62. Janine Canham: Bringing humanity back to the workplace

Sue Stockdale talks to Janine Canham, Chief Operating Officer of Sanford C. Bernstein in Asia about how she leads her team by showing empathy and building a sense of team spirit. Janine also talks about her love of running, particularly ultra-distance races and draws the parallels between both environments.

Janine Canham was born of a British mother and Lebanese father and was raised in Beirut until the Civil War. She has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years. She started her career as a lawyer with an international law firm. Janine sat on the Listing Committee of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and led the establishment of Bernstein in Hong Kong, Singapore, and India.  Janine has twin boys and is an avid runner, having taken part in numerous multi-stage ultra-races across the world. She has also dabbled in triathlon, completed an Ironman, and is a keen supporter of RUN, a charity in Hong Kong which helps support vulnerable refugees through the power of sport.

Find out more about Janine Canham via her LinkedIn profile.

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Janine Canham Quotes

‘My dad’s Lebanese and we lived in Beirut till I was 12 and left because of civil war. Now I look at refugees and think, there but for the grace of God, we were obviously very lucky.’

‘I think COVID especially has made people appreciate families more, and appreciate your colleagues’ families more as well’.

‘’We’re all in this together. There was one day in the office when I actually burst into tears in front of everyone on the trading floor, because my kids had just gone back to boarding school the day before. And for a split second, I was really embarrassed that I cried in front of everyone. And then I thought, you know, we are all struggling with something.’

‘I think you don’t need to hide your vulnerabilities.’

‘We’re trying to be really understanding and help people and I hope people appreciate that.’

‘I guess when it gets really, really tough and you’re struggling, that’s when the mental game kicks in. And when you have to play mind games with yourself to stop yourself from quitting.’

‘I think with the job and the running event, you have to have the finish line in mind. I think I’m not quite sure yet how I’m going to get there, but I know somehow I’m going to find a way to get there.’

‘I think the main thing with people working remotely is just to make sure we all stay connected with each other.’

Janine Canham Transcription

Sue: Welcome to the podcast, Janine. It’s great to speak to you.

Janine: Thanks Sue, thanks for having me.

Sue: Now I know we’re going to be speaking about work-life balance, and managing the pressures and the stresses that we all face today. So I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about in our conversation and perhaps I should let the listener know that you’re kind of managing that firsthand right now, because you’re in day six of quarantine. Is that right?

Janine: that’s right. Day six of 21 days of hotel quarantine, which is the rule in Hong Kong. So in isolation, in a hotel for 21 days, which is quite tough.

Sue: And have you got a plan as to how you’re trying to approach these days? Cause that can be quite a long time I imagine.

Janine: I do. So I’ve saved up all sorts of jobs to do while I’m in quarantine, because I think the main strategy is to keep yourself as busy as possible. So the days fly by, I’ve got a training program, which involves two to three sets of exercise a day. So I’m got a spin bike. I have a treadmill, I’ve got weights and resistance bands, and I’m tripping over all my gym equipment in the room.

And I’m also making sure that I have several zooms in the evening with friends and families so that I don’t feel completely isolated and lonely. So that’s, what’s keeping me going. And finally, I wouldn’t say it’s a strategy that’s necessarily working, but I’m trying to relax and just accept my fate because it is what it is. Harder some days than others, but I’m trying to just think there’s nothing I can do about it. So just give into it and relax. But at the moment, because they test you every three days, every time the phone rings. I literally leap of my skin. So yeah. So it’s easier said than done.

Sue: Well, I think it’s employing a good degree of patience as well by the sounds of it, in terms of just accepting that there’s not a lot you can do to change it, but how do you survive it as best you can.

Janine: That’s fine. Yeah.

Sue: now when you’re not in a hotel room in the quarantine, I know that your Asia Pacific COO of Sanford C Bernstein, that a financial services firm, isn’t it?

Janine: that’s right. It’s a broker dealer investment research firm, which is part of Alliance Bernstein, which is an asset manager.

Sue: now that’s one part of your life. You’re also an ultra distance runner and you have twin boys so it sounds like you’re a pretty busy woman.

Janine: that’s right. So my twins are now 17. So they’ve actually been at boarding school for the last three and a half years in the UK at their request. They absolutely love being in the UK, but during COVID times, this has been quite challenging, obviously, to spend time together as a family. So that’s whilst it’s great for them because they getting on with their lives and education and so on, it’s been pretty tough. And adds an extra challenge with the COVID restrictions here in Hong Kong,

Sue: And I know that it was through one of our previous guests on the podcast Virginie from RUN Hong Kong, who was an episode 17, that she recommended you as a guest. How do you know her?

Janine: so I know Virginie through two facets of life. One she’s an ultra runner and a much more accomplished ultra runner than I am. She’s actually I think next week or the week after, about to embark on her 3rd Four Trails Ultra. Which I think she must’ve talked about in the episode you refer to, she’s doing this for the third time now. So I’ve met her through ultra running. I also know her because she runs a charity for refugees in Hong Kong, which is very close to my heart. She helps refugees through the power of sports to integrate into society by taking them out, hiking with people running and so on. Given my background, which is my dad’s Lebanese and we lived in Beirut till I was 12. And we left because of civil war. Now I do look at refugees and think, you know, there, but for the grace of God, we were obviously very lucky. My dad had a great job and we were able to relocate, but obviously a lot of people less fortunate. So I have a particular soft spot for the refugees here. And that’s also how i know Virginie.

Sue: So it’s great that you can have that strong connection with her through the different aspects of your life and your interests. If I was thinking about your job as a COO, first of all, Janine and how do you manage to juggle that demanding job I imagine with all the other parts of your life that you want to be paying attention to as well, explain to the listener, I, guess, the pressures of any given day, what does a day look like for you and your job?

Janine: Well, I get to the office at 7:00 AM now, obviously with COVID and some days working from home, I’m talking what was normal before now, but I have a carpool with some people who work with me and we live nearby. We get to the office at 7:00 AM. And the beauty of it is, I juggle by trying to leave the office whenever possible around 4:00 PM, get back home so that I can have, a couple of hours doing my own training during the daylight and being in my position, obviously with a global firm. There are a lot of zooms at night, so resume work in the evenings. So that’s the way I juggle it is by giving myself some flexibility during the day. And we can, as I tend to get up very early 430am or 5am to do running or cycling because it’s pretty hot and humid in Hong Kong usually. And so the best time of day to exercise is early. So managed to juggle things just by getting up extremely early, most. Trying to fit it all in it doesn’t always work, but that’s when I try and do.

Sue: And you talking there about global demands on you from other parts of the world. How do you still prioritize your sport? Or family life for that matter when the job is so demanding,

Janine: so with kids, at boarding school, it’s easy when they’re at school, obviously when they home, then I do have to prioritize them over things at times. So it’s really just a question of I think, making sure people understand when you have conflicts people in my office, extremely understanding. Now, if I have a really important family matter and I have a competing meeting, I think it’s just about having a conversation with people and the same with my team.

Now, I think COVID especially has made people appreciate families more and appreciate your colleagues’ families more as well. Everyone knows that we’re all in this together. We were struggling. So there was one day in the office when I actually burst into tears in front of everyone on the trading floor, because my kids had just gone back to boarding school the day before.

And for split second, I was actually really embarrassed that I cried in front of everyone. And then I saw it, you know, what? They all struggling with something. So instead of running into to the bathroom normally I would have done to try and hide it. I just said, guys, you know, we’re all going through something; you’re going through something; you’re going through something else.

And we actually ended up having a conversation about it. And I think it’s being human and showing people that you are human too. And I think you don’t need to hide your vulnerabilities. And I think that does help with juggling because previously to COVID you try and, not show. Your weak vulnerable sidein front of people and work and you’d accept late night zooms and so on. And there’ve been many times when I’ve done things like miss kids’ sports days, because I had to travel for business trips or this, that, and the other, I think now people don’t feel so embarrassed about putting their families first.

Sue: So, if I was to ask one of your colleagues, even one of those colleagues on your trading floor to describe you as a leader, what do you think they might say?

Janine: Oh my gosh. I hope they would say above all I’m empathetic because I do like to put myself in a lot of people’s shoes and we are a very friendly open firm. I think that’s the one thing probably that makes me never want to leave where I am is the people, where we’re all pretty open with each other. And I think that’s really important. I think they would probably say Im very approachable.

Sue: I get that sense from how you describe yourself as a leader of thinking about the people in your firm and connecting and having empathy for others?

Janine: Yeah, I hope that’s how people see us. I like to think we’re all in things together. We wouldn’t be able to achieve nearly so much on our own, obviously. And I just think if, if we all help each other, we’ll achieve so much more and, , Such a much better time doing it as well. You know, I’ve been in this company for 11 years previously I was a partner in a law firm and I have to say there was a lot of dog eat dog in that law firm. There was a lot of competitiveness and backstabbing. May not be like this now but back then, and I used to go to work with sort of a knot in my stomach. And thinking why can’t people just see that we’re all on the same team together, why do people have to be constantly backstabbing each other for credit for things. And, yeah, that’s a big difference. I think, from where I was before to where I am now, is that the teams spirit.

Sue: Well, it’s, it’s great to hear that there’s that human aspect that’s really coming across from what I’m hearing you talk about janine. Is valuing people in this whole experience no more, so important than know that we’re working virtually.

Janine: Yeah, I mean, look I’ve just been away to see my kids who are boarding school. I report to the global COO who had absolutely no issues with being away as long as I need to. We’ve got a lot of people who are currently traveling or stuck outside cause they went back to see their families in different places for Christmas. We’ve got a lot of mainland Chinese staff who we told go home for Christmas and stay till after Chinese new year. We’ve given people eight weeks to come back. More if they need it. But I think if you don’t do that and you just going to lose people and you’re going to have very unhappy, miserable people because, you know, Hong Kong in particular is making it quite tough for people to travel with our 21 day quarantine rules. And so we’re trying to be really understanding and help people and I hope people appreciate that. That’s more important than a lot of other stuff at the moment is just making sure that people’s wellbeing is prioritized.

Sue: I’m thinking, as you’re saying that Janine, that many a boss perhaps listen to this might also think, well, Yeah. that’s fine. But we still have to make the numbers. We still have to get the results.

Janine: Yeah. You know even with working from home a lot last year, we found a lot of our staff have been more productive. So for example, we have a bunch of research analysts and associates who research companies now normally in a normal year pre COVID, they’d be traveling a lot to see clients. They probably be traveling. Let’s say they do a US trip. They might be traveling within the US every single day and having eight meetings a day. Well, now they don’t do that. They zoom clients. They’ve got a lot more time to actually write the research. And so we actually finding in an ironic way having this work from home in some ways has benefited a great deal. So it just cuts out a lot of that unnecessary travel time that people thought was much more important before and less so now.

Sue: Well, I guess I want to turn my attention to your love of sport and ultra running. If I may, Janine, I also know that your partner is an ultra runner is that right?

Janine: That’s right? Yes. We met through running about maybe seven years ago.

Sue: Does that make it easier then to participate because it’s kind of a family affair.

Janine: Yes and no. He he’s a much better runner than I am, so we don’t tend to run together because he’s on a, on another level. But I guess he understands my love of running. I guess we’re probably a bit boring as far as other people are concerned with where we talk about running a lot more than other families do, perhaps.

Sue: Now, what are some of the ultra runs that you’ve done that really stick in your mind for the listener that doesn’t even know what an ultra run is? Just give us a sense of what it involves and how, how far.

Janine: well, so let me tell you how I got into this. It was only, I was quite a late start, actually. It was after I had my twins and I was trying to initially lose weight and I had a personal trainer to help me and he started me running. And at first I was just running, you know, a few kilometres here and there and eventually I said to him, do you think I could possibly run 10 kilometers? And he was like, don’t be ridiculous. Of course you can. So I ran 10K then eventually I was like, can I run a half marathon? Can I run a marathon? And ultra running is obviously anything that’s longer than a marathon, which is 42.2 K. It was kind of continuously pushing myself to see what I could do next that got me then into, okay. I’m suddenly got fixated on the idea of doing a multi-stage ultra, which was my first, really big event, which was the racing the planet Gobi desert race. And that’s 250 kilometers over the space of a week.

So that’s six marathons in seven days. And. you know, I’m just an ordinary person who didn’t even take up running till after she’d had kids. And obviously, as you say, got a full-time job. So can’t dedicate as much time as some other people can to training. And it just shows really that anyone can do these things. if you are Interested enough. So I even recall turning up at the start line and all these people stood there and I thought, oh my gosh, what have I done? I’ve been bitten off way more than I can chew. They all look professional. They will know what they doing. And the reality is there’s a big bunch of people just like me, who, weekend warriers, we just do it for fun. We love the atmosphere. We love the excitement, the adventure, the people that you meet on these, and then seeing all the spectacular scenery that you wouldn’t otherwise see when you just go normal holiday or even just on a normal run, you know, once, once it becomes quite a long distance by definition, you’re probably going to be running places you can’t get to my car. And that’s the bit that I love so much is just looking around and seeing. all these know, amazing places you otherwise wouldn’t see. So then I got hooked and of course, once you’re hooked, it’s, there’s no way there’s no way back because you’re constantly planning the next one.

Sue: And fitness and health and being injury free. And that’s as a previous athlete myself, I know that it’s always really important to be injury free. How do you look after your body to make sure you’re in shape to these long runs?

Janine: so obviously it’s tougher as you get older. And what I do now is I do a lot of strength conditioning. I go, well, gyms are closed now because of COVID. But I’ve been going to train with a physio-therapist gymnasium called joint dynamics here in Hong Kong. And I train with them twice a week and we do strength conditioning work then definitely need that as you get older.

Sue: There’s also something about the mental game in running. And what are you thinking about in such a long distance? You’ve told us about the scenery that you’re looking at. Well, what’s going on on your mind because certainly if your mind doesn’t believe you can do it, your body won’t keep up.

Janine: Hmm. So it really depends sometimes, , I am really just not thinking about anything or just chatting to people. I guess when it gets really, really tough and you’re struggling, that’s when the mental game kicks in. And when you have to play mind games with yourself to stop yourself from quitting. And I guess then it just, it’s done to your purpose or, thinking. Usually for me, I dig into places I’ve been where I felt worse than I do that day and think, okay. I got through it that other time I’ll can get through it this time. And it’s also at the end of the day for most of those multi stages that I’ve done I’ve always made a point of raising money for one or other charity that’s that I feel quite strongly about. The last few races obviously has been for RUN Hong Kong and which Virginie’s charity. And then it’s really hard to give up because, you know, it’s kind of more than just about you. And I think that that is a very big incentive as well.

Sue: I can’t imagine running those really long distances that you’re describing. Janine, how fast are you actually moving? What’s it like?

Janine: Again. It depends on the event because I’ve done about a dozen of these multi-stage races, really, it does depend on the terrain. I mean, some of them have been in sandy deserts, like the Sahara, some of them are in mountains. Some of them are in jungles, like in Costa Rica. And one multi-stage was in Antarctica. So in those obviously depends on the day how much elevation there is, how technical the terrain is. You may not be going very fast. And it’s also a question of pacing yourself. So if you start off too fast on day one, you realize you just not going to make it to day seven. So you do have to hold back in the first few days. And obviously I’m not one of these people, those professional athletes, who’s the front of the pack and part the reason I do these races as well as to get to see the scenery and so on. So sometimes it’s kind of missing the point. If you are pushing yourself too hard because you, you don’t get to appreciate everything and everyone around you either. Yeah. So there wasn’t really an easy answer to that question.

Sue: I think what you’re describing to me as you’re seeing it as a complete race, and then each day is divided up into a small proportion of the larger race. So you have to be balancing your efforts over the whole duration, rather than just thinking about running as fast as you can on any given day.

Janine: Yeah, that’s fine. And actually, this is where it’s there’s an interesting difference between men and women, because it’s, it’s a bit of a generalization, but on the whole, my observation has been that women are much better at pacing themselves. than men, the men tend to go out really hard from day one. And then you find some of them are quite broken by day three or four, and really slowing down. And it is the tortoise and the hare in some cases….

Sue: So it must give you a bit more motivation at the end of the race, when you might be overtaking. Some of those men that have burnt themselves out in the first few days.

Janine: Yeah. Some of them, some of them don’t like ‘being chicked’.

Sue: well, I guess we all have to find our motivation in different ways in terms of running in a race. I remember when I was, when I used to race, I never wanted to do overtaken by somebody wearing flowery shorts, in my mind, that was an indication that they weren’t a proper runner.

Janine: well, I remember the first time I did London marathon I actually had bronchitis and I ended up having to walk the second half i was so sick and I was being overtaken by people dressed as beer bottles and caterpillars and big Ben and all sorts of things. And it was incredibly frustrating because I could only walk towards to the finish and sometimes you’ve just got to let it go as well.

Sue: so I’m wondering is there a crossover or a connection between the mindset and the skills and the capabilities that you bring to running and how you lead in your job?

Janine: so I think one, one thing I’ve noticed is through work, in my projects one thing I really. notice my self doing is thinking that there has to be a solution. I don’t like to accept work and find that that isn’t a way round. It takes me a long time to get to the point where I think, okay. There really isn’t a solution. We really can’t do this thing than it is we might want to do. And I think maybe same, same thing with when you’re running an ultra marathon, it’s, it’s thinking, okay. You have to look at the whole and thinking somehow I’m going to get to the end. I don’t know how, but I know I’m going to, and I think with the job and , the event, you have to have the finish line in mind and think I’m not quite sure yet how I’m going to get there, but I know somehow I’m going to find a way to get there.

Sue: So innate belief that it will, it will work out in there.

Janine: Yeah. And just like making sure you pull everything out of the bag to make it happen.

Sue: It’s been really fascinating to speak to you today, Janine, just thinking about the changed world that we’ve all been experiencing over the last couple of years. Is it different leading a team now when you know that many of them are working virtually and what then does that bring to your leadership?

Janine: so I think the main thing with people working remotely is just to make sure we all stay connected with each other. So We’re not completely working remotely in Hong Kong, we have a core team that’s been coming into the office. Most of the time, even when we’ve been working from home, mostly we’ve had sort of small, critical team on the trading desk coming in. I think the main thing is to make people feel that we’re still all a firm. There’s some people who may join and not see anyone. in the company for months on end, we’ve tried to make sure that doesn’t happen. I think the worst thing is to feel isolated. And I also don’t like zooms where people don’t turn on the video camera, to be honest. I think it’s really important to see each other. And you know, I noticed this, especially with myself being in quarantine, a couple of days ago, my, I had a meeting with my team and they call it from a meeting room that didn’t have zoom. I just said a guys can next time. Can I see you all cause they’re all sitting together and I’m sitting on my own and I think you just notice how much you need to see people. It really is important. And one of the things we’ve been doing a lot at work is those obviously this has been happening globally, but also just in Hong Kong. There’s a small group of us making sure that we’re really offering as many resources to people as possible so that they still feel part of a team. So one of the things we did when COVID first broke in Hong Kong, and a lot of people were working from home is we did a run challenge with proceeds, going to RUN Hong Kong. And we got people to put themselves in teams and run on their own, but their mileage would accumulate with everyone else in their team. And then they’d sort of, all try and run a marathon between them each week as a team. So maybe you would run 5k, your teammate would run 10, et cetera. And we did that for seven weeks.

So what happened was people would then be constantly on messaging each other. I’m really busy today. I’m not feeling well today. Can somebody run my two K for me? And in return, I’ll buy you a beer. Next time we can see each other or this kind of thing. And it just created this whole camaraderie. And I think that’s what we’ve been trying to maintain is find a way to make sure everyone is still feels like a team. Even, even if we can’t actually physically be together.

Sue: That’s a brilliant way to get connection together and enable people to be fit as well. And to do a little bit of exercise every day.

Janine: We have people joining in from our Mumbai office, for example. And they were telling me it’s not that easy to go running in a big city in India, you know, in the heat and pollution, but they were telling me that they were using this as an excuse to leave their desk and just walk outside the building when they had conference calls just to count, the mileage in terms of meters walking outside that compound and this sort of thing. And it was just really getting people to move and, and chat. So it really worked well.

Sue: That sounds brilliant. Finally Janine it, it, once you get out of your quarantine on day 21, what’s the first thing that you’re looking forward to doing?

Janine: You know, I’m looking forward to seeing my dogs. I have missed my dogs. I’m just looking forward to cuddling my dogs. I know it sounds a bit lame, but that, that’s the one thing I’m looking forward to the most. And my partner, Mo’s probably going to kill me that he’s not top of the list. And then after that, yeah, just fresh air. Just even just take the dogs for hike. Just things we take for granted, which is, you know, being outdoors

Sue: Well, it’s, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today. Janine getting a sense of the humanity that you bring as a leader, you care for people that you’re describing and your enjoyment and love of being in the outdoors and moving if people want to connect with you on the internet, how can they do that?

Janine: people can find me on LinkedIn. And I’d love to meet some new like-minded people. So yes, please do get in touch.

Sue: Well, I’ll put the link on the show notes so people can find it easily there to connect with you. If they’re wish Janine it’s again, a great pleasure to speak to you today and thank you so much for your time.

Janine: no, thank you. Sue

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)