It’s hard to imagine the Chief Financial Officer of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) high above the ground performing Cirque du Soleil-type aerial acrobatics moves. But for the last 20 years, this is exactly what Pamela Steer has done.
“I used to do 20 hours or more of trapeze a week,” Ms. Steer says.
It turns out that aerial acrobatics have a lot in common with being a financial leader. It takes persistence, a great deal of strength, significant training, courage, a lot of discipline and the ability to lead a strong, adaptive team.
“Aerial acrobatics requires you to push your body beyond its natural limits,” she says. “I could hang by my toes or by my heels or by my neck. I could hang by one arm. I could do all sorts of really cool, funky things like an iron cross where you extend both arms straight out from the sides of the body while suspended in mid-air.”
Why would Ms. Steer take up a hobby like this? “It’s a fun challenge, just like the work I do.” As CFO of the WSIB, she has to juggle responsibilities to her board, professional associations, her colleagues and the outside community. “Keeping everything balanced and on track is the fun part about work.”
Being CFO gives Ms. Steer the opportunity to tackle challenges with creative, persistent and disciplined approaches to achieve an end goal.
When she first joined the WSIB in 2012, the organization had its fair share of challenges – both financial and bureaucratic. For instance, the organization was dealing with a crushing $14-billion deficit. Now, only a few years later, the WSIB boasts a surplus of several billion dollars.
Initially, Ms. Steer only planned to stay at the WSIB for six to 12 months before returning to the private sector. Now, seven years later, she relishes the challenge of developing public sector solutions using approaches adapted from the private sector.
It turns out this isn’t the first time Ms. Steer accidentally fell into the right role for her unique skill set. In fact, had she not taken a gap year during university, her career might never have gotten off the ground.
“At age 18, while doing an undergraduate degree in economics at university, I took a year off to work as the assistant to the CFO at Corel, a software company based out of Ottawa,” Ms. Steer says.
During that year, the company went public. “As the CFO’s assistant, I got to be part of the process of taking that company public even though I was so very, very young.”
She calls it “a moment of awakening,” where she knew what she wanted to do and become.
With a clear vision for her life path, she approached the senior auditors of Corel at the time who encouraged her to get on the track to becoming a chief financial officer.
“The partners said to me: ‘Pamela, you have a gift … We want you to go back to school. And just to give you some incentive, whenever you want a job, you call us, and you’ll have a job.’”
Ms. Steer completed her masters in accounting at the University of Waterloo before receiving her Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation. With her degrees in hand, she started on her journey to becoming a financial executive, which has led her to top positions in both private businesses and public sector organizations.
Now, she’s being recognized for her accomplishments. On April 25, she was named Canada’s CFO of the Year™ for 2019 at a gala event held at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto.
This is only the second time a public sector CFO has ever won this prestigious award, which began in 2002.
“We injected a lot of private sector thinking – outcome-based thinking – into the WSIB,” Ms. Steer says. “I believe the organization is better for it. It runs better, it operates smoother, and the team is happier, as well.”
Part of her success comes from her involvement in volunteer and community activities outside of her day job. Steer serves as past chair of the CFA Society Toronto and chair of its governance and nominations committee. She’s a founding director of the City of Toronto Investment Board and is a member of the advisory board for the University of Waterloo’s School of Accounting and Finance. On the international stage, Steer sits on the global advisory council for the Accounting for Sustainability Project under The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund.
Just like in aerial acrobatics, it would have been impossible for Ms. Steer to take the WSIB out of its financial shortfall and into a more sustainable operating environment had it not been for the hard work of a solid team, she says.
“It's great to see that you can set a very high standard and people not only respond but they just go over the top and blow through it,” she says. “I've been very lucky in terms of building a terrific team, a wonderful culture, a great can-do attitude.”
So, does Ms. Steer still perform trapeze stunts? She does, although maybe not as often as she’d like to. “You can’t think about work when you’re hanging upside down 35 feet in the air.”
Learn more about Canada’s CFO of the Year™ Award at cfoy.ca.
Canada’s CFO of the Year™ Award is proudly sponsored by:
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.