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Q&A Series with Women on Boards

Elise Rees

Elise Rees: “An ability to give the 3 T’s – Time, Treasure and Talent – is key to adding value.”

Elise Rees FCPA, FCA, ICD.D is an experienced director, having served on the boards of a number of profit and not-for-profit organizations, including as Board Chair, Treasurer, and Audit and Finance Committee Chair. She serves on the Boards of Enmax Corporation, Great Panther Mining Limited, Westland Insurance, and is a former Board member of EasyPark, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade etc. Elise has been recognized for her leadership with the designation of Fellow Chartered Professional Accountant ("FCPA") and Fellow Chartered Accountant ("FCA") in 2007; AWF PEAK Award for Community Legacy (2012); Influential Woman in Business Award (2007); and the Ernst & Young Rosemarie Meschi Award for Advancing Gender Diversity (2007). She was also recognized as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada in 2015 by Women's Executive Network.

Q: What drew you to accounting and consulting industry?

A: I grew up working in, and exposed to the elements of, a family owned retail business. When I graduated in 1980, I gravitated to public accounting as a way to build on my degree in Organization Behaviour and allow myself entry into the field of consultancy. I moved from the UK to Canada in 1981, where I continued my accountancy training. Upon receiving my Chartered Accountant (“CA”) designation, I then used the specialty of taxation as a way to develop a subject matter specialization and continue to add value to my clients through tax planning, ultimately specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Along the way, I had other chances to develop my management skills and was an early leader in the EY LLP journey on diversity and inclusion for the Americas.

Q: How did you get on your first board?

A: I was mentored by my husband’s partner at Deloitte who explained to me that once I had my CA designation, I had a chance to develop more strategic skills by becoming involved in non-for-profit work. He also knew that the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre was looking for a treasurer and so I was quickly involved in not only the knowledge of Space but the Art of Education and Entertainment through the BC Space Sciences Society. This was a wonderful learning opportunity to work on a strategic board that was looking to create a new strategic direction and growth. I learned about capital raising, capital campaigns and how philanthropy goes hand in hand with running an Arts and Educational business. This experience further allowed me to build a network of contacts and a profile as a volunteer with relevant board experience. From this initial opportunity, I was able to participate on a variety of Boards including Family Services of the North Shore, Women’s Hospital Foundation, EasyPark, Parking Corporation of Vancouver and The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.

Q: What kind of boards have you served on (functional or representative etc.)?

A: All of the organizations I have been involved with prior to retiring from EY LLP were non-for-profit functional boards. Each position was effectively an elected position based on a skills matrix and my financial background. Since retiring from EY LLP, I have been fortunate to build a board portfolio in the business sector. These positions are subject to the shareholders annually electing me to the board and the performance of each board member is subject to annual assessment of contribution to the board. All of the boards whether non-for-profit or public / private sector are looking for board members that can add value to the management team through strategic insights, and advisory on transactions, financings and management support.

I have been fortunate in that most boards I serve on are diverse. This includes gender, alternative industry experience, and geographic differences. The development of a clear and valuable board culture which allows for openness and frank discussions is one of the greatest benefits of working on such boards. The main challenge in the major business boards is developing a deeper understanding of the industry while at the same time adding value through one’s work and technical experience to date. I also have found that the depth of training and ongoing development of leadership is vital to contributing to boards. The reality is that there is a seismic shift from being a consultant / client serving partner to board member, as we are very much “advisory to strategy” yet rarely implement strategy. Finally, spending time looking at emerging trends, whether on financial reporting for climate change or shifting relations within governance and a broader stakeholder group, means you are constantly balancing the fiduciary responsibility with anticipating what opportunities or challenges could be facing the corporation.

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

A: All of the boards I have served on since 1985 have had a diversity of representation. In the early days, there may have been fewer women. However, in the non-for-profit sector we used to say an ability to give the three T’s: Time, Treasure and Talent was key to adding value. The three T’s boards had individuals who were passionate about the mission and values of the organization, and the ability to serve either in social services, education or health. Similarly, in my current boards we have a deliberate skills matrix and identify the skills that will add value to the business as it grows whether organically or through acquisitions. Good governance has the board looking to engage individuals that aid in the mission and strategy of the business.

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

A: The best way to develop the ability to serve on boards is to first of all, have a skill that adds value to an organization and secondly, network with mentors and colleagues to identify organizations which you would be interested in helping meet their strategic objectives and mission. Having strong technical skills is valuable in all organizations. Thereafter, it comes down to talking to people to identify the types of organizations you would like to become involved in and putting your name forward. There are also ways to build a broader business network through programs such as the Young Professionals Program with the Vancouver Board of Trade.

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: The Boards I am currently involved with engage with professional executive search firms to help identify possible board candidates, as well as use our personal networks to identify individuals we believe would bring excellent business and strategic acumen to the Board. This is usually driven through our governance committees, and we normally interview a number of potential candidates who have the skills we are looking for as identified in the skills matrix. The matrix is updated annually and we ascertain who is retiring from the board to ensure an orderly succession plan. Most boards have some type of term limitation whether specifically set out in the board mandate or established through good governance practices. For the most part, a functioning board looks to have a member actively contributing for anywhere from 6 to 10 years. Beyond this time frame, there is a question as to whether the board member continues to bring a strong independent point of view. Most boards are looking for executive leadership, subject matter knowledge or deep industry experience. Prior to undertaking an interview, you should have read the financial statements, information circulars, industry presentations and ascertained who sits on the board.

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

A: I believe that diversity and inclusiveness come from the Tone At The Top. Boards are aware that better decisions generally come from a good board culture, deliberate governance to ensure there are diverse opinions around the table, and from there, mentoring and supporting not only the C-suite but also meeting and getting to know management at various levels in an organization. Assessing the talent and succession plans in management is part of the overall work of the board. The biggest responsibility is selecting and assessing the CEO. However, I have found that well-run organizations go deeper in the engagement of the board at looking at all staff development and succession planning.

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