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Influential Women in Business: Sarah Morgan-Silvester

When Sarah Morgan-Silvester was a child, she didn’t necessarily show a lot of promise as a natural born leader.

“I was quite painfully shy,” Morgan-Silvester said. “When you’re a shy child you tend to sit on the sidelines and look in.”

Morgan-Silvester, winner of the Lifetime Achievment Award in the 2019 Influential Women in Business Awards, said her shyness was likely the result of the high expectations she put on herself and her desire to meet them. A fear of making mistakes while trying to reach her goals kept her on the sidelines.

But that would change. Eventually, she came to recognize that mistakes were an essential part of growth and success. 

“If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t actually learn anything,” she said.

Morgan-Silvester said she gained a lot of knowledge through experience, but she credits one particular event with helping to push her from the sidelines into centre field. Early in her undergraduate studies, she realized that she wasn’t cut out for a career in marine biology, the field she had originally chosen to pursue, and decided to change course 180 degrees and study economics.

She recalls that when she informed her guidance counsellor of her decision, he assumed that she meant home economics. That was definitely not what the future HSBC executive vice-president of wealth management and the inaugural chair of Vancouver Fraser Port Authority had in mind.

The experience made her realize that she needed to be confident and bold to overcome stereotypes and achieve her goals. It was a lesson she took to heart, as evidenced by her long and diverse resumé bristling with leadership positions. Morgan-Silvester has made contributions across a broad spectrum of organizations, applying her leadership skills to for-profit companies like HSBC, serving with non-profit organizations including the David Suzuki Foundation and the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre Foundation, and taking on the role of chancellor of the University of British Columbia. That diverse career history has provided her with many unique lessons. Sometimes those lessons would come from unexpected places.

“I do believe as not-for-profit organizations have a lot to learn from the corporate sector, the corporate sector has an equal amount to learn, sometimes I think more, from the not-for-profit sector.”

She was able to apply the lessons learned from her previous executive roles when she was appointed by the province to oversee the amalgamation of the three Lower Mainland ports. This was a massive project for both the organization and the region as a whole. While amalgamation was the best option for the city, many would have to forgo their executive salaries and positions on the boards of directors of the multiple ports in order to accommodate a single port authority.

Morgan-Silvester’s career has focused as much on people as it has on fiscal matters.  She entered the financial world during the 1982 recession and was tasked with recovering money from bad, predominantly commercial, loans. During that time, Morgan-Silvester  was exposed to people who exhibited some of the best and some of the worst qualities.

Some debtors were just trying to keep their heads above water and pay their obligations, while in another particular instance the defaulter locked up farm animals in a house and destroyed the property, she recalled.

This experience early in her career was pivotal, helping her understand human nature and motivations, not only making her more compassionate but also helping her become a better judge of character, she said.

Her work in the corporate and non-profit worlds has helped give her the insight that can come only from interacting with individuals and understanding their problems and goals.

“The actual business decision is the easy decision; it’s the implications of those decisions for the people that you’re going to have to spend time working out,” she said.

Join us to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Influential Women in Business Awards March 8 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For ticketing and full event information, visit https://biv.com/iwib.

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Author: Albert Van Santvoort

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