Finding her place to thrive

By Lynne Yryku October 11, 201711 October 2017

Finding her place to thrive

 

Patricia Towler is happy. She is President & CEO of CPA Nova Scotia, a position she took on in September 2015, at the time when the three accounting designations were merging into one: Certified Professional Accountant.

“It is still the early days,” she says, creating structures, hiring employees (they are now at 14) and recruiting over 100 volunteers. And it is a lot of fun. “Every day is different, not yet routine. I like change and challenges!”

Because it is a merger, Patti is placing special emphasis on building a new CPA culture. For instance, she held 32 town halls throughout the province this past spring. “The events let people get to know each other,” she says. “I could convey information just as easily in a newsletter but there is something special about getting people in the same room. And with a merger that was at times challenging, it’s important for CPAs to realize they are part of something bigger now and have more in common with professional accountants from other backgrounds than they may have thought. We’re trying to create a ‘tribe’ mentality in a good way—a sense of shared knowledge and competencies, and a shared place in the community.”

“Success relies on the people on the ground,” she explains, the first to recognize the hard work of the dedicated staff, Board and members. “It is amazing to me how quickly people are looking beyond the historical and building this new organization.”

The path to in-house

Patti is one of the many East Coasters who have returned home. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, after six years in private practice in Halifax, she went west, initially to do graduate work in applied ethics and theology at Regent College in Vancouver and later settling into private practice there.

“When I came out of law school [in 1989], there was essentially one career path if you had a decent GPA,” she recalls. “It was an unspoken tradition that you went to Bay Street to be successful.” So she became a successful litigator at a prestigious firm. However, “just on cusp of partnership, I left the law firm. I could see the next 40 years but it just wasn’t my dream.” As often as not, she had wondered what it would be like to be the client in a matter rather than the counsel.

In 2001, she moved in-house—a career that has really allowed her to thrive.

Her first in-house position was Senior Litigation Counsel at Royal & SunAlliance, a large international insurance company. While it was an excellent learning experience, she realized the fit was not quite right—she would feel more at home in a smaller environment where one person could make a bigger difference.

At this same time of transition, she had joined the Board of Governors of Regent College. In 2004, the President asked her if she was interested in being Vice President. “At first I wasn’t interested because my career was in law, not higher education management. But the more I thought about it, the more I was curious about whether I could develop any management skills. As a lawyer, you manage your own files but it is different than managing a team, motivating employees.”

So she took the VP job on the condition that General Counsel was added to her title as well—“to keep up my legal skills.” Like many organizations, especially smaller ones, the College had not realized the potential benefits of having its own in-house counsel, she explains. “I was able to add a lot of value, starting with a thorough legal audit.” Her work at Regent College also earned her a Lexpert Zenith Award in 2015, recognizing her as a top Canadian lawyer in not-for-profit work.

The next big move

Ten years later, Patti was looking for a change again.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I took the CIC.C [Certified In-House Counsel – Canada] designation and an HR designation [Certified Human Resources Professional]. I had been doing a mix of management and law, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to move back toward law in an in-house leadership role or pull on the human resources thread and find a more senior management position.”

Then she got a call from a recruiter looking to hire the CPA Nova Scotia CEO. A bit ironic as she comes from a family of accountants—“I chose law to get away from it!”

Coming home to Halifax has been a good transition. It brings her and her 13-year-old daughter closer to their extended family, and gives her more time to pursue some of her hobbies, such as golfing (“it’s better out east!”) and kayaking (her cottage on the coast is only an hour’s drive away).

She took the CEO position, with the understanding that she would also be CLO to satisfy her passion for law. “I have been pleasantly surprised how commonly I use my legal knowledge,” she remarks, acknowledging that the CIC.C designation gave her the business leadership and financial knowledge to round out her skill set and deal knowledgeably with the professional accountants around her.

Of course, given her many responsibilities and small staff, she relies on outside counsel a lot. Having sat on both sides of the table, she finds the relationship much more collaborative and she enjoys being the client. She tries not to second guess decisions, trusting in the process instead: “If everyone plays their own role and does it well, everything is really going to work out.”

Full circle

“One thing that has been really, really gratifying as I come up onto 30 years of practice is how really different experiences have come together,” Patti says, explaining how litigation cases from decades ago are helping to inform her decisions now. “The older I get, the more I take pleasure in all the various strands of life experiences weaving together in unexpected ways.”

Indeed, her “accidental” career path, as she calls it, is nothing of the sort. She is a smart, driven, capable lawyer constantly asking herself: “What circumstances allow me to thrive? What environment brings out the best in me? Where can I be happy and add value?”

More importantly, she has the courage to pursue the answers.

She is also big on giving back to the in-house community, whether that means sharing her knowledge through the CCCA’s Mentoring Program, helping peers work through problems on an ad hoc basis, or taking on formal and informal speaking engagements.

“As our roles evolve, each of us has to bring people along,” she says. “The world is a big place. There is room for every temperament, every set of skills, every dream, everyone.”

Lynne Yryku is the Executive Editor of CCCA Magazine.

 

This article was initially published in the Fall 2017 issue of CCCA Magazine.

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