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Insider Insights: How to go from Receptionist to COO (in a male dominated industry)

Rachel Lewis, the Chief Operating Officer of Vancouver Whitecaps is a rare breed. A female executive in a male dominated industry, she has been credited by team ownership for getting the former second-division club into the Major Leagues. With numerous accolades, she gives back to the community and is passionate about conquering fear. Learn how she went from being a timid child into the badass boss that she is today.


Victoria Welsby: Give me a short overview of your career and education?


Rachel Lewis: I have an undergrad degree from University of Victoria. I worked in computer software distribution for a couple years after that. I actually started as the Receptionist and then worked in key account sales. Then I went to do my MBA at UBC and during that I got into sports management. I did my internship for the PGA tournament that was in Vancouver at the time, the Air Canada Championship. From there I worked in women’s golf and spent the last 13 years with the Whitecaps. At the time there was five or six employees and we’ve grown to over a hundred strong over the decade plus.


VW: So your first job being a Receptionist, do you think it was a good foundation for you to then move into the higher end positions?

RL: The person at the front, never underestimate the influence that they have. It’s a very powerful role, you see everything, you talk to everyone, and you learn a lot about the business. It was a fantastic learning experience, after a year or two I moved into key account sales role, made really good connections and had a really good time.


VW:  Were you always a salesy type of person, was that a natural transition?

RL: No I would have never described myself as a sales person, I do well with relationship building and at the end of the day good sales people are good relationship builders. Being front line on the sales team, gives you a lot of exposure on how the business operates. Over my career I’ve had a chance to oversee or be part of every department of the Whitecaps. It’s a really great experience to run every team at some point in your career because you get a much better appreciation for what they’re doing on the ground in those jobs.


VW: Do you think you could have got to where you are today without having a degree or masters?

RL: I started to wonder if I could make a career out of my passion and an MBA is a great degree to fall back on for that. I knew that if my career in event management didn’t work out it would be a fantastic foundation on my resume. The truth of it is that the network I got from doing my MBA got me my first job and without that I wouldn’t have seen the same success. As part of the course we had to do a summer internship and all the roles posted on the careers board didn’t appeal to me. I finally applied to work at a carpet manufacturing plant and wasn’t interested really in the company or the role but needed a job. The day after the interview, which I thought I had nailed, they called and turned me down. I literally burst into tears. I thought: I can’t even get a job at a carpet company!

This made me stop for a minute and remember what I was passionate about and why I was doing this MBA. One of my colleagues in the program told me her Dad worked with the PGA. I met with him, he said he couldn’t pay me but guaranteed I would have a wonderful experience, so I took it. If I hadn’t of made it known to people what my goal was, I would never have had this experience. People know other people, leverage that.


VW: So what if someone isn’t in the position to do an MBA?

RL: I always tell people the best way to get your foot in the door is interning and networking. We have so many examples in our own company. Once you’re in you have a foothold in the industry. I look around and in almost every single department we have people who started as volunteers and have gone on to get full time jobs or moved on to other sports organizations.


Image credit: Adam Rootman/Vancouver Whitecaps

Image credit: Adam Rootman/Vancouver Whitecaps

VW: What is an average day or week in the life of a COO?

RL: Part of why I have been here for 13 years is because no two days are the same and why I love this job and this industry. I have about a dozen department heads reporting into me. Part of every day is about the leadership and making sure the team has what they need to be successful. Another part of my role is dealing with external stakeholders whether it be media, stadium partners, training centre partners, community partners, our charitable partners – working with them. As you get more senior within organizations you are dealing with a lot more human resources. People underestimate how much the job is about the people and it’s the people who move your organization forward. I will also champion major strategic initiatives to grow the business. I get the opportunity to lead and drive these forward.


VW: It sounds like in your role you really need excellent communication and leadership skills?

RL: Yes, no matter the role everybody needs good communication skills. We all need to be working on our communication skills, especially now with social media, emails, phone calls, face to face meetings, there is so much room for things to be misconstrued. Positive and direct communication is absolutely crucial, and it’s crucial in every job. As you get higher up within a company then leadership skills are as important. We have a policy here at The Whitecaps that anyone who is hired must meet with me as a final interview. That’s for a couple of reasons: I want to know anyone coming into our organization, but at the heart of it is about fit and having people with the right attitude and motivation. Skills can be developed but fit is much, much harder to find.


VW: Have you ever had to go above and beyond to prove yourself in a male dominated industry?

RL: I have been very fortunate to have a lot of male role models who have championed for me. The ownership team here, a lot are from tech and they don’t see race, gender, age, it’s all about your ability to do your job. But that’s not to say I haven’t had moments.

Once I went to a meeting a senior executive, alongside my boss at the time. The executive turned to my boss and said “Well, aren’t you going to introduce me to your assistant?” My boss said “This is Rachel Lewis; she is the Chief Operating Officer of Vancouver Whitecaps”. The look on this individuals face is something I will never forget and I don’t think he quite knew what to do. You can take it personally or you can charge on. That is just one example, but I have always chosen to charge on. I feel quite fortunate, but I know there are people who have paved the way before me. There is an obligation to speak up on this type of stuff and demonstrate there are opportunities like this for women.


VW: You have mentioned previously that you don’t acknowledge there is a glass ceiling for women. Why is that?

RL: I’m not sure that there isn’t a glass ceiling; it’s just that I haven’t experienced it. My attitude has been “Just do it”. Let’s get on with what we need to do. There are barriers in every part of life for every type of person for lots of different reasons and we can chose to say there’s a barrier or we can just figure out how to keep going.


VW: Would you consider yourself a feminist?

RL: I guess it depends on how you define it. If it’s that men and women should be treated equally with equal rights and opportunities, then yes. There is good and bad in everything and sometimes the word feminism can be taking as a negative thing. I believe in equal rights, fighting for equal rights and I believe woman can do anything that men can do.


VW: What has been your biggest failure in career?

RL: There have been lots of failures. We tried 8 different sites for the training centre before we found one that worked. The waterfront stadium didn’t get the approval. There is one example from the PGA Tour where I made a mistake and it was a very big learning moment and taught me how to handle failure and recover from it. One of the years at the PGA, I was tournament manager and looked after advertising. We had this one ad that was going to run on the Saturday morning which showed one player celebrating and one player hanging his head because the missed the cut. It was approved all round and then sent off for printing. It got to Friday night and we realized that the player celebrating in real life had missed the cut and the player hanging his head had made it. It was after business hours, I was in tears, everyone was yelling, it was really bad. All of a sudden someone said “What can we do to make this right?” the dynamic and temperament of the room changed. We managed to reach someone in the press room as the ad was literally being printed and changed it.

This was a great learning as this was my mistake, regardless that everyone else signed off on it. I was accountable and responsible but people stepped up to help resolve the situation. It’s easy to press forward in good times, but much harder when things go wrong. If you don’t ever fail then you don’t learn. Don’t be scared of failure. Fail harder and faster and then move on.


VW: You have received many accolades and are a big part of why the Whitecaps moved into the Major Leagues. What would you say is your proudest achievement, either personally or professionally?

RL: Personally, it would be my children, being a mom. I learn more from them every day than I could have ever imagined. They teach me how to be a better person. It’s a great experience, a life changing experience.

On the career side it would be winning the bid to join Major League Soccer and that first ever game, taking the field and realizing it was the beginning.


VW: You’ve mentioned previously that the best piece of advice you’ve ever received is to follow your passion. What would you say to someone who doesn’t feel like they’re in a position to do just that at this moment or someone who is filled with fear?

RL: I think everybody is in a position to follow their passion in some way, whether it’s their career or a hobby. For me my passions are so intertwined with my happiness. Life is too short. Fear? Everybody has fear; you just have to do it. You have to be willing to step off the diving board. At some point you have to put yourself forward, so much of life is about fighting for what you want.


VW: Do you remember how we met? (Rachel did a talk at an event and afterwards I send her some handmade chocolates because I wanted to meet her).

You sent me chocolates that you hand made. I remember thinking this is a really nice gesture or someone is really crazy, and I ate them and thought “Well, I’m still standing”.

VW: Why did you choose to call me back?

RL: I call everyone back, I respond to everybody, whether directly or someone on my team. I believe it’s a part of our responsibility to help people, build community and build opportunities. I didn’t get to where I was without a few helping hands, I have respect for people who take the initiative to reach out. I may not spend hours with you but I think you deserve the respect of a response. That’s the culture of our whole organization; you will get a response from us.


VW: What would you say to a business owner or leader who says they don’t have time to respond to people, it’s not going to make them money?

RL: Make the time; you never know where that person is going to show up again and who they are. What goes around comes around and if you treat people with respect, hopefully they will treat you the same way. We are in the service industry and anyone could be a potential customer and we need to remember that at all times. I may not accept all my LinkedIn invites though, if I don’t know someone I don’t add them on LinkedIn.


VW: What advice would you give to a woman starting out in her professional career?

RL: Be confident. Be confident in who you are and what you do and follow your passion.


VW: What if she is not confident?

RL: Try to understand why. Try and find a safe way to take a first step and move past your fear. Fear is incredibly debilitating. I was a shy little girl believe it or not and I still get very nervous when I have to do a public speaking engagement or meet a new group of people where I don’t know anybody, but you do it, you just do it. Very quickly you move past that fear. You either let it grip you and overcome you or you can decide to move forward. Believe in yourself.



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Image credit: Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps

Image credit: Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps