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Cathy L. Williams: Find the Right Partners for Success

Cathy L. WilliamsFinding balance in your life and a good fit in your workplace are greater attributors to success than anything else, believes Cathy L. Williams, former CFO of Shell Canada and MBA ’77 Queen’s University.

Williams says much of her own success—which includes being named twice to the 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada list (2005 and 2006), published by the Globe and Mail—is the result of marrying well. But her husband, Bruce, isn’t heir to a fortune, nor does he hold a fancy title. Rather, his most valuable qualities have long been his support of and pride in Cathy and his willingness to take on an equal workload on the domestic front.

“My husband has never been diminished by my success,” Williams says. “He went out on his own when our children were young, which gave him more flexibility, and that made a huge difference in what I could do in my career.”

She wonders how many Canadian women are as fortunate as she has been. Firms have made great strides in implementing family-friendly policies over the years, but Williams says women can’t take full advantage of such policies and use them to really propel their success until things change at home.

She believes that in order for women to achieve leadership positions in business, they absolutely must have their home situation resolved. “You have to be comfortable, you have to be able to walk out of the house and not be concerned about where your kids are or who is taking care of them.” Not having to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the domestic chores was paramount as she took on progressively more responsible roles with Shell Canada.

In addition to having a husband who could take on a fair share of the child-rearing, the couple—whose three children are now 24, 22 and 19—employed day nannies when their children were young.

“It worked particularly well for us. We felt more at ease having our kids in their own environment after school. Also, I think because we both worked, we necessarily made our children more responsible for things than they otherwise might have been,” she recounts. “For instance, we asked them to give us a few days notice if they wanted us to attend school programs or games.” Over the years, she noticed, she and her husband more often both made it to their children’s events than other parents because their children were better about letting them know what was coming up.

While her children were growing up, Williams was doing a lot of her own growing—lifting the glass ceiling ever higher with each new Shell Canada appointment. And like her children, she often took on more responsibility than she otherwise might have: knowing that she was being closely watched by her peers, she always felt she needed to be absolutely qualified for the next promotion. “I never wanted to get it because I was a woman.”

But that doesn’t mean she didn’t love her work—on the contrary, she believes that a love for your work is the second most important driver of success. “You have to like your job, you have to be happy in it, and you have to have a feeling that there’s a reasonable possibility of success in it,” Williams says. For that reason, she believes that women need to take charge of their careers—not just take a job because it’s there. “I said ‘no’ to two jobs that were offered to me over the years—one I felt would have been too soon in my career; and in the other I didn’t have a reasonable possibility of success.” Only take the jobs you really want, she admonishes.

What’s more, women just starting out in their careers need to understand that there is a corporate culture in each company, and they really need to pay attention to that. “Women will be much more successful in a company in which they are comfortable, one that fits right.” For Williams, Shell Canada was a perfect fit.

As one of the first women in Canada to make it to the top echelon of senior management, Williams believes achieving diversity in the boardroom is the next great challenge. She knows that boards will only begin to be populated with more women when more of them reach senior roles in their companies, but says it will be through the boardroom that more wholesale changes will occur in the workplace. “Boards influence the way companies work, helping to direct management, and they can have an enormous impact on company culture,” Williams says. When there are more women on boards, we will begin to see better balance in the workplace.

“I’m concerned about the increasing demands on people to be wired 24/7 and the increasing amount of travel in jobs as companies become more and more global,” she says. “In my experience, when people travel a lot, not only are they away from their families, they tend to work exceedingly long days catching up on email after full days and evenings of meetings. I question whether this is sustainable over a long career. Working longer hours is certainly a fact of life as seniority increases, but the long hours and connectivity seem to be increasing as a requirement at lower levels in organizations with technology and global business models.”

Recently retired from Shell, Williams is still in the vanguard, taking on increasing responsibilities on the Board of Governors of Calgary’s Mount Royal College, serving on the Queen’s School of Business Advisory Board, and considering a corporate board appointment.

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