#48: Caroline Codsi, President & Founder of Women in Governance

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Caroline Codsi is the President and Founder of Women in Governance. A Citizen of the world having lived on three continents, Caroline was born in Beirut. She was only 7 years old when the war started and 22 when it ended.  A highly sought-after speaker, Caroline has addressed audiences across Canada as well as the four corners of the globe. She is the recipient of numerous national and international awards and was recognized as a Top 20 Diversity Leading Figures in Quebec, Top 75 Canadian Immigrants and Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada.  She is also the recipient of a Gender Equality Award by the United Nations Women’s Committee and was nominated Leader of the decade for diversity & inclusion at New Delhi’s Women’s Economic Forum.

What do you consider your top 3 core values and how do they affect how you lead your business?

My 3 core values are Justice, Perseverance and Authenticity. The first one, Justice, is definitely the most important one and the mere reason why I do everything that I do today!  

Justice…

I strongly believe that there can be no peace without justice.  It is not only true in areas of this world with armed conflicts, it is also true in our society… why should we accept any injustices? Ever?  Some injustices are so rooted in our society we have become completely blind to them and tend to think that there is nothing that we can do about them and if there were, that somebody else would figure it out for us.  Well if everyone thinks this way, how are we ever going to progress?

I began my quest for justice at a very young age when our family’s circumstances changed drastically because of a terrible thing called WAR.  It was 1975, I was only 7 years old and too young to understand how what seemed to be only sectarian tensions turned into a full-scale civil war in Lebanon that lasted more than 15 years.

I will not get into the details of one of the most complex conflicts of modern history, it was also one of the most covered by the media worldwide…. but let’s just say that like in any conflict, it is the civilian population who suffered the most and had the least to say. A handful of decision-makers had full control and brought the country to its knees. 

During that time, the little girl who already had a very strong understanding of the difference between wrong and right, who was forming her own set of beliefs and values, was beginning to build up anger against these adults who were behaving in such disappointing and erratic ways.  I started paying more attention, observing more, and some of the injustices I saw still follow me to this day. I had this distant dream that, in the Western civilization, all notions of unfair treatment of women, inequality or injustice would be banished. I was convinced when I arrived in a beautiful and peaceful land called Canada that the young feminist that was stemming in me would finally be relieved and have no more battles to fight.

I quickly realized that my view was way too idealistic. What was in fact closer to the truth was that, even in this wonderful country, 8 out of 10 victims of violent crimes, particularly domestic violence and sexual assaults, are women.  I also discovered that, worldwide, more than 1 out of 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Those who are supposed to love, cherish and protect these women, their intimate partners, commit 38% of their murders.  The United Nations declared that Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions.

I felt once again so helpless but I decided to take the negative feelings and the anger bottled up in me during years of war and channel my energy in a positive fashion, to help make a difference in the lives of women who had nothing left but a glimpse of hope. For the past 15 years, and until this day, I have been heavily involved on boards and committees of 3 different women’s shelters.

In parallel to all this, my insertion in the Canadian corporate world was going wonderfully well. I very quickly climbed the ladder and discovered that even women who seemed to be powerful and have it all, were also discriminated against.  Although they compose 51% of the population, only 5% of CEOs are women and they account for an average of 14% of public and private board seats. These statistics are alarming and it is everyone’s responsibility, both men and women, to make a change.  Not only because it is the ethical thing to do but because companies with a greater number of women at the executive level or on the board are more innovative and perform better financially. There is nothing more powerful than men and women who put their brains and their visions together to get results!

Perseverance…

At the age of 17, I fled war-torn Beirut and moved to Paris, no parents, no money.  It was an amazing experience which certainly shaped the woman I am today. I have always been passionate about my roots, strong about my motives and perseverant about my approach.  I never give up, never take no for an answer, never wait behind a closed door, I actually never wait period. Having to make ends meet in a big city like Paris at only 17, putting myself through school and then university, figuring out a way to pay rent for my tiny maid’s chamber has made me very resilient and it would have never happened without a jumbo dose of perseverance.  It was a swim or sink situation, I had no safety net, no Plan B, I simply had to succeed. At that time, war was still raging in Lebanon and I couldn’t even reach my parents on the phone if I needed to. I had little to no advice from adults and had to make my own decisions. I never felt worried or thought that I could fail; somehow, I was convinced that everything would turn out just fine in the end, and it did; probably a little bit better even than what I had anticipated!

I am a very demanding but very fair leader.  I expect everyone on my team to have certain qualities that may not be natural to them but I know can be developed.  I tell my team not to come to me with a problem but instead to come to me with a solution or multiple solutions if they need me to help them chose one. I get irritated when someone just says I tried but it didn’t work instead of giving me the list of creative things that they did before hitting a wall.  I will then gladly help them overcome the obstacle and this is how we all learn and grow together.  The fantastic thing about being at the head of a nonprofit for such an important cause is that everyone around me is so engaged and dedicated. I never recruit people who are looking for a ‘job’, I recruit people who want to make a difference and have an impact. 

Authenticity…

I was always well known for my authenticity, for meaning what I say and saying what I mean! When I was younger, I thought everyone was like that and did not realize that people could be telling me something they didn’t really mean.  I have had a few disappointments but learnt to cope and decided to never change my communication style simply because I have a very hard time faking anything. I also highly appreciate being surrounded by people who are like-minded and say things as they are.  I much prefer an employee or a client who tells me things to my face than someone who complains behind my back because how constructive is that?

The funny part is that when I was in the corporate world (during 25 years, include the last decade in VP and SVP roles), the executive team often told me that I had to be more guarded, put a distance between me and my staff, I even received coaching (that I did not solicit) on political abilities. 

Now that I am President of my organization, I am thankful that I never listened to that non-sense. People deal with people. They need to know the human behind the title or position if they want to feel a connection.  They also need to know they can trust you and that they are confident about where they stand. 

What types of projects do you have coming up that we can look forward to seeing in the future?

I founded Women in Governance (aka La Gouvernance au Féminin) in 2010, a nonprofit organization with mission to encourage women to develop their leadership, advance their career and sit on boards. Women in Governance’s programs have a deep and concrete impact for equality in the Canadian society:   we organize major events, offer a high-level mentoring program, governance training, a networking platform and a robust Parity Certification which has quickly become our flagship activity.

Women in Governance’s Parity Certification, developed with the pro-bono support of McKinsey&co serves to help Canadian organizations increase the representation of women in sectors where they have historically been underrepresented, as well as in senior management positions. This innovative certification not only evaluates parity at the decision-making level of organizations, but also assesses the organization’s commitment to the implementation of mechanisms that enable women at all levels of its hierarchy to achieve career advancement, thus creating a pipeline of female talent.

Organizations with over 400 employees are eligible to participate regardless of the location of their headquarters or board of directors. With 31 certified organizations in 2018, this initiative had an impact on 258,127 employees across Canada; they will benefit from the best practices established by their employers to enable women to progress without glass ceilings or sticky floors.

Every year, certified organizations are recognized at our prestigious Gala events, which are currently held in Montreal in the fall and in Toronto in the winter. They are always co-chaired by a man and a woman who are senior executives (CEO or Chair of the Board) of a certified organization.  With the support of our founding certifying partners, McKinsey&Co but also additional partners who joined us in 2018, Mercer and Willis Towers Watson, we are now further growing the certification throughout North America and you will certainly see more of us around Canada, the US and even the globe!