Making It in a Man’s World

Gwen Klees, VP of legal affairs and corporate secretary.

Early on at GLV, Gwen Klees was the only woman at the conference table. Here, she explains how she stays independent as the firm’s vice president of legal affairs.

One part intuition, two parts team player, and three parts legal powerhouse, Montréal attorney Gwen Klees thrives in the field of law, which she explains is still comprised predominately of men. Fortunately, as VP of legal affairs and corporate secretary for Montréal-based Groupe Laperrière & Verreault Inc. (GLV), Klees says she likes working with men. That’s a key skill set for a female attorney in a senior management position of such a calibre.

Over the years, Klees has hit on a formula for succeeding in this mostly male-driven environment—while gaining respect and making friendships in the process: it really comes down to the fact that the male brain is just different.

“I’ve realized that men are solution-oriented,” Klees explains. “They want to hear the solution, not hear the problem. And they like taking risks. It’s a different thought process than most women have. So, as a woman working with men, you have to adjust your approach while remaining yourself. Otherwise, you won’t be considered credible.”

A native of British Columbia, and the fourth girl in a Dutch family of six, Klees attended Laval University, in Québec City, where she studied primarily civil law. Attending law school allowed Klees to learn and retain her French while becoming knowledgeable about the complexities of international law.

After completing her articling at the national firm McCarthy Tétrault (then known as Clarkson Tétrault), Klees transferred to its Montréal branch, where she spent two years. Klees was assigned to the larger commercial litigation cases, giving her experience that would suit her well in her current role as a general counsel. While there, she was first exposed to working in teams primarily composed of men. While bringing up her three daughters, she also worked as a staff attorney at the Royal Bank of Canada, Bell Canada, and CDPQ (Québec pension fund) before joining GLV in 2003.

At GLV, she found herself in a conference room for several days, the only woman within a group of 22 men. “That’s where I really learned that I could function well with men,” she says with a laugh. “It can be difficult; you have to be able to change your tack. Women need to look like they are in control of the situation and not look as though they are presenting the problem without the solution.”

Klees also learned that getting attention from men in a work setting is not automatically a bad thing. “This may happen from time to time,” she explains. “But if you get a comment on your appearance, for example, try not to take it personally. It usually means they like you and [it] was probably not meant disrespectfully. It’s just one way they have learned to engage you.”

Klees believes that GLV’s traditionally male engineering environment is slowly gaining more women, even at the senior management and executive operational levels. “Women contribute both an emotional and scholarly intelligence and are adept team players,” she says. “Teamwork, risk management, and negotiations are skills that I believe that I’m valued a lot for.”

Because GLV is an international company, Klees manages a legal team of 10  around the globe. They keep in touch with calls, Skype, e-mail, shared databases, and by travelling. “One thing that helps us a lot is having electronic databases and file folders that we all access,” Klees explains. “Because we do a lot of international acquisitions or divestitures, litigation, customer or supplier agreements, and other contracts, it’s crucial that we are all looking at the same version of the same file.”

In her free time, Klees enjoys serving as a mentor and career coach for young professionals—primarily women—and benefits from mentoring herself.

“Because more and more women are entering the professional world, I started realizing how important it was for me to share the experience I was having,” she says. “Prior to me becoming a vice president, I was in charge of a department. That’s where I realized that if you talk like a VP and act like a VP, they will start recognizing you for those qualities. Whereas often women wait to be patted on the back, men take a more proactive approach toward career mobility. It’s ideas like this that I want to share with younger women.”

Klees—who previously ran marathons and loves physical activities, including horseback riding, most outdoors sports, and some yoga—also believes that getting plenty of exercise is a key stress reliever for professionals in pressure-cooker positions. “When I see people in a business environment not coping well, I always encourage exercise,” she says. “It really helps.”

All in all, Klees finds great satisfaction in her job at GLV, which controls more than 45 operating entities, doing business in many countries. “It’s very diverse.” she says. “That’s what makes it so much fun.”