Q&A with Patrice Walch-Watson of CPPIB

Patrice Walch-Watson is the Senior Managing Director, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (“CPPIB”). We recently sat down with Patrice to discuss her career trajectory, the importance of mentoring in the workplace and her advice to women starting their careers. The opinions and views expressed in response to our questions are Patrice’s own, and the interview has been edited for publication.

Q: Tell us about your background. Are there any defining experiences or people that led you to your role as General Counsel at CPPIB after 22 years in private practice?

I started at Torys LLP as a summer student and continued at the firm all the way until I joined CPPIB in 2015. I had a great experience at Torys—I had a very broad practice and worked with some great clients on really interesting files. I was also involved in other aspects of firm management, including serving on the executive committee and the finance committee, and was involved in recruiting for the firm. So I felt like I had a pretty good gig.

Among my clients was a woman who would eventually go on to become Chief Financial Officer at CPPIB. We met in 1994, when she was one of my first clients, and we stayed in touch over the years. When CPPIB was looking for a new general counsel, she was tasked with filling the role. She had never hired a general counsel before, so I met with her to help her figure out what she might want to look for—and what she might not want to look for—in a candidate. Somehow those discussions morphed into me getting a call from a headhunter in a very competitive hiring process for the job. All of a sudden I was asking myself, “Do I really want to change my career?” because I was having quite a lot of fun with what I was doing. However, it was such a special opportunity to work with an amazing organization with great people, and it was a unique opportunity to build a team as a general counsel. So, I took the leap and joined CPPIB about four years ago.

Q: What would you recommend for someone who wants to position herself for in-house employment?

I would say that you need to be open. If I wasn’t open to having conversations with the headhunter about the position at CPPIB, or even just open to thinking about a career change, I wouldn’t have had this great opportunity. So the first thing you need to do is just be open to the opportunities that present themselves.

You should also be pro-active in thinking about what you want in your career. If you know you want to be an in-house counsel, think about how you position your experience set. Also think about networking opportunities and what you are really looking for. At CPPIB, for instance, we have a very global mindset and a global portfolio, and I have been able to offer in-house positions to people in five different countries, and some of them have moved to take those positions. The team members that I’ve brought in have had a range of different experiences, some in the legal space and some outside the legal space. So if you’re a lawyer looking to move in-house, you should think about whether you want to travel or work in a different part of the world. Knowing what you want is very helpful in terms of how you position yourself.

You also have to decide what’s important to you. For some people, an in-house role can mean some degree of predictability in terms of what they’re working on, the hours they are working or the people they are working with. But that is not the case for all in-house roles. So, to be successful you really have to identify the environment you want to work in, the people you would like to work with and what you want to spend your time working on.

Q: What have the highlights been during your tenure at CPPIB?

One of the highlights has been building a high performing, cohesive team of people. When I started at CPPIB we had six people on our team. We now have 34 people in five different countries. They’re smart. They’re thoughtful. They work really well together and there is a real enthusiasm. For me, one of the highlights is being able to work with these people, and to contribute to the success of the organization.

CPPIB has a unique mandate: we are helping 20 million contributors and beneficiaries fund their retirement. Being able to say to my parents that I’m helping make sure the money they contribute to the Canada Pension Plan that has been transferred to CPPIB for investment is being well managed—well, that’s another highlight.

Q: What is the most difficult leadership lesson you’ve learned?

This is an interesting question. I think about it in two different ways. The first is what I have learned from looking at other successful leaders and their experience, and the second is from my own personal experience as a leader. As to the first, the one thing that people always need to remember is that your reputation and your credibility are yours—they take a long time to earn, but they can be lost in a very short amount of time. So, you should always be mindful that the decisions you make and the actions you take today will reflect on you for a very long time. It really is important to take the long view as a leader. For me personally, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is to ask for help. To remember that it’s okay to raise your hand and say “I’m having trouble with this” or “I could use an extra set of hands.” Sometimes you look back and realize that you could have done something better if only you had asked for some help.

Q: CPPIB has a new Global Gender Diversity Voting Practice. Can you tell us more about that initiative and why having gender-diverse company leadership is important?

The bottom line is that at CPPIB we think that having diverse and inclusive leadership, including at the board level, leads to better outcomes. We believe that diversity—not just gender diversity, but all types of diversity—is crucial to ensuring that you have an effective board of directors that can bring different perspectives, different qualifications and different forms of challenges to what management is doing and to the direction of an organization.

Our own board of directors adopted a board diversity policy a couple of years ago. The policy’s initial focus is on gender diversity, and provides that there must be a minimum of 40% women and a minimum of 40% men on our board. Currently the board has more women than men. Our directors have all kinds of backgrounds and experiences—they come from different countries, are at different stages in their career and are different ages. We are also focused on ensuring that the directors that we appoint to our portfolio company boards are diverse.

In terms of the Global Gender Diversity Voting Practice, for the public companies that we exercise our proxy on, we vote against the election of nominating committee chairs of the board if the board has no female directors and no good explanation as to why that is the case. The hope is that this will motivate companies to appoint more women. In 2017, for example, we voted at about 45 shareholder meetings for Canadian companies where there were no female directors. The following year, 47% of those companies—that is 21 of those 45—have added female directors to their boards. So the data suggests that progress is being made.

Q: What role has mentorship played in your professional life?

I have been fortunate in that I have had really strong formal and informal mentors in my life. To start, I ended up in law school because of a mentor I had in a summer job who said “I think you might be a really great lawyer. Have you thought about law school?” I hadn’t thought about law as a career at that point, so he set me on that path and later on would offer me my first summer job as a law student. During my career at Torys I had several mentors. They would look for opportunities with my career development in mind, and they would encourage me to try different things. They would serve as a sounding board and would be really quite frank in their feedback, which was always helpful. I also benefitted from being able to look at some of the clients I worked with and observe how they operated and what they thought about, and then have the opportunity to talk to them about how those practices would apply to someone like me in my career. So I think I’ve been very fortunate.

Q: What about mentoring others? Is it important to advocate for people outside of your own organization?

I have been a mentor since I was a summer student in some capacity or another. I was always involved in the formal mentorship program at Torys. And at CPPIB we have both official and unofficial mentoring and sponsorship programs, so I participate in those as a mentor and as a sponsor, both within my department and in different parts of the organization. I’ve also been able to mentor people outside of CPPIB. I have recently had a couple of younger mentees—for example, one who is in university and one is about to go to university. I have had a lot of coffee with friends and keen students who are interested in joining the legal profession, and with young professionals working at law firms who are trying to figure out what works for them. If their goal is to join the legal profession, I help them walk through how to accomplish that.

One of things that CPPIB is participating in this summer for the first time is a charitable program called Law in Action within Schools (LAWS) that connects high school students in Toronto with the resources of the local legal community to benefit inner-city and newcomer youth. The program pairs organizations with students, who spend four or eight weeks experiencing what it’s like to work in a legal organization. This summer we are excited to welcome a student from that program who will spend four weeks job shadowing and contributing to CPPIB’s legal team. I’m personally hoping that our student will come in and say “wait, why are you doing it that way” to make us reflect on whether the way we do things really is the right way.

Q: What is the most important piece of advice you have received and would pass on to younger female attorneys?

Two things. One is to ask for help. Help can take several different forms. Sometimes help is advice, but sometimes help is saying “I don’t even know where to start, please tell me how to do this.” It is so important to ask for help when you need it.

The second thing is that it is important to take some time to reflect on where your career is going. It’s easy to put your head down, look at that next email, pick up the next phone call or deal with the next task. But it’s important to find some way of carving out the space to think about yourself, what you want to accomplish and where you’re going—and you can only do that with the perspective that comes from pausing and taking a step back.

Rebecca Sayles is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.