Making the most of a career in finance: Leadership insights from TELUS International’s Vanessa Kanu

Women in Finance | episode 1

“I think for young people considering a career in finance, think of finance as being the gateway to so many other things. Accounting is frankly a lot of fun, but if accounting is not your thing, it actually teaches you a lot of critical thinking skills. It teaches you a lot about business, and you can branch out from there at any point in your career, as some of us have and others have as well.”

- Vanessa Kanu, Chief Financial Officer, TELUS International Inc.

A CFO’s perspective on the future of the finance profession

We’re excited to launch the first episode of Women in Finance, a special series of the Finance in 15 podcast featuring insights from leading finance executives. Our first guest is Vanessa Kanu, Chief Financial Officer of TELUS International Inc. She speaks with guest host Alaina Tennison about her career journey as well as her perspectives as a woman leading a finance function.

They also discuss the many issues facing the finance profession today, including the need to encourage more young people to consider it as a career option, the importance of introducing technology and automation as a way of easing the pressures on employees and the key skills and competencies required in an evolving business landscape. And for those navigating their own careers in finance, Vanessa offers leadership advice on the keys to success and the path forward in a changing profession.

Be sure to stream, share and subscribe to the Finance in 15 podcast today. If you enjoyed today’s episode, let us know by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts.

Adam: Hello and welcome to PwC Canada's newest podcast, Finance in 15, a series that explores finance transformation and what it means for leaders in the finance function.

Alaina: Hello everyone and welcome to the Finance in 15 podcast. Today we have a very special episode with the launch of our mini series Women in Finance. My name is Alaina Tennison and I am PwC Canada's chief financial officer. I am so excited to be your host for the launch of our special series. So we're introducing this special series to broaden the conversations we've been having around building a finance function in the future. During these episodes, we'll explore leadership perspectives from finance leaders who are navigating an ever changing business landscape. So, for our launch episode, I'm thrilled to be joined by Vanessa Kanu, chief financial officer of TELUS International. Vanessa is the 2021 Ottawa Business Journal and Board of Trade CFO of the Year and also holds the distinction of orchestrating the largest tech IPO in TSX history. So basically, Vanessa is the rock star of CFOs. Welcome, Vanessa.

Vanessa: Thank you, Alaina. That was very generous of you. I am happy to be here. And I actually want to congratulate you on your recent recognition as one of the 50 best executives as recognized recently by The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. So congrats to you as well, Alaina.

Alaina: All right. Well, thanks so much, Vanessa. We're all having our 15 minutes of fame here. So, Vanessa, maybe you could start, can you tell us just a bit more about yourself and your role at TELUS and maybe, maybe something that our listeners would be surprised to know about you.

Vanessa: So TELUS International is a customer experience innovator that designs, builds and delivers next generation digital solutions. We serve more than 600 of the top global brands. Many of the names that know Google, Telus Corporation, Airbnb, a lot of, you know, well-known brands. So I joined TELUS International as chief financial officer in September of 2020, leading a global finance organization. And about a few months after I joined the organization, I helped, along with many others, with the company's debut on the New York Stock Exchange and the TSX as you've already just pointed out. And it's been a privilege, frankly, I was lucky enough to inherit a very, very strong team and making that transition from being a private, privately owned organization to a publicly owned and publicly reporting entity. Prior to TELUS International, I also was chief financial officer at another technology company, a multinational technology company operating in about 90 different countries called Mitel Networks Corporation.

Alaina: And Vanessa, you and I, we both had similar experience starting our careers at PwC Canada. Different times, we never connected but had the same starting point. So is this where you thought your career would take you once you finished university and started a career as a young accountant at PwC?

Vanessa: See, I honestly loved my experience at PwC. It was a lot of fun. In my particular case, starting with PwC Edmonton, you know, quite literally, you know, going from oil and gas, clients to utilities to later on when I moved to Ottawa with PwC, clients focus on the technology sector, which is why I tended to focus more on that in the latter part of my time at PwC. Did I think it was going to take me where I am today? I don't know that I knew that. I enjoyed my time. It was a good experience. Learning about different clients. Learning how to problem solve, I think was probably the most important thing. I knew I wasn't going to stay to be partner. I knew I wanted to join industry. So I did leave and join industry. I wouldn't say orchestrated my career to get to the CFO position, but I certainly wanted to continue to learn and grow and help to solve problems. And I think all of those things combined with that audience through the PwC have helped to get me where I am today.

Alaina: Vanessa, you've had a wide variety of industry experience working with both public and private companies and private taking to public. So can you talk about your experiences, especially as a female finance leader in both of those areas, both the public sphere and the private?

Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they are two very different fields. So I think it's really sort of becoming more or less similar, both very challenging, very, very tough. You know, I've had the experience of working in a private company and then going public. And then frankly, because of myself, we went from private to public and then back to private and then of course, international going public. Both very demanding environments, though certainly the public environment is very much more demanding just in terms of the level of scrutiny, all of the external reporting requirements, all of the investor relations requirements. And, you know, as it pertains to women specifically, it becomes quite challenging. I would say I lost a number of my female colleagues, you know. Particularly in a public company environment, the demands of the job can be quite stringent. And I think companies today are making a much greater efforts to get a bit more work life balance to acknowledge that to keep outperforming women. And frankly, women in general, you have to look at their policies. So that has been a bit of an evolution throughout my last couple of decades, working with private and public institutions, and certainly something that is still a bit of a work in progress.

Alaina: And well and I found I've been, aside from being a PwC Canada's CFO, I'm also a partner. And I really have found, as I've worked my clients over the years, that I work mainly in financial services. I'm encountering many, many more female CFOs and finance leaders, which is great. So I think the finance profession generally has been ahead of the curve on promoting women into leadership role. And I was reading some of what and some of the articles that you had been interviewed on and you talked about how the finance industry has changed, but you also talked about how the technology evolution that went alongside that, and specifically about how automation and how you were working to make sure that people who are really highly skilled work doing things like pushing data around and kind of that low value work. So can you talk a little bit about how you've been able to inspire your teams to embrace automation in the finance field?

Vanessa: It really is a journey. And certainly I wouldn't even say that we're anywhere close to being where I aspire to be and frankly, where many of our team members aspire to be. But I mean, we're just having this conversation around replicating the audit files, you and I, Alaina and that being the precursor. And now today everything's done in the cloud. So in such a short time, the amount of change in technology, in adoption of technology has been pretty tremendous. And so there too within the finance industry, so to speak. It's the exact same thing. And honestly, I continue to be inspired by our team members. You know, just to give you a fairly basic example, we hired a young finance director who joined us about, say, maybe a year or so ago, and he came in and said, hey, you know, why don't we introduce this particular tool? And maybe I would say it's because I don't want to advertise or plug for any particular firm. But if you think about it, I remember even at Mitel as a public company, the process of doing the press release is the process of getting the 10-Q together, the press releases the table. Fifteen years ago, frankly, maybe even ten years ago, maybe even eight years ago, we literally used to have someone sit there and tie out all the numbers. We tie out the numbers before the day that somebody pushes the filing button end of the press release. If you have a call to go through the press release the night before and we change something, somebody would go back and tie out those numbers. Today we use a tool that does all that. Every single number in that press release is links to the financial statements. We don't need a person sitting there are literally tying out, ticking and bumping every number in that table to the number that's actually the financial statements. So this is not a very expensive tool. It was, again, a team member who brought that idea and was implemented. But these are very small examples of ways that you can actually get a lot of productivity for your team. And just think back to eight years ago when somebody had to do that job. Now, whoever that person would have been is now spending their time doing something that's a lot higher in value, would let the technology do what the technology can do. Then we allow our team members to focus on using their smarts, their intelligence, their analytical skills to help all of us move forward in a much more efficient fashion.

Alaina: And so that which leads me to the next point on the profession in the world of finance has certainly changed a lot since we both began our careers. And the pandemic especially, has accelerated some of the key trends with remote work and digitization, which of course, then in turn require new skills among finance professionals. But with today's talent shortages and I we're all experiencing it, it has been a real challenge to recruit and keep up with demand. So you've had a really interesting career in finance. You know, what would you say to young professionals who are thinking about pursuing their career in finance?

Vanessa: I think for young people considering a career in finance, think of finance as being the gateway to so many other things. Accounting is frankly a lot of fun, but if accounting is not your thing, it actually teaches you a lot of critical thinking skills. It teaches you a lot about business, and you can branch out from there at any point in your career, as some of us have and others have as well. And change will be constant regardless of what industry you're in. So, you know, finance professionals, I think we all have to learn to be more agile and adaptable so that we can embrace that change a lot more, a lot more comfortably. I think resilience and tenacity are also pretty important, particularly given everything that's happening around the world these days, from geopolitical concerns to interest rates to so many other things. So having that resilience insight is certainly is another key attribute, I think, that will be required for your success going forward. And, you know, I think we just need to do a better job as well marketing the profession. We need to make sure that young, young students really get the get a good sense of the breadth that is available to them through a career in finance. And certainly hopefully, Alaina, podcast like this, I know it speaks to a lot of existing finance professionals, but hopefully it captures some students as well and who might be able to entice them to consider joining us in the profession.

Alaina: Yeah, absolutely. It's a fantastic opportunities here. It would be great if you could share with our listeners the top three pieces of leadership advice for their career journey in finance.

Vanessa: Certainly, I think we are in a time when being a students and being an agile learner will be very important. So embracing those opportunities to learn, to grow and to stretch yourself. Say yes, opportunities at work, if it's going to help you to expand your knowledge base and expand your skill sets, if it's going to help you learn about the business. Say yes, that means certainly that is something that I try to follow earlier in my career, particularly at Mitel and even at PwC as well, saying yes to certain things that were perhaps a little bit uncomfortable. I was certainly not the subject matter expert, but the willingness to learn and to be a student I think certainly did help me and I can see that it's helped many others who have taken a similar approach. I would also say, you know, surround yourself with some trusted advisers who will support you through your career. I certainly have had some great informal mentors. I've never been part of a formal mentorship program, but I've always had a small number of informal people that have been great mentors to me and have helped to shape my career, and I would encourage any listener to pursue that as well. And the last but not least, be patient. You know, everything doesn't happen in a straight line. It's the journey to the c-suite can take many, many different paths. And certainly things may not always go the way that some people want it to go every single year. But as long as you are learning and you're growing, I think it's okay. So be agile, be adaptable, build up some resilience, work hard. And certainly I think, you know, you continue to evolve. But that's been my experience thus far.

Alaina: Okay. Yeah. No, that's great. Lots of good advice in there, closer to probably a top five, but I think that will be really valuable. And I'm going to throw out another one for our listeners as well, especially some of our young people. As we start to come out of the pandemic, there's a, you know, to the extent you're comfortable and it's safe to do so, get out there and meet people in person, like go to meetings with business colleagues and develop some of those in-person relationships because there's so much there's great work that can be done, you know, sitting behind a screen at home and we've all learned that we can be much more there's a lot of efficiency to be gained there, too, but there's also a lot of learning that will happen in person and, you know, building up that business acumen. So this has been outstanding, Vanessa, and it's been so great speaking with you today. I know you and I haven't met in person yet, but I am going to next time, either I'm in Ottawa and you're in Toronto, we are going to get together and I will definitely be buying you so much.

Vanessa: Absolutely.

Alaina: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and lessons learned with us. I know how valuable it is to hear from women like you who have such strong leadership experience and deep expertize. So thank you for joining me. Please stay tuned for upcoming episodes in our special Women in Finance series with Maarika Paul, CFO of Caisse de dépôt et placement, and Lisa To, head of financial management and performance at the Business Development Bank of Canada. Please also visit our PwC Canada website to listen to our Finance in 15 podcasts and to subscribe. At PwC Canada, we're a community of solvers and we believe finance has an important role to play in helping organizations succeed. If you'd like to be part of our CFO Community of Solvers, please reach out to me to get involved. I hope you've enjoyed your first episode of our Women in Finance special series. We'd love to hear your thoughts on the series, so please be sure to subscribe, to share and leave us a rating and review. I'm Alaina Tennison, and this is your Women in Finance special series. This podcast has been prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, an Ontario Limited Liability Partnership. For general guidance on matters of interest only and does not constitute professional advice.

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Vanessa Kanu

About our guest

Since 2020, Vanessa Kanu has served as CFO of TELUS International, a digital customer experience (CX) innovator that designs, builds and delivers next-gen digital solutions for more than 600 top global brands, where she helped lead the company’s public debut on both the New York and Toronto Stock Exchanges, becoming the largest tech IPO in the history of the latter. She joined TELUS International after 16 years at Mitel Networks Corp., where she also served as CFO with responsibility for the company’s global finance operations. Prior to that, she worked in PwC Canada’s assurance and business advisory practice.

Outside of her work at TELUS International, Vanessa volunteers for organizations such as the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and serves on the board of directors of the Ottawa Hospital Foundation. She’s also on the board of directors for Thorn, a not-for-profit organization working to eliminate child sexual abuse materials from the Internet. In 2022, Vanessa was also appointed to the Board of Directors for Manulife Financial Corporation as part of its Audit Committee and Corporate Governance and Nominating Committee.

Vanessa’s work has earned her several awards and honours, including being named CFO of the Year in 2021 by the Ottawa Board of Trade and the Ottawa Business Journal.

Alaina Tennison

About the host

Alaina Tennison is the CFO of PwC Canada, as well as a practising assurance partner. She provides strategic oversight of PwC Canada’s financial matters and business planning activities to help our firm successfully navigate the evolving business landscape, employ best practices and make strategic investments for the future.

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This podcast has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice. You should not act upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this podcast, and, to the extent permitted by law, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, its members, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability, responsibility or duty of care for any consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this publication or for any decision based on it.

“PwC” refers to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, an Ontario limited liability partnership, which is a member firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited, each member firm of which is a separate legal entity.

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