Bringing cultures together is one of the challenges a newly appointed leader experiences. Andrea Seale, the new CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, is the right person to walk us through such encounters after being appointed as an Executive Director and then permanent CEO of CCS. As a top leader, being able to approach anyone and any issues is quintessential. Sharing how she handles the management team as well as organization issues at work, Andrea discusses her approaches in working with the board and her ways of handling varied problems. Learn more about this woman’s dynamic role and how she is helping millions through her leadership.
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Building a Unified Vision Post-Merger, with Andrea Seale
Our guest is Andrea Seale. She’s the new CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society. It’s a real privilege to have her on the show. Welcome, Andrea.
Thanks so much. I’m thrilled to be here.
Tell us a little bit about your background because you’ve taken quite an interesting path in the social profit sector.
I have spent many years working with nonprofit causes and I came to it through a communications background. My schooling was in communications and public relations. I always wanted to work with nonprofits and good causes. Learning communications naturally led to fundraising because if you want to do great things with nonprofits, fundraising is one of the ways that it happens. I didn’t intend to get into fundraising, but it’s how I spent a lot of my career. Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work for the Banff Center for the Arts and Ecojustice. I also had a consulting business for about a decade, Blueprint Fundraising and Communications that helped many great organizations learn to transform their fundraising and engage with donors. After that, I joined the David Suzuki Foundation where I worked for eight years and hubs the fantastic opportunity to learn from David Suzuki who is an amazing leader. I expanded my skillset to more organizational management. When I left the David Suzuki Foundation, I joined the Canadian Cancer Society as the Executive Director for the BC Yukon region and then as the CEO nationally.
You joined the CCS at a particularly interesting time. Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation merged officially in February of 2017. You joined the organization about a year later. What was that like coming in as the leader in BC to an organization that was finding itself as a new entity?
It was one of the things that attracted me most to join the organization. I had a personal experience with cancer that opened my eyes to the importance of cancer organizations because my father passed away from cancer two years prior to joining CCS. When I looked at what the Canadian Cancer Society was doing, they had been through a couple of major transformations that were very necessary but also challenging. I was fascinated by how the leadership and how the staff team had made their way through those changes. In addition to the merger with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation a year before, they had also finalized consolidation of ten provincial organizations into one national organization. Each province had a Canadian Cancer Society that had its own charity number, leadership teams, boards, donors, systems and all of that unique programs.
They have programs that sometimes were the same across the country and other ones were unique to particular provinces. They had gone through an important and massive transformation to join as one organization. They had changed their governance and bring all of these teams together across the country. The merger with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation was very transformational. It was the largest charity merger in Canada to that point. It attracted me to come to an organization that wanted to be bold. It was an old organization, 85 years old and yet also wanting to retool itself for the future.
You mentioned that a lot of the changes were necessary and challenging. In our sector, a lot of leaders come into organizations where they’re facing change fatigue. There’s been so much upheaval, necessary and often well done, sometimes not so well done, but the change has slowed an organization down. Coming in as Executive Director in BC, was that apparent in the Canadian Cancer Society when you came through the door?Balancing the goals of teams and donors is challenging because there's so much opportunity for cancer patients’ lives to be better. Click To Tweet
When I joined, it had been almost a year post-merger. A lot of things had settled by then. The staff teams had sorted themselves out. Some of the systems that needed to be built were nearing completion; the backend infrastructure things like finance system, HR and that stuff. A lot of the outreach to donors and the new relationship building with donors was underway. A year in, a lot of progress had been made. When I joined, you could still see when you looked around a room who was a CCS person and who was a Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation person. There were cultural differences between the two teams. A few years in, you can’t see the difference anymore. It’s more cohesive as the time has gone.
As an interim national leader and now the permanent CEO, you’ve undoubtedly played a significant role in bringing those cultures together. Other than the passage of time, what helped knit the group together?
We have done a lot of work to establish shared priorities. There is a lot of communication about where we’re going and how we want to get there. People have a shared sense of that vision of where we’re going. We’ve also had some great success and that has rallied people and brought people together. From a fundraising point of view, we’ve had some strong results also from getting through big projects that make people’s lives easier in their work has helped. We’re still in the midst of doing some of those projects. The shared vision, there is still a lot of regional difference across the country, which is great. That’s part of how we stay community-based and responsive to the needs that are local. There’s a lot of internal communication that focuses on sharing each other’s successes across the country. We’ve done things like a quarterly town hall where we focus on some of the impacts that different teams are having through different research projects or support services. Making sure that people know what’s happening around the rest of the country helps to build that culture.
You said one of the things that brought you together was that you’ve had some great results. Often, in conversations with boards or with other CEOs and their management teams, they say that your problems are nothing that success won’t fix. As organizations deliver on their missions, it makes the process and impact of change much easier to deal with because you’re focused on the good work of the organization and not necessarily the stone in your shoes that’s making you limp along. You talked about some of the regional issues. You come into the organization as a provincial lead for BC in Yukon. Typically, when an interim is selected, it’s usually selected from the national leadership team. That’s somewhat unique in itself, but you’re going to be based both in Vancouver and Toronto. What does it like as a national leader to be representing at least those two regions?
Even before this decision was made, when the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and Canadian Cancer Society merged together, they looked at the strongest people across the country. They’re putting them in the right roles regardless of where they live. We have a very distributed leadership. For example, our Head of Finance is in Vancouver and our Head of Communications is in Toronto. Not everyone on national leadership is based in the head office in Toronto. That was already something that was part of how the Canadian Cancer Society was operating. Our national leadership team includes the heads of all our regions. We have our leader from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies and BC Yukon region who are all part of the national leadership team.
We have tried to ensure that we are understanding the whole country because so much of what people need when they’re going through cancer depends greatly on where you live. What kind of experience you’re going to have and what kind of support that you might look from the Canadian Cancer Society are different across the country. We’ve got a mixture of national team leaders and regional team leaders on our executive leadership team already. In terms of how it’s going to work for the CEO to be based in two places. I know there were chairs from the West Coast when it was announced. It backstops the intention that we represent the whole country. That means that we can have a leader who’s based anywhere in the country. Much of what we’re doing is online and digital. You can be in a lot of different places quite easily.
The symbolism of that is likely very important for the national message that you’re communicating as a leader and CEO of that group that’s trying to understand the local needs of Canadians going through cancer, the difference in cancer systems in the provinces and territories. Organizationally, you’ve got the cultures of the whole country around your leadership table. What’s your approach as a leader to making sure that you’re hearing that diversity of opinion and experience and managing to keep the organization speaking in a single voice to Canadians who are affected by cancer?
We meet weekly the leadership team that represents the country. A big part of being able to work well together is the process of staying constantly on top of the issues that each of our teams is dealing with and each region is dealing with. Balancing priorities is one of the hardest things that we do as a leadership team. We’ve got the need to deliver on the mission and make sure that our research strategy and our support services are right for what Canadians need. There’s also fundraising which is a huge topic that we’re always talking about. We’ve been spending a lot of time over the years looking at our fundraising strategy and how we’re evolving to be less transactional and event-based and moving more to relationship-based fundraising strategy. That’s a whole other topic that’s interesting for the Canadian Cancer Society. We’ve also done quite a bit to ensure that we understand what our employees are thinking. We’ve started on an annual employee engagement and survey process. That’s done a lot to inform our priorities in terms of the things we need to pay attention to internally.
I want to pivot away from the management team and the organizational issues you face as the CEO. I want to ask you a few questions about the board of the Canadian Cancer Society. If there’s ever a group that has seen a lot of change over the last few years, it’s the people who’ve been sitting around the board for that entire time. As a new CEO, what is your approach to working with the board?
This was part of what attracted me to the role. The board has been visionary. They have been willing to make very big changes for the long-term health of the Canadian Cancer Society. I like that a lot about them and I think that’s going to continue. They want to see that the consolidation within the cancer sector continues. I want to contribute to that and drive for more impact, more efficiency and more collaboration within the sector. Anyone who’s worked in the cancer fields probably would have experienced this. The BC Cancer Foundation donors want to see that collaboration. They’re very confused about why there are many groups that seem to do the same thing. Why can’t we work together and how is this the most efficient way to do what we want to when it comes to cancer? That’s been a guiding light for the board and I think they’ll continue on that path.
With all of the changes that are happening, the big bold vision and continued consolidation in the cancer sector in Canada, what is the board paying attention to on a meeting by meeting basis?
Certainly, they’re paying attention to how the changes that were initiated through the consolidation of all the provinces and then the merger, how they’re working. The goal had been to put more donor dollars towards the mission. Are we doing it? Yes, we’re doing it. That’s one of the big things they’re paying attention to. Also, what’s happening for Canadians when it comes to their experience with cancer. For example, each year, we released statistics on cancer in Canada. When you look at those and you see the changes in survival rates for example or what’s happening with different kinds of cancers, that tells us where we need to focus our efforts to.
They look at those strategic questions as well. A big topic is fundraising. How are we evolving our fundraising strategy for the future? One of our overarching strategic directions has been to invest more heavily into leadership giving and major gifts work, which is not something that the Canadian Cancer Society has a very deep history in. We have a very grassroots fundraising model. Volunteers in communities across the country do events for us during the daffodil month in April. They’re selling pins, flowers and things that ultimately contributed a lot of money but are in small pieces coming from all over the place. There’s never been a very big investment in major gifts. That something that over the last few months we’ve changed. The board has set that direction very strongly. We’ll be following through on it for the next few years.
Is there one issue or something that you wish the board knew or take into account more often in their deliberations and conversations?
Probably this is something that all leaders feel when they’re working with boards. The board sets a vision and then your first thought is, “How do we implement this?” You see the complexity of moving a whole group of people towards a new direction. Generally, the CCS board would be included, but I think all boards have the same issue as volunteers and as people who are not dedicating themselves full-time to the organization. They don’t always know all of the details of how things are working or how you would implement something. I always want them to understand the organization and the issues well. There’s never enough time to share as much as you want to share to keep everyone as informed as you want them to be. That’s okay. That’s what the CEO is there for. It’s to make things happen when the vision has been set and to help define that vision. I think that works well.
One of the things I have found in working with boards and particularly boards of national charities is there can sometimes be issues that have an air of mystery or a very polite Canadian elephant that sits in the middle of the room that isn’t discussed. Given the amount of change that your organization has been through, is the elephant still in the room or has that been cleared out?The CEO make things happen when the vision has been set and helps define that vision. Click To Tweet
I don’t think there are too many elephants in the room. They’ve been very bold and made a lot of changes. To do that, you have to be honest with yourself about how things are going and the need for change. This was prior to my time at CCS. I think they had a lot of those soul-searching conversations about how we are going to retool the Canadian Cancer Society for the long-term future and be the leading organization that we are and that we need to be, given that cancer is impacting so many people’s lives.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times the bold and the big vision that the board has pursued. How important is it that your management team has a sense of that bold expectation of the board when they’re doing their work on any given Wednesday or Thursday throughout the year?
That’s important because we’re placing a great emphasis on performance and reaching targets. Our leadership team has to fully embrace those in order to lead all their teams and volunteers in achieving it. That’s something that’s very much shared by the leadership team and the board as well are those big goals and the drive towards those big goals. It’s a place where we’re aligned.
How much time do you spend with your team talking about accountability?
We talk about it all the time when we’re looking at our results. When we set our plan and budget for the year, that in and of itself requires a lot of accountability for achieving it. It’s the goals that we’re setting around supporting cancer research and how much we want to put into funding cancer research, the goals around serving our different client groups. We establish those at the beginning of the year. While not all of our systems for tracking all of the data are fully perfect, it’s certainly how we measure our success.
Andrea, you lead a very large team and a lot of diversity of experience. What are you looking for in your top performers? How can your team earn a special gold star with you?
It’s the accountability that we talked about. The goals we’ve set from a mission point of view and fundraising point of view, reaching those is key. That’s maybe a given but that gets a gold star when we do that. The other things that mean a lot, especially given where we’re at as an organization, that’s come through these mergers and transformations is its exceptional teamwork. When people see ways to cooperate across the divisions, regions and the different teams and make us more effective as a team, that’s meaningful. The other thing I’m appreciative of is when people think big because we’ve had a couple of years of making these changes that are the administrative changes. They’re things that have to happen, but they’re internal. We’re externally focused and when we see opportunities to make a big difference and make a difference in people’s lives and with the donor, those things are gold stars too.
Can you give us an example of someone who’s gone above and beyond, someone who has earned that gold star?
I see it every day in how people are working together across teams. An example of the big thinking and a project that people have rallied around is in Vancouver where we’re renovating our building and we’re establishing a new center for cancer prevention and support. While it’s in Vancouver, it’s all about cancer prevention which means that teams from across the country have an interest in it. They’re contributing to the plan for the center and to the research strategy. Our head of research who’s in Toronto has been creating collaborative partnerships that are going to fund new research that the center is going to be taking on and doing knowledge translation for us. Those kinds of collaboration across the country are great to see.
One of the things that I’m always fascinated by with leaders in important positions like the one that you hold is where they find their own motivation. As a leader, when you’re facing a challenge, who do you look to or how do you approach that particularly difficult problem?
I think a lot about the mentors that I’ve had who have taught me a lot. At the David Suzuki Foundation, I had the opportunity to work with a great CEO there and with David Suzuki as well. I often think about how they would handle the challenges that I’m having. I’ve also been part of a forum of leaders from other organizations, the networking and professional development forum that has been helpful in thinking through problems and learning from other people about their approach to challenges and issues and the management team and the board. There’s a lot of great people who help to get through the thorny issues together.
You’ve got some great Canadian leaders in Peter Robinson and David Suzuki as you mentioned. How was the conversation with your board chair as an organization when you’re facing those difficult issues?
The board chair and the CEO have to have a great working relationship. That’s been something that I’ve been able to establish over the last few months that I was in the interim position and it’s ongoing. That requires lots of communication, understanding each other’s points of view and establishing a way of working together. We have a strong board chair. He is so dedicated to the Canadian Cancer Society. He puts in a tremendous amount of time, which is great to have that. Not all board members and not all chairs are able to dedicate a lot of time but our chair, Robert Lawrie, does. That helps us get a lot done together.
You are a leader of an organization that is emblematic of a progressive bold change in the Canadian social profit sector. You joined after the merger by about a year. What advice would you give to board chairs or board members of other organizations that are contemplating a merger? What should be top of mind for them as they go into those conversations with colleagues or another organization?
For boards, management and leaders in the nonprofit sector, having an open mind to how you can reach goals in a dramatically different way is important. There are a lot of organizations that would never consider merging with their competitors. Why not if what we want is to have a social impact, if what we want is to put donor dollars to the best use possible? The openness to thinking about working in a totally different way is what can keep our organizations vibrant. I would encourage that. It’s quite hard for boards and management teams to go there because you invest so much in organizations that you love and you worked so hard. There’s such a sense of identity.
I know it’s not easy to do, but if we want to be responsive to donors’ input, this is for sure something that donors want. They want us all to consider how do we work differently and how do we truly collaborate. In the case of the merger between the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, coming together did reduce a lot of those administrative costs. It did allow us to put more money towards missions. It also keeps alive many of the great things about both organizations in the process. I would encourage that to be open-minded towards it.
That’s an important point to leave the conversation at. The true collaboration requires an open mind. That’s good advice to social profit leaders regardless of the size of their organization, whether they’re contemplating a merger or not. It’s about being open to the solutions that the people that we serve in our organizations, as well as the donors who support our organizations, are having their minds is the best way forward. Thank you very much for sharing that with us.
Thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you.
About Andrea Seale
Andrea joined the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) in 2018 as Executive Director for the British Columbia and Yukon region and served as Interim CEO for 6 months in 2019. As CEO, she oversees all aspects of the organization including strategic planning, fundraising and development, and the delivery of an extensive suite of cancer information and support programs.
Prior to joining CCS, Andrea has held leadership roles at several not-for-profit organizations and founded the consulting firm Blueprint Fundraising and Communications. Andrea holds a Diploma in Public Relations from Mount Royal University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from McGill University.