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Ceridian’s Leagh Turner on ignoring misguided career advice and becoming a leader who gets results—while still showing some humanity. As told to Dawn Calleja:

Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

When I started working in tech sales, there weren’t many women in that world, particularly young ones. It was all men, all the time, having a good time. And if you couldn’t play a role in that—if you couldn’t benefit from the after-work camaraderie—you had to find a different way to fit in.

I have always been pretty hungry and tenacious. I was direct with people, but also deeply warm. I genuinely cared and wanted to help nurture people. But I had some really well-meaning mentors who said to me, “Be less emotive. Be more demure. Be more concise. Find ways to say things more gently.” I even got that kind of advice from women. I used to have these yellow Louboutin shoes. They cost a lot, and I loved them. A co-worker said to me, “Listen, those shoes are one weird thing too many. You’re already a woman in tech—you shouldn’t stand out any more than that. It’s time to let go of the shoes.”

Having kids was the hardest part. When I was pregnant with my first son, I was working for a woman, selling in a high-pressure environment. She brought me into her office, closed the door and said, “I know you’re entitled to take a year off, but if you want to keep your job and continue to hold on to your sales territories, my book says you get nine weeks. If you take longer, that’s okay—we’re legally required to continue employing you. But those customers will go to someone else.” I couldn’t believe it. I only took nine weeks. I was a hot mess, and I left that job a year after my son was born, because I just couldn’t believe I had made that decision, and I didn’t want to work for a company that would ask me to do that.

I’d tried to fold myself into that mould—that I couldn’t be both warm and task-focused—and I’d moved away from one of my core principles. Leading people with their minds is easy. It’s fact-based. At the same time, you need to understand their lives, care about their families and careers, care about making them promotable. Eventually, a dear friend—a woman—at SAP said to me, “Leagh, it’s very important to start leading people with both their hearts and minds.” That was a wake-up call.

I’m a firm believer in the fact that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. It’s not quotas for quotas’ sake; it’s quotas for results. When I joined Ceridian, more than half of its employees were women, and the company skews much higher than its peers in terms of women in leadership roles—43%. And Ceridian did this while moving through a deep shift in its business and the most successful tech IPO in Canadian history.

I hope the environment has shifted a little, but I don’t think it’s shifted enough. I was speaking to a group of women at the Ivey Business School. It breaks my heart, but I saw one student at the front of the class wearing pink shoes with bright red hearts on them. I thought, “Oh, sweetheart, someone is going to tell you one day that’s a bad idea.” We’re not preparing young women for the fact that it’s still hard, and in some weird way it’s harder, because we talk about diversity, but we don’t operate in the spirit of full diversity. They come in with their pink shoes with red hearts on them, and they don’t realize they need to arm themselves.