Female leaders in accounting: Barbara G. Stymiest

CPA Barbara G. Stymiest shares the career path she took to become a leader in the accounting field.

  • Title: Group Head, Strategy, Treasury and Corporate Services
  • Place of employment: Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto
  • Number of company employees: 80,000
  • University: 1978, Honours, Business Administration; University of Western Ontario (Richard Ivey School of Business)
  • Designation year: 1980, Ernst & Young, Toronto

In late December 2009, Barbara Stymiest was running down a street in Brantford, Ontario, carrying the Olympic torch alongside her 12-year-old daughter. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came about as part of the Royal Bank of Canada's sponsorship of the 106-day cross-Canada Olympic Torch Relay.

“This year, I led the team responsible for RBC’s involvement with the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics,” says the bank’s group head, Strategy, Treasury and Corporate Services. “The Olympics project was amazing on so many levels. It was such an honour to carry the torch,” she says from her downtown Toronto office.

Another important initiative Stymiest led was RBC’s response to the financial regulatory reform agenda. “This is ongoing and becoming more complex,” she says. “It’s a fascinating time to be an executive in the financial services sector!”

It all began with a summer job at Clarkson Gordon when she was an undergrad. Becoming an accountant wasn’t necessarily on the agenda as most of the family was in sales and the Western University student considered the same career.

“I used that accounting job as a bit of a buffer to figure out what I really wanted to do,” she says. “I quickly realized that I loved the fast pace and challenge of the work. I’ve never looked back. My leadership training has come from on-the-job, formal and informal mentorship relationships, and my work in the not-for-profit sector.”

Now in charge of about 1,300 employees at Canada’s largest financial institution, her role is to be an integrator. “Because of the complexity and interconnectedness of many of the issues we deal with at RBC, I need to convey the bigger interrelated picture to all. From there, I have to ensure that my own teams work together well, and then that they interact proactively with our partners right across the enterprise.”

From her experience, three components are imperative for leadership success: knowledge, team trust and the ability to listen.

“Listen even though it’s a message you don’t want to hear,” she stresses. “Trust that your team will maximize individual talents to achieve a common goal, and always expand on your knowledge.”

Sometimes, leaders clearly recognize a complex problem and know the answer but communicating the thought process to others can be challenging. Stymiest says she had to hone a combination of skills, such as empathy and imagination, to help her convey her thoughts and convictions clearly to others.

“I could see the bigger picture and had to figure out the mindset of others around the table, anticipate their reservations and address their concerns on the basis of fact and reason. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to do this effectively.”

At 53, the married mom who makes sure she “carves out” weekend time exclusively for her family, is enthusiastic about the next few years at work. “I think the next five years are going to be incredibly interesting and challenging for our industry,” she says. “And I still have a lot I’d like to accomplish at RBC.”


  • 1978 — 1982: Staff Member, Audit, Ernst & Young, Toronto
  • 1982 — 1983: Manager, Audit, Ernst & Young (first leadership role)
  • 1983 — 1987: Manager, Insolvency Practice, Ernst & Young
  • 1987 — 1992: Partner, Financial Services Group, Ernst & Young
  • 1992 — 1999: Executive Vice-President & Chief Financial Officer, BMO Nesbitt Burns
  • 1999 — 2004: Chief Executive Officer, TSX Group Inc.
  • 2004 — 2011: Group Head, Strategy, Treasury & Corporate Services, Royal Bank of Canada

Update 2013:

In 2011, Stymiest retired from the RBC position to devote more time to charity and board work. In January 2012, she was appointed chair of the board at Research In Motion, now known as BlackBerry.

She also serves as a director of George Weston Limited, Sun Life Financial, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the University Health Network.

In 2011, Stymiest received an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario and in 2012, she received an honorary doctorate in letters from the Canadian University of Dubai.