Elizabeth Watson graduated from the Allard School of Law in 1981. After 20 years of thriving private practice, Ms. Watson founded Watson Advisors Inc., now Canada’s largest multi-disciplinary governance consultancy working with established and growing companies to recruit exceptional directors and executive leaders and optimize board effectiveness. In addition to her practice, Ms. Watson speaks regularly on governance matters and teaches in the Institute of Corporate Director’s Program on Governance Effectiveness. Ms. Watson has been named by the Women’s Executive Network as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2012.
You graduated from law school in 1981. Looking back now, what would you say was the highlight of your time here at the University of British Columbia?
My university career was eclectic. I was able to explore a wide variety of study areas before I landed on law. In law school, my professors were accessible and I felt supported to pursue my interest areas. Aside from the courses, one highlight was leading the band for the annual Law Review. I was the only female in our first band and we were called “Liz and the Negligents”. So fun.
If you could go back and give your law student-self one piece of advice, what would it be?
- Be yourself – always be authentic. Authenticity breed resilience.
- Pursue what interests you. Lawyers who are happy are those who do things in which they are truly interested, rather than working just for the money.
- Take advantage of all relationships you can build – fellow law students, professors, community leaders. Relationships provide a rich life, and are a tremendous asset when you are looking to navigate your career.
- Ask for advice. Even if you don’t feel well connected, reach out to practicing lawyers and others for advice on how you can best pursue the things in which you are interested. In my experience, people are always willing to share their advice, and are flattered to be asked.
- Be a positive contributor to your community in some way. Make the world a better place.
You have worked in director roles for an array of companies and initiatives. What has kept you interested in this line of work?
Serving on a board of directors is a big responsibility, whether you are on the board of a large or small, for-profit or not-for-profit organization. At the board of directors’ level, you are able to have tremendous impact (e.g., setting strategy, hiring the CEO, ensuring the organization is productive and successful) and this is incredibly rewarding. I am the incoming chair of a great national not-for-profit called SHAD Canada which empowers young people to make the world a better place. I am excited about the impact our organization is having on young people and the country as a whole.
You practiced law privately for nearly 20 years and oversaw appointments to multiple BC Crown Corporations prior to switching roles to establish your own boutique Governance firm. What instigated this change?
My career path has been a series of single steps, pursuing opportunities that interest me. I went to the Premier’s office for a year or two and stayed for four so I could complete some specific initiatives I thought were important. When I decided to move back into private practice, organizations started calling me for governance and director recruitment support. My practice blossomed from there and today we have Canada’s largest multi-disciplinary governance consultancy focused on serving boards of directors. We are based in Vancouver and will soon be opening an office in Toronto. We believe that organizations play a big role today in the fabric of our society. Our firm provides a broad range of governance support to organizations who make a positive contribution to society.
What would you see as being the key things to keep in mind when building an effective and successful governance structure?
Effective governance requires a number of key elements: it is essential to start with competent leaders at the board and executive level. This requires understanding the needs of these positions and recruiting specifically to meet these needs. There needs to be alignment among all parties on the organization’s purpose and goals. If there is a concentrated ownership group, they must also be aligned on the purpose and goals of the organization. Positive dynamics and constructive working relationships among all parties is essential. In order for the parties to function well together, there must be a clear framework for how decisions are made and what issues require board consideration and/or decision. While lawyers are often most familiar with the structure set out in Bylaws or Articles of Incorporation, we focus more on aspects of the governance structure that help the parties in a practical way – e.g., mandates for the board, committees and CEO; code of conduct; key decision-making processes for such things as strategy, risk management and CEO evaluation and succession; and the commitment to evaluate how the board and individual directors are performing. At its heart, governance is about how people within an organization work together to make the organization successful – so the structure must identify responsibilities and authority, and enhance smooth functioning.
You were recently awarded the Lexpert Zenith Award in 2017 for your incredible advocacy for women in corporate leadership positions. Do you have any advice specifically for women trying to break into these traditionally-male occupied roles/fields? Or alternatively, do you have any advice for Allard alumni who are looking to bolster female leadership and/or recruitment for such positions?
There is a tremendous push from investors and regulators to have more women serving on corporate boards. The progress in Canada has been very slow, much slower for instance than European countries who have legislated minimum quotas for women on corporate boards. However, we have seen movement in Canada in the last few years and many corporations are actively seeking to add women to their boards and in executive leadership. The best argument for adding more women to the pool of candidates for any position is to broaden the pool of talent from which to choose. We are often asked to help organizations identify a broader pool of diverse candidates. We are at the stage now where boards have to look beyond women and be more proactive in recruiting from an even more diverse pool, including visible minorities, younger directors and First Nations.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I am never at a loss for things to do! I am interested in art and design, so I like to see new exhibits and expand my art collection. I like to play golf (which can be a bit up and down) and I like to travel. My husband and I met our daughter in Madrid this spring and I recently returned from a trip to New York with our son to see the amazing set for Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Met. I like to cook, spend time with my extended family, look after our two border terriers, and play rock and roll music on our juke box.