When Maureen Sabia, chairman of the board of Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., went to law school, there were only three women in the entire Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, something that didn't concern Ms. Sabia too much at the time.
"I had been brought up by my parents to believe I could do anything I wanted," says the Montreal-born Ms. Sabia, listed as one of Canada's 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women's Executive Network in 2009. "All the girls in our family were brought up that way."
Growing up in the Sabia household in the 1950s and '60s meant holding your own in lively debates at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Her father, surgeon Michael J. Sabia, and her mother, feminist and social activist Laura Sabia, expected all their children to express opinions and defend them to the hilt, excellent preparation for the 25 years Ms. Sabia has spent on boards. But having mentors to guide her career in those early years was another matter - she scoffs at the very idea.
"I started back in the dark ages, when there weren't things like mentors," says Ms. Sabia, who emulated heroes she admired such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "I can't say there was ever a mentor."
While Ms. Sabia says she was treated very well at law school by her peers and professors, she later would be an object of curiosity once she graduated in 1965 and started her first job with the Ontario Securities Commission.
"That was a shock to me, that people viewed me as different because I was a female person rather than a male person," says Ms. Sabia. "Getting over that perception was a challenge, but one learns and forges ahead."
When Ms. Sabia first joined corporate boards, there were few women and no templates to follow. Making her voice heard was another challenge because the men stonewalled her - until she figured out her own way to co-opt them.
"If I had a question or point of view and put it on the table, there would be what I call 'the grand silence.' I realized that unless I got one of my male colleagues to jump in on my question or point of view, it would very often lie there, defeated by 'the grand silence.'
"So what I did, and I probably shouldn't have done this, was talk to one or two of the men outside in the corridor before the meeting and say, 'What about this or that?' They would help me because they'd jump in. Once they jumped in, then the conversation would happen. It didn't take long before my views and questions were taken more seriously. You might say I used them as a bridge."
The qualities that Ms. Sabia believes helped her most were having firm views and opinions, and standing up for those opinions even if she had to be a minority of one. Her career success has been built on preparedness and hard work - she laughs and says that even her detractors would tell you she works very hard.
Ms. Sabia describes her leadership style as "constructive conflict" based on effective and productive working relationships with her colleagues. Beyond that, it's clearly knowing where you want to go, what your goals and objectives are and having a healthy portion of accountability.
"Leadership is about conviction, persistence, hard work and being extremely well informed," says Ms. Sabia. "It's about being a good communicator with the people with whom one works. It also helps if you have a genetic disposition to it, as do a number of us Sabias who are known to interrupt the status quo."
In addition to being chairman at Canadian Tire since 2007, where she's been a director for more than 15 years, Ms. Sabia is also a lawyer, a director for numerous companies and president of her own consulting firm, Maureen Sabia International, established in 1986. She serves as a director of Brock University, Olympia & York Properties Corp. and Ontario's Public Accountants Council. Previous posts include director of Hollinger Inc. from 1996 to 2003 (she resigned in 2003), chairman of the Sunnybrook Medical Centre Foundation, a member of the board of governors of the University of Guelph and chairman of the Export Development Corporation from 1991 to 1994.
Ms. Sabia sees the chairman role as that of a relationship builder and nurturer because she believes that it's the relationship among the board members themselves, and between the board and management, that makes the difference between a highly effective organization and one that's not.
"A lot of my time is spent forging those relationships with my colleagues on the board and with members of management," says Ms. Sabia. "And it takes a fair amount of time."
One thing she likes to do is take a long view - she doesn't think it's in the best interest of shareholders to manage quarter by quarter. She believes boards are more effective when dealing with strategy, business performance and risk rather than compliance and administration, so much of those housekeeping tasks are delegated to committees who report to the board, although the board retains the power to reverse decisions.
While Ms. Sabia's position as chairman is one that only a handful of women have reached in major Canadian corporations, she bristles at the idea that boards are still an old boys' club.
"It's an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process," Ms. Sabia says. "To chair a board, one has to have a larger degree of board experience. Women are joining boards in ever increasing numbers, but there are only a few of us who have been around for a while. Through evolution, there will be more, but it takes knowledge of that company, and a fair bit of experience."