Profile: Kirstine Stewart, Head of Twitter Canada

Kirstine Stewart discusses power and manners in her first feature-length interview as Twitter Canada’s first managing director

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Stewart at home in downtown Toronto, wearing a Victoria Beckham dress and Céline heels

I’ve never really understood the value of Twitter. Yes, the micro-blogging service facilitated the uprising in Egypt, but it also enables Snooki to tweet strings of nonsense supposedly typed by her toddler. Most people don’t use Twitter to fight political oppression, but to post selfies and promote their albums. It’s unclear to me how this is an advance for civilization, so I jumped at the chance to interview Kirstine Stewart, who could presumably explain everything—starting with what exactly she was doing at Twitter Canada.

Last April, one month shy of a three-year stint as the CBC’s czar of English programming, she abruptly quit to launch the Canadian branch of the San Francisco–based company—and media types ran for the tea leaves. “Why does anyone leave a job as the most powerful and influential media executive in the country to sell ads for Twitter Canada?” one observer wondered in The Globe and Mail, musing that Stewart must have jumped ship after learning something dire about the CBC’s future.

Others viewed her exit as evidence that new media had triumphed over old. High-level sources within the CBC floated yet another theory: Stewart was just fed up with the office politics. CBC president and CEO Hubert Lacroix is, several explained, emphatically off the record, “very, very difficult to work for.”

Whatever the case, if Stewart is betting on Twitter, I’m willing to admit there’s probably something to it. Savvy and powerful, she was not only the first woman but also the youngest person ever to land the top programming job at the CBC, at age 42. However, little is known about her, and the reason for that quickly became clear when I started reading her press, keeping an eye out for sparkling anecdotes and memorable lines—the stuff writers always try to recycle. There was just one such anecdote about Stewart, and it had already been reused: A fortune teller once predicted she’d be prime minister. As for colourful declarations and flamboyant gestures? Nothing.

This was not, however, necessarily an indicator that she has nothing to say, only that she feels no need to say it to a reporter. An interview is often a tug of war: The subject’s goal is to get out without revealing weakness, while yours is to secure an introduction to one or two of her demons. And sometimes you do, though the chances are best if the subject is drunk or a little unhinged by fame. Most of the time, though, the person you’re writing about has zero interest in soul baring to a stranger with a tape recorder. This is why so many writers are reduced to trying to wring psychological significance from minutiae: what the subject wore, say, or how he cut his steak. You’ve got to try to get major mileage out of these minor details, a process a friend of mine calls “pulling taffy.”

I had to read only two articles about Kirstine Stewart to figure out that there would likely be some taffy pulling in my future. Reporters use words like “remote,” “aloof” and “icy” to describe Stewart, who seems to possess a world-class poker face. She managed to keep her marriage to Zaib Shaikh, the glamorous star of the CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie, a secret for four months in 2011, at a time when she was the most powerful broadcasting executive in the land—and both of them were working in a building infested with reporters.

Even on social media, Stewart doesn’t show her cards. An early adopter—when news broke that she was going to Twitter, the joke at the CBC was, “I thought she already worked there!”—she now has almost 20,000 followers. But whereas Justin Bieber (46 million followers and counting) flirts and posts shirtless videos, Stewart links to articles she likes and retweets rah-rah items about Twitter. The most you can glean about her personal life is that she enjoys sports (especially football), has two daughters she never names (she’s divorced from their father, her first husband) and possesses old-school manners (“Thank you” in response to compliments, never, à la Katy Perry, “Yaaaaas gurrrl!”). All of which makes her an intriguing paradox: highly visible, yet self-contained to the point of inscrutability.

Stewart suggests we meet for breakfast at the Thompson Diner, an upscale greasy spoon in downtown Toronto. I’m expecting the snobby alpha girl from high school, all grown up. But her vibe, when she hustles in wearing black pants and a taffy-coloured (seriously) sweater, isn’t remotely chilly. She whips out her iPhone for an impromptu Twitter tutorial and punctuates the conversation with enthusiastic nods and rapid-fire encouragement: “Right right right!”

Twitter’s first hire in Canada, Stewart is part of an ambitious global expansion strategy, which is largely driven by the need to attract more ad revenue. In the new frontier of social media, she is, at 46, an éminence grise—but Twitter is betting on her old world experience.

People don’t watch TV the way they used to; it’s increasingly an on-demand experience. But rather than burying television, Twitter is trying to revive it, positioning itself as a “TV companion, an indispensable tool to keep up with, discuss and even influence the outcomes of shows and live events,” according to a recent Forbes cover story. The thinking goes like this: Users tweet opinions in real time while watching shows; networks use Twitter to share bonus content (such as behind-the-scenes interviews with stars); advertisers run Twitter ads in conjunction with their on-air commercials.

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Stewart is a natural choice to make that all happen in Canada. She’s spent the past seven months finding office space, hiring a team and trying to persuade major corporations that Twitter can be a wonderful marketing platform. It sounds stressful, but she looks positively relaxed.

Stewart likes hard work—always has, since the day she started, at age 19, as a girl Friday at Paragon Entertainment, a now-defunct Toronto-based distributor of TV programs. She’d thought she’d move on to a music company (she “grew up in a musical house”), but wound up staying 10 years and becoming president of distribution. Then came senior posts at Hallmark Channel in Denver and Alliance Atlantis in Toronto, overseeing TV programming with a focus on lifestyle and entertainment.

Today, her role at Twitter Canada is “chief evangelist.” The beauty of the site, she says, is that “anybody can contribute, anybody can engage.” But isn’t that ultimately a problem: the Snooki-ness of the enterprise? Stewart patiently shakes her head and smiles. “You tailor it to what you like, what your interests are. It’s like the best form of newspaper or magazine that’s interactive and that comes as frequently as you want it to.” And, she points out, it’s increasingly used to break news—this year’s Man Booker short list, for instance, was tweeted.

When Twitter first reached out to see if she’d be interested in a job, the open-ness is what attracted her. “You decide who to follow and how actively to interact!” Or to put it another way: You can’t blame her if you don’t like what you see. That must be a relief after years of trying to please taxpayers, and failing even when she succeeded. At the CBC, which Stewart joined in 2006, she championed reality shows such as Dragons’ Den and Battle of the Blades, which drove ratings to new heights—and incensed self-appointed guardians of high culture.

Stewart is an optimist by nature. As a farewell present, her Hallmark colleagues gave her a caricature of herself standing on a huge mound of manure with a shovel, brightly declaring, “There must be a pony in here some­ where!” But surely never­ending manage­ment challenges at the CBC—severe budget cuts, endless bureaucracy—were a nightmare? The corners of her mouth lift into a Mona Lisa smile. “It’s never easy taking a job where you’re under pressure from all sides, but there’s a huge reward in doing it right, moments when things are working despite all the challenges.”

There’s no question, however, that she’s happier exploring the sense of lim­itless opportunity that comes along with building a business from the ground up. (There’s also financial opportunity—someone at Stewart’s level must have a healthy stake in the company; Twitter pegged its value at $11 billion in its October IPO filing, which some news outlets deemed “modest.”)

“It was exactly the right move for her,” says Arlene Dickinson, of Dragons’ Den fame. Dickinson, who was Stewart’s maid of honour at her hush­hush wed­ding to Shaikh, paints her friend as thriving in a company that embraces change rather than striking a committee to weigh its pros and cons.

“Kirstine doesn’t need a lot of chit­ chat,” agrees Amanda Lang, co­host of the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, who’s never forgotten her job interview with Stewart in 2009. “We met at Starbucks, and exactly seven minutes later I was back on the street thinking, What just happened? She said, ‘Are you really ser­ious about coming to the CBC?’ I said I was, and she said, ‘OK, good, some­one else will get in touch.’”

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To have wound up where she has, Stewart must have superb political skills. Her love of sports, she allows, certainly helps when she finds herself in a room with a bunch of alpha males. But in conversation, she’s straight­ forward rather than cunning, firm but not aggressive. When she doesn’t like a question, she winces slightly and suddenly becomes very interested in her industrial­sized bowl of oatmeal, but answers anyway, off the record, as though she’s taken an oath to tell the whole truth. As Stewart’s guard drops a little, I begin to understand why jour­nalists peg her as standoffish. She looks like a casting agent’s idea of a female executive, complete with improbably delicate features and killer shoes, and she and Shaikh are fixtures at the kinds of events that attract beautiful people. But her exterior may blind observers to the real explanation for her reticence: She’s just a little shy.

When she started at the CBC, Stewart found her eldest daughter, then 10, scrolling through comments posted on an article about her appointment—and clicking “report abuse” every time she hit a snide remark about her mother’s age or looks. The fact that her girls, now in high school, feel the need to protect her says a lot about what kind of person she really is: someone who is more vul­nerable than she seems.

“She really would be happier out of the limelight,” says Dickinson. However, Stewart muses, “there’s a selfishness in shyness … What you’re doing is thinking, Everything I say, someone’s going to remember forever.” It’s a form of nar­cissism, so you have to “show a level of being open and out there in order to balance that out.” At Twitter, though, there are fewer social demands than there were at the CBC. “It’s nice that that’s quieted down,” she says.

Something of a child prodigy—she skipped two grades growing up in Oakville and graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English literature at the age of 19—Stewart learned early not to showboat. She was the smallest and youngest kid in her Grade 4/5 class, “trying to figure out how to act with those big kids.” Once, following an older student’s pres­entation, she tried to show off, asking a question she knew the answer to. She still remembers being dressed down by the teacher. “He said, ‘You never ask a question you know the answer to. You embarrass the other person; you embarrass yourself.’ I grew up so much in that moment. I was like, Wow, that was so not cool. I didn’t want to be that person.”

And by all accounts, she is not. At the CBC, where she managed warring factions, “she was pretty much univer­sally admired,” says Lang. Her leader­ ship style is collaborative: “You set the vision and clear the way for everybody else to do their job,” Stewart explains.

A few days after our breakfast, she emailed me, unprompted. “You asked why I might be viewed as ‘icy,’” she began. “I’ve never slammed a door, I’ve never ever yelled at anyone at work, I would never let my ‘mood’ infiltrate the room. Working my way up from assistant I think taught me how unfair it was when others got subjected to ‘bad behaviour’ through a mood of a leader—I said I would never want to be the boss people knew was ‘having a bad day.’” Men, she continued, seem to feel “quite free to express emotion … I do think there is a reason women are seen as ‘cold,’ which is more a result of focus­ing on work and supporting others, not so much ego and self­satisfaction.”

Or to put it another way, as she said of her own approach to tweeting, “I reveal what I want to reveal—no more.” And what she revealed to me is that she does have feelings, plenty of them. She just thinks it’s her responsibility to keep them to herself.

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