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Q&A Series with Women on Boards

Devinder Gill

Devinder Gill: “Whether it is a board or an organization, representation and diversity matter.”

Devinder Gill is the RBC Regional Vice President, Business Financial Services, for British Columbia. She is responsible for all aspects of business banking and leads a dedicated team of industry specialists who bring the best of RBC’s financial advice and solutions to help clients and their businesses thrive. With over 24 years of experience, Devinder has a deeply diversified background and strong expertise in the financial services industry; notably, in small business, financial planning, retail, and commercial banking.

A strong advocate for diversity, and an active member of her community, Devinder cares deeply about giving back. She is a mentor within RBC as well as with the SFU Beedie Mentors in Business program. Devinder serves as a Board Member and Women’s Events Chair with the Risk Management Association (RMA) Fraser Valley Chapter, as a Director on the Board of Special Olympics, and as a Director and Finance Committee Member on the Board of Minerva BC.

Q: What drew you to the financial services industry?

A: I was initially thinking about pursuing a career in accounting; however, I was drawn to a role in the banking industry. It started when the professor and Chair at my school of business invited a financial institution to my university to meet and interview a few students. After that experience, I made up my mind: I had a passion for working with people, helping clients, and providing them with financial advice. I also felt that I needed to work for a purpose-driven company. Early on in my career I knew that I wanted to be in a leadership position and had the opportunity to build that path with RBC. I have been a finance professional for 24 years, and for the most part, working in a leadership capacity. It feels as if I have had many careers in that time as I worked in different lines of business and banking platforms.

Q: How did you get on boards you currently serve on?

A: I took on a number of cabinet and committee member roles; for example, volunteering at BC Children’s Hospital Foundation A Night of Miracles. While gaining valuable volunteering experience, I realized that I was willing to engage at a higher level and so I started looking to different boards. My first board appointment was an industry-related board with the Risk Management Association (RMA). When I reached out to them, they were opening a new RMA Chapter and I attained an opportunity to serve there. My second board opportunity at Minerva BC emerged via a referral by my predecessor and former RVP Business Financial Services at RBC, Joe Olivier. My third board role as Director at Special Olympics BC Chapter came from my business acquaintance, whom I had known for a number of years and who served on that board as Treasurer. For all of these board positions, I did my research to make sure there was a right fit in terms of values, skill set and level of involvement, and that it aligned with my personal goals and time commitment.

Q: What kind of boards have you served on?

A: I am currently sitting on functional boards in elected positions and find that this provides for broader opportunities where I can get very granular in my support. At RMA, I serve as the Women’s Events Chair. At Minerva BC, I work with the Finance Committee and I am able to bring my expertise and value to help the not-for-profit grow. At Special Olympics BC, I am a board member with no specific involvement in any committees; however, this is a newer board for me and I am learning to navigate and play my part.

My experience on all of the boards, which I have served on thus far, has been very rewarding. I have been challenged to look at things more holistically and have developed a deeper understanding across a breadth of topics in a very short period of time. This has allowed me to gain insights into different structures and various ways of doing business. Learning from others in the business community and in some cases just listening and observing other board members has allowed me to truly appreciate new ways of operating, how to approach problems in a different way and find innovative solutions.

It takes time to fully embrace board work and gain the momentum to make changes. This is one of the reasons why I have signed up for a recognized program, ICD-Rotman NFP Governance Essentials Program, which will help me broaden my scope as a board member and provide me with a deeper understanding of the board function.

Q: In your experience, how relevant has the idea of board diversity been during your career and board service over the years?

A: I believe that whether it is a board or an organization, representation and diversity matter. We need to continue to work to normalize the existing culture. The impact of diversity on boards is very relevant and notable among boards today. It is quickly discerned if the representation is not evident so the awareness piece is out there. Boards have become acutely aware of the need for diversity at the table, whether this relates to diversity of individuals and/or diversity of thought.

Q: How do you recommend people get involved in serving on boards? How do the boards you serve/served on source new members?

A: When you are first trying to get involved with a board, start by asking the organization if there is an opportunity. This is particularly applicable to any not-for-profit entity which you are passionate about and want to give back. Often existing and exiting board members make recommendations and source new candidates and thus reaching out and getting to know board members can be very helpful. In today’s world, social media is another great way of finding opportunities by putting yourself out there and indicating your openness to board involvement. There are many boards looking for people and often not many individuals become aware of such opportunities.

Q: What qualifications and characteristics do you look for in a new board member? What preparation do you recommend that people undertake before interviewing for a board?

A: Two of the very first questions I was asked as a board candidate were “Why do you want to be involved in our board?” and “Do you understand the role and the level of commitment required?” The answers to these questions, along with the knowledge of the board’s current mandate are very important. Researching and connecting with existing board members to learn from their experience are extremely beneficial for understanding the board function, which can be very different for each board. Additionally, it is good to be able to demonstrate previous volunteer experience and board work. Board training, such as the Rotman-ICD’s program I mentioned earlier, allows you to broaden your understanding of board work and function as well. Also, do not be afraid. I think that we often shy away from getting involved because we may not know enough about the organization or believe we are not qualified to be a contributing board member. Some of the preparation can be just getting over the apprehension and being confident in your skillset and what you can provide to the board as a member.

Q: From your own experience, what are some best practices that help to encourage diversity on boards and among management?

A: First and foremost, it is imperative to challenge unconscious bias in the recruiting process for a board and/or a company. Ask for representation. If you do not see a normalized representation of diversity - even as a new board member stepping into a role - it is great to position this question. I personally challenge myself to look for, and recommend, someone who will increase board diversity. I firmly believe that the best practice for boards and organizations is to set representation goals and hold everyone accountable for attaining them.

My company, RBC, has been a leading-edge organization in Canada and has been celebrated for its client, employee, and community successes and performance that continues to improve year over year. This happens because of our diversity combined with authentic values being ingrained into everything we do. Currently, women comprise 43% of the RBC Board of Directors, including the Chair of the Board, Kathleen Taylor, who was the first woman to chair the board of a major Canadian bank. RBC is a founding member of the Canadian chapter of the 30% Club, an organization with an aspirational goal of 30% of board seats and C-suite roles being held by women by 2022. We challenge unconscious bias in staffing, hiring and talent review processes. In the past five years, representation of women at the executive level has increased from 35% to 46%. Staffing goals for new executive appointments for women are 50%. We also strive for 50% representation of women in all leadership development programs. Finally, we have 14 employee resource groups at RBC focused on creating opportunities for women.

Interview by:
Elena Tikhomirova, Director Strategic Initiatives - Women on Boards