April 1, 2021
"One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong." – Jacinda Ardern
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we have the honor of sharing the Extra(ordinary)journey of Katrina A. Stevens, Global Director of Human Resources at IBI Group. Adopted as an infant into a Slovenian family she credits her character and ambition to, Katrina’s journey is built on pillars of identity, core values and equality. Katrina details her upbringing and childhood memories of Ontario; where today, she is a mere two highway exchanges from the home she grew up in. An ambitious career in significant leadership roles that led prominent organizations to winning people and talent strategies, Katrina reveals her path to achieving success through acceptance of her identity; discovery of her core values; and of equality and how she honors living each day in her truth.
“The equality that I saw in my parents’ marriage, in the 1970’s, was a rare thing,” Katrina begins sharing. “My mother went on separate ‘girls’ trips’ in the ‘70’s. This was not a common thing back then! She was initially a widow when she met my father, so perhaps from the very beginning this was a part of why my parents were so equal. What I observed with them was equal decision making and being engaged where they worked together to make decisions on everything. And, like typical immigrants who moved to Canada, they loved this country. They appreciated multiculturalism, how everyone was welcome here and encouraged to keep their customs. This renewed freedom allowed them to practice their religion and have a meaningful voice in society. Similar opportunities were not possible during their upbringing in war-torn Slovenia. The stories that I grew up with, and the ugliness of how that transition manifested itself was too tragic to understand.”
Katrina reflects on her upbringing in Canada with the family that adopted her into their lives, their values, and their culture. “My parents were very involved in their community here in Canada. My mother was the leader of the local Women’s group for forty years. My father was interested in politics, and he would often ask me to correct his spelling on letters to the local MP. Their example of equality and civic engagement resonated with me.” She continues sharing the fond memory, “My dad would say, ‘what do you think about what Pierre Trudeau is doing?’ while eating dinner at the table. His actions as an equal partner and in making all his children, both male and female, feel that our opinion mattered, got me thinking about my own values and how these would affect my career and philosophy at work.”
Katrina shares what led her into the professional services’ industry. “I was offered my first job during a difficult recession, which was at Alcatel (now Thales), for an hourly rate less than my night job as a cashier at a department store. I loved that job because it affected the rest of my career decisions! We doubled in size very quickly and I had two leaders there that were willing to give me meaningful constructive feedback. They gave me the opportunity to do many different things, so I learned how to build processes, to think strategically, and to get into the weeds - the full gamut. If I didn’t have that opportunity to be a generalist, leading to four job roles in four years, my career would have been very different. This set me on a path to choose future roles where I could grow in a new experience.” Katrina takes us through her decisions on post-secondary options and the path that led her to Human Resources’ leadership. “I went to university in Ontario. Initially, I attended Trent University, but only for a year. I was very determined to choose a degree could be easily translate into a job.” She continues, “Thereafter, I attended the University of Toronto where I found the Industrial Relations program, because there were no ‘HR’ courses at that time. This was the perfect combination of business courses along with labour history and labour law - all subjects that I loved. It was a fantastic experience, with inspiring professors. When I graduated from U of T, the recession was still raging, and luckily Sheridan College offered their first ever HR Management Diploma course. I knew this would be perfect program for me before looking for work.”
In a group of just 30 students, Katrina recalls the intimate program, and lauds her Community College professors’ impact on her career long-term. “They really made a mark on me because they took the theoretical learning from the U of T and grounded it into practical knowledge and information. They introduced me to the importance of connection with theory and application to people in the workplace. I am very proud to be part of that inaugural class. All of the decisions on the roles that I took during my career were very intentional to gain new HR experiences in a new industry. I seized the opportunity to make decisions about exposure to a new business model or new ways of working and thinking; and, bringing my ideas from other workplaces. It’s always about making the employee experience better which drives the organization’s profit and success. I always try to add value, not only by creating programs, but by showing other people how to do it too. I learned as I grew into different roles that although I may no longer be employed at the same workplace, it doesn’t mean that my connection is over. I continue to gather, keep and treasure the relationships of my former work colleagues. This expanding professional network is what buffers against the loss of those personal relationships. These relationships will always continue and benefit my current role at IBI.”
Katrina takes us through some of her difficult moments, and her perseverance as she cared for her ailing parents. “My parents have both now passed…I am very proud of their legacy. As a professional, a spouse and a mother, I had to swiftly learn to navigate our health care system. I was placed in a position where if I did not choose to advocate for my mother, there were serious consequences. And, because we all know that the bond between mother and child is so powerful, I ‘put my horns on’. All those years that my parents were too ill to advocate for themselves made me stronger in finding and using my voice. This brought huge benefits to my professional career and to my personal life as well. My father had dementia, which manifests itself in different ways for different people. So, in some ways, it can be invisible for a long time. My father had always been an interesting character, so his illness was really hidden from us, until my mother’s terminal illness came to pass.” Katrina continues, “That period of time could not have been possible without the support of my amazing spouse. He is a true equal partner. Our relationship grew from what I saw in my parents while growing up. I knew that he would treat me as an equal and support my own personal and professional ambitions. The fact that I have a partner who is so exceptional made that hardship bearable because I knew that I had a backup. How many times did I fall asleep in a hospital chair with my coat on, only to catch a couple of hours of sleep because I knew that time was so limited with my mother?…she and I shared such a powerful relationship. My father’s descent into dementia required a lot of navigation. My aunt, siblings and spouse were a powerful support by giving my father the dignified end he so deserved; especially after coming to this country with nothing. He treasured Canada for being able to express his religious freedom, to be civically engaged and enjoy a prosperous and fulfilling career. These times enabled me to be more courageous at work, and to not be silent in situations where I would have been less forthright in trying to address a situation. I became stronger.”
Katrina shares her journey with IBI Group, and her desire to join the organization leading the world in designing every aspect of integrated cities through a collaborative approach focussed on the future. “I remember meeting the leadership team at IBI - I was so excited! The sheer vision of where this organization is going and their constant drive to innovate is infectious. We are always thinking about ‘what’s next’ and ‘what’s better’. The four streams of our strategy for a ‘Smarter Urban Future’ is such a powerful vision for an HR leadership role. So many times, we visit organizations where someone pulls out their wallet card of their mission statement, but the piece of paper is meaningless...this shows they don’t know what their organization's values are. We are focused on continual improvement and using technology to the benefit of the client in architecture, in engineering, in intelligent systems - the vision is real.” She smiles with pride. “When you combine this with the commitment of the thread of what I grew up with, my own values of equality and engagement, I feel a responsibility to drive the engagement of our employees in being innovative and entrepreneurial. I am so proud to be connected to IBI because our people are so engaged in dialogue. People speak up. And, when you see an organization where that dialogue is happening, it is so powerful because you’re not going to speak up if you don’t think anything is going to change. You just give up and go somewhere else. The dialogue is telling you that our people are committed and work to make IBI even better.”
“IBI has a unique mix of professional services and products that we bring to the market. We are the sixth largest architectural firm globally, with over three thousand employees globally managing 7,000 active projects. Our core business segments of intelligence, buildings and infrastructure work collaboratively to design, plan and develop advanced urban systems in which people can live, work, learn and heal. I am in awe of our thought leadership; but our recent publications on urban planning, architecture and parametric design are truly noteworthy. There are some amazing projects happening as well. For example, we are on the largest transit project in North America - the Eglington Crosstown LRT project in Toronto as well as the Broadway Subway project in Vancouver. We have a very powerful value proposition on our projects and continue to transform the way people move around the world.”
Katrina’s role leads IBI’s team and people initiatives to drive their success. She creates opportunities for dialogue, innovation, creativity, vulnerability, and collaboration; recognizing that the organization’s brand is defined and led by its people. The true diversity of its team. “At IBI, we are on the journey to embrace diversity, inclusion, and belonging. We have sixty offices around the world, and there is no way that our collaboration does not succeed without embracing these very important ideas, which I also learned from my childhood. We continue to work diligently in expanding our efforts to bring our three-pillar strategy to life by raising awareness, removing bias and promoting inclusive leadership. Creating an environment of belonging and authenticity to ‘be who you are’ propels our strategy and success. The active engagement of our people, from the C Suite to our newest hires, across all our regions is inspiring. Our Global Women’s’ Network and JEDI (Justice Equality Diversity and Inclusion) group conceive and deliver actions making important progress. I bring my personal experiences to bear, as a first generation Canadian, to enrich the overall effort to become a more inclusive place to work. This alignment of my personal values of equality and authenticity creates a zeal for this important journey at IBI.”
Katrina is passionate about sharing how she measures success. “I measure success through the ability to live an authentic life. I embraced myself as Canadian Slovenian, even though I am adopted. When it comes to my role here today, and others I have led in the past, I bring forward my authentic self; who I learned to become through the upbringing of equal co-parents that gave me a chance for a life that could have been very different for me under different circumstances. As a Canadian leader on a global stage, I value people for who they are; their diversity. When I think about my future retirement, I would like to be able to look back and say, ‘I made things better. I helped, not only the people who directly work for me, but I left a legacy of having a positive impact on people.’” Katrina discloses a role model, and the authentic power in this individual’s leadership. “Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, is a leader I admire. She is a role model that paves the path for many women to be recognized as powerful because of their compassion and ability to balance this in their role to lead. I agree with her, you can be an effective leader and you can also be compassionate, it’s not weak. For our team, we become our safe space together. The challenging time today, during COVID-19, is not easy. But, by progressing on the journey to becoming a more diverse and inclusive workplace we are reducing the distance between us. It is the things that we can do together, remotely, to keep united and make an impact that count. We really are stronger together, living authentically, in a world that isn’t actually so large anymore.”
Katrina’s transparency in sharing a journey that reveals hardship, hard work, and hard calls is admirable. As a leader of people in HR for over 30 years, Katrina learned as she grew; and taught as she learned; leaving a legacy of a role model true to her own word. Katrina develops and advocates for an employee experience that parallels that of her own values; her own personal experience of authenticity and equality; creating a culture of familiarity, warmth and acceptance…which is also a true sentiment of her own character.
Katrina’s strength through the loss of her parents and the journey she experienced through their final moments is strength in her spirit alone. Her legacy continues to imprint not only the workplaces where she has left big shoes to fill, but she is creating a legacy for herself, and her identity. Her leadership and the resulting rewards of her mentorship creates impact for people who are following her guidance. Katrina’s personal influence is etched into these organizations’ cultures; and her leadership helps its people determine the organization’s brand:
Through acceptance of identity.
Through discovery of core values.
And, through helping others’ live each day authentically in their own truth…
“I won’t work for organizations where I don’t think I have an opportunity to make a difference, or build the credibility to have a voice. Why would anyone waste their time on that? We choose everyday where we work. IBI’s value proposition is a powerful formula for any business professional. Understanding that I was an adopted child, and coming to peace with this, was very much wrapped in learning to accept my identity; developing my core values of equality through the example of my parents…and, to live my authentic life as a business professional and as a first-generation Canadian-Slovenian. I am proud of this.”
Katrina A. Stevens
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar Sharma, Founder & CEO