“After a year and a half working from home, it was like I’d slipped into the Matrix”: This bank exec left her corporate job for a career in politics

“After a year and a half working from home, it was like I’d slipped into the Matrix”: This bank exec left her corporate job for a career in politics

I had a really great job. For four and a half years, I was the head of sustainability and corporate citizenship for TD Bank Group, a position that allowed me to improve the environment, health care, inclusive communities and a fair economy. I was meeting with community organizations, liaising with government and thought leaders, creating partnerships that helped the bank and society. We aimed to improve adolescent health across the country through a partnership with Canada’s Children’s Hospitals, worked with Evergreen to launch the TD Future Cities Centre, and—one of my favourites—launched the Together Project, which helped our branch employees sponsor refugee families.

Pre-Covid, my work was very external. I led a diverse team of 90 people in Canada and the U.S., and I travelled extensively across our footprint to see our work in action. I spent my days talking to people on the ground about their lives, their hopes and their challenges. It was real and tangible work. Yes, I regularly clocked evenings and weekends, but it was worth it.

I know this was a plum job, partly because of how much outreach I got on LinkedIn from aspiring careerists who wanted to meet with me so they could figure out how to get a role like mine. “You’ve had such an amazing career and I’d love to learn from your experience,” they’d write. “Please let me know if you have 15 minutes for a call.” But as soon as the pandemic began, I had no time for such calls. Every minute of my day was spent on the phone. My meetings were back to back from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Zoom world was my new reality. My other work fell to weekends and after hours. Gone were the energizing in-person brainstorming sessions, or the thrill of delivering a presentation in the community, or the satisfaction of engaging with people who weren’t in my immediate circle.

Most jobs are a balance between the parts that drain you and the parts that give you energy. Before Covid, that balance worked for me—I worked hard, but that work left me feeling vital and strong and inspired. In the office I could feel the buzz and tension as I worked with the team on a tough project, and I was super-excited about upcoming initiatives. But after a year and a half of working from home, it was like I’d slipped into the Matrix. I can’t exactly pinpoint when the dissonance started. Rationally, I knew I was still in a role with a huge impact in a great company, but I was no longer as engaged as I’d been before. I tried giving myself daily pep talks, which only worked part of the time. I remember finishing a major milestone with the team. During our celebration, rather than feeling elated, I was just relieved it was over.

In 2020, so many urgent issues came to the fore: health care, mental health and addictions, the economy, racism, climate change, social isolation, education equity. And yet professionally, I couldn’t be thinking strategically or long term. I just had to put out fires, like moving hundreds of live events to digital, or fielding requests from community organizations struggling to keep the lights on. It was easier in the beginning, when I thought Covid was a short-term ordeal to rally around. But as the weeks become months, I became stuck in reactive mode. I hated being on the sidelines.

Worse still, my teams were struggling with mental health issues, marital stress, economic worries and burnout. I felt powerless to help them. As a people leader, it’s my job to help my team achieve work-life balance, to prioritize the demands on their time, to coach and mentor them. In the before times, I spent a large proportion of my time walking around, talking to people, not just about work but about their families, pursuits and dreams. I would bring people together for learning and planning summits, which bonded us together.

Working from home has many perks, but it also makes organizations more siloed, more process-oriented and less connected. I instituted online office hours to keep in touch with my team—for their sakes, but also for mine. I needed a break from isolation as much as they did. In those sessions I heard many stories. About the couple with a baby in a small apartment with no outdoor space, where two adults were trying to hold meetings from the same dining table. I heard about a colleague with parents in long-term care, who was terrified for their safety and had trouble staying on task. Most common were the many parents of school-aged kids who were overwhelmed on the home front. I could only offer them so much flexibility and time off without compromising their colleagues’ workloads or our own deliverables. I told one mom that she had to prioritize her kids, but she knew she was letting her colleagues down and making their jobs harder. It was a brutal reality.

In some ways, these conversations made me feel exceptionally fortunate. I had been a teen mom—it wasn’t ideal at the time, but it meant that my son is now a fully launched adult, whereas most of my peers have younger kids. My home is big enough that I have my own private office space, and I have a backyard and a park across the street. During the pandemic, I was cooking more, and I had more time to work out. But the long hours slouched over a chair wreaked havoc on my neck and shoulders. By the spring of 2021, I couldn’t fully turn my head to the left and I had nerve pain running down my arm, pain so severe it woke me up in the middle of the night. I saw a massage therapist, a physiotherapist and an osteopath. They were great at treating the symptoms, but they failed to address the underlying problem. I was beginning to suspect that I needed to make a major career shift.

I used to look at the week ahead, plan out how to make the most of my schedule, ensuring I had time for prioritized work. And nothing was more satisfying than crossing off items on my task list. But then came a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, which shattered all assumptions of what was important and what the future might hold. I wanted to be engaged in things that truly mattered to me—not just crossing items off a list. Every year, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I do an annual review, assessing the previous year’s theme and goals and setting a new theme for the coming year. The theme is usually one word that outlines how I’m going to approach work and life to meet my goals. One year it was Optimize, another year it was Influence. This year it was Reframe.

My career has been rich and varied. As the head of a large multi-site community health centre, I helped ensure equitable access to health and community services, particularly for those with barriers. As a public sector CEO, I led a major transformation of the Ontario Trillium Foundation. And, most recently, in financial services, I’ve been able to help the bank build a more inclusive and sustainable future across its global footprint. But with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create new ways of thinking. In spring 2021, I had my a-ha moment: I needed to find a space where I could effect change on a larger scale. And to do that, I needed to leave my job.

In March, I was in an operating committee meeting where we were discussing the need to reduce our expenses and the number of executives. Out of nowhere a thought bubble popped into my head: “I’d be happy to reduce it by one.” Once the idea had voice, it wouldn’t shut up. I started to feel relief just from the possibility of change. I thought that maybe if I could get some mental space and breathing room, I might be able to figure out what to do next. Life pre-Covid was about having a plan and certainty—every time I changed jobs, I always had the assurance of job security and a paycheque. But this time, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go.

I started talking to my employers about leaving in the spring of 2021. I was honest about how I felt the job had changed, and how I had changed. They tried to offer me several other roles to keep me, so I felt valued and loved, but at the end of the day they respected my decision. My last day was September 10. It was so strange when they came to collect my laptop on my last day—that’s when it hit home that I was unemployed for the first time in my adult life. Did I really do that?

Timing is everything, and the decision to leave my job allowed me to open my mind to opportunities I may not have considered in the past. Earlier this fall, I began having conversations with the Ontario Liberal Party about throwing my hat in the political ring. I was immediately excited about the possibility: I have lots of experience leading change, along with an overwhelming desire to create a more progressive future. In October, I was named the Ontario Liberal candidate for University Rosedale.  I was worried that once I left my job I’d have too much time on my hands, but I’ve now got lots of work ahead of me.

In just a few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to do all the things I missed in my pre-Covid role. I’m energized by the hands-on work of politics. I’m walking door-to-door in my riding to introduce myself to my neighbours and find out what issues are most important to them. I’m working with an incredible team of volunteers who also aspire to contribute to something bigger and better. I’m asking friends and contacts for financial support to make it all happen. It’s real, it’s personal and I’m all in.

One of my former team members recently gave me a card that said, “Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith because it’s the only transportation available.” I’m both excited and anxious to take that leap.  After all, excitement and anxiety are the same feeling, just with different mindsets—opportunity versus risk. And I’m taking the opportunity.