Canada’s Consul General in Atlanta, Louise Blais’ Key to Being a Successful Woman
What is Canada’s Consul General in Atlanta, Louise Blais’ key to being a successful woman in leadership?
Kittens. Fostering kittens.
No, not exactly.
As the keynote speaker at the Oct. 5, 2016 Georgia State University Women’s Philanthropy Initiative (WPI) luncheon, Consul General Blais shared how fostering kittens allows her to tap into her greatest strengths, which help her be a better leader.
For someone who rose through the professional ranks of politics, Interpol, and international diplomacy, the essential trait that Blais counts as, perhaps, her most important is her ability to love and nurture.
The critical part of that statement is that being loving and nurturing are her greatest assets to bring to her work.
And Blais’ advice for the more than 100 women, all civic, business and campus leaders, who attended the WPI luncheon?
Find your own.
This was a lesson Blais learned two decades into a career that, from the outside, seems as full of intrigue and glamour as a thriller out of Hollywood. In a twist straight out of Tinseltown, she continued to climb the professional ranks despite being, she’d come to realize, an imposter.
“Where’s the little monster?” Pierre and Jacques Blais would bellow when they returned home from school to the Quebec City house they shared with their little sister.
As a child, Louise Blais’ home life required cunning and resilience against the standard-variety sibling sneak attacks and frontal offenses that make up the daily life of baby sisters to older brothers everywhere: a headlock here, a tickle torture session there, and being pinned down and sat on in between.
A youth spent locked in sibling domestic guerilla conflict notwithstanding, Louise’s home life was loving and secure. Her mother, Charlotte, was a homemaker until the age of 54 when, with the kids grown and out of the house, she started her own business. Bernard, her father, earned a comfortable living as the owner of company in the fishing industry. But Charlotte and Bernard weren’t permissive, anything goes parents. Achievement was expected.
Strict, girls-only Catholic schools comprised Louise’s formal childhood education. Just as formative to her development was her parents’ unorthodox plan for her informal education. Quebec is resolutely French-speaking and the Blais parents knew that being fluent in English was essential to ensuring that professional and personal opportunities were available to Louise and her brothers. So, every summer, they sent their kids off by themselves to live in English-speaking locales to get an immersive language education. At 8 years-old, Louise was put on a boat to Nova Scotia where she would attend summer camp to learn English and, perhaps, have some fun along the way. Each subsequent summer until Louise was 15, she was sent off—to Toronto, or California, or Nova Scotia—to live, and sometimes work, among the locals and hone her command of English.
But English wasn’t the only skill Louise mastered during these annual sojourns. Louise also learned self-sufficiency and adaptability.
At 23, Louise got the opportunity to put her university Art History degree to work as an art theft analyst with Interpol. In this role, she worked closely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on their investigations involving art theft and fraud.
The members of the RCMP in her unit were good at their jobs and appreciated Louise’s expertise and work ethic. But her colleagues apparently felt that Louise needed to be tested, initiated, to make sure she was “alright.” She was the target of (for the most part friendly) hazing.
Louise was a professional. Self-sufficient. Adaptable. She earned the trust and camaraderie of her RCMP colleagues by getting along, being a good sport.
For three years, Louise got along. Just “one of the guys”.
The muscle and joint pain were strange, transitory and untraceable. The heart palpitations were unnerving. The facial numbness was alarming.
They were all alien to Louise.
She had been in her post as assistant Minister-Counsel of Political Affairs at the Canadian embassy in Paris for more than a year when the symptoms first showed. She was 44 years-old and her 20-year professional career had followed an uninterrupted upward trajectory of achievement. From Interpol, to Canada’s National Archives, to embassies in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, to serving as Director of Public Diplomacy at Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, she had tackled each new opportunity and assignment with intensity and personal excellence.
This job was what she had been working for and was providing invaluable experience for wherever the next career step would be. She and her husband, Peter Falkner, were happy, closing in on 20 years of marriage and parents to Pearson and Maxime, ages 13 and 11.
So, why did getting out of bed seem more difficult by the day?
After a year of generally declining health and her primary care physicians offering no cures and little relief, Louise reached a breaking point. Her only option was to step away from work and make getting well her full-time job.
Since her doctors couldn’t find any underlying physical causes for her pain, Louise sought out non-traditional alternatives.
After taking up meditation and yoga, and seeing dramatic improvements in her health, Louise came to understand that she was the cause of her illness.
She realized that Professional Louise had her in an ever-tightening vice grip and had nearly squeezed the life out of her.
She realized Professional Louise was an imposter.
That’s what was missing. Working in male-dominated fields comprised Louise’s entire professional life.
To get along, she became “one of the guys.” To advance, she’d have to play the game set by men…and be better at it than them. As a boss and manager of people, she led the way her bosses and mentors led: like a man.
She’d had talented and supportive mentors and professional champions that helped her all along the way. But they were men and, unsurprisingly, offered a style of leadership and management that broadly could be characterized as “masculine”.
Be tough, impenetrable. Keep your emotions in check. Be the first one into the office and the last one to leave. Expect the same from your direct reports.
She managed the way her bosses—all men—along the way had managed her.
During her self-imposed wellness sabbatical, Blais came to understand that leading and working the way she saw her male bosses do their jobs excluded essential parts of her core identity. Louise, by disposition, is loving and caring. Professional Louise was no-nonsense, no-excuses, no-special treatment.
Professional Louise wasn’t really who Louise is.
She came to understand that this emotional and spiritual neglect had manifested itself physically; her body was telling her something was wrong. Louise didn’t listen, so her body rebelled.
Upon regaining her health, she returned to work with a new approach, one suggested by a teacher she had studied with during her recovery: she was to love her employees as if they were her children, to manage them from an emotional standpoint of unconditional love.
Blais learned. She adapted. She became herself at work.
Find your authentic self and be unafraid to bring your own character into your job as professionals and leaders of people.
This was Louise Blais’ message to the attendees at the WPI luncheon. Women bring their own unique traits, strengths, and experiences to the workplace and, while many (or most) fields are still male-dominated, especially within the leadership ranks, things are improving, Blais believes.
Authenticity, according to Blais, is the key.
First, inauthentic leadership always fails, she explained. The inauthentic leader either fails her people or fails herself. Or both.
Second, people detect inauthenticity. Blais’ experience has taught her that leaders, no matter their personal leadership style, can’t effectively reach every single person. But when you are true to yourself, you will—at the very least—not hurt yourself in your quest to meet the needs of your people and your profession.
Finally, Blais believes that embracing her authentic self—her whole self—has only benefitted the organizations she’s been part of.
Under Blais’ leadership, the Consulate General of Canada in Atlanta is working with local disadvantaged schools to pair their young female students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with area professional women in these fields.
The Consulate is also working with local businesses, civic organizations, and institutions of higher education to hold a North American summit for female entrepreneurs in 2017.
The GSU WPI luncheon keynote speaker encouraged attendees, in their capacity as women in leadership positions, to help the next group of women advance; the gains of successful females in leadership can—and should—help more women reach greater levels of success within their organizations. Organizations, Blais explained, lose far too many talented women between the director or general manager levels and the vice president level. Some opt out, but far too many are simply left out.
Blais concluded with a question, a challenge; it’s a question she asks herself and a challenge she has accepted.
“What have you done in the course of the year to move the needle for women in your organization?”
In her career, Louise Blais has learned and adapted. She’s serving her country and, through her actions and example, inspiring women to achieve their potential.
And, at the Oct. 5 Women’s Philanthropy Initiative luncheon, she provided the women in attendance the key to success:
Kittens. Fostering kittens…or whatever it might be that taps into the essential strengths of each person’s authentic self.