The Honourable Janet Austin shares her views of the challenges and opportunities the pandemic brings to the global table. Ever the stalwart champion of reinforcing childcare policy and women’s equality, her position as Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia brings these two crucial issues to even greater emphasis now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity for global change as it pulls people together for collective action for the good of all. It begs the question, what do leaders need to do the most during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic? Tune in to seize golden insights!
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From CEO To Vice-Regal With The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor Of British Columbia
On the show, we have a very special guest. The Honourable Janet Austin was sworn in as BC’s 30th Lieutenant Governor in 2018. She has been a career-long and lifelong advocate and champion for the social profit sector. It is a distinct privilege to have her on the show. Thank you so much for joining us, Your Honor.
Thanks so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.
One of the reasons when we were talking around our office about who would be the best guests to get on the show, your name kept coming up. I thought, “There’s no way she would do this.” It’s to say, it meant a lot to all of us here that you were willing to have this conversation, mostly because you have been the model of what in-service leadership has been through your time at the YWCA. It means a lot to all of us in the social profit sector to see a leader of our own elevated to the Lieutenant Governor position. I’m sure you’ve told this story before, but what was it like to get the phone call?
First of all, I think you’re giving me the credit I don’t deserve, but thank you, nonetheless. I couldn’t be more surprised. It’s the last thing that would ever have occurred to me. It’s not something I ever aspired to and I ever thought would be even the remotest possibility. I was surprised. I received a call from the Prime Minister’s office. They’d booked me for conversation and I just assumed that he was coming to town and perhaps they were looking for a venue or they were looking for some feedback. I thought they might be inquiring about the housing file. I thought nothing of it.
I was surprised that the people who came on the call were people I had never met and didn’t know. They just said, “The reason we’re calling is we’d like to ask your permission to do a security clearance check on you for a possible appointment as Lieutenant Governor. What do you think?” As you can imagine, I was speechless and I stammered. I guess it would be an honor to serve the country in that way, but why are you calling me? I ended heated that I was honored by the call, but I asked to be put in touch with some people with whom I could have a conversation so that I fully understood the expectations, the role and could assess whether I would be able to do the job they were wanting.
This may be too cheeky to ask, but what did you do next after that phone call? Do you just go right into the budget meeting and pretended like nothing happened?
Pretty much. They did the security audit and that involved a number of different steps. I had to give them permission. I had several interviews, but I also assumed that they would have a number of candidates. I felt honored to be considered, but I didn’t expect it could be me. My husband and I would have conversations about it. We kept thinking of all these people who would be great, “So-and-so would be wonderful.” He said to me, “Yeah, it’s not going to be you,” which was fine because that’s what I thought as well. I was genuinely surprised when I did receive a call from the Prime Minister personally asking me to take on the role. That was a lovely conversation because he did reinforce with me that he hoped I would continue to bring profile to the issues that I had long been involved with. He considered that a valuable asset in the Vice-Regal Role. I was delighted to accept and away we went.
In April of 2018, you were the Lieutenant Governor. I think I’m sure you heard from lots of people in the sector that how much it meant to have someone from the social profit sector in that role. Was there anything that stood out for you? Did you feel like you were representing the not-for-profit or charitable sectors?
That’s true. I’ve had a pretty diverse volunteer experience and obviously, I have had connections and worked in the for-profit sector as well and in the public sector. I think a pretty broad and diverse range of career opportunities over the years, that’s been a real privilege to have had a variety of different roles that suit my skills and challenged me intellectually. It was certainly meaningful, I think, to my colleagues in the nonprofit sector or the social profit sector, as we say now. I do feel a special sense of responsibility to represent them well.
I think not that you need to pay attention to what I think, but I think you’re doing a very good job of it. I want to go back a little bit because this isn’t the first time that you’ve been in a role leading the sector in a very different format. If I’m correct in my research, you were the first not-for-profit or social profit leader to be chair of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade as well.
I think many of the people reading this have been to Board of Trade events when we used to be able to get into the same room. It doesn’t feel the same as getting together with a lot of not-for-profit colleagues. It’s a different air and it’s a different organization. How did you experience being the chair of that organization with your nonprofit background?
It was a wonderful opportunity. I loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed the relationships that I built with a diverse range of corporate, public sector and nonprofit leaders through that role. I had initially being invited to serve on a couple of Board of Trade Committees, people probably saw that I was a hard worker. Also, the Board of Trade gave me a Community Leadership Award, quite a number of years ago. Through that, I engaged a little bit more directly in the work of the Board of Trade and became interested in it. They invited me to join the Board. I’ve always been a hard worker. I took the role seriously as one does. I did my best.
Over the few years I was there, they invited me to join the executive committee and to serve as chair. I think it was simply a function of hard work, being there and doing my best to honor the organization to support it. I also felt it was an important opportunity to help position the YWCA as a very successful social enterprise. I think many people in the corporate world, don’t always appreciate the skills that you need in a nonprofit context, many of them were very similar. YWCA wasn’t remarkable or it continues to be a remarkable example of a successful social enterprise, which self-generates much of its revenues through mission-related social businesses. Things like the hotel operation, the health and fitness centers, and also fundraising, which is your area of expertise.We have to make a sincere effort to listen to those whose experiences and perspectives are different from our own. Click To Tweet
Positioning the YWCA as successful in that context, a very important way to enhance the profile, credibility and stature of the nonprofit sector more broadly. It was also an opportunity for me to share my policy views. I have certainly colleagues and friends in the nonprofit sector who were puzzled by my role in the nonprofit sector and saw it as being something that was perhaps not aligned. I always felt that there’s no more important place that I could have been because when you’re only speaking with people who share your views, share your experience or dealing with similar issues from a similar perspective, sometimes you’re only speaking to yourself.
I think it’s important for those of us in leadership positions to be able to reach out across those boundaries that divide people in society. Make a sincere effort to listen to those whose experience is different and to build those relationships of trust which enable you to have some of those more challenging conversations that can help us find those places of compromise in between the extremes of public opinion. I saw that as an opportunity that would be good for the YWCA and frankly, good for a number of the advocacy initiatives that I have long championed things like women’s equality, access to high-quality universal childcare. I was careful not to be a one-trick pony and focus only on those things. I made a sincere effort to educate myself about the issues facing the business community, to understand them more deeply than I had and to play a role in supporting them.
Both in that role and your current role, looking at the not-for-profit or social profit sector, has it changed your perspective of what of the sector and the work that happens on a day-to-day basis?
Do you mean being with the Board of Trade?
Being in the Board of Trade and of course, being Lieutenant Governor, does that change your perspective on the social profit sector?
I think your views are always informed by the experiences that you have. Fundamentally, my belief in the importance of the nonprofit sector, the importance of the work done is certainly undiminished. I attempt to use a different platform to continue to bring profile to what are foundational issues in our society that need and deserve attention. It’s approaching it from a different perspective and platform. One of the challenges for someone like me is I’m comfortable and I enjoy debating policy ideas and options, but as a left-handed governor, one needs to be a bit more circumspect about that. Nonetheless, I can always use evidence-based to bring high profile issues, which are important. I can bring people together to have honest conversations, bring people whose views may be different together in a confidential environment where they can safely discuss some of those pinch points in society and decision-making. I’ve certainly tried to do that in my current role.
Speaking of pinch points has been quite a few over this first year of the pandemic and this marathon where we can’t quite see the finish line yet. The issues that you’ve been the champion and advocate for, the affordable childcare and women’s equality, have been negatively impacted through this pandemic. As you’ve watched that happen, what can we do or what should we be doing both as a sector and as a society to address those issues better?
There’s no question that women have suffered disproportionately as a function of the pandemic in terms being much more likely to give up gainful employment in order to take care of those domestic responsibilities and the care of children. We’ve also seen similarly indigenous black people of color who have suffered from a health perspective and unemployment perspective to a much greater degree. These things are realities that people who are taking risks on behalf of the rest of us are people who fall into those categories.
I think the important thing is to continue to raise awareness of that. I see a fair bit of that happening. I worry about the K-shaped recovery, where people who are in privileged positions who continue to have income, who are able to work from home and are essentially safe. They are doing very well and have seen their lives not that much interrupted, except for the exhaustion that comes from endless Zoom meetings, and the loss of that personal engagement and the ability to be close with our friends and to hug people, even shaking hands. That’s a different level. People who are in frontline healthcare positions, the people who are working in shelters and nonprofit housing, for example, transition housing, supporting women who are leaving violence. These people are at much greater risk.
Awareness of that is extremely important. I try to do what I can to bring awareness, use my platform accordingly. This is a really unique time because there is a much receptivity to looking at an openness to big changes, to big ideas and to considering policy options, which would have been complete anathema a few years ago. You wouldn’t hear people having a serious conversation about something like universal basic income, but it is very much on the agenda, certainly in Canada but really around the world. This is a significant shift.
I do think we have a window that has been brought home to us by the pandemic, which helps us to recognize that our own security, safety, health and enjoyment of life and society does depend on improving the quality of life for people who do not have those privileges and advantages. The pandemic has shown us clearly that unless we deal with COVID-19 at a global level, none of us are going to be safe. The virus will continue to mutate. We’ll be constantly catching up with new vaccines and they’ll constantly be a lag period. It is a global issue. It’s an issue that needs to be solved, not through nationalistic stands and parochialism, which is about protecting our own group, our own family, but a recognition that we are interconnected and that no person is an Island. That is much more dominant in the public discourse than it has been in the past. I think that’s a very good thing.
That “we’re all in this together feeling” is encouraging if we do the right things with it. I’m curious around Affordable Childcare. In the latter part of 2020, the CEO of the Bank of Nova Scotia writes an op-ed in the Globe and Mail talking about one of the most critical things for Canada’s economic recovery as a result of the pandemic is access to childcare. When I read that, it felt like the real turning of the page that when you’ve got someone leading a national bank saying, “If we want to fix the economy, we’ve got to start with childcare.” Other than, “Finally,” and the feeling of relief, what was your reaction to that? Was that a long time in coming or too long in coming?Unless we deal with COVID-19 at a global level, none of us are going to be safe. Click To Tweet
That shift in understanding has been underway for quite some time. Certainly, when I joined the YWCA and became engaged more actively in childcare advocacy, I identified pretty quickly, or at least I felt fairly strongly that most of the public discourse in the advocacy had been around the healthy development of children, family support, which is fundamental. Looking at research around long-term educational attainment, reduction in juvenile delinquency, better health population, health outcomes, that was the dominant narrative which is something that I deeply believe in.
I could also see that so much of policy decisions were flowing from an economic frame and that we needed to be able to present these arguments in a way that made economic sense and help people to recognize the benefits. That’s something that I took a fair bit of responsibility for early on because of the unique positioning of the YWCA as an organization, as a social enterprise that could bridge the for-profit and the nonprofit sectors. It’s something that we worked on for a long time, but during my term with the Board of Trade and I won’t take personal responsibility for this. There were many people involved but we had the Board of Trade and also, we saw the Business Council recognizing the importance of investment in early learning and care and including this advice in annual budget letters, both to the provincial government and the federal government.
We saw in the business community an emerging recognition of that. We also saw many corporate entities very anxious to retain competent female employees who were leaving the workforce because they were unable to strike a balance between their work and their family life. They recognized that this was not a good sign for the long-term viability of the local economy or their business success. We saw many corporations anxious to provide those supports and benefits. They often try to do it as individual corporations, but over time, they recognized that it was a societal issue and that we needed a societal response to it. It’s been growing for a long time. We’ve seen in the past chief economists from a number of the banks taking this position. It wasn’t a surprise, but it’s always a pleasure to hear it.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times that this is a unique opportunity for these important issues of social equality and social justice to come to the fore, a new openness as a result of the pandemic. People wanting to make sure that their values are represented in society. What advice would you have for the sector to change that willingness to talk about something into the locked-in real social change as we move out of the pandemic?
It’s a time of opportunity, but it’s also going to be a very challenging time. One of the most important things to do is for organizations, individuals and the leaders of those organizations to reach out to people with whom they may not agree. To make a serious effort to understand the point of view of whoever that opposite person may be. To approach those conversations with a willingness to listen and to learn. To approach those conversations, not thinking, “Now, I’ll come up with the arguments and convince this person,” but to think seriously about what their challenges may be and what informs the views and the opinions that they have. That’s the way to build a greater understanding of the work of the nonprofit sector because fundamentally it’s about building trust.
When you build those relationships and you build trust, you create the context where there’s an openness to listening on both sides. People are more willing to move off what may be oppositional positions and find that common ground that we’re all looking for. When it comes to those societal discussions about the allocation of scarce resources in society and this is a huge challenge for governments everywhere. Part of finding our way and navigating our views through that is by understanding, not just our own. Doing a good job of negotiation, argumentation and debate but doing a good job of listening and finding those places of common ground.
That’s good advice at any time but particularly relevant where we find ourselves now. We hosted a series of round tables of CEOs in the sector from arts to social services and post-secondary, health, and medical. There are two dominant themes that came out of those conversations. The first was crises like this are exactly what the social profit sector is designed to do to step forward and address challenges as they present themselves. A lot of organizations are addressing challenges every single day, whether the general population knows about it or not or is aware of it or not. This is the sector’s time to shine in terms of delivering value to the community. There was a collective sense of pride about how organizations have stepped forward.
The second one and I’m interested in your perspective on this, was a lot of the leaders that we talked to were tired. I’d characterize it as something like rally fatigue of keeping their boards up, teams up and themselves up. Many of the leaders are managing little kids and keeping families up. What have you seen, not just in our sector, but across in terms of the concept of leadership? What’s changed in leadership in this time of pandemic and upheaval that we’re currently at and hopefully almost done with?
I hope so, too. People are exhausted. Everybody’s exhausted. Even the people who are in privileged positions are tired. Especially those people who are at the frontline and dealing face-to-face with some of those enormous challenges and risks that they, their organizations, or their clients and customers need to grapple with. In terms of leadership, some trends that are interesting is that there is a much greater openness to embrace those non-traditional qualities of leadership. It was McKinsey & Company that did some very interesting work on the gender differences in leadership and looked at the nine most effective characteristics of effective leaders.
This is a proper research. It’s not just anecdotal evidence. They looked at the frequency with which men and women utilized those leadership qualities in the work context. They found that in the five of those characteristics were practiced more frequently by women than men. Two of them were practiced equally. Two of them were practiced more frequently by men than women. The ones that were practiced more frequently by women were things like collaboration and mentorship. The ones that were practiced equally were things like effective communication. I do remember that.
It’s very interesting because it shows that some of those qualities that are viewed as being less traditional, more associated with female leadership from a research point of view have been very effective in the management of the pandemic. You see the credit that some leaders of countries who come in through the greatest degree of credit? People like Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern have been remarkably successful. It is through the deployment of some of these characteristics. There’s more of a recognition of that and a willingness to embrace that. That’s a positive thing.
We work with a lot of organizations that are seeking to transform. I hear lots of times from board members, they say most change management undertakings aren’t successful. They are in general more successful in our sector because there is more of an in-service to mission and service to organization leadership style that tends to come to the fore. The other part of it that makes it more likely that we’re willing to accept change, however, imperfectly is that we are forced to be responsive to the missions that the organization serves. A lot of success comes from reconnecting to mission and whether it’s connecting a board or connecting a leadership team to their core mission. It’s amazing how effective that reminder can be.
I’ll take away from some of your comments the importance not to lose the reminder that this pandemic has brought to the sector and society in general. I want to end with a question I’ve asked a couple of other people who’ve been on the show. I was debating whether to ask you this but I’m going to go for it. In this early part of 2021, what are you most looking forward to in your role and as a person? What are you looking forward to as we move later into 2021?
Like everybody, I’m looking forward to being able to be with friends, to be able to host people at the government house, to be able to recognize the marvelous work that so many people have done during this incredibly challenging time. I’m also looking forward to that big picture discussion about where we’re going as a society and where we’re going as a global community. I’m looking forward to opportunities to unpack and understand what the characteristics are that can tip a society towards solidarity, collaboration, collective action for the collective good versus division, chaos, and looking around the world. We’ve seen some excellent examples of both.The role of the government is to enable people to collaborate. Click To Tweet
I do feel very strongly that there is something very special about Canada. We have a history and a commitment to diversity, inclusion and pluralism that is baked into our national psyche. In saying that I also recognize that aspirational vision for our country is something that is not a reality for many communities. There is a significant gap there and we have work to do. Nonetheless, some of the founding statements for our country are about the role of government is to enable people to act collectively.
We see that’s not the case in other countries, which focus much more on individual achievement. I’m not saying that individual achievement isn’t important, but there can be an emphasis on rights that doesn’t always balance out with responsibilities. It is part of Canadian culture to recognize that we have rights but we also have responsibilities that pertain to those rights. We need to value the expression of those values in our society and support them. Encourage people to make a connection with how that improves the quality of life for all of us.
That is quite a lot to look forward to and aspirational for the sector and society. Thank you so much for being a part of the show.
Thanks, Douglas. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I wish you all the best.