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Canada Consul General Nadia Theodore: “Why we need to see more engagement across generations”

I want to see more engagement across generations. Now that I have crossed the bridge into my 40s, I feel like I learn the most and am inspired the most when I have conversations about leadership, future of work and the global economy with people who are under 30 and over 55. I would love […]


I want to see more engagement across generations. Now that I have crossed the bridge into my 40s, I feel like I learn the most and am inspired the most when I have conversations about leadership, future of work and the global economy with people who are under 30 and over 55. I would love to see more conversations happening among generations. We have a lot to learn from each other and if we were intentional about harvesting those experiences, the impact would be significant.


I had the pleasure to interview Nadia Theodore. Nadia was appointed as Consul General of Canada in Atlanta in September 2017, with accreditation for Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. As Consul General, Ms. Theodore is the Government of Canada’s senior diplomat in the Southeast USA. Prior to her appointment as Consul General, Ms. Theodore served as Chief of Staff and Executive Director to Canada’s Deputy Minister of International Trade. Ms. Theodore has also served at Canada’s Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization and at Canada’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations (Geneva, Switzerland). Ms. Theodore has made advancing inclusion in the workplace a core pillar of her mandate as an executive in the Canadian public service and as Consul General in Atlanta. She is committed to making sure that the public service is included in the global conversation on diversity and inclusion within organizations and the deliberate work to build inclusive teams, including and especially at senior levels. Ms. Theodore has been profiled for her work in publications such as the Rosenzweig Report on Women in Leadership and OnBoard Georgia and serves on several non-profit boards including the Carter Center Advisory Board, CIFAL Atlanta (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) Advisory Board and as a Global Advisor for G(irls)20. She has also been recognized as one of the Most Influential Diplomats by Global MIPAD (Most Influential People of African Descent).


Thank you so much for doing this with us Nadia! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was about 15 years old, there was a party that my parents would not allow me to attend. I was determined to go and after repeated attempts to convince them on my own failed, I decided to try something else. I put together a petition, with a short explanation about why attending social events with my friends was important for my independence and overall development; went around my neighbourhood to collect signatures and then presented it to my parents as final consideration to be able to attend the party! I still got a “no” from my parents but I can still remember the feeling of satisfaction I got from putting together the petition and rallying support/consensus from my neighbours. I didn’t have the words to define it then, but it was one of the early indications of my love for advocacy, diplomacy and negotiation. My 15 year old self was on the path to the career I have now!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your assignment?

The first day of my assignment in Atlanta, Hurricane Irma landed. I could barely find my way to the bathrooms and I had to lead a new team in dealing with the hurricane and assisting any Canadian citizens affected! It was interesting in the sense that I got the opportunity to see how the team interacted — individually and as a group — in high pressure situations. That is something that as a leader you usually don’t get to see in the first days with a new team. The experience taught me a lot and while I would not necessarily recommend it to anyone as the way to begin in a new leadership role, looking back I appreciate the unique and early insight the experience gave me into some of the team dynamics. That insight helped in the months that followed.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I would definitely say messing up on all of the acronyms! The federal public service (at least in Canada) uses A LOT of acronyms and naming conventions that you could only possibly learn from working within the organization for some time. When I first started, I mis-used the acronyms and sent emails to the wrong division ALL THE TIME. It was hilarious — I would get these very nice emails back from people to say “sorry, I think you meant to send this to [insert acronym I didn’t understand]. Finally, it was the assistant in the division I was working in who saved my bacon — she put together this handy cheat sheet for me and attached it to the inside of my notebook.

The lesson was two-fold: it taught me to embrace being the newbie and to be comfortable knowing what you don’t know. There was no other way that I was going to learn all the insider “stuff” until I dove in, made the mistakes and sent a few random emails to people! And that was ok. The other lesson was that leadership and innovation has nothing to do with position or seniority in an organization. That administrative assistant (Virginia Robertson — I will never forget her!) had a pride in her work and in the organization she worked for and was a true leader. I learned so much just by watching the way she worked and moved throughout the organization. As we got to know each other better she would offer me advice, and every time I was smart enough to take it, I was better off for it.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

It seems like the world has become ever more divisive. I attribute that to a reluctance to sit down, talk and listen to people who hold a different point of view than you do. The world of diplomacy, of negotiation, is all about doing just that. It is about listening to the different sides of an issue and trying to develop solutions that will allow all parties to walk away feeling like they have gained something. That concept of trying to find and build consensus is hard but so important. The work that Canadian diplomats — and diplomats around the world — are doing is truly helping to contribute to the sustainability of the rules based international order, which is fundamental to building and maintaining peace and prosperity around the globe.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

My hope is that by being one of few women of colour to represent my country abroad as head of a diplomatic representation (and one of the very few black women) that I am demonstrating to the new generation of aspiring global leaders that they belong in these spaces. I am intentional about delivering results and representing my country with pride, while still being authentic, still being ME. I call it the new face of diplomacy. I hope that the impact will broaden to have other decision makers as well as the general public re-evaluate what a diplomat looks like, and what holding influence looks like.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  • Listen more. Especially when the person across from you is saying something that you disagree with.
  • More reverse mentorship. Find someone that is in a different field than you, looks or speaks differently than you do and learn from them.
  • Be authentic. With social media and 24 hour news cycles, there is a lot of pressure to create a brand and control the message around everything. A little bit of authenticity and vulnerability would help us all to connect more to one another and enable us to have real conversations about difficult topics.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

“Leadership requires the courage to speak and the humility to listen”. The courage to speak up when something isn’t sitting right with you, to challenge assumptions and things that have been done “just because that’s the way they were always done”, to stir the pot a bit in the name of advancing the organization or the cause. To me, that is what leadership is about. But while you are being courageous by speaking up, you also have to be humble enough to listen to what you get back. That humility will be essential in building trust among a team, and just as importantly, in getting to the best outcome. Positive, forward-moving change almost always comes from someone being courageous enough to say, “I think we need to look at how to do this differently” and then being humble enough to listen to all the feedback and drive consensus from the best of everyone’s ideas.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Trust yourself. There will always be someone (and sometimes someone close in your work circle) who will try to make you feel inadequate or challenge your knowledge, authority etc. Trust what you know (and what you don’t) and work from there, without giving too much power to the people in the cheap seats.

Don’t be afraid of risk. Leaning in to risk is difficult, especially in the public sector where the weight and responsibility of spending tax payers dollars wisely is real. But risk-taking is essential to moving any organization forward and ultimately making it more relevant and efficient.

It’s ok to be constructively contrarian. The word constructive is key here, but challenging assumptions and having the courage to speak up about something that doesn’t seem right to you — and most importantly offering ideas and ownership for how to do it differently — is what leadership is about.

Boundaries are important and the mark of strong leadership. As a leader in an organization you might feel (or be told!) that everything that is brought to you for decision/signature is “urgent” and every email, meeting or event request is “important”. Taking the time you need to review something (and ask questions!) before signing off, setting aside uninterrupted time in the office where you can think and build vision. Don’t be shy about saying to your managers, “You got this. You don’t need me for this step”. It makes you a better leader, empowers your teamand stretches them so they can grow in the organization.

Uncomfortable experiences WILL make you stronger. We all hear this growing up and coming up, but I wish I believed it sooner. It really is true and if you’re doing it right, being uncomfortable is inevitable. Uncomfortable conversations and situations are more than ok and will help you learn about your leadership style, what you value and where your leadership gaps are.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to see more engagement across generations. Now that I have crossed the bridge into my 40s, I feel like I learn the most and am inspired the most when I have conversations about leadership, future of work and the global economy with people who are under 30 and over 55. I would love to see more conversations happening among generations. We have a lot to learn from each other and if we were intentional about harvesting those experiences, the impact would be significant.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Not everybody wants you to succeed. Be careful who you give your energy to”. My mom used to say that to me from when I was in high school and it became REAL over the past few years. As a leader, your energy will often be pulled in every direction and you will often feel a strong desire and maybe even a sense of obligation to give everyone time, and give everyone the same agency over your self worth or definition of success. It’s important to be clear about who you are, what your goals/values are and who your “people” are (the ones who know you or who are invested in getting to know you; and who will be honest with you out of service and not out of ego). The people you need to give your energy to are those people. Not too long ago I went through a difficult time in my leadership journey, and in hindsight, I realize it was because I was giving way too much energy to the people in the cheap seats. The people who were in no way invested in my success or in the success of my broader vision of work and team. I talk more openly about it now because I think there is a misconception that when you reach a certain level or stage in your career, the challenges you may have had on the come up disappear. I think more leaders need to talk about the challenges they face being a leader and navigating that responsibility and influence while staying grounded and true to themselves.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Condoleezza Rice. As the first black women to serve as U.S. Secretary of State (a position widely recognized as the most senior diplomat in a country) I admire what she has accomplished and the sacrifices that I have no doubt she had to make to get where she is. I recently listened to a podcast interview with her and it left me wanting to know and learn more about her journey.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am relatively active on twitter: theodore_nadia

I recently joined IG and am working hard to up my game on there ( ;0 ) : @cgtheodore

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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