Isabelle Hudon says it’s lonely at the top and it's worth it

No, you can't have it all

The XX Factor

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Anyone who read Isabelle Hudon’s resumé would expect she struggled with work-life balance: in addition to serving as president of Quebec operations for Sun Life Financial, she chairs two boards of directors and sits on five more. Before joining Sun Life in 2010, Hudon was president of Marketel, a major advertising agency in Montreal, worked as president and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal and had stints with Bell Global Solutions, the Canadian Space Agency and BCE Media. She has now brought her considerable experience to a new federal committee aiming to increase female representation on corporate boards. The 46-year-old might be Canada’s answer to Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO who urged working women to aim higher and push harder in her controversial bestseller Lean In. Hudon spoke with Canadian Business managing editor Carol Toller about the role that women need to play in their own advancement.

CAROL TOLLER: You had a frank conversation with your son when you took your first big job, as CEO of the Montreal Board of Trade. What did you tell him?

ISABELLE HUDON: I did—I knew exactly the sort of job it was, and the sort of lifestyle I was embarking on, and I was getting to know myself better and better. I knew that my first three passions are work, work and work. So I sat down with my son—he was probably no older than 8 at the time—and it was a short conversation, but I remember it very well. I said I think I’m going to accept a job. It’s a dream for me. But I’m going to be very busy.

I’ll work long hours. I’m not going to be here every morning when you leave for school, and I’m not going to be here when you have dinner at 5. If we’re going to have dinner together, it’s going to be at 8. And I told him that, when the time comes, he should want to pursue his own goals and be happy in life. But for now, I said, you want to have a happy mother. So let me tell you what makes me happy: work.
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CT: Does work always come first? Some might ask why bother having children.

IH: I am highly concentrated on outperforming in my professional life—it’s how I keep learning and challenging myself. That being said, I am a mother, and a good one, who gave, gives and will continue to give to Arnaud [my son] the best of me. I have a different approach than the one that says that it is the number of hours that counts. I believe that it is the quality of the time given to someone that is more important.

CT: Is it impossible, then, for women to balance work and family? To have it all?

IH: We cannot have it all. We cannot do it all. Maybe you can get a little closer to having it all if you know how to surround yourself with the very best people in your personal and professional life. It’s important to get good and strong people around you. But you have to make choices, and you have to know that you won’t be loved by everyone.

It’s lonely at the top, and women tend to want to be loved by everyone.

CT: You sound like Sheryl Sandberg, suggesting that women need to stop holding themselves back.

IH: I have to believe that there is a glass ceiling, because I know enough women who seem to have experienced it, but I’ve never experienced it myself. The message I tell women is, don’t put glue under your feet so that you stay on the ground. Help yourself to grow. Be ambitious enough to reach for the C-suite.

My main challenges aren’t related to whether I’m male or female. They’re related to skills I don’t have.

CT: You’re a very vocal advocate of women’s issues at Sun Life. What are some of the things you do to promote women?

IH: I made a promise to myself about two years ago that I would do something every day to raise the issue of women in the workplace. I’d been invited by the Quebec government to join a special committee looking into representation on boards, and I was listening to everyone talk one day, and I realized that we all were talking as if someone else would take care of things. So I asked myself what I could do, personally.

I wanted to do things at the day-to-day level, not just high-level policy-pushing. So everyday I take simple steps.

CT: Like what?

IH: Well, a while ago there were a bunch of people waiting to see me in my boardroom—they were external people, about 17 of them, presenting some sort of project. And I walked in and looked around and saw that they were all men, and the first thing I said to them was “Guys, shame on you.” There’s no reason that there should be no woman at the table. I said that before shaking hands with everyone.

Everyone at Sun Life knows—you don’t present to me without women. You don’t have meetings without women.

CT: What did you today to advance the cause?

IH: I spoke to you. And I interviewed a manager to convince her to take a bigger role.

CT: Don’t some see that as tokenism?

IH: No. The women I bring to the table are never free of talent or expertise.

CT: So do you support mandating gender diversity on corporate boards?

IH: I don’t believe that governments should regulate the private sector. But I believe they should lead by example. When Jean Charest decided that he’d had enough, and that Quebec needed more women on boards, he said we’re going to lead here, and they did.

For the private sector, comply or explain is definitely an approach I favour. Different boards will have different goals and timelines. But we should aim for 40% to 60% women on boards over the next 15 years.

CT: You don’t buy the argument that there aren’t enough good women out there?

IH: I’ve done enough board work, and I know how boards operate, and I don’t believe that women lack the skills required. Jean Charest did not accept that there weren’t enough women, and some great female directors emerged out of that effort.

Boys’ club or not, it’s an inner circle, for sure. By sitting on one board you get invited to sit on another. But you need to sit on that first board.

But let me tell you, when you get on the phone to try to convince a women to take a seat on a board, you have to take a vitamin and make sure you’re feeling great, because the questions you have to go through! “Am I good enough? Will I be welcomed? Why do they want me?”

You call a guy and he says: “OK. What time? Where?”

CT: So is it up to women to push harder?

IH: I’m not saying we’re the only ones responsible, but we have our share of responsibility. If you want to grow, get to the C-suite.