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May 22, 2014I’ve always wanted to tell someone the story of how Catalyst’s Women On Board® initiative got started in Canada.

Back in 2006, I was working as a research associate with Patrick O’Callaghan and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in board effectiveness and director recruitment in the public, private and nonprofit sectors in Canada. Every year Patrick releases an annual report, Corporate Board Governance and Director Compensation in Canada, which examines Canada's 300 largest corporations and income trusts, tracking board governance information and director compensation.

One day, after launching the 2006 report, Patrick came back to the office complaining about the low numbers of women on boards and saying how tired he was of telling people, year after year, that the numbers hadn’t changed. (At the time, according to Patrick’s report, just 6% of directors of the 300 largest companies in Canada were women.) “A lot of people are talking about the lack of women on boards as a board governance issue,” Patrick said. “Instead of simply talking about it, I’m going to do something about it.” He wanted to take active steps to get more women appointed to boards, and develop a program that would make it happen.

Well…was I ever inspired by that!

I spent the rest of that week thinking about what Patrick wanted to do, and by Sunday night I was convinced that I was the woman to help head up this project. When I returned to work on Monday and walked into Patrick’s office, I said, “You know this women on boards thing? That is the job I should be doing.” Patrick agreed, and asked me to prepare a program proposal based on a successful mentoring program in London in which senior women executives were mentored by company leaders.  We wanted to create a program where women corporate director candidates could be paired with experienced corporate board members. Why? Because we knew the biggest obstacle for women looking to get on boards was their lack of champions and their lack of connections with sitting directors.  Patrick contacted Carol Stephenson, a good friend and board colleague who was also Dean of Richard Ivey School of Business in Ontario, to tell her what he was thinking about. She liked the model we were proposing, and joined us as a co-founder. I became Managing Director.

Using our model and Patrick’s wise counsel, we lined up six amazing well-known directors who each agreed to mentor a woman to help her get on boards. What an incredible line-up of mentors we had, such as Bob Harding from Brookfield Asset Management Inc., Dick Evans from Alcan, and John Thompson from TD. Each of them nominated a senior-level woman who he thought had what it takes to serve on a corporate board. We cross-matched the women with the mentors and provided some support throughout their partnerships. Just as Patrick expected, the following year there were more people who wanted to get involved, taking the program from six mentors to 13.

Since then the program has gone through some changes, and we have learned a lot.  But the core concept remains the same: link a select group of top executive women with experienced corporate directors who are willing to be their champions and sponsors, and help increase the number of women on boards.

Now in our eighth year, we have come far and are very proud of our accomplishments. Forty percent of our alumnae have been appointed to boards, and 36% of our current participants have also been appointed. And now that we are part of the Catalyst family—we were acquired by Catalyst in 2013—the numbers are getting even better. Catalyst’s most recent 2013 Census of Financial Post 500 Women Board Directors says that women held   15.9% of board seats.) Plus, this year we are dipping our foot into US waters as part of our plan to expand the initiative beyond Canada.  

Wonder how a Women On Board partnership works? You’ll get a chance see first-hand, starting next month, as we kick off a yearlong series that follows Women On Board participant Sandra Stuart and her board sponsor Sarah Raiss. Each month you’ll get a close-up look at their partnership. I hope you won’t miss a single one, because you will definitely get a unique perspective about what it takes to get appointed to a board. So stay tuned….

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and the individuals commenting, and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The commentaries and comments are presented as a public service in the interest of informing the public.