As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Warren .
Jennifer leads the North American Issuer Services business at Computershare, a global market leader in transfer agency and share registration used by world-leading organizations to maximize the value of relationships with investors, employees, creditors and customers.
Prior to this, Jennifer held general counsel and business roles with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and is a past and present committee and corporate board member.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I worked in a senior legal position at Rogers Communications, a Canadian telecoms company.
After that, I spent 11 years at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) the last four of which were leading the bank’s US region, where I was involved in broker-dealer operations, wealth management, and corporate banking, as well as capital markets, before joining Computershare.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I joke with friends that I’m the ‘Forrest Gump’ of global crises — I keep showing up in the middle of them and have often been in a serious state of incident management throughout my career.
As a senior lawyer at Rogers Communications, we experienced the dot com bubble bursting, which had significant implications for cable, wireless and internet businesses. That was a very intense introduction to the scale of worldwide events and their commercial impacts.
Then, one year into my arrival as General Counsel at CIBC, we felt the first tremors of the global credit crisis. For the next three years it consumed my role as I navigated extremely serious issues across multiple dimensions on a global scale.
One year into my tenure at Computershare, the epidemic started to move across the world and we began to grapple with what the coronavirus pandemic would mean for our team, clients and business.
I’ve developed ways to plan for scenarios and navigation of these events, but I certainly didn’t set out to do that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I recently had occasion to revisit a lecture by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon. In 2008 and as a relatively young man facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, he composed and delivered something called the ‘last lecture’ that later turned into a bestselling book. I remember watching it during the credit crisis days when I needed a little lift — it was chock-full of humor, insight, wisdom and maturity. One quote stands out to me: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted”. As I mature in both my professional and personal life, I realize they are very true words and I draw on them when I feel like I’m getting an awful lot more experience than expected.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I’m a big fan of Doris Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written beautifully about various presidents. Her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln explores the concept of ‘servant leadership’: one of Lincoln’s traits but one that is also very relevant to current management teaching. For his time, and maybe even for this time, he had incredible levels of self-awareness, sense of mission and resilience.
Such historical figures prompt me to think about what made them truly great — and what I can draw upon to learn from their example in my job.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the things that drew me to Computershare originally is a very distinctive cultural theme. We call it “Being Purple”. It centers around a sense of good will and teamwork that I find truly energizing and rewarding.
During these very difficult twelve months we had so many of our clients urgently needing to pivot from in-person Annual General Meetings to virtual ones to meet their corporate governance obligations and connect with their shareholders.
In the shortest of timeframes, with everyone working remotely, I called out to my team and said ‘I need 30 volunteers in Canada and 30 in the US to make this many meetings happen online.’ Within 24 hours people, in fact, more people than needed, responded. It was one of the most heart-warming moments of the pandemic and I get emotional thinking about it now.
Once we had overcome the initial point of crisis, I reached out to each volunteer to personally thank them and I got back the loveliest responses. People said they were grateful to be part of something beyond themselves, and about having a shared purpose during a very dark time. The terrific service that core team provided in those few short months exploded our already substantial presence in the North America virtual meeting market.
As one of Computershare’s most defining cultural traits, it was a lovely reminder of why I came here.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
You’ve got to be good at something; it’s what makes you valuable. Being valuable is easier in a world that’s complex, dynamic and risk laden. Hard work is the start, partly because it’s indispensable in cultivating skill, but it’s not the only element. In addition to working hard, first as a corporate lawyer then as general counsel and now as a business executive, I observed others around me who were very successful, and I emulated them. I sought their mentorship — not by asking them to sponsor me — but by watching them, seeing what was successful about what they had done.
I’ve made it my job to continually elevate what I was doing. Another quote of Doris Goodwin — “Be possessed of a savage desire to improve yourself” — comes to mind here as a neat way of thinking about really being into your job. Being into it is its own reward, but it also deepens your relationship with your own skill, your profession and industry.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I grew up in a family focused on achievement; to do well at school, study piano and read. It wasn’t a sporty family, my mother and father were both quite disapproving of games, in particular card games, which they thought were idle.
On reflection I think there are lessons from playing games, particularly learning how to win and how to lose gracefully at a young age is extremely important.
It’s critical for young women coming up in the business world to know how to participate in this ecosystem, to get up and dust yourself off and keep going. If I had the chance to do it again, I’d be slightly less accepting of our family ethos.
I’m making up for it now by playing some sports like golf, which I’m enjoying and can see the value in games for young people to cultivate their characters. I love working in teams and the development of relationships these settings can bring.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The foundational ability to work hard and to develop a stamina for what you do. Starting out as a corporate lawyer meant plenty of long hours. During that time, I developed the capacity for hard work.
Second, when I was young, we were part of a close-knit community and my mother was often volunteering to help others. It cultivated in me a desire to serve others and it has been a gift to my professional life. When I began working as a young corporate lawyer, I had some great mentors who pointed out I was in a position of privilege and told me to start giving back to the community immediately. As soon as I got into a senior role, I was leading a part of an incredible not-for-profit called United Way in Toronto. On top of the skills of writing and giving speeches, it granted me the opportunity to create and cultivate a network of similarly-minded people. When I moved to New York I became involved with United Way and am now a member of the board there. The desire to serve has been an enormous privilege in both my professional and personal life.
Third is the desire to improve and every day get better at what you’ve done the day before. Put yourself in a situation where you can learn from others, anyone whose judgement and work ethic you respect.
Finally, a sense of humor is essential. Life is to be enjoyed and you’ve got to have some levity. Even in the middle of a 14 or 15-hour day I’ve had lots of laughs with my colleagues and friends; there’s community and fellowship in those moments. I think it has sustained me and has made my career more fun.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
CEOs have to bring a wide-ranging set of tools to the task of leadership. Those tools are dynamic and the complexity with which they are changing is accelerating.
I’ve always thought it was one of the hardest jobs around because of the breadth of the skill needed to be successful: a combination of technical training, self-discipline and communication along with character traits of integrity, consistency and courage.
You also need empathy, generosity of spirit and a sense of purpose. But, above all else, a great CEO needs to have a finely-honed sense of judgement.
If you don’t have a good number of those boxes checked, it will show up in your track record, in your team and the organization generally.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The idea that CEOs could delegate risk management went out of the window during the pandemic. Look no further than the last year: any CEO who didn’t have a point of view about how to manage her way through the existential risks presented during the last 18 months was in big trouble. I feel blessed to have worked in a global bank where risk navigation was a deep part of my training, and part of the success or failure of a financial institution. Demand for this skill will only increase as we approach the post-pandemic era.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Command and control are on life support in the post-pandemic era. Thinking you can come into a role and tell people how things will go is perhaps a mistake compared with simply opening yourself up and listening.
Come in with humility and let people guide you. It’s your job as a leader to integrate and make decisions but it’s also okay to come to understand what happened before you and hard-working teams deserve that recognition.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Allowing yourself to be a bit vulnerable. So much written about emotional intelligence and its role in strong leadership is now becoming very clear.
There’s an interesting transition — when you’re a person aspiring to a leadership role, vulnerability is not what you show. But when you do attain the role, the ambition for yourself needs to transition into ambition for the greater good.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Prepare to grow comfortable with discomfort. I deliberately placed myself in discomfort when, after 10 years of working full throttle, I decided to take a break, even though it was uncomfortable, to assess where I was and what I wanted to achieve next.
As a young professional I trained to analyze and communicate with confidence because it was my job was to give advice. I didn’t let myself think much about feeling discomforted. As a leader you have to open yourself up to the discomfort of not being exactly sure of how it’s going to turn out, but knowing you have to get people there. I do think that self-aware women leaders are perhaps more able to this.
2. It’s okay to show vulnerability. When I was new to Computershare, I had to ask a lot of questions about how we did things. Although I had confidence in my professional training and ability, I felt I also had to honor people’s experiences and chart a path forward.
3: Resilience is a critical part of all our experiences, especially during the past difficult year when lots of people have drawn on stores of strength, faith and family. I did spend time this year reflecting on my own career and where past crises have also shown the path to opportunity to enable me to navigate the pandemic.
4: Coaching is something that I probably would have sought out earlier if I had known how helpful it is. I got my first coach when I moved to New York eight years ago. She opened my eyes to helpful dynamics that can make you a more successful leader and had the most incredible insights. I am convinced that good leaders need to have someone working with them, questioning assumptions and helping to put issues into perspective.
5: The power of a narrative and telling a story with a beginning, middle and end is primal, compelling and the power of those stories is crucial to leadership — something I understand the more I go through change.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I’ve always drawn people into an agenda that I believe in. I would pick a few people out of my team and say, “Let’s do this project together”. We then bring it back to the team and talk about our successes and our failures, to inspire and propel the team forward.
I’ve also hosted gatherings and women’s events where I’ve shared my personal stories to create culture.
All companies are currently grappling with how to create a dynamic and compelling work culture in the new dispersed and online environment. Sharing experiences and using energy to create a rapport is crucial to successful teams and companies, including Computershare, are currently experimenting with how to make that work virtually.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe in scale and the power of scaling. Working with the charity United Way, I’ve accepted my role isn’t the ‘ideas person’ — I can’t take a single idea and create something world-changing — but I can lend my time and talents to an organization with the potential to scale in order to produce results on the ground.
United Way now has six schools in New York’s South Bronx, bringing pupils’ reading levels up to Grade 3 level by Grade 3. Participating in the governance structure makes the most of my skill set, which I know has contributed to an organization that has changed the lives of children. Using your skills in the best way you can is the greatest service you can do.
How can our readers further follow you online?