Seek mentors and seize opportunities: Tips for women on finding success in the financial services sector
“In many ways, it was a lonely place to be.”
That’s Sonia Baxendale, a member of the Foresters Financial board of directors and the organization’s former interim co-President and CEO, reflecting on her younger years in the financial services industry.
“There weren’t a lot of peers, female peers, at the table with you,” she said in a recent interview from Montreal, where she was attending a meeting for another board she serves on. “It’s improved dramatically, but it hasn’t improved enough.”
Baxendale is one of the most senior women in her industry in Canada. She was the senior executive vice president of CIBC and she co-led Foresters in 2017 until new CEO James Boyle was recruited at the start of this year.
A graduate of the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, Baxendale studied political science and economics. She didn’t originally set out to have a career in finance: Her first full-time job was at a global advertising agency, followed by a number of years at American Express. Then she got an opportunity to work in marketing at CIBC, and stayed at the bank for 20 years, eventually running the bank’s retail & commercial banking and wealth management operations in North America, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, among other positions.
“This industry is very dynamic and there’s lots of areas you can work in,” said the Toronto mother of three. “I’ve worked in credit cards, retail banking, offshore banking, and many other markets. There are opportunities to be challenged and to work with interesting people.”
Surveying the landscape now, Baxendale is pleased by the advances women have made in corporate Canada in general, and banking in particular, but is looking forward to seeing more women in senior roles, soon.
“There are nowhere near enough women CEOs, and nowhere near enough women in the most senior ranks below the CEO level,” she said. “I think we have a lot of positive things happening, but we have a long way to go to get women into their fair share of senior executive positions.”
One way to achieve that critical mass of women at the top, according to Baxendale, is through the use of quotas to promote the best and brightest female contenders. She’s also a big proponent of mentoring and sponsorship. She was proud to have an executive team at CIBC that was 50 percent female, and says she’s always been a strong promoter of women.
Baxendale believes in creating opportunities for women and was the founding Executive Sponsor of CIBC’s internal Women’s Network which fosters mentorship for women across the company. In addition, she championed fundraising research into women’s cancers and has inspired women and girls through her work with the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“That’s one of the things that has changed over the years,” she said. “I think that women have become much more active in promoting and supporting other women, and mentoring other women and coaching them to help them achieve business success. But it’s still happening too slowly and it’s one of the things I will remain active on.”
She’s active on the board of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, which she’s been a member of for 11 years. She also sits on the board for Laurentian Bank, CI Financial, Toronto French School, and Foresters, where she is Chair of the human capital and governance committee.
Considering the next generation of people aiming for long and successful careers in finance, Baxendale cautions that there’s “no magic formula for success and no perfect path.”
“Working hard, positioning yourself for success, pursuing opportunities as they present themselves and being open to taking on new challenges is key,” said Baxendale. “Seeking out mentors is very helpful, and increasingly there are opportunities for women to seek out other women as mentors – individuals whom they admire and who can support them and give them advice.”
“It’s not easy for men or women. But I think if you have the right mindset and are working hard to achieve success, the opportunities are certainly there.”
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