Sybil Verch is on a roll.
She was named the Business Person of the Year for 2014 by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce for her work in the community and with financial services company Raymond James. She’s become a familiar face as the finance mentor on the reality TV show The Hard Way, with plans for a second TV show in the works. She even won the Dancing with the Stars competition at last year’s Ageless Living Expo.
And now, she’s working on a book, to be published next year, to inspire other women to take on big challenges in business and finance, and empower them in all aspects of their lives.
From the very start of her career, Sybil was told she’d face an uphill battle. More than 85 per cent of financial advisors are men, so she was in the extreme minority when she joined her first firm at age 24. One older male advisor told her she’d simply never make it. He told her she had three things working against her: “You’re young, you’re female, and you’re pretty.”
“Well, that was a challenge,” Sybil said.
Determined to prove him wrong, Sybil far surpassed all expectations in her first year (and not just of those who thought she was doomed to fail).
The same advisor came to see her later, dumbfounded at her achievements.
“Then he said to me, ‘Sybil, you’ve done so great, but you know, you’ve got three advantages: You’re young, you’re female, and you’re pretty.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell him those were the same things he’d told me would be my downfall,” Sybil said.
It wasn’t the last time her gender would be seen as a potential barrier to success.
After many years working in a role in which she had taken on many management responsibilities—but without a manger’s title or pay—Sybil saw an opportunity to advance when her branch manager announced his upcoming retirement. Certain she’d demonstrated her skills, and thinking she was the clear successor based on the work she was already doing, she waited to be offered the job. But speaking to a male colleague at a conference, it became clear no one else had assumed she’d move into the role.
“He told me I’d better put my name into the hat because they weren’t going to offer it to me,” Sybil said.
Sybil eventually did get the job, but not without going through a much more intensive screening process than her male peers, including an aptitude test and a requirement for her to create three-year vision for the branch.
“No other manager in the system had to go through that,” Sybil said. “But rather than being bitter and negative about it, I turned it into a positive experience. It made me a better manager.”
When Sybil moved to Raymond James three years ago, she found a “night and day change” in terms of how women’s contributions were valued. She was hired as the local branch manager without jumping through any unusual hoops, and she’s recently been promoted to the Manager for Western Canada and an Executive Vice-President. She chairs the firm’s Women’s Advisory Council, which works to increase the number of female financial advisors and leaders in the firm.
“I have very strong opinions about the need for more women in leadership roles,” Sybil said. “The message I really want to get across is don’t wait for things to happen. Make things happen. Figure out what you’d really like to do, don’t worry about the obstacles that come your way and figure out what you can do to get it. The rewards are great.”
That said, Sybil understands that not all women want to take on big, powerful careers, and she’s careful to explain she respects all of the many ways women structure their families to make the most of their priorities. She’s structured her own family in a for-now unconventional way, with her husband, a Victoria firefighter, taking on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities while she builds her business and her career. It’s a situation that has caused both spouses to face questions and negative comments, but it works for them and their 12-year-old son.
“I didn’t take a maternity leave after my son was born,” Sybil said, “I worked part time from home and the office for six weeks and then went back to work full time. And my husband was the first fireman in the city of Victoria to take a parental leave. The guys teased the heck out of him, and people judged me for not taking a leave. But it worked out for us beautifully. And I’m happy to say that other firemen have since taken leave. My husband paved the way for them to feel comfortable.”
And that, Sybil says, is a key shift required to ensure more female voices are heard at the leadership table in all sectors: Ensuring men feel more comfortable with traditionally female responsibilities so that families can make the choices that make sense for them, rather than assuming Mom has to stay home or be the primary parent.
“A lot of men are not comfortable if their wife is very successful,” Sybil said. “My husband is very confident in himself, so he can be very supportive of my career. He’s amazing—he works full time, runs our household, and still finds time to pursue his personal interests in surfing, mountain biking, and travel. We work together as a team—he reaps the rewards of my success in business, and I reap the reward that he is the dominant domestic in the family. And my son, seeing our relationship, understands the importance of our teamwork.”
Another important aspect of effective family teams is ensuring both partners have a degree of financial literacy. Sybil says that while women tend to do most of the day-to-day financial “chores” like balancing the chequebook, men tend to handle financial planning, money management and investment decisions. That can leave women in a precarious position within a bad relationship, or after a divorce or the death of a spouse.
“Women live longer than men. At some point, they’re going to be forced into that role whether they want it or not. Having a basic understanding of what you want to achieve financially is crucial. No woman should have to scramble to make sense of things while also going through a sense of loss or anger after a divorce or a death.”
Sybil is currently thinking a lot about the lessons she’s learned since first being told she’d never make it as a financial advisor, how things have changed since her husband broke the parental leave barrier for Victoria’s firemen, and why women need to take control of their own financial affairs as she puts the finishing touches on her upcoming book. She wants to be sure women know they really can balance a happy home life, motherhood and a thriving career as a power player in business.
“I want women to feel ready to take on something new, step out of their comfort zone and improve their life in some way. The model I live by is conceive, believe, achieve. Think of the idea, believe you can do it, go get it. If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”
By Christina Newberry