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Janet De Silva: ‘One thing that has enabled me to succeed in business is not pretending I’m the expert’

Janet De Silva, the president of the Toronto Region Board, is photographed at the board on March 1 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Janet De Silva, 56, is president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

I was born in Waterloo, Ont., and had a solid middle-class upbringing. My mother was a loans officer at a bank and my father was the general manager of a furniture factory.

In high school, my mother got quite fussed at a guidance counsellor who was trying to dissuade me from doing business studies and suggested that I go into hotel and restaurant management instead. The counsellor thought that would be a more family-friendly career choice, but my mother thought that was not ambitious enough for her daughter.

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I was running Sun Life Financial's individual business in Canada and the head of Sun Life in Asia was looking for someone to become CEO of the Hong Kong operations. That appealed to me because I wanted to get experience outside of Canada and learn about international markets. The woman who headed corporate HR said [my name was left off the original candidate list] because she didn't think women would be acceptable in Asia in that kind of role.

In Hong Kong, it was not a problem at all to be a woman in business. When I moved up to mainland China to run Sun Life's operations, the work force thought it was very interesting that a woman would be in this role. A lot of the business you do in China requires government approvals and the novelty of being a foreign woman meant I could always get that first meeting. After that, it was up to me.

As a woman in business, you feel you have to demonstrate a reason for being at the table. It's not that anyone is holding you to a higher standard – it's really that inner stress that most women in business have, to prove we've got the experience and the know-how to add something to the discussion.

For women to excel, I often jokingly say you should marry well. Not to marry rich, but to marry someone who supports your ambition. At a certain point in time, we had to decide if I was going to take that opportunity in Hong Kong. It meant my husband Yves [Therien] would have to step out of his role in Canada, and that was a choice he was willing to support. He was in sales with J.M. Schneiders [now part of Maple Leaf Foods] at the time and was quite successful. When we moved to Asia, Sun Life helped equip him with Chinese lessons and he got hired by Santa Fe Relocation Services, a large global relocation firm.

A challenge in Toronto and other Canadian cities is the cost of child care. Unless you have a strong network of family, it's quite difficult for families to have two careers. I don't know how we crack that nut, but that's the biggest impediment for women in business. At a certain point, a couple needs to decide whose career is going to go along the path. And, more times than not, it tends to be the woman who has to step back.

One thing that has enabled me to succeed in business is not pretending I'm the expert when moving into a [new] international assignment. I've seen a lot of folks come in assuming they are smarter or wiser than everyone else. I've found it works really well to say, "Frankly, I don't know the market the way you do. If we can work together, you share everything you know, I'll share everything I know from other markets, and we'll figure out the magic formula." It's about being open to learning. The other thing is to not be territorial.

Two or three years ago, my mother became ill, so that was the pull to Canada. In the midst of our planning to come back with my husband and son, I received a call from a search firm in Toronto about the role at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Toronto is our global metropolis, it's the hub of business, so that appealed to me a great deal. There's a lot of attention coming from the international community.

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The No. 1 issue we hear from all of our members is that there's a talent shortage. I want to make sure we are using that knowledge to our advantage and [telling young people]: Here are the jobs that are going to be in demand over the next 15 years, and this is the type of training or academic experience you're going to need.

As told to Shelley White. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author

Shelley White is a freelance writer, editor, video producer and mother of twins. Before taking the plunge into the wild world of freelance work, she produced educational programming at TVO, explored digital culture at the late lamented Shift magazine and entertained young minds at MuchMusic. More

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