Overhauling defence lobby group just the start for Ottawa's Christyn Cianfarani

Christyn Cianfarani’s businesslike approach to running Canada’s biggest defence sector lobby group has made her a formidable force in a male-dominated industry
Christyn
Christyn Cianfarani is CADSI's chief executive. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Christyn Cianfarani has always felt like one of the guys. She played on the same childhood sports teams as boys, trained at the Royal Military College with men and has consistently worked in male-dominated industries.

But don’t let the self-proclaimed tomboy with tattoos fool you; she’s also a nationally recognized role model for women. Cianfarani has broken new ground and helped to change the face of Canada’s defence sector since becoming the first female president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI).

Last year, Cianfarani was among the WXN Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 award winners. In 2019, she’s a finalist for an Ottawa Businesswoman of the Year Award.

She joined CADSI in 2014 with 17 years experience in the private sector and a desire not only to do something bigger than herself – to help build a better Canada – but also to run the place more like a business than a not-for-profit membership organization.

“When I started, it was very siloed with top-down decision-making,” says the defence lobbyist during an interview at CADSI’s downtown office near Parliament Hill. “It was very mirrored on the military, but we took the structure and inverted it.”

Cianfarani created a work environment that has made people want to stick around. She introduced short-term and long-term disability benefits and maternity leave top-up. Previously, there’d been no supplements to benefits.

Her staff has grown significantly as a result, with 20 employees now working for CADSI – half of whom are women.

“That’s not deliberate. They’re staying here because we’ve done things to retain them and prove to them that they’re valuable assets in the workplace,” she says of the greater female presence.

“We’re doing things like teaching all our employees corporate finance and entrepreneurship, so that they have the skills to succeed anywhere.”

The 16-member board of directors at CADSI now also includes three women. It used to be all men, but that was before the association made a decision to open up its nomination process.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s pick a bunch of women to say we’ve got them on our board,’” says Cianfarani. “It was, ‘Let’s make it a competition and see who rises to the top,’ and women have risen to the top.”

CADSI is the national industry voice of more than 900 Canadian defence and security companies. The industry as a whole employs more than 60,000 Canadians and generates $10 billion in annual revenues, of which roughly 60 per cent come from exports. The association’s job is to represent its members to the government and to make sure the industry is showcased.

CADSI also organizes one of the nation’s largest trade shows, CANSEC, in Ottawa each spring.

Part of expert panel

“It just feels like it’s humming all the time,” says Cianfarani, 47, of her job. “There might be a lot to do, but there’s nothing better, to me, than running a small business with a bunch of incredible people and being at the top of our game, which I think is where we’re at.”

Cianfarani was born and raised in the southwestern Ontario town of Leamington. Her mother stayed home to raise her and her sister while her father worked for the school board as a technologist. He immigrated at 15 to Canada with his family from Frosinone, Italy.

Cianfarani studied at RMC in Kingston because it provided her with a funded education she couldn’t otherwise have afforded, and it guaranteed her a job. She majored in literature and graduated in 1995, at a time when the government had slashed its military budget. For this reason, it wasn’t so surprising she left the military following her six years of service to work for Montreal-based aerospace firm CAE.

In 2013, Cianfarani was the only woman to be named to a government-commissioned expert panel led by high-tech executive Tom Jenkins that looked at military purchasing strategy. It led to Cianfarani being recognized as an industry leader through glowing reviews given later by Jenkins and then-public works minister Rona Ambrose to her employer, CAE.

“I’ve been very lucky that people have done that for me, and it’s gotten me part of the way to where I am today,” she acknowledges.

Cianfarani’s challenge these days is deciding what lies ahead professionally. She says she continues to get tremendous satisfaction from her job and enjoys her co-workers.

“What is my next path?” she questions. “At 47, what am I going to do next? There’s a lot of runway there.”

Five things to know about Christyn Cianfarani

1. Her favourite hobby is completing jigsaw puzzles of no less than 5,000 pieces. It relaxes her, keeps her mind off work and appeals to her introverted nature.

2. In her 30s, it was all about the tattoos. “I kind of ran out of body parts,” she jokes. Her body art is hidden by her business attire but one of the designs, located on her back, is a literary tattoo from Douglas Coupland’s epistolary novel Microserfs.

3. Cianfarani is a self-described foodie. “I swear to God, if it’s not nailed down, I’ll eat it. I love to eat,” she says. She makes a point of always trying different restaurants while out of town for work. She also stays active, getting up at 5 a.m. to exercise for an hour each day.

4. Cianfarani is fond of potted orchids, mostly because they’re so low-maintenance. “Orchids are like cats; they like to be ignored,” she jokes of how her flowers respond to her benign neglect with a good watering.

5. When it comes to dishing out advice, Cianfarani says it pays to be “crazy curious” and to “never stop learning” from others. “Don’t burn bridges,” she continues. “You never know who you’re going to meet and you never know what impression they’ll have of you and how that’s going to come back later.”