starting my first business, I really attribute my quick success to having a runway. You see I spent about six months preparing, if you will, to open my business before I actually opened my business.
And that runway, that six month runway gave me such a headstart and it’s a concept that applies. So whether you want to get on a corporate board, whether you want to start your own business or get that next level career in your organization, it really does apply. And you heard, who else talked about this? Carol Myers talked about this in a different way and also the interview with Helen Raleigh, it’s about making the decision about where you want to go. And then once you do that, using the runway, those are my words for describing it, using the runway to, make decisions towards that.
Whether that means, who do I need to connect with today that can help open a door for me a year from now or what kind of community, this is what Helen talked a lot about, do I need to surround myself with that will offer me unwavering support and love to help remind me that I can do and be anything that I want to be and I will get there despite the ups and downs.
So a final seed I want to plant with you for this week is for you to be thinking about what have you decided that you want next for your life and your business and your career, and given the runway you have in front of you, what are you doing to prepare? All right, beautiful lady. I will talk to you soon!