Being the new guy has always been difficult, whether in your social circle, at school, or at work. Having one of the highest positions in an organization doesn’t make you immune from this. Instead, it mandates you to build healthy relationships early on. Mike Meldrum, the CEO of Calgary Health Trust, shares the story of how he got over this obstacle in his early days as CEO. He talks about the very first steps that he did knowing the situations he’d be put in. Mike focuses on how building good relationships, not only with the higher-ups but with those below you can make running an organization a lot easier.
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The Culture Of Relationship Building With Mike Meldrum
In our show is a great guest and a good friend, Mike Meldrum. He’s the CEO of the Calgary Health Trust. He joined that organization and he joins us here on the show. Welcome, Mike.
For our readers who may not be familiar with the unique role that the Calgary Health Trust plays in the health of Southern Albertans and Calgarians. Tell us a little bit more about what the Calgary Health Trust is and how it began.
The Calgary Health Trust is a health foundation that focuses on raising funds and impacting healthcare in Calgary and surrounding communities. It formed back in 1996 with the merger of several hospital foundations at the time. The Foothills Hospital Foundation was one of those. There were several others that joined to form the Calgary Health Trust. Since that time, it’s been focused on impacting healthcare in Calgary.
You came to the organization as CEO at an interesting time. The organization had been through a lot of transition. Downsizing a couple of years ago and now ready to set a new path. You walked through the doors as a first time CEO. What was that experience like for you?
Thankfully I felt that the recruitment process was very transparent and very thorough. I knew quite a bit of the path most recently traveled by the Trust and some of the changes that were made. Those were directed by the board and the visions of the board. I felt well informed of the changes that were afoot and felt through the process was able to explore what the fit would be like. I felt when I walked in that I was well prepared and nicely welcomed into the organization.
The organization has been through this time of turmoil. The time of troubles got set on the right foot by your predecessor, the interim CEO Dr. Chris Eagle. You joined with and mandated to grow the organization. How have you approached that in your short time there at the Calgary Health Trust?
One of the things that I did very early on was, I wanted to make sure that I developed good relationships with the board and with staff members. Taking the time to sit down with each of the board members, each of the staff members, learn about the organization. I knew that in order to lead the organization I needed to know it well. I did have a unique perspective on that. I was at the organization when it was first created. I worked for the Foothills Hospital Foundation coming out of my undergrad back in 1995.
When it merged with other foundations to form the Calgary Health Trust, I was quite engaged in the fundraising. Talking to past patients and raising money for the Foothills Hospital. I did that for the Calgary Health Trust for a couple of years as well. I had some good experience and background in the organization. What I didn’t have is the current relationships with the board and the staff. It was a mandate of growth. It was a matter of learning that organization. In addition to those two groups, the board and the staff, I met a lot of community leaders to find out what their experience had been with the Calgary Health Trust over the years. I tried to meet with people that were part of the founding of the trust as well to understand its history.
It was a great foundation that was set for me as I moved forward but then the challenge was to assess after I knew where the organization was at. “What did growth look like? What were the priorities for growth?” To that I took the approach of working closely with my team to help identify what it is. Where the gaps between the vision that was set for the organization by the board and endorsed by the organization, where we were at and what were the strategic priorities moving forward.
One of the things I think is so important in the sector is when organizations hire people who are experts in their core business. In the case of the Calgary Health Trust it’s the raising of money. You have a great reputation as a professional fundraiser and a builder of relationships. I’m not at all surprised to hear that you started your tenure having those conversations with donors and community leaders. Was there anything in those conversations that surprised you?Reading is a helpful way to have conversations with different people. Click To Tweet
Yes, I would say there was a little bit. Some of it was validating thoughts that I expected. For example, with the staff, there were a lot of changes. There were a number of staff that exited in a pretty short time frame. That caused an unsettling of staff. My meetings with staff validated some anxiousness and uncertainty about the division and future of the organization. That was helpful to inform on how I move forward in some of the strategic priorities related to culture and engagement. I would say I was a little surprised and maybe I shouldn’t have been, the variety of reactions that there was amongst the staff. Some were all-in and excited for the change, and some were more uncertain about the future and maybe reluctant or saw some challenges in moving forward.
I was maybe a little surprised by that. I would say with the board, I would point to the recruitment and onboarding process, I felt that there weren’t a lot of surprises with respect to the board. That’s because the board had a hand and was directly involved in the changes that had happened through the organization. There seems to be good alignment and understanding of that. If there was anything, I would say I was pleased to see the health and engagement of the board. It was excellent. That was more encouraging and validating.
How did you use those conversations to set those priorities for growth?
Early on before I even started at the organization, I did a lot of reading. As I was developing these, I would often reflect back on my observations of previous meetings and what I saw some of the gaps. It was a helpful way to have lots of conversations with lots of different people. It had the effect of validating the things that I was identifying as gaps and therefore need them to be strategic priorities. Also, helping to identify other ones that I might not have noticed or yet identified. I was able to draw everyone in and helping to create what I now see bubbling up as the strategic priorities for the organization. I could get the validation along the way. That process of course continues. It was a great way to test my early ideas and thoughts of where the gaps were and what I was seeing and bring people in to help identify those. I’m hoping that they will continue to help in moving them forward.
One of the things we undervalue or underestimate is the strength it takes to make the change, is moving from that crisis to growth mentality within an organization. Let’s fix what’s broken now. Let’s use what we’ve built to accomplish something special. When people ask you, “What’s going on at the trust?” What’s the one thing that you start with for the organization?
I’m talking about our growth plans and also our current campaign, newborn needs campaign which is a $60 million campaign around maternal and newborn health in Calgary. It’s very exciting. I’m letting them know about the growth. I’m almost always, it depends a little on the audience, highlighting what my observations are. They’re interested often. I’m having a lot of introductory meetings. They’re interested in hearing from the new leader. I’m often sharing some of my early observation and my priorities are moving forward and talking about the growth agenda and the campaign.
Through this process, what feedback do you get from your board in terms of the decisions you’re making or the changes that you see in the future for the Trust?
They’re very positive and supportive. In fact, I would describe not only the board but the staff and the community has been very welcoming and very interested, I feel authentically in my success. A lot of times, my conversations with the board are them being very supportive and wanting to know how they can help. I work a little more closely and have little more conversations and direct contact with the board chair. That has been a great relationship. I very much see him as wanting me to be successful and feel that he was also involved in the selection process. That relationship started early on. I feel we have candor and I would say that’s shared across the board as well, candor to speak openly about where things are going and what needs to be done.
Much relies on that relationship between the board chair and the CEO particularly at a moment of strategic inflection like your organization is at. How do you make sure that you stay on the same page as the chair?
Regular communication, text, phone calls, meetings, that’s important. There’s a natural cycle that happens through board meeting preparation but it takes much more than that. Me as a CEO trying to understand what are the priorities of the board. Those are of course the board chair as the leader of the board. There’s alignment there. Understanding what the board chair is passionate about, what’s important to him and to the broader board to move forward, understanding where they’re coming from. If there are ever any questions about that or some potential for misalignment or conflict, have open discussions early on about them so that you can figure out the resolution and the way forward. Make sure you’re always moving together.You need to have a balance. You can’t just talk about blue skies and clouds parting; you need to talk about tactics and operations. Click To Tweet
In terms of moving everyone forward, one thing that often happens in our organization that has been through a lot of changes, almost everything gets changed. There’s that one thing that hangs back that weighs on the future from the past. Are there issues within your organization that have an air of mystery or what we call a polite elephant?
I may learn some yet, but I would say that the organization has not had a straight growth trajectory since its creation years ago. There have been absolutely ups and downs along the way. Some people would point to specific campaigns or events that have been more successful or less successful, and challenging. Also, the turn of leadership at times has been challenging. The change of leadership and direction has caused some volatility for the organization over the years. There have been definitely some ups and downs obviously with the changes with the board making some pretty significant changes over the last couple of years. That was one of those times where there were challenges and a real change in a direction directed by the board that was made.
I would say that when there is those type of changes, what can happen is sometimes the organization can drop off a little bit within the community. Not be quite as public and their brand, their direction and their impact be quite as loud and quite as out there as it normally would be because of the internal challenges. There is some of that and there’s a real opportunity to grow that voice around the Calgary Health Trust and the impact it’s having in the community. It’s incredible work and there’s the incredible impact that it’s having on the healthcare system. Hopefully we’re moving into a growth agenda where we’ll see some stability in the leadership and on the board and be able to get those messages out and build that momentum and have that success.
One of the things that new leaders often spend the first few months to a year focusing on is building the leadership team. In your case, the board took a very thoughtful approach to build that leadership team. The CEO position that you filled ended up being the pièce de résistance in that renewal of the team. How have you brought that team together? What has your approach been to create that shared sense of success with that experienced leadership team?
With all this talk, it comes down to relationships. I don’t think there’s a lot of magic to it. It takes time and effort starting with the early meetings with the executive team. Even before I started, I had a chance to meet with them together. Once I started, I met with them individually right away. I was able to get to know about them and where they’re at. What opportunities they saw, and what challenges they saw. They were helpful to me to understand where the trust was at. The other thing I did right away is pulled them together. We went on a leadership retreat with a very clear agenda about a number of things that we’re working through. That was a great opportunity.
There was an opportunity to do some professional developments for team building work as well as to dig into some of the challenges. One of the things that I got early input on is some of there and then has since extended that to staff, was discussion around culture and engagement. Recognizing that our success as a team would require not just me and the executive team but the entire staff to be on board, productive and doing well in their work. Those are some of the things, the retreats and connecting with them. We do of course have regular meetings. Some of this in style but I encourage my leadership team to speak up, be heard and put things on our agendas, to be fully engaged in leading the organization. They’ve done that and it’s been healthy.
With that open leadership style, how important is it that your team has access to the big picture for this growth agenda that you have?
It’s very important. I want every staff member to be part of something big. To be part of the growth and the success of the organization for that to be motivating to them and to help them in bringing passion and energy to their work. I certainly like to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of energy and passion for the work that I do. While everyone may express that in different ways, people want to be part of something that is making a difference. That’s an important part of the social profit sector and what motivates a lot of people. It’s important they understand some people are more detail-oriented and more task-oriented. They want to know what their specific tasks are to do. Some people are driven by those big compelling vision for the organization. You need to have a balance. You can’t just talk about blue skies and clouds parting and all of this. You need to talk about tactics and operations. I would say that the vision piece is something that is very important.
As the new leader, you have this new group of people around you. What do you say is the best way to communicate with you? What do you want them to be saying? How can they get a message across to Mike?
I’m a multi-channel communicator, shall we say. I mostly want information and communication. I’m certainly open. I’m trying to make more of an effort to walk around regularly within our office space and be a little more accessible. I have said to all my staff about the open-door policy I have which extends to my email inbox as well. Whether it’s text, email or a conversation in the hall, I am certainly open to that. I don’t think I’m unique in this way but one of the things that I do like is having those conversations. Connecting and knowing what’s going on. If there are obstacles or challenges that are new or recently discovered, I, like most people, don’t love all surprises. I certainly don’t want the communication channel to be the barrier, whichever way can get that information to me, that’s great.The vision piece is something that is very important. Click To Tweet
One question I’d like to ask is how your employees can earn a special gold star with you?
Being engaged and there are lots of ways to do that. Doing great work, caring about the work they do. When we do have brainstorming sessions, retreats or meetings, contributing and being part of the team, I recognize that everyone has a different experience and different skills and talents that they bring to the work. To me, our organization will only be exceptional if we’re utilizing all of those skills and talents that everyone has. I get concerned when people are pulling away and are disengaged. I love to see that engagement. I even love to see that engagement when it is challenging in certain things. We want to make sure we’re thinking through things and that we’re analyzing and making sure we’re making the right decisions going forward. I love that challenge. The other thing is don’t let me be surprised too much.
We should read something into the fact that you mentioned that twice. You think about that team and pulling them together. As a fundraiser at heart there would be lots of measures and metrics that you’d be paying attention to as you move into this growth phase in the organization. What are the measures that you, personally as a leader, will be looking at to know that you have the impact that you want to be having on the organization?
I will look at our culture and the engagement of staff in the organization. I’ll look at assessing the relationship, the satisfaction and the engagement of staff. We’ll have some metrics that will go forward around that. Also, the engagement of the board, those are important. Somewhat qualitative initially but will become more quantitative measures that I will look into, to see how I’m doing on the people front. Dollars raised is a very significant metric. It’s imperative that that is going up and going up strongly. The other metrics in our business is dollars raised is primary, but also disbursements and making sure that we’re sending those dollars out in an impactful way and having a real impact on the system.
I will be looking closely at dollars raised and the disbursements to making sure we have the impact that we desire in the health system. Those are the main ones. There’re all sorts of other metrics that we will watch and measure. The people front and also on the clear fundraising metrics, we’re a fundraising organization and we need to raise money to have the impact that we desire. We have the trust of donors that believe in us to do that. We need to be the thought leaders in healthcare that are analyzing the best ways to have that impact that they desire.
You’ve described a great way of thinking about the growth and paying attention to that. How will you know after a long day driving home that this is working? What will you be thinking about as you’re trying to evaluate whether this growth agenda is taking root?
I get a lot of energy from donor meetings and from prospective donor meetings, talking to people about where we’re going with healthcare and how they can make a difference. I had a great opportunity to walk through with a couple of very generous donors that had made a large investment in our intervention trauma operating room. We went through and toured that facility and talked about a specific research program that they provide some funding for. To see their excitement about the impact that they’re having, I get a lot of satisfaction from that. It’s having an impact on the system. It’s helping Calgary to be a healthier community. It’s helping donors to realize the joy of giving and giving back and making a difference. That to me is a success. Those donor meetings and seeing that impact is what helps me to know we’re headed in the right direction.
That’s a great reminder for all leaders in the social profit sector, that reconnecting with the beneficiaries, the programs. The organization runs with the donors that support those programs is the quickest way to restore energy in the course of a day. Is there any advice that you would tell yourself looking back on your first day that you wish you followed more or one thing you wish you’d know?
One of the things many people end up in leadership positions like this is ambitious and hold a high standard for themselves. I stopped expecting perfection early on in my tenure here. That’s one of the things that I need to understand is a bit of patience on my part for myself and also for the organization as it navigates and learns about my leadership style, as I learn more about the organization. There’s some need for patience and understanding through that process because not everything is going to go perfect. I also think that with that open communication and that collaborative leadership style that there’s nothing that you can’t work through and figure out. Being patient with yourself and with the process is important.
Thank you very much for saying that, that’s a good insight into not only you and what’s happening at your organization. Also, something to think about for all leaders who are feeling urgency approaching a board meeting or a board retreat to take a half step back and give yourself the space to be patient. That’s where innovation comes from is in those gaps between meetings and gaps between emails that we all have to get back to. Mike, thank you so much for being a part of the Discovery Pod and sharing your journey so far. We’ll have to have you back later on to hear how far up that growth chart the Calgary Health Trust has come. Thank you for being here.
I look forward to that. Thank you so much, Doug.
About Mike Meldrum
Mike Meldrum joined the Calgary Health Trust as President & CEO in May 2019. Prior to that, Mike had built up more than 20 years of fundraising experience, including leading a dynamic team of major gift, planned giving and annual giving fundraisers at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) as the Associate Vice President, Advancement. He has been at the helm of a campaign raising in excess of $100M and worked with Boards, Cabinets and many volunteers to achieve major fundraising milestones, including securing transformational gifts.
In addition to having obtained his CFRE, Mike also holds an MBA from the University of Alberta and has been instrumental in growing donor programs through thought leadership and program development. During his time at the University of Alberta he worked from the ground up to build a culture of philanthropy across the University, bringing together multiple business units and championing a multidisciplinary team to develop strategic plans and identify compelling priorities.