Losing a loved one can be tragic and traumatic. It takes a lot of courage and determination to bounce back from the grief that it takes along. Patrick Sullivan, Founder and President of Team Finn Foundation, shares how losing his son to cancer changed his life. A lawyer by profession, Patrick walks us through his transition from leading a journey to conquer cancer and making scientists more aware and motivated to improve their expertise in Oncology to playing significant roles in numerous boards of organizations with the same purpose. Learn the number one mistake he sees CEOs and executive directors are making and the problem with starting a new organization.
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Connecting Commitment and Science with Patrick Sullivan
We have a great guest on this episode, Patrick Sullivan. He’s the Founder of Team Finn Foundation and someone who’s been involved in pediatric oncology in Canada, the United States and across the world. Welcome, Patrick.
Thank you, Doug.
For anyone involved in pediatric oncology, young adult cancers in Canada or North America, they probably know who you are. For those who aren’t in that area, aren’t paying close attention to that area, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a middle-aged white dude who lives in Vancouver. I’m a lawyer by background and by profession. I practice law full-time in the pediatric oncology space. I’m in that space as a tribute to my son Finn, who was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma at the age of 21 months and died at the age of three.
That’s a very powerful and moving story that I know you’ve shared on many occasions. As you got going with the Team Finn foundation, what was the response that you found from the community?
The response was overwhelming. The way it started was a group of friends wanting to do something for Finn and reminding me that we all lost something. That they lost a friend and that I lost a son. It blossomed from a group of friends to friends of friends riding with us and participating in The Ride to Conquer Cancer and the community responded in a way that I didn’t anticipate at all. It continued to grow from there.
Your willingness to be open with not just Finn’s journey, but the journey of your whole family did bring a community together. I’ve been fascinated to see as you have brought the community in pediatric oncology in Canada and beyond together in subsequent years. Walk me through a little bit about how you went from starting the Team Finn Foundation, The Ride to Conquer Cancer, to now being involved in boards all around the world.
It’s an accidental journey of sorts. Getting involved and doing something within The Ride to Conquer Cancer was really an effort to pay an unpayable debt to Finn, to do something with that overwhelming grief. From there, when we raised more money than I ever anticipated that we could, the Team Finn Foundation came out of that as a way to wrap our arms around it. A lot of people had responded and we felt a responsibility that we wanted to know where the money was going. We started exploring the science and meeting with the scientists and that started locally. From that local introduction to the science and the creation of Team Finn Foundation, that led naturally to what other science was happening in Canada, what other breakthroughs were happening in Canada. The next two steps that happened is there was an opportunity to join an international Stand Up to Cancer Pediatric Oncology Dream Team. There was an invitation to apply to join a board of directors called the Canadian Cancer Research Alliance as a lay advocate. One happened in 2012 and one happened in 2014 that exposed me both to the pediatric community nationally and internationally, but also exposed me to the oncology community across Canada.
It’s one of the really interesting things about research of any kind, but particularly in health research. You’ve got researchers who have colleagues all around the world, but they may not know researchers working in a parallel area just down the road or even in the same research center.
That’s very true. It surprises me less, but it still surprises me the degree to which someone coming from outside the healthcare field and the health research field and, in my case, oncology and primarily pediatric oncology, acts as a connector or as a bridge. You will meet with someone and talk to them and say, “Do you know X and have you worked with X?” Then you’ll try to facilitate an introduction between them, encouragement and potential incentives to get them to be working together.
Your story is one that forces people to listen and be connected. Your tireless work to be involved in pretty much every organization brings them together on a more permanent basis. You started with the science, now it’s moved into organizations. What was that transition like?
Slow and fast at the same time. I describe myself as patiently impatient. I understand that breakthroughs take time, that there are no overnight successes, there are only things that look like overnight successes. The real work at success is hard, grindy and sloggy-type work and there has to be relentlessness to it. That transition itself required me to learn a lot about myself. It required learning a lot about how these organizations run. In some respects, it was intentional by the time I was doing it. It was less accidental, in the sense of when I made the determination that I was going to use up my most precious resource, which is time, to join a bunch of these boards or scientific teams or even a scientific review boards, a big part of the rationale was relationships are important.
[bctt tweet=”Breakthroughs take time; there are no overnight successes.” username=””]
Getting to know people is important. If you’re going to advance things, you have to do that and you have to do it well. The only way to do something like that is to do it. Being parts of boards is not something I had done before as part of my professional life. I had done litigation involving fiduciary obligations and board members, but never actually been in that space. Learning how to navigate personalities, what the structure of the organization was. Moving from learning to actually teaching over time was in part getting comfortable in the pool, in part understanding what I had potentially offer that others might not and getting comfortable and confident enough to explore that with people.
What did you see in terms of commonality? What did a lot of these organizations have in common around that board table?
I think the common element that successful boards have was good leadership. Good leadership, from what I’ve seen in a board context, is someone who can lift and push the entire team. A common element in the ones that were not as successful as everyone was too worried about what agenda they were bringing to that board or to that board process or to that in a context of things that weren’t boards. The ones that work well are the ones that match up the inherent incentives of the people there and what they want to achieve to something that’s bigger than those incentives. It gives them something that at times are more appropriate that they might put their personal interest second or their organizational interest second, in terms of what they bring to the board and recognize the rising tide lifts all boats.
In a lot of our work with The Discovery Group, we often see organizations that are working with boards. Where the problem isn’t so much what happens around the board table, it’s all of the baggage and ideas and agendas that get brought to that table that cause a lot of the misalignment and the struggles that happen otherwise. What have you seen that a lot of these organizations have in common?
I would say every organization that I am a part of whether it’s a board, whether it’s an advisory council or whether it’s an executive council, there are things that they have in common. Everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone has their own perspective and everyone has their own interests. I am dealing with organizations that involve people from across the country. I’m involved in organizations that involve people across boundary lines. I’m involved in local organizations. I’m involved in organizations that you would consider the people come from completely different perspectives or backgrounds, scientists, clinicians, academics, patients and regulators. In every situation, there is a group of people who are incentivized by things that you can’t see in the room.
How do you identify what those things are?
You talk to them, you get to know them, you don’t assume, you do your homework and you learn over time. You can’t learn it all at once. You learn the people in the room who are better at masking it. You figure out what other projects they’re involved in. You do the legwork.
Being involved with all of those boards, is there something that you would change about how boards work?
What would I do to change how a board works?
Often, the organizations take the approach that board members need to know each other on a more personal level in order to be more comfortable to share. They then find sometimes that the sociability of the board meeting in the board room makes it more difficult to have hard conversations. Other organizations focus really strongly on this, making the hard fiduciary responsibility decisions and then find that people are less connected to the cause as a result. Many organizations are trying to find a balance in terms of how boards work, how they orient themselves to the organization and to the mission that they’re on.
A lot of the boards that I’m a part of that involves people who are not professional board members and who are not really from a business background at all. I think one of the things that I found myself doing from time-to-time and this is less known in the philanthropic boards I’m on and it’s more so in the organizations which involve a lot of scientists and clinicians. There is a lack of understanding of what it is to be a board member. There’s an expectation of, “I am with XYZ Cancer Institute and I’m joining this board and I’m a representative of XYZ Cancer Institute. Therefore when I’m in the room, I’m looking out for the interest of XYZ Cancer Institute.” That reverses the error. You’re not there as a member of XYZ Cancer Institute. You’re there as a member of the organization for which you are a board member and your obligations are to that organization. You bring the sensibilities of XYZ Cancer Institute.
We can speak for a constituency and help the larger board understand that constituency. Your objective is to help advance XYZ. If there is one thing that I think could use buttressing is making sure everyone understands the larger vision and making sure they understand that being in the room means they are committed to that larger vision. If that’s not something they’re capable of doing, then maybe it’s not the right room for them. I think the other thing that I would change is, let’s be upfront about our interests. Let’s not be shy about it. I often say to people that people will often apologize to me for saying, “I’m sorry, but this is something I’m interested in.” Rather, let me put it more bluntly. “I’m sorry, but I have to think this way because I am an industry and we have to be mindful that we have to make money.”
[bctt tweet=”A rising tide lifts all boats.” username=””]
Don’t apologize for that but be upfront about it. Don’t pretend it’s not real. If you’re a member of XYZ Cancer Institute, “Right now within our organization, we are focused on personalized medicine. We are focused on immunotherapy. We are focused on basic research.” Whatever it is you’re focused on, if that’s something that’s driving you, have it on the table because solutions that don’t recognize that or what the end user needs won’t work.
When people are coy, it makes it very difficult to agree on something and even more damaging often is that you get to an agreement, but then you can’t put it into action. What is the role of the board chair in those conversations of getting that radical candor out where everybody’s saying, “Here’s what I’m bringing to the table and here are the issues that are most important to me?”
I’m still learning the role of the board chair because it’s not something I’ve traditionally done. I’m only moving into those types of roles. I think that the leadership role is really important. They have to make the boardroom both a comfortable and at the appropriate times and uncomfortable place. They have to know the personalities and strengths and weaknesses of the other people around the room. They have to know what they’re incentivized by. They have to know where they can add and where they might subtract. They have to make the board meeting a place of everyone feeling comfortable putting what they want to stay on the line. They also have to make it uncomfortable at times when people aren’t contributing or aren’t pulling their weight. That’s not a calling out in front of everybody, but that may involve a conversation offline to say, “I noticed you’re not attending or you’re not contributing. Do you have the time? If you don’t, I get it. Maybe we find someone who, who does. If you do, then I need to see more from you. Let me know.” You can have a hard conversation but still respect.
What is the relationship been like with the executive director or CEO in the organizations where you’re moving into that board chair role?
The ones that I’m involved in, the relationship has been excellent. It comes down to the same thing. Creating that relationship of trust where they can say, “Here’s what I need and here’s what I’m missing.” Understanding where and this is a natural inclination, to put too much makeup on something rather than being more aware of where it stands. It’s being able to cut through that and having the confidence and trust that you can do that. This is where there are problems, so that you’re in a better position to address them. In places where I have not transitioned into a chair role, what I can see from my perch observing is an over-tendency and a completely natural over-tendency to gloss over the problems and only focus on what’s working. The problem with that, if you’re on a board for any length of time, is you start to lose trust in the message that’s being conveyed. It’s a short-term gain for a long-term loss. You need to drive that out of the system if it’s there.
That is so true. We see that in so many organizations, particularly philanthropic organizations, where a number of the largest donors to the organization sit on the board. Where it becomes very difficult for senior management and even for the board committee chairs to bring the bad news or to bring the challenges to the organization because a board meeting is also doubling as a stewardship meeting with a number of the donors. It’s really important to identify what the challenges are. Come with some solutions or some potential solutions for discussion. That to me is the number one mistake that I see CEOs and executive directors are making. They’re not bringing those challenges early enough. They’re not providing enough depth and color to why those problems are occurring in the organization.
We talked earlier about how scientists, maybe a bit of education on how boards work and what their role would be a very useful exercise in some of those organizations. I think the flip side is true. What business can learn from science is failure’s okay. It’s essential, in fact. You don’t design yourself to fail, but you need to embrace that the types of failures that we take on and learn from them, not hide from them.
What we see is that boards are stronger, organizations are stronger. That alignment is held in place by the shared experience of identifying a problem or experiencing something that doesn’t work or a failure and then moving forward with it. That really adds steel to an organization and really supports the mission over the long-term. With the number of organizations, we’ve stayed away from saying the absolute number because I think you keep that close to your chest. By my count, you’re over half a dozen now. Is that the right range there?
I think that’s fair. Probably into the double digits, I would think, at this stage.
I marvel at the length of your CV and the patience of your family. You were brought to this field through tragedy and trying to find strengths through tragedy, which you’ve done and been an example for many others who have had a similar path or walk a similar path to you. What advice would you give to someone who was thinking that they wanted to start an organization like Team Finn or that they started an organization like some of the others that you’ve been involved in?
My first advice would be don’t. Don’t start an organization. That’s different than them not getting involved. Those are very different things. Let me answer a different question and come back to your first one. I would say my advice to someone who wants to make a difference is to find out where you’re passionate and sometimes that self-reflection and sometimes that’s trying out different things to learn where your passion is I am passionate about the research end of this. I believe that we are in a golden age of oncology research and that we’re going to see incredible things over the next decade. It will be much slower than I wanted to see it happen, but it will happen. I’m passionate about that and believe that there is a role I can play in helping to make that happen faster.
My wife is more passionate about the ways you can make changes in care for kids who are going to treatment. It’s possible you could be passionate about more than one thing. First of all, find out where your passion is because if you’re not passionate about it, you will not be able to endure the failures and the long sloggy work. Coming back to your specific question, what advice would I give someone starting organization? The problem with starting a new organization is it comes with all kinds of busy work. It comes with all kinds of busy work that you need to do to sustain it. That busywork takes up time and that busy work can distract you from your passion and the thing that you’re passionate about. If you can find an outlet to make a difference that doesn’t require you to start an organization, then you have the advantage of that time being dedicated to your passion or being dedicated to things that are really important, like family.
[bctt tweet=”Find out where your passion is because if you’re not passionate about something, you will not be able to endure the failures.” username=””]
That’s a really great perspective. I think that’s what we see. I know you’ve seen these people wanting to start something because they care because they have found their passion there. Whether it’s through grief or through celebration, they want something to be different in their community. That’s something that we honor and celebrate. Unfortunately, when you were starting an organization that honor and celebration includes a lot of paperwork and conversations with the Canadian Revenue Agency and other organizations like that which can take away from people’s passion and the energy that they have for it.
Some passions can be executed without having any of that. You are going to run into some of that sloggy paperwork even if you don’t start an organization or that time. Because it may be that you’re interacting with two or three different organizations and making clear the parameters of your involvement. There may be contractual busy work or that sort of thing, but it won’t be to the same degree.
I want to end with something you said, “You believe we’re in a golden age for oncology. What are you most hopeful about through all of your work and all of your involvement?
I’m most hopeful that fathers will get to hold their son’s hands.
Thank you for that, Patrick and thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you very much, Doug.
- Team Finn Foundation
- The Ride to Conquer Cancer
- Canadian Cancer Research Alliance
- The Discovery Group
About Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan is a securities and corporate-commercial litigator. Patrick practices with and is a founding partner of Taylor Veinotte Sullivan.
Patrick is the proud father of three remarkable children, Baird, Sarah and Finn. Patrick desperately misses Finn’s hand and would do almost anything for the simple pleasure of holding it again.