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Genelle Davidson: Leading the way to change in municipal finance

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
November, 2022

Municipal World is continuing its 2022 awards celebrating women of influence in local government. The next to be recognized is Genelle Davidson, Divisional Director of Financial Services with the City of Kelowna, BC.

Genelle Davidson is proud of what she has achieved in her 30-year municipal career. She also describes herself as being “very passionate about local government” in general.

This makes sense given her role as the Divisional Director of Financial Services for the City of Kelowna. But it is also a small insight into why she was selected as one of the 2022 Women of Influence in Local Government Award recipients.

Davidson often thinks of others first. As such, she immediately thinks of those who came before her when contemplating her own role in the municipal sector.

“I’ve thought myself as a reluctant leader before. I think of other women before me. That’s probably what I would think about first rather than myself,” Davidson said. “I feel honoured to be considered somebody like that. And maybe validated as well for the work that I’ve done and the efforts that I’ve put through over the years.”

Focus on Municipal Finance

Accolades in the local government sphere are often heaped upon politicians or CAOs. It is rare, Davidson said, for someone at the staff level – and in the financial sector, especially – to be singled out. Mind you, she also is quick to point out how when things go wrong in a municipality, “fingers tend to get pointed at finance for sure.”

Those working in municipal finance face a great deal of pressure. This is perhaps exacerbated by having a woman in the role. This reality is something Davidson was quick to reflect upon. Over the course of a three-decade career, times have changed. Things have not been easy. But, Davidson adds, they aren’t easy for any leader.

Someone can lead from wherever they are in the organization. That perspective is one Davidson has always been an advocate for with her own teams. But as a woman coming up in finance, she needed to be certain of her core values.

“Being sure of what your core values are, and living those out and being true to them, no matter the hardships that you’re facing, allow you to retain the passion,” Davidson said. “Everybody’s going to get knocked down. I have grown daughters and I say to them, ‘You have to get right back up again, get right back up and carry on.’ If you’re being true to your passion, and your values, then you just carry on.”

Positive Change Abounds

That said, over the course of her finance career, Davidson has seen many obstacles placed in her way. But, even so, she has noticed positive change.

When Davidson reflects upon the first conferences she went to in her career, the majority of attendees were men. Back in the 1990s, there would be a big exodus of people to go golfing mid-afternoon, she recalls. Her thought at the time was: “Where are they all going? And I’m not invited?”

But the doors have opened for women over the last 30 years, Davidson said. There are more women mayors on councils, but also more women serving as CAOs, finance directors, engineers, directors of planning, to name but a few. In fact, there are more women coming into the profession all the time.

“Is it easier? No. I don’t so. Over time you become wiser. You learn how to circumnavigate in the work world that you’re in,” Davidson said. “You learn to be adaptable and flexible in how you’re communicating to different people. And you also have to grow a thick skin. Not taking things personally.”

Dedication to the Work

Taking that perspective in mind, Davidson is accustomed to being approached for advice. This can be those looking at entering the local government sector in general, or the finance sector in particular. So, what does she tell them?

The starting point, she said, is to try and be encouraging. She tells them it takes “perseverance and diligence.” And while it might sound cliché, she also puts it as keeping on carrying on. Feel passionate and correct about what you’re doing, she added. And also, know you’re contributing to – and making a difference in – your community.

Davidson said she stays focused on the local government sphere because she loves to see new people come into the municipal sector. Her big message to the women she speaks with is to “keep on doing what you do.”

Mentorship Leads to Success

Another big piece of advice Davidson offers is to look for a mentor. It’s important, she adds, to look for a coach that can help you and be a confidant and supporter as well. After all, everyone needs people cheering them on.

And Davidson very much lives that approach. It’s something she has a strong interest in applying to her own managers in Kelowna. If they’ll let her of course.

“You need to check the boundaries on how much they’re willing to open up with you,” Davidson said. “But I definitely like to be a cheerleader for my team. And be a supporter of them as they grow throughout their career. Whether it’s at our organization or another one. I don’t have a problem if they need to go and work somewhere else. I feel proud that I’ve helped them to get to that level.”

While she feels strongly about this perspective, Davidson acknowledges it is something into which she has grown. It has come to her as she has gained confidence in her own career.

Davidson lauds her own mentors, people who have supported her over the years. As such, she knows first-hand the value of a good mentor. And while it might sound trite to some, she likes to give back to others the same way she was lifted up.

What she says to her own staff is that once someone reaches a certain level, she’s only the talking head at the top. It is the staff that are doing all the work. So, with that in mind, she enjoys giving back to them and helping them in any way she can.

Passion for Local Government

It isn’t just people Davidson enjoys supporting, but also the system itself. An unabashed fan of local government, Davidson said she loves being able to “walk out the door … and see the work that I do.”

And that work is everywhere. There is so much diversity in the finance field, Davidson said, that the work is never boring. There’s always something to learn and to contribute.

That all makes for a rewarding and interesting career. And then of course, there are always the members of council keeping things fresh as well.

“It’s not like you have the same board of directors, for example, for years and years. We have an election … and you can have new bosses that are taking you in a different strategic direction and you have to adapt to this new direction,” Davidson said. “It’s interesting. And there’s always something new. And you can see the evidence of your work in daily life, which I like. That all makes this a great career.”  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Municipal World honours women of influence.

Sean Meyer is Senior Content Editor for Municipal World.

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