“My dad always instilled a sense of ambition within me,” says Carrie Blair, Executive Vice-President, Chief Human Resources and Communications Officer at Sun Life Financial.

Blair recalls how her dad inspired her to aim high by mentoring a woman to be his successor, at a time when few of his colleagues in capital markets were even considering that women could succeed them. “My dad got a lot of flak for making a woman a part of his succession plan, but regardless, he decided to sponsor her,” Blair says. “A few years later, that woman went on to be one of the first female senior vice-presidents in banking in Canada.”

Managers like Blair’s father are instrumental in helping women advance in the workplace. The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #PressforProgress. There have been significant strides in the workplace since Blair’s father was criticized for mentoring a female successor. But there is still much work to be done to improve diversity in the workplace, particularly when it comes to the boardroom.

Here are some insights from 2 powerful leaders on how we can all press for progress in the workplace: Carrie Blair and Kathy Cunningham, Senior Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer of Sun Life Financial Canada, who was recently named one of Canada’s top 100 Most Powerful Women by The Women's Executive Network (WXN).

The power of mentors

Research shows mentors are instrumental in helping women to see themselves as leaders. The CEO Pipeline Project, a research project by the executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry, gathered insights on the qualities and experiences that drive women to become top CEOs, based on interviews and assessments with female CEOs from Fortune 1,000 companies. Of the CEOs polled, 65% said they realized they could be CEO when someone told them they could be CEO.

“It’s important to have someone who can help you cut through the clutter. Someone who can ground you and ask you insightful questions to help you get where you need to go,” says Blair. “It’s important to note that mentors don’t always have to be senior leaders. They can also be your peers.”


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She credits one of her mentors with pushing her to consider a job she was thinking of not taking. “He said to me, ‘Do you want to be a senior leader in HR? If so, this is a role you should take.’” Having that context gave her the impetus to go ahead and take that job – a job that ultimately put her on track to become the head of HR at Sun Life.

Great mentors help you make the right decisions and avoid the wrong ones. “The best mentors point out what you’re doing wrong,” says Cunningham. “That helps you be better. You want mentors that kick your butt.”

Powerful advice from powerful women

  1. Take your seat at the table. “There is a piece of advice that stems from the book, Lean In (by Sheryl Sandberg), that talks about the importance of taking your seat at the table,” says Cunningham. “I used to be the person who was like ‘oh, it’s okay, I can sit in the corner,’ but you have to assert yourself.”
  2. Don’t impose limits on yourself. “A simple, but excellent piece of advice I received is ‘Nobody puts limits on you but yourself,’” says Blair.
  3. Take on projects that set you up for success. Studies show that women are assigned “office housework” tasks more often than men. Office housework is administrative work, such as planning meetings and taking notes, that is less likely to be acknowledged and less likely to lead to a promotion. Talk to your boss about taking on challenges that can help you drive business results and develop new skills. That could mean joining a digital innovation community, assisting with a project for a major client or writing a report for senior leaders.

“One of the things that we all need to do is acknowledge our ambition and chart a path to get there,” says Cunningham. “Figure out how you get those experiences and talk to your manager about what you want to do and who you want to be.”