Read Our Turn Online

Authors: Kirstine; Stewart

Our Turn

BOOK: Our Turn

Published by Nero,

an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd

Level 1, 221 Drummond Street

Carlton VIC 3053, Australia

[email protected]

First published in 2015 by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Random House Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

Copyright © KAS Creative 2015.

This edition published in 2016.

Kirstine Stewart asserts her right to be known as the author of this work.


No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Stewart, Kirstine, author.

Our turn / Kirstine Stewart.

9781863958523 (paperback)

9781925435122 (ebook)

Leadership in women.

Women executives.


Cover design by Tristan Main

Text design by CS Richardson

Cover image: © Markian Lozowchuk

To family:

the one I was grateful to be born into
and the one I was lucky to find along the way.


Girl Friday Rises

almost daily about the conspicuous absence of women from the highest echelons of corporations, companies and countries. Women outnumber men as university graduates, enter the workforce in roughly equal numbers as men do, yet the further up the ladder you look, the fewer women you find. A recent study from Catalyst, the non-profit research group focused on women in the workplace, revealed that women in Canada hold just 18 percent of senior officer jobs and 36 percent of management positions. Among Fortune 500 companies, women occupy only 17 percent of board seats, 14 percent of executive positions, and make up less than 5 percent of chief executive officers. Data like this are splintering the woman's movement—think Sheryl Sandberg's
Lean In
versus Anne-Marie Slaughter's “Why Women Still Can't Have It All

Much of the debate seems to swirl like a sandstorm around an insidious riddle: What comes first, having more women at the top in order to create change or making change so that women can reach the top?

I believe it's time we look at the conundrum differently. It's time to stop agonizing over how to affect change and to exploit the reality that profound
is already under way, a revolution in fact. Fuelled by technology and shifting demographics, digital technologies are creating a new world order that demands a new style of leader—one with attributes and perspectives that make women natural front-runners. That's not just my view. That's the conclusion from a growing body of research that finds women tend to have in spades what's needed to lead successfully in the information age. It really is “our turn.” The question now, and one I hope to answer in these pages, is how best do we seize it?

Having worked my way up from the bottom, without the benefit of an Ivy League education or friends in high places, it's a question I'm regularly asked. And having worked under a long list of leaders, men and women, good and bad, it's also one I feel I can answer by sharing the hard-won lessons of my own experience. Our culture is steeped in the narrative of the self-made man; the stories of self-made women are relatively new and still unfolding, mine included. But I've seen enough from the front lines of power to understand the forces that are now redefining it. My experience has given me a unique perspective on what it takes to lead and to get ahead in our changing world, if that's what you choose to do.

, getting ahead was a necessity as much as a choice. It was back in 1988. I had big hair, rent to pay on my first apartment and (long before my career moves made
headlines) a newspaper was a place I scoured to
a job. Of course, the bottom of the heap was not exactly what I had pictured for myself. After graduating with an English literature degree, I had imagined an auspicious career launch in publishing. I even had a position lined up with the publishing house where I'd interned. But then the recession hit, the job disappeared and I was desperate, not only to cover the bills, but to start my “real life”—somewhere, anywhere. So when I saw the ad for a “girl Friday” placed by a television company in the classified section of the
Toronto Star
, I applied.

The term didn't even strike me as sexist, just quaint, a throwback to the other end of the century, circa typing pools and steno pads. I read it as a call for a junior assistant willing to do anything and everything, which wasn't much different from the varied jobs I'd been juggling to put myself through university. I had worked as a cashier at a bookshop and a discount department store. I'd filed reference materials at the university library, and, at the agricultural museum near where I'd grown up, I played the part of an 1860s farm wife for three summers. Sporting a bonnet and petticoats, I churned butter, baked bread, tacked quilts, spun cotton and carded wool. Playing girl Friday sounded pretty easy by comparison.

I told myself I'd find my way into publishing eventually, and, in the meantime, getting a foot in the door of a television company was an interesting alternative. I'd never thought about jobs in TV. I'm not sure I realized working in TV was even a possibility. To me, TV was a pastime, though when I was a kid, it had been an addiction.
The Flintstones
Mork & Mindy
Family Ties
—my parents apparently never worried too much TV would rot my brain.
I'd skipped grades in elementary school and they actually credited
Sesame Street
for giving me a preschool head start (and keeping me occupied). Now, here was an unexpected opportunity to look behind the scenes.

Paragon Entertainment, which produced and sold television programs to broadcasters around the world, hired me as their girl Friday straight out of school. I landed in the small downtown office of its distribution wing, Paragon International, where a handful of sales executives pitched a popular homegrown lineup, such as the tween drama
, an animated kids' series called
The Raccoons
, and
Monster Truck
(yes, it was an action series starring those bouncing, supersized monster pick-ups). I ran errands, ordered office supplies, and handled the mail, the phones, telexes, faxes and photocopies. In the process, I got my head around the business, all of which was run by one formidable woman.

“Oh, you have a
boss?” my mother said when she heard. “That's not always a good thing.”

in a man's world—a small English industrial town during the Second World War. Still, as the youngest of five children in a lower-middle-class family, she grew up believing that a woman should be prepared to pay her own way. A talented artist, she became a draftsperson for architectural firms where usually she was one of very few women at the table. In those days, the rare woman who did manage to acquire a piece of the leadership pie was often loath to share even a crumb with another woman working her way up. When there wasn't enough to go around, another woman was the competition.

Even today, surveys find that women—even more than males—would rather work for a man than another woman. Gallup has tracked the gender preference for a male-over-female boss since the 1950s, and while it has narrowed over time, it hasn't disappeared. It may be that women's ongoing insecurities in the workplace have carried through the decades, making female bosses tougher on other women. Or it may be that powerful women tend to be perceived as cold and controlling as they vie for a seat at what had traditionally been a man's table. Or it may be that people don't want to work for their mothers. Whatever sparks it, society tends to view the gender preference as further evidence that women's bid for equality in the workplace, specifically success at the highest levels, has faltered.

I certainly took my mother's concerns to heart at the time. But I also kept an open mind. Luckily, fate had put me under the wing of Isme Bennie. She was Paragon's president and someone I actually would come to regard, professionally, as my second mother. Not that there was any coddling from Isme. It wasn't her style.

A self-made woman who worked her way up and out of her hometown in South Africa, Isme had a powerful, colourful presence. Fashionable and worldly, she knew the business better than anyone. As a boss, she was exacting, ferocious—
The Devil Wears Prada
, but without the horns. Demanding, yes, but never, ever mean. Isme was reserved with her praise, but if she saw something she liked, she rewarded it. I'd been there six months when I got my first promotion. I found a letter sitting in an envelope on my desk one morning that informed me that along with an annual salary bump from
$16,000 to $18,000, I had been promoted from girl Friday to sales executive with one stroke of her pen.

Isme later explained that she'd heard me on the phone, where instead of taking messages, I took initiative. I asked broadcasters what they were looking for and described the shows that might be a good fit. “It makes sense for you to be a sales executive,” she said. “You're already doing the job.”

With that promotion came the freedom to rise and shine. I travelled with her to international film and television festivals in Cannes and Monte Carlo, cutting deals with TV networks from around the world. After the Iron Curtain fell, I sold the first Western show into Russia, our kids' show,
The Raccoons,
in exchange for bolts of fabric, which, unlike Russian currency at the time, could be converted into cash through a Montreal textile company. I rose to become a sales manager in charge of business in the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa. When the publishing firm where I'd interned finally did call to offer me the job I'd once pined for, I turned them down. I had fallen completely for the media world I'd stumbled into, its unique mix of business and content creation, commerce and art.

When Isme left Paragon in 1995 to run Bravo, a new arts specialty channel, I replaced her. In seven years, and before I turned 30, I'd gone from girl Friday to president of a multi-million-dollar television distribution company.

The professional trajectory of those early years has become the pattern of my career in media, now closing in on three decades. I've headed up programming at two American networks, run a large group of
Canadian channels at Alliance Atlantis, including Home and Garden Television (HGTV), and, in 2006, I was tapped to take over television at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Four years later, I was promoted to what many consider the top of the broadcast food chain in Canada, executive vice-president over the entire operation of the CBC's English Language Services, becoming, at forty-two, the youngest person to hold the job, and the first woman.

Ever since, in interviews and at talks I give, people ask me how I did it, how I managed to climb high up the corporate ladder without old money or connections. Successful men are seldom asked the same question, and rarely are they subjected to the level of scrutiny women receive when they arrive in the C-suite. For a woman, there's always the lurking thought that she's had some help in beating the odds, particularly if she ascends to an office no woman has occupied before. Especially when she's a relatively young woman, who also happens to be a mother of two, as I am.

That set of largely unvoiced suspicions haunted me through my tenure at the CBC. They also haunted me when I decided to leave the job in 2013 to become the first head of Twitter Canada, a move the national press trumpeted as a front-page surprise and put under a microscope. After all, given that during my time at the helm of CBC we had commissioned hits like
Dragon's Den
Little Mosque on the Prairie
, and won back the rights to the Olympics, I'd overseen one of the most successful periods in the public broadcaster's seventy-five-year history, in terms of ratings, revenues and, for a while, even morale. And yet, I was bolting. How could I leave one of the most powerful jobs in Canadian media, a major
position many women, and men, would kill to have, and to keep? I felt a twinge of guilt that I was somehow letting my gender down: I'd broken through a thick glass ceiling at a venerable old institution only to walk away from the shards.

No man had ever quit the CBC's top job. They were either fired or they retired. I was jumping from being chief executive of a coast-to-coast radio and television operation of 5,000 employees to an empty office—no colleagues, no employees, no assistant, just me and a smartphone, a pioneer on the tech frontier (no bonnet or spinning wheel). I could see how it seemed slightly absurd.

Yet I believe my decision to resign was one of the boldest and smartest career moves I have ever made. In the first year after I took the post, Twitter became a publicly traded company and one of the most valuable in the world with a valuation of US$29 billion. I led the Twitter Canada team to a banner launch that multiplied revenues, made the country a major priority for the company and led to my next opportunity at Twitter HQ. Since the fall of 2014, after Twitter asked if I would take on a bigger job as VP of Media, I've been heading up all our news, sports, entertainment and government-related content and activities for our partners across North America—from coverage of the Super Bowl to the Oscars, to the launch of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. I haven't slipped into the obscurity of the corporate wild. I'm playing in a wide-open field that's dramatically changing the way the world shares and communicates. So now, when people ask for tips from my own path to success, I tell them this: My leap from the top ranks of old media to the new is emblematic of a much larger transition, one that
should give women, especially, every reason to be optimistic about their futures.

No corner of society—public, private, economic or political—has been untouched by the warp-speed proliferation of technology. Barely two decades into the twenty-first century, it's transferring power from organizations to people, remaking institutions, transforming industries, spawning coups (the Arab Spring's netizens), electing presidents (#AskObama) and altering forever the way we do business. No company can afford not to change. Consider the corporate giants that have fallen in the last two decades alone: Kodak, Nokia, Blockbuster Video, Tower Records and Borders. Once one of the largest bookstore chains in the US, Borders made the critical mistake of failing to embrace e-commerce; it did not invest in the development of its own e-reader and over-invested in music at a time when people stopped buying CDs and started buying iPods. It closed the doors on its remaining stores in 2011. Companies that fail to respond quickly to the new appetites and realities of the consumer-driven market simply fail themselves. Between 2010 and 2011, that toll included more than three hundred American newspapers that folded for good.

At the same time, the digital age is proving that big is not necessarily better in the business world. With ready access to big data, companies are getting smaller. The Swedish company Mojang AB, creators of Minecraft, the best-selling PC video game to date, only has 40 employees. In 2013, it generated $292 million in revenues and in November 2014 was snapped up by Microsoft for a reported $2.5 billion. BuzzFeed, the online news site that's giving media old and new a run for its
money, has about 700 employees and pulled in a reported $100 million in revenue last year. Netflix, which describes itself as the “world's leading Internet television provider,” accounting for 30 percent of downstream traffic during peak hours in North America, generated more than $4.3 billion in revenue in 2013, and has just 2,000 employees. That's one-tenth the number of employees at CBS. Size is no longer an indicator of success. And neither are assets. Uber, the world's biggest taxi company, has no taxis. Airbnb, poised to become the world's largest hotelier, has no hotels. Amazon, the online retail giant that has put countless book and music stores out of business, has no stores.

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