Nov 29, 2022
Lack of diversity in the workplace motivates MCAN’s Karen Weaver to redefine leadership
In order for us to grow, we need to raise more capital: Karen Weaver
That’s because for a woman at that time, going to university wasn’t the norm, let alone pursuing a career in finance.
“I was not prepared for university during high school studies, nor encouraged to attend,” says Weaver, whose father – a U.S. Marine Corps officer – hadn’t set aside money for her education.
She learned early on to find her own way, relying on student loans and tenacity to graduate in 1981 with a degree in accounting from Old Dominion University, where she was among a handful of female students in her class.
“I didn’t focus on that – I just put my head down and worked hard,” she says. “I always diligently listened, observed and learned.”
That same ethos of continuous learning and hard work has been the driving force behind Weaver’s success in her professional life. Starting out at KPMG in Oakland Calif., she enjoyed mentorship from her audit team members and clients, applying her knowledge to every assignment to make it better. Later, she moved into a professional development role at KPMG, delivering a varied curriculum to high-performing audit staff that included technology, business administration and organizational development.
In 1989, she brought her knowledge to one of the firms’ clients, Pacific First Bank in Seattle, where she took on a special projects role.
“They had lots of disaggregated systems and processes, and my mandate was to improve how things worked,” says Weaver. But while she re-engineered their reporting systems and improved efficiency, she also had the benefit of working closely with the executive team, where she continued to study and observe.
“I learned a whole other way of thinking about the business world, and the asset class of real estate,” she says.
When part of the bank was sold off in 1993 to Gentra Inc. in Toronto (which itself was acquired by Brookfield Properties in 1997), she threw her hat into the ring for relocation and never looked back.
“Toronto felt like home right away,” she recalls, adding that she was lucky to have her husband at home as the primary “house and routine keeper” for their six-year-old son so she could focus on her role as CFO.
That isn’t to say it was easy being a woman in the C-suite, especially when it was still such a rarity.
“There were many times along the way when I was challenged rather than supported,” says Weaver.
Those experiences, along with more positive ones, have shaped her outlook as a leader – driving her to see everyone as human, rather than focusing on differences, she says.
Weaver’s next position, as CFO of First Capital Real Estate Investment Trust, was a formative environment.
“I was the most relaxed and true to myself while working at First Capital,” she notes, crediting then-CEO and company founder Dori Segal for creating a welcoming culture, in part by ensuring half the members of the executive team were women.
“We were on a mission to create a great company and a great asset base. It was supportive, fun, intellectually stimulating and a great learning opportunity,” she says. It was also successful – the company had $1.6 billion in assets when she joined in 2004 and $8.4 billion when she left a decade later.
DIVING INTO DIVERSITY
In October 2018, Weaver was asked to become the interim CEO seat at MCAN – the job became permanent a year later – after spending eight years on the company’s board. She was excited to take on the role, but especially to revamp the company’s culture.
“We had a lot of work to do. I knew right away what I wanted to do, and that started with a people-first leadership style,” she says. One of her goals? Improve diversity by putting more women and Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) into leadership positions.
That’s exactly what she did: In 2021, 60 per cent of the leadership roles at MCAN were held by women, and 70 per cent of all staff identified as BIPOC. That’s far better than the norm – a McKinsey report from 2021 found that women account for just 23 per cent of C-suite executives among North American financial firms.
Weaver also goes out of her way to support staff through her actions.
“I’ll say to parents with children in daycare, ‘Go. I know you have kids to pick up and we can chat later or in the morning,’”she says. “People need to have the psychological safety to be who they are, and the CEO has to provide that.”
Turnover at MCAN is now below five per cent, down from a level of 20 per cent before Weaver came on as CEO four years ago.
As for the next generation of aspiring leaders, Weaver has a few words of advice. To start, exercise.
“Keeping healthy and fit will make you better at everything,” she says. “I have been exercising pretty consistently since I was 20.”
Next, find and use a variety of mentors – male, female, young and old. She also suggests reading to learn more about business, management, your industry and yourself.
Strive for work-life balance over the long term, she says, but expect personal life and work life to prevail at different times. Don’t fall into the face-time trap, just do great work.
Finally, trusted teams are the most productive, so if you want a high-performing team and company, “strive to have trust, clarity on roles, and shared vulnerability,” she says.