Interview with Lisa Kalhans: CB April Leader in Residence

“I decided early on that I was just going through the chaos of being both a work-from-home mom and a full-time CEO.”

Canadian company relaunch in fall 2021, building on its platform as a trusted media brand and social network for Canada’s fastest growing companies and their innovative leaders, who are changing Canada for the better.

Canadian company gives these leaders – and those who want to learn from them – the resources, networking opportunities and inspiration to innovate, connect and continue to challenge the status quo. One of the ways we do this is by launching the Canadian Circle of Business Leadership, CB ‘leader-in-residence program where each month we hire another C-level executive suite with an impact in their field. In the program, Readers will have the chance to connect with these progressive-minded business leaders for mentorship and professional development through exclusive content, fireside virtual chats and more.

Join us as a Leader in Residence for the month of April, it’s Lisa Kalhans, President and CEO of Amex Bank of Canada. Here, she chats with writer Katie Underwood about the importance of empathy, her mental health savers working from home, the ‘crisis within a crisis’ of COVID and how economic leaders can support a robust female workforce in the future.

How has your own perspective on effective leadership evolved over the past two years since you started as CEO of Amex Bank of Canada?

Fatigue and frustration are currently at an all time high. What I’ve learned, especially over the past year, is that we really need to dig deep and find new reserves of empathy to help deal with these kinds of difficult feelings. I used to think of great leaders as smart and rock hard. I still think these qualities are important, but if I’m being honest with myself, the attribute I’ve relied on the most is actually listening to what’s going on with people in life and at work. Right now, it’s about balancing compassion and control.

How has your role changed since working from home?

My New Years resolution was to own my calendar versus my calendar owning me. So when it’s reasonable, I’ll take the meetings as walking calls. I consciously take time for breaks and check-ins with my team, whether over the phone or Slack. Honestly, one of the biggest challenges was avoiding feeling trapped on Groundhog Day. The pandemic has taught me the importance of making a difference every day.

What is it like to be a parent of two children while working?

Like most working parents, my two worlds have totally collided. I decided early on to embrace the chaos that came with being both a work-from-home mom and a full-time CEO. It relieved me to try to be perfect all the time. There have been an incredible number of children’s cameos in my meetings. (My kids often just show fussy snacks.) The other good thing is that my kids now have a better understanding of what mom does at work.

You have a long experience in leading successful teams. Have you ever struggled with gender bias? If so, how did you overcome it?

In my twenties, when I was just starting out, I really felt like I had to fight for air time in meetings – a lot of time with male colleagues who are more confident in voicing their opinions. In my thirties, I had to deal with the physical and emotional reality of motherhood and work, which shouldn’t be an all-female set of challenges, but it often is. And now that I’m in my 40s, I’m able to look up and be inspired so much by how the women around me are successful in their lives and careers. Reflecting on my own experience, it’s such a powerful reminder of why representation is important and why having diversity at the top of companies is so essential.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing women leaders today?

I don’t need to look beyond the impact of COVID to look a substantial one in the face. We are facing a crisis within a crisis when it comes to women leading. We actually commissioned a study on the effects of the pandemic on women around the world and found that 42% of Canadian women have in fact left their own professional positions to focus on the well-being of their families. It is a total emergency.

Has the issue of diversity – especially support for workers of color – been a priority for Amex?

At Amex, I think about it three different ways: focusing on education, focusing on engagement, and then focusing on action. So when I think of education, it all depends on the experience of marginalized groups. When I think of engagement, it’s all about activities and what it means to be actively anti-racist. And when I think of action, it’s about committing to increasing the right representation among our colleague base, and in particular among our executives and our board of directors.

What can business leaders do to ensure a strong female workforce?

If you are in a position of power, we must sponsor and publicly defend women. It doesn’t always mean one-on-one mentoring, although it absolutely can. It’s about finding and supporting businesses run by women. I hope others think of this responsibility the same way: how to be an ally, how to sponsor and how to sponsor businesses one by one.

What advice would you give to yourself – and young women in general – who aspire to lead?

My career path has been anything but linear, but looking back, all I regret is the risks I didn’t take. Taking risk helps you develop the skills you’ll need to lead data later: courage, resilience, and the ability to see the big picture. Another thing that 2020 has taught us is the importance of making really big, tough decisions without all the data. Many women want to be 100% qualified for the next experience they take, but you need to be comfortable with the operation. [within] ambiguity.

What takeaways do you hope to leave with attendees of our next Women in Leadership virtual event?

In light of this extraordinarily difficult year, renewed optimism for the future. We must all remember that survival is prosperous at this time.

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