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Northern Trust Canada’s CFO, David McIsaac, shares his insights on engaging with peers and making time for charity

Northern Trust Canada’s core services include custody, safe keeping, and investment of client assets, in addition to a number of other value-added services catered to individual clients’ needs, and its integrated global platform and operating model and its customer-service-focused approach differentiates it from its competitors. At the centre of it all is CFO David McIsaac, who has his finger on the pulse of $118 billion worth of assets under custody. He also budgets a few hours, four to five times a year, for charity work, and that might sound like a cakewalk by comparison, but McIsaac says it’s actually a constant balancing act that requires firm dedication and, just as importantly, an honest passion. In a conversation with Advantage, he explains the importance of networking, finding the right cause, and committing to it.

Advantage: CFOs are like the playmakers of a company, but did you have a playbook for your career trajectory?
David McIsaac: I set my sights on a CFO position once I determined finance and accounting was the field I wanted. To get there, I knew I had to expand my experience and be prepared when opportunity arose. All the moves I have made in my career have been strategic to round out my experience base and skills to prepare me to be a value-added CFO.

What qualifies you to be a value-added CFO?
Value-added CFOs can collaborate with peers across the organization, often those who are more senior. A key aspect to my role is beyond finance; it’s about leadership and insight. It’s not just about numbers but [about] being a strategic partner to the business, providing insights and the “so what?” behind the numbers. I developed these qualities by challenging myself in different roles at new companies, but you can also gain a lot from networking.

You’re a big advocate of networking. Why is that?
Networking is one of the ways I ensure I am bringing a value-added perspective to my role. Collaborative networking, internally and externally, is about connecting with people and building relationships. I personally use it now to expand my knowledge of the trust and banking industry, share ideas, broaden my perspective, and collaborate with other CFOs on common interests and challenges to further my organization. It is especially important for back-office roles like those in finance and accounting functions, where it can be hard to make your value and contributions known.

David McIsaac’s Career Milestones

Earns a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Toronto

Starts his career as an auditor with RBC before moving into technology as a finance business partner

Receives accreditation as a CGA

Accepts management roles at CIBC in the operations and technology department and the insurance department

Joins Manulife as a financial controller for US group pensions, then becomes AVP of the integration project, developing and implementing company-integration reporting processes for the Manulife-John Hancock merger

Leaves Manulife and begins working at Aviva as the VP of planning and investor relations; eventually becomes the head of finance projects, where he identifies and models opportunities for new business ventures

Joins the boards of the Arthritis Society and the Victorian Order of Nurses

Joins Northern Trust Canada as CFO

What advice would you give someone who is uncomfortable networking or unsure where to start?
Ignore networking at your own peril. Avoiding it can isolate you. It is important to see it in different ways; industry networking provides a value-added perspective and is critical [because] it relates to staying in touch with people and supporting future endeavours. If you’re using your network to learn about your industry, that’s a little easier because it’s just a discussion. Treat every encounter like a conversation. There’s a real person on the other end. Remember that it’s about more than just getting; it’s about sharing and giving and not expecting anything in return. Most of all, be yourself and have fun.

Speaking of giving, you’re involved in a couple of charities. There are so many causes out there, so how does someone who wants to get involved figure out which one to choose?
Before picking a charity, I would always encourage people to make sure they want to get involved for the right reasons and have time to commit. You should join a cause you are passionate about to make a difference, not just to improve your résumé. You can narrow your options by finding a charity that you have a personal connection with. When my dad had a hip replacement because of arthritis and I learned babies could get it, it drove my own research and passion.

How did you find yourself on the board of directors for two charities?
There are board-matching services where charities can post calls for applicants. The way it happened for me was just by mentioning it. With a bit of serendipity and a finance background, I jumped at the opportunity when two friends mentioned that their terms would soon be up. I took a board course that focused on what would be expected of me.

What are board members expected to give, and what can they expect in return?
First and foremost, the charity and comembers will expect that you be there for the right reasons. They’ll expect that you’ll make meetings (about four to five board meetings per year, plus possible committee work). If not, it’s unfair to the charity and other volunteers because you’ve taken the spot that could be filled by someone else who would be more dedicated. They expect you’ll be prepared—when the board sends you material, you read it—and that you’ll participate. They will want you to offer your insights but also challenge management in a constructive way. I didn’t have any board experience when I joined and was a little nervous, but a lot of people are in the same boat. The most important thing is your commitment and passion.