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Royal Bank of Canada CFO Janice Fukakusa: ‘My experience was more around stepping into a CFO role as opposed to stepping into a CFO role as a woman.’

Erin Elder/The Globe and Mail

An exploration of the changing role of finance executives.

For years, everyone from business leaders to equality advocates have called for greater gender diversity at the C-suite level across Canada.

It's a point underscored by various studies, including a recent report by global talent management firm Rosenzweig and Co., which found 8 per cent of executive-level positions across Canada's top 100 publicly-traded companies were held by women.

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While that percentage has nearly doubled from 4.6 per cent in 2006, it highlights a dismal track record of executive-level gender diversity across Canadian corporations.

But for some of the women who have reached the highest rung on Canada's corporate ladder, particularly at the chief financial officer level, gender diversity has taken on new meaning that extends beyond meeting quotas – one that could help balance boardrooms once and for all.

It's now about leveraging gender diversity to glean a strategic business advantage by bringing different management styles to the table, thereby helping organizations adapt to a changing – and increasingly globalized – business environment.

As Royal Bank of Canada CFO Janice Fukakusa explains, gender imbalance at the executive level has never affected the way she does her job. "My experience was more around stepping into a CFO role as opposed to stepping into a CFO role as a woman," says Ms. Fukakusa, who assumed the CFO role at RBC in 2004.

Despite working in a traditionally male-dominated position where she has championed both diversity and mentoring initiatives for women, the financial industry veteran says that her focus has always been on promoting diversity in thinking and strategy, rather than simply turning equal gender representation into a numbers game.

In her view, improving gender balance in key finance roles means welcoming a range of perspectives, experience, expertise and opinions so that organizations can overtake competitors that may have less diverse work forces.

"It's about teaching people to be more accepting and to listen to different points of view. They might come to the same conclusion, but it allows them to see a different perspective. Being effective [as a leader] is not only about coming to a decision, but thinking about second- and third-level impacts."

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It's no surprise that when an important objective such as gender diversity can be tied to improved bottom-line performance, companies are quick to jump on board and build processes to further the goal.

As Ms. Fukakusa notes, RBC and other organizations have implemented programs designed to help leaders highlight and understand unconscious biases stemming from their racial, gender or cultural backgrounds, all of which could shape everything from how they communicate with colleagues to their executive-level hiring preferences.

Organizations that work with staff and leaders to highlight those biases stand a better chance of diversifying their talent pools to drive improved business results, according to Ms. Fukakusa.

That also means looking for CFOs better suited to helping their companies set long-term business objectives and highlighting strategic risks and opportunities – not acting as mere bean counters, as may have been the case in decades past.

"You need CFOs who are much better at resolving conflict and managing change in an organization," notes Maarika Paul, CFO of pension and insurance fund manager Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec in Montreal.

"I find that women tend to have more of those aptitudes … like the capacity to delegate and make people accountable," she adds. "Where men might be more likely to hear information and think they have to act, women tend to look for more information and analyze and discuss it."

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Ms. Paul points out that of the top 10 pension or asset managers across the country, five have female CFOs, indicating that, at least across her industry and job designation, diversity measures are beginning to have a positive impact on boardroom gender balance.

Debbie Stein, the former CFO of Calgary-based oil and gas infrastructure firm AltaGas Ltd. and current chair of FEI Canada, feels that the differences between male and female leaders extend to their strategic approach to planning and operations, particularly as it applies to talent management.

"I would say, in my experience, women lead differently. I think we're longer-term thinkers, at least in my opinion. We're more inclined to think about the many facets of what's going on in the [workplace] environment."

Over the course of her career, Ms. Stein says she has noticed a positive evolution among hiring managers, boards of directors and executive teams when it comes to recruiting from a more diverse talent pool. In her view it's the right approach, but she says they should proceed with caution.

The reason is that well-meaning change can often bring with it more than a few unintended consequences.

While diversity, particularly at the C-suite level, improves the level of expertise across an organization, Ms. Stein stresses that company cultures need time to adjust to the influx of new ideas, approaches and personalities that diversity-boosting policies can introduce.

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"If your leaders can't manage a more diverse work force, it won't work," she says. "You need to get your leaders up to speed before hiring for diversity because you might end up with a bigger challenge than you had before."

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