Dr. Vianne Timmons - President & Vice-Chancellor, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Dr. Vianne Timmons - President & Vice-Chancellor, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Exclusive interview for MOM.CEO

MOM.CEO recently had the great pleasure to 'virtually sit down' with Dr. Vianne Timmons - A truly remarkable and very down-to-earth leader.

She is the current President and Vice-Chancellor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Not only is she a steadfast and visionary leader, but also the recipient of the Order of Canada, board member for several important causes all while being a dedicated mother to 4 wonderful and hard-working children, and also a grand-mother to 3 more talented children. 

MOM.CEO: The word NO is a powerful word in business, but how does its meaning work as well in your home or is it the opposite with YES?

VT: I always say: “Don’t tell me why something can’t be done, but rather tell me how it can be done.” So, the word NO isn't a word that we hear a lot. My kids would get very creative and they would not say NO, but rather they would say “later”, or “I’ll get to it”. So, they would find other ways to answer me and to avoid saying NO.

I would simply reply: 

“I don’t want to hear why you can’t do it, but rather tell me how you’re going to do it.”   

MOM.CEO: What sacrifices were made in order to balance being a CEO while raising 4 children? 

VT: I believe that my children sacrificed as much as I did. I did have to miss important events such as concerts and sometimes even their birthdays. Interestingly enough, I went for a job interview that required me to travel from Calgary, Canada to Nova Scotia when I was eight and half months pregnant. It turned out that I ended up having my baby (girl) during that trip right after the job interview!

When she was about to turn 5 years old, I was going to have to miss her birthday due to a work obligation. When I told her the news, she looked at me and started to cry and proceeded to tell me: “Mom, you miss all the important things in my life and you were even away when I was born.” Which is true actually as I was alone in the maternity ward, with no one around. My husband and my other kids were all in Calgary.

You realize in those moments how much you have missed with your kids and how tough it can be on them and how much they sacrificed. So, one of the things I do, when I talk with my kids now, is to discuss how do they feel about me being away so much. 

One important factor that I try to do, is to never bring my work home. If I needed to work until 7 in the evening at the office, 

“when I came home, I made it a point to be there 100% for my children.”

They remember clearly that they felt they had my quality, my time, and my focus. That was important not only for them but for myself as well. I was not always perfect but I did my best.

Vianne Timmons feeling proud with her 2 youngest children, Taylor and Samuel

MOM.CEO: That moment in the hospital, was that a defining one for you where you realized something had to change?

VT: No, I never look back and wish that I should have changed certain things. When I speak to my children, they are appreciative of the opportunities they were given while growing up, because I was a working mom. I often had international guests at the house and we would speak often about current events that were happening, etc. Therefore, I never look back with any regrets, but I do recognize the sacrifices that were made.

MOM.CEO: You mentioned earlier that when you would return home from the office, that you would be 100% present. When did you realize in your professional career that you needed to separate work from home? Or was this something that came naturally to you? 

VT: I will tell you exactly the moment that this came about. I remember once my daughter was speaking with me while I was clearly preoccupied with work and not truly focusing on what she was telling me. She made it a point to say: 

“Mom, I need you to listen to me with your eyes.” 

That was a powerful moment for me, and it changed the way how I interacted with my children when I was home. When I got home, I had to be 100% focused on them and nothing else.

MOM.CEO: I can relate to what your daughter was saying. I often notice in meetings that people are more focused on their phones and not truly listening and participating in our conversation. Do, you feel that this moment with your daughter impacted as well on how you should interact with people at work? 

VT: Oh, Absolutely! It helped a lot as a reminder for when I meet with people. I make it a point that if I am meeting with them for the first time or any meeting for that fact, and especially when I am meeting with students, that I need to be totally focused. And it’s really hard, to be honest!

Often your mind can wander or be stuck in another matter that is pressing on you. But you need to stay focused on the person above all else. Whether it's at work or at home, the person needs to understand that you respect them and are 100% focused on what they are telling you and that you are engaging with them in an honest and committed matter.  Again I do not always succeed in staying 100% focused, but I am always working to get better at it.

MOM.CEO: COVID-19 has forced our work and family worlds to become intertwined due to the home-isolation factor. Do you believe it's creating an eventual clash to the WORK/LIFE balance model?

VT: It is very challenging as I understand all too well having recently moved across the country for a new job, to a new city, a new home and all this during a pandemic (COVID-19) which I needed to self-isolate for the required 14 days with my 2 daughters and 3 dogs. Honestly, there was nothing easy about it and we all had to adjust as best we could.

But what it taught us was to respect each other and to give each other the space to work. For example, my daughter was job hunting and she had a job interview (virtual) and therefore we all had to find another place to be. We try to be more respectful of each other in a way that we had not done for a long time. I found that my workday became much longer as the traditional hours of work started to become blurred.

I know from many other women and CEOs that it has been incredibly challenging, working from home with young children (I should mention that my daughters are older and not children).  I also want to acknowledge how challenging it is for racialized, disabled, and trans women during this time.  I as a white mother CEO and others like me need to support, amplify, and uplift the voices of other women. 

MOM.CEO: Many companies are now starting to embrace the 'Work from Home' model. Do you feel that the Work/Life balance model will need to be rewritten somehow?

VT: I hope not. When I look at the pandemic and how many women have been affected economically way more than men – actually twice as much from a recent Statistics Canada study. I think if women have to work from home and don’t have the opportunity to socially interact with colleagues, then they may become even more isolated. It is very stressful when trying to manage a home/work-life balance. So, there might be an initial knee-jerk reaction where we can all work from home, but I hope that it will eventually balance itself out when people will recognize the pressures and the challenges associated with it.

Some people are suggesting 3 days in the office and 2 days home as an option. I believe we will see a bit more flexibility in work/life balance and I hope we do because I know that my staff is incredibly productive in terms of working from home, but they don’t want to work from home full-time either.  

MOM.CEO: What lessons did your parents or a mentor give you that you feel are still relevant in today’s digitally connected world?

VT: The lesson that sticks with me all the time is to surround yourself with people who lift you up. That’s something that my mother told me when I was younger and I believe that this is something that is still very relevant and important in today’s digitally connected world. 

To surround yourself with people who are positive, supporting, and who care enough to want to get to truly know who you are. Because in the digital world, it’s easy not to get the depth that you get when sitting together with people. I would hope that in this digital world we will make sure that we connect with people who lift us up.

Vianne Timmons with her mother Georgetta Timmons

MOM.CEO: What example should a CEO demonstrate that adds equal value at work to employees and at home to his/her children?

VT: I believe that being authentic for a CEO is incredibly important as well as being accessible.  If my children call me at work, no matter what I will always take the call. They have been very respectful of that and have never used it as they understand my work and what I do. I have always been very open with them as to what I do at work and the types of challenges that I face. I think that as a CEO, if you educated your children on what you do and they get a sense of the importance of what you do and the demands you are facing, then they will be very respectful of your time at work.

 

Vianne Timmons receiving The Order of Canada presented by Julie Payette -  The Governor General of Canada

And the same goes for being a CEO. I think it’s important as a role model to be able to show that as a parent that it's a priority as is your work/life. I think that impacts an entire organization that recognizes that people are complex with challenging needs. So, if someone comes to my office with a family issue, I always say that your family is your priority because my family is my priority.

MOM.CEO: Do you feel that MOM.CEOs have it harder at balancing their work/life duties than DAD.CEOs? Or is it now becoming an advantage due to the ‘home isolation double-duty’ that fathers are now facing and quickly realizing that it will somewhat be the new norm?

VT: I think there is a better understanding when it comes to young fathers who have had to work from home. But I still think that women are carrying the heavier load on the work/life duties than their DAD.CEO counterparts. 

I think the home isolation double-duty is a significantly heavier load for women to bear during these times. It’s little things such as in Canada, the golf courses reopened and men rushed to get out and golf! But my female colleagues have continued working and maintaining the home life. I have a partner who has been tremendously helpful in terms of cooking and cleaning, but when it came time to arrange the kid's schedule such as soccer practice, etc. I was the one that had to arrange all this while he was a stay at home father.

Vianne Timmons with her husband Stuart Mason

MOM.CEO: While it’s great how men are showing more involvement in the home life, do you feel that they are being ‘extra celebrated’ for it while women have been doing exactly the same for the longest time without any feedback? 

VT: I understand this all too well. When my husband was a stay at home father, he would get constant praise for the work and sacrifice he was doing. People would comment to me that he was babysitting the kids on a certain day and I had to remind them that he was not ‘babysitting’ anyone, but rather he was parenting his children. Imagine if I was to stay home with them, would anyone mention that I was ‘babysitting’ them? Of course not. Everyone would just assume and rightfully so that I was parenting my kids. 

So even the language we use around the dads and the moms time spent with children is interesting. Such words like ‘dad’s babysitting you today’, ‘aren’t you lucky to have your dad home’, etc. When it comes to women, you never hear such things. So, I agree with you 100% that men are receiving a lot of positive feedback for spending time doing work that women have been doing with no feedback as it was expected from them. 

MOM.CEO:  Can you share with us the most challenging situation you had to face and succeeded in your position as CEO and how that helped you become a better mother?

VT: I’ve had many challenging situations that I faced, but one that comes to mind would be a college that I oversaw had lost its funding and that became a truly challenging time for me both personally and professionally. It was quite a difficult time where I had to really dig deep to get through it as there were a number of attacks that turned personal. As a woman CEO, in particular on social media, it can become quite nasty. 

Right around that same time, my son was running for a position in the Student Union at his university and did not get it. I remember he called me devastated by the news, and I remember saying to him:

“When things are going well, it’s easy to be dignified and classy, but when things go off the rails and become nasty, that’s the time where you need to dig deep and that’s when the real character should emerge and that’s the true test of character.” As I was telling him this, it was helping me deal with the situation that I was dealing with.

“When things get hard, that’s when real character emerges.”

Telling him this reminded me that I needed to stand up and put my head up high and to get through this difficult time. That moment stayed with me and now whenever I face a difficult situation, I remind myself of that vividly and it helps me to focus and to get through it.

MOM.CEO: What 3 things have you tried to instill in your kids that is core to who you are and what you believe in? Have you tried to instill the same at work as the CEO of your organization?

VT:

1) Hard Work. I'm proud to say that all my kids have proven to be hard workers and understand the core value of what hard work delivers. That’s something I’ve tried to be a role model for them in life with my actions.

2) Having Integrity. If you give your word, then you need to do your best and whatever you commit to, you need to follow through no matter what. I firmly believe that integrity is vital in demonstrating what kind of person you want others to know you for.

3) Taking Risks. Be adventurous, try new things, and take chances to test the boundaries of what is possible.

I hope those are the 3 things that both my children and the people I work with will not only accept but will make it a daily practice at work and in their personal lives.

Vianne Timmons children (left to right): Nancy MacLellan Mason, Samuel Mason, Kelly Mason, Taylor Mason

MOM.CEO: With our recent experiences of ‘home-isolation’ do you believe it’s possible to be a virtual CEO and still be productive? Will we see a more flexible acceptance by society as we move forward holistically in business and family life?

'VT: So, I recently took on a new job during a pandemic as President of a university. So, I have been somewhat forced to being a ‘virtual CEO' as I have not even have had the chance to sit around the table with my Senior Vice President and the rest of my team, but only met with them virtually as well as hundreds of other people. I absolutely believe that you can be productive as a virtual CEO, but I also believe that when you meet people face to face, it becomes an added value. I really haven’t missed that as I have a full plate of work where I have meetings, I chat with people, I do videos for graduations, etc. So, I feel that I am able to be very productive. But what I would give to just sit down and have a face-to-face meeting with my team is something I truly ache for and I truly look forward to it. 

So, I don’t believe we will continue doing it the way we are now for good, but I also believe we will see more ZOOM opportunities and a more flexible approach to working in the post-pandemic world. 

“Human contact is essential and I can’t see that being replaced anytime soon.”

MOM.CEO: More women are now leading Fortune 500 companies as CEOs (ex: General Motors) and leading them to record profits. Does this make you proud or it does not surprise you?

VT: What we learned is that diversity is a positive for companies that are bringing in people with different life experiences, cultures, and backgrounds. This makes a company richer when ideas flourish because of the people sitting around the table. 

I see that having women CEOs in companies where it had traditionally been men can bring a fresh and different perspective because women buy cars also! There are very few companies out there where women are not their major consumers. 

I believe that having people leading companies who reflect the consumers who are buying their products and seeing them through those lenses will only make a company richer.

MOM.CEO: What would be your top 3 tips for being a successful MOM.CEO?

VT:

1) I would encourage you to include your family as much as possible in your work life. Help them understand the world that you live in. If your child has questions, answer them as much as possible and even bring them to the office to see the environment so as to give them a sense of what you do. Educate your child about your work and what you do and how to contribute to it. 

2) Try and focus on your work life when you are working and then focus solely on your family life when at home. That doesn’t mean that you separate them, but you have to teach yourself the discipline of focus to look someone in the eyes and being present when speaking with them as my daughter had to remind me. That can either be at home with your kids or while having a conversation with someone at work. Focus on what you are engaged in.

“It’s not easy. I don’t have it mastered yet, but I work on it all the time!”

3) It’s so important to laugh with your children and with your employees. Sometimes you simply need to take a deep breath and laugh at certain situations. Life is too short not to take a moment and step back and have a good laugh. Humour can be such an added value to your workplace as well as in your home when you are capable of laughing at yourself. 

MOM.CEO: How do you want to look back and be remembered as a MOM and a CEO?

VT: I would like my kids to be able to look back and say: 

“We never doubted our mom's love for us! She was always there for us!"

I would like employees of the places I have worked at to say that 

“We never doubted that our CEO cared and that she demonstrated that all the time.”

That kind of caring for people that I worked with would be remembered for the emotions that I created and delivered such as Enthusiasm, Love, and Caring! 

MOM.CEO: Any last words of wisdom?

VT: I would say that in terms of being part of the women leader’s group, there is a lot of pressure that is put on us, and sometimes I have to take a step back and think of the women leader’s shoulders that I stand on. My grandmother was taken out of school from grade 4 to become a housekeeper and my mother who had 6 kids in 8 years worked so hard as a working mom to ensure that all us 6 kids received a university education. 

I know it’s hard for us often as women, but we stand on the shoulder of women who had it much harder. I want my daughters to stand on my shoulders and to look back and say that my mother helped me to be able to make a step-up because she fought for women equity and maybe one day we won’t need to have that conversation because it will finally be understood. 

About Dr. Vianne Timmons

Dr. Vianne Timmons became the 13th President and Vice-Chancellor of Memorial University at the beginning of April 2020, coming from the University of Regina where she had served as president since 2008. 

www.mun.ca

Dr. Timmons grew up in Labrador City, Newfoundland, and Labrador, as one of six children, and moved to Nova Scotia during high school. She holds a BA (Mt. Allison), B.Ed. (Acadia), M.Ed. (Gonzaga) and PhD (Calgary). 

She is a mother of four and a grandmother of three. 

Her many awards include being named Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women on four occasions; a YMCA of Regina Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award; the Canadian Bureau for International Education’s President’s Award for Distinguished Leadership in International Education; the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education’s Leadership and Influence Award in Education and Public Policy for promoting policies to enhance gender equity; the Senior Women Academic Administrator of Canada Recognition Award for promoting diversity; and the first Gender and Leadership in Higher Education Award (EMULIES). In 2017 she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her lifetime contributions to inclusive education, family literacy, Indigenous post-secondary education, and women’s leadership. 

An active volunteer, Dr. Timmons currently serves on various boards and committees, including as: member, Women Deliver National Committee to promote gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women; member, Status of Women Advisory Committee on the Framework to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence at Post-Secondary Institutions; and co-chair, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council’s Advisory Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Policy.

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