A leader doesn’t just sit at the top but works as the center of the organization. A great example of this is Sally Ginter. Sally is the CEO of the South Okanagan Similkameen (SOS) Medical Foundation, an organization that fundraises for different interior health facilities in various communities. Sally’s complex role comes with many responsibilities: leading her organization, interacting with patients, and talking with donors. In this episode, she sits down with Douglas Nelson to discuss the value of emotional intelligence in leadership and the importance of keeping your center.
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Our guest is Sally Ginter, the Chief Executive Officer of the South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation in Penticton, British Columbia. Welcome to the show, Sally.
Thank you, Doug. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I want to jump right in. I usually ask guests to talk a little bit about their organization and we’ll get there. First, I want to ask you, what is your first memory of philanthropy?
My very first memory of philanthropy is my mother buying a poppy. My parents are from England. They lived through the Second World War. I had uncles that didn’t come home. Remembrance Day has been a very important day for my family and me. The symbol of the poppy and going to the Cenotaph and observing that silence had a profound effect on me. That is my first most powerful memory.
I appreciate you thinking that through and sharing that with our readers. In our work, it means so much to talk about philanthropy. It’s what we do on a daily basis. It’s helpful to know where those first ideas of philanthropy come from. Tell us a little bit about your move to be the CEO in Penticton.
The South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation fundraises for sixteen different interior health facilities throughout six different communities in the South Okanagan Similkameen. They range from hospitals to long-term care homes to health centers. We raised funds for everything from equipment to patient comforts to research funding.
It’s a dynamic community. You’ve had some very successful fundraising campaigns at the foundation over the last number of years. Coming to Penticton was a bit of coming home again or coming back again to British Columbia. Before that, you had been at Ronald McDonald House in Toronto as the Chief Executive Officer there. What energy approach did you bring with you to your leadership challenge at SOS Medical Foundation from your experience at Ronald McDonald House?
[bctt tweet=”People will probably not remember what you said but they will definitely remember how you made them feel.” username=””]
I’m very grateful for my time at Ronald McDonald House. I’m very happy to be here. It was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision for my family. I owe Ronald McDonald House a ton of gratitude because they gave me a tremendous amount of learning opportunities, both professionally and personally. What I brought back from my experience with Ronald McDonald House is this common saying and it’s the best thing that I can offer. It is, “People will probably not remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel.”
When you’re looking after 81 families in crisis, staff and volunteers that have signed up to support families in what can be some of their darkest hours, the emotional intelligence and the value of having that becomes apparent. It’s far more than the basic skills of being able to do a strategy report or read a financial statement.
We had Richard Pass on the show. He’s the Head of Ronald McDonald House here in British Columbia. One of the things that jump out in talking to him and in the few conversations you and I have had is that it does take showing up with your whole self to do a job like that, and to be present for the families and the team that supports those families. As a leader, how did you sustain your emotional and physical energy as you’re managing the idea of compassion fatigue when you’re working in such a challenging environment?
A big part of that is understanding what is in my lane and what is not, and modeling that as well. When I first started at Ronald McDonald House, there was a young boy and all the children are exceptionally beautiful. It was the first time that I had experienced a family going through this journey of losing a child. It impacted me in far greater ways than I thought it would. It was an emotional hit to the gut. One of my very wise board directors reached out to me to see how I was. He reminded me and said, “Sally, it’s a privilege to be on this journey with the families but it’s not your journey.”
I needed to remember that I am part of the support that wraps around families, but my health and ability to serve them is contingent upon keeping that safe and respectful insulation between becoming too involved and overwhelmed. I’m not at my best when I’m in crisis or a heightened emotional state. I want to be at my best for the families and the team.
You mentioned modeling that for the team that you’re leading. Are you aware of doing that modeling? Were you conscious as a leader of wanting to make sure they understood that you were part of the supportive framework, the insulation for these families, and not on the path themselves?
Absolutely. I spent a considerable amount of time having those conversations. Being aware of what your role is doesn’t replace or eradicate the feelings you still have. Knowing that those feelings are valid and normal can almost give people and me less anxiety. I recognized that I’m going through something, I’m feeling something uncomfortable and prickly, and I don’t like it. This is normal and I need to move on to be able to continue to do my role.
During my time leading health charities, you often deal with donors and family members who are dealing with something very difficult and sad. Maybe they experienced loss or that’s a likely outcome of their cancer journey. It is so important to support the team at the foundation to know that while we’re dealing with individuals who are either in crisis or in a very challenging place in their life. When we’re together as a team, we need to be pleasant and supportive. We need to realize that all of these emotions that our donors and families are feeling, we’re also feeling as professionals who care about our work. Being able to draw the line between experiencing it directly as the families and individuals are is a very straightforward intellectual process, but can often be a very difficult emotional process.
Every day when I wake up, I remind myself of that. For instance, Doug, you did not wake up one morning and Sally Ginter is the center of your universe. What you do, say and feel isn’t a reflection on me. For me to personalize what I may experience with you, someone else, a family in crisis or a patient that’s not feeling well, it’s very skewed. I have to remind myself of that. I’m important to me. I’m the center of my universe. I don’t have that much power and influence over others. Keeping that perspective allows me to be patient and gracious as opposed to upset and hurt.
As a leader of organizations, I also do a lot of fundraising. I know you have had a lot of great working relationships with donors over the last number of years and met a lot of new donors in your role. How do you take that patience and graciousness as your first step towards these donors that you’re working with or donors that you’re meeting for the first time?
First and foremost, it’s gratitude. Particularly in the South Okanagan, they are an extraordinarily generous community. They believe in investing in their healthcare system. I am grateful to them that they are willing to give me their time, and to share with me why they donate. What’s important to them? What do they want to know about the foundation and the works? What is of interest and what is not? What are they happy about? Most importantly, what are they not happy about?
Any time that a donor is willing to give you financial support, that is fantastic. When they are willing to give you some of their personal time, that is a time that they will never get back. To share with you their thoughts and feelings about the foundation and the health system, and what they feel might elevate the patient experience, that is a real gift. I’m grateful for it. I have been very fortunate that our donors have been willing to share their thoughts with me.
You have come into the role during the pandemic and a lot was going on in healthcare right across the country. You’re meeting donors for the first time. Part of the art of leading hospital foundations and something I have admired in several great leaders that we get to work with, work at the Discovery Group or that have been on the show is being able to receive those barbs about the healthcare system without being defensive. You just need to understand, which is not a good way to respond to donors. Also, not amplifying those concerns and say, “I don’t know what is wrong with those people,” and to walk that line to hear donors and receive their feelings, concerns, questions and challenges without internalizing them or making them your own, or agreeing and saying, “We got to fix things.” How do you approach that balance when you are having conversations with donors who are talking about the system?
It’s simple, Doug. It’s that I’m truthful. The experiences that donors and patients may have are real to them. The last thing I’m going to do is to convince them that the reality is untrue. There are also perspectives and being respectful of their perspectives. There are also mitigating factors. I look at the fact that we have a staff shortage. We are not unique. It is right across Canada. It is in every sector. There is a staffing shortage. While Interior Health tries very hard to recruit, attract and retain new talent, something seemingly obscure as the rental market has an incredible impact.
[bctt tweet=”The emotional intelligence and the value of having that becomes far more apparent than the basic skills of being able to do a strategy report or read a financial statement.” username=””]
If you try and find any affordable renting in the South Okanagan, Penticton, Summerland, Keremeos and Princeton, it is almost non-existent. It’s having an intelligent conversation with donors on what are the systemic issues that are impacting the outcomes, and what is within the realm of the foundation to push and advance. If it is in my realm, I will work as hard as I can for donors, patients, staff or volunteers. It is understanding what is within the realm and what is not.
How open are our donors to hearing that very polite version of, “I can’t help you with that,” or “That is not our role with the foundation?”
One of the questions I find most powerful is, “What is it that you would like me to do? How would you like me to do that?”
How often is it that they just need you to hear them?
A hundred percent of the time. How often do you like to be heard? I like to be heard all the time. That goes for everyone, especially these days. It’s a crazy time. There are so many other emotions going on. If a donor or a patient, stakeholder, partner, volunteer or staff member wants to have a conversation and feels that I am a safe and respectful place to have a reasonable conversation with about how they are feeling, I take that also as a gift. Sometimes it is not about solving the problem. Sometimes it is about being heard and being acknowledged. People will have an unpleasant experience. Instead of discounting that experience, sometimes it is enough to say, “That is awful. How did that make you feel?” and then just listen.
That quietness or centeredness of approach that you’re sharing is something that often comes with leaders through experience. I talked to brand new and first-time CEOs. They are often people who are new in director-level roles that have been good at what they did and now they are the director. Their approach is often to try and solve everything because they are good at what they do. That urgency to solve can often get in the way of having donors feel hurt. You have been a CEO in other places. You know how to get things done and you know the answer to most things. How do you strike that balance between, “This is something I can solve,” or “I need to just be patient in here?”
My experience and my education have taught me a lot of answers. When I reflect back to earlier in my career and the first time I was a CEO, I focused on results and outputs. It’s almost like every day was another job interview. I reached a point in my experience where I have enough of a track record and I have quite a confidence in my abilities that I can switch horses when appropriate, from coming up with all the right answers to asking some different questions. What I find I need to do when I do that is I have to check in with myself. I have to make sure that I’m prepared for wherever this conversation needs to go. Losing real or perceived control over a conversation can be terrifying.
If I’m honest, sincere and I know my boundaries in that conversation, you can also use that time to reveal some key nuggets and learning. It’s a balance and staying humble. George Cohon, the Founder of McDonald’s, I remember I called him from Chicago one day. We had won the international award. The first Canadian chapter to ever win this international award from McDonald’s. He said two words to me, “Stay humble.” It’s great advice. If I stay humble, don’t let my ego get in the way, keep listening, and I’m here to serve, I usually end up okay.
Assuming it’s happened once or twice where you caught yourself and your ego is further over your skis than maybe you want it to be, how do you check yourself? How do you know at the moment? Is it something that you reflect on looking back and say, “There was too much of me in that conversation?”
When I began this commitment to practice being a better person, it was reflective. At the end of the day, I would pause and think, “What could I have done better if I could redo it?” I apologize too. Over time, it’s become a bit of muscle memory. For the most part, I can catch myself in the moment. What I’m asking myself in the back of my head is, “What are my motives?” If I find that my motive is to win this argument or make you do something I want you to do, those aren’t good motives. I need to take a breath, stop and reevaluate the outcome that I need to do.
I had a chance to go to a week-long leadership course at the Kellogg School of Business in Chicago. The instructor left me with many nuggets. One of them was the leader of an organization only has to ask herself two questions. The first is, what is right for the organization? The second is, what is the best that I can do? I find that those are useful beacons.
We have worked with a number of organizations that are emerging over the last couple of years. Some of them are very disparate coming together. They have similar causes but very different cultures. Sometimes are very close organizations and already intertwined but doing the formal merger process. One of the questions that we often ask the board members at the beginning is, “What does winning look like?” We’re using that competitive language. Everyone processes that as there are no winners and losers here. This is all about the cause. Of course, it is. You don’t have to share it with anyone, but write down what does winning looks like? The answers to that when people share them or they give them to us at the end of the session are always about how they show up personally, how the mission shows up, what the merged entity is going to be able to do. It’s very future-forward looking.
It’s helpful to get people thinking about those positive anchoring, showing up with the right mindset, showing up as your best self and with the purpose in mind. It helps avoid some of the arguments over which accounting software or organization to use. If there are going to be some staff reductions, who gets to choose who goes. These significant but petty details often get in the way of those conversations. If you start with, “What does winning look like individually?” It does help unlock the better self of most people around the table.
I love that approach because the other part of that as well is it would inadvertently force people to think about what they are willing to let go of. I know in my experience with others or myself, angry, frustrated and resentful, at the base of all that is a fear. It’s a fear of either losing something I have or it’s a fear of not getting something I feel I need. Having that wonderful common goal of what success looks like would give me and others something to compare what they think they want to hang on to and want to get relative to that goal. To what degree does it have impact or significance in achieving the goal? I am a feeling-logical person. I still firmly believe in metrics. With every decision that I make, I have to weigh the risks and benefits, and how is that going to be measured towards the goal?
[bctt tweet=”Sometimes, it’s not about solving the problem. Sometimes, it’s just being heard and being acknowledged.” username=””]
You put feeling thinking first. One of the observations I have seen with a number of leaders, and I have been guilty of it myself in the past, is using metrics as a way to avoid having to process or acknowledge the feelings. If I’m only opening Excel on my computer in the morning, I’m probably not making good decisions. In general, I’m probably quite unhappy with the work I’m doing. Using the data or KPIs to drive progress in this organization works, but it’s quite limited if it’s not connected to the feelings part that you put first in your list, which is interesting. For you, which comes first or which do you feel first?
It’s like building a plane while flying it. People aren’t going to follow you. They are not going to implement what needs to be implemented if they don’t trust you. I can come up with the best business plan, the most remarkable metrics, the leading and lagging indicators, the blinking things that would spin your head six ways to Sunday. I can do all that and they are not worth the paper if I haven’t built some trust in the team. To move forward, there are going to have to be risks.
I say this with every team because I mean it, which is, “You will fail at some point and I expect you to fail at some point. I’m so looking forward to this journey with you when we can unpack it together and take all the good learning from it and apply it so we learn to make the organization better for that.” If you don’t fail, you’re not taking risks. It’s not crazy risks, but you have to take some risks because you can’t stay still as an organization. Metrics are important for governance and accounting. They are important to donors who are the discerning donors that want to know what your administrative costs are.
They are necessary to hold the organizational leader accountable for the health of the organization. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. As I have gone through my career and I have been fortunate to have some incredible role models, I’ve learned that my MBA is fantastic. That gets me to the top third of the pile, but none of my successes would have been possible if I didn’t have the confidence of the people around me.
Listening to you talk, it’s no surprise you’ve had the success that you’ve had. You mentioned trust and then moved away from it. Trust is fundamental. Coming to a new community to be CEO of a very important organization in the community at the medical foundation. How did you approach the idea or the concept of building trust from day one? What were you thinking about trust when you walked through the door on the first day?
With our donors and stakeholders or any organization, the SOS Medical Foundation has been around for many years. There are highs and lows. There are relationships that are strong and there are relationships that could be better. I was very intentional in my approach in reaching out to those that could give you the history. I like to know what the “landmines” are. I’m very grateful to those that are willing to tell me where they are, then I have a choice.
I can either map my strategy and stakeholder management plan around avoiding those landlines or I can one by one, purposefully and systematically diffuse each one. As a leader of this organization, which is a privilege, it’s my responsibility to do my very best to be accountable and responsive to any and all of those landmines and do my very best to address them. The response that I have received and the subsequent welcome that I have received has been phenomenal.
It shows real maturity when a leader is able to see that those problems that people would encourage you to steer around have to be dealt with. They will come back. One of the phrases that we use a lot here is those zombie issues that keep rising up in the life of organizations or the individuals’ leadership time. If you don’t deal with those in an effective way, they are always going to be there. It’s going to be a net drag on all of the good things you do every day.
It’s a little self-serving because I want to focus on good things. I don’t want to focus on things while remembering all of the landmines. It takes up space in my head and I don’t like company.
It makes organizations heavy in a way that new leaders don’t appreciate. They want to move quickly and have a big impact, which no leader wants to move slowly and not have an impact. That urgency to prove oneself and avoid those landmines at the outset so that you can get to the good part, it’s good for our business, but it’s not very good for the organizations over the long term. If they were aware, how did they view you purposefully diffusing those landmines as you went in? Assuming none of them had to do with your board. Seeing someone new coming to the community to lead this organization and taking on these challenging things, what were their thoughts? What did you perceive as how they were viewing that approach?
It was intentional when I accepted this position that the board shared the same leadership philosophy that I have. I see it more as a partnership of what we have mutually identified as being important for the organization. Together, we came up with four priorities to guide my work over the first 6 to 9 months. Within that was the revisiting and investing in those important community relationships, and relationships with other organizations and stakeholders. The board was very supportive, informing, and understood that this was a value that we needed to have as a cornerstone of our organization.
You can get there if you weave around the land mines. You can meet your goals, blow your budget, get all these accolades, and everything else. What are you leaving for the next person? Every time I go into an organization, I hope that my stay will be a long and happy one. On my first day, I make sure that any changes that I’m making to an organization are not built around me. I have left every organization better than I found them.
As we come to the end of our time, I have two last questions for you. As someone who has worked across the social profit sector across the country, what frustrates you most about working in the social profit sector? You have been very zen in your approach to leadership as I know you are. What gets under that calm from time to time?
What frustrates me most, and I have to deal with it, is the immense need. I am so privileged in every way. I live in Canada. I’m educated. I have a great job. I have all my help support around me and a healthy family. I see the inequities. I know that as a collective, all the charities and not-for-profits across Canada are working hard on their different mandates. Sometimes, the fact that I am so privileged is hard.
[bctt tweet=”People aren’t going to follow you if they don’t trust you.” username=””]
As we are here at the beginning of 2022, what are you most looking forward to in your work over the year to come?
From the foundation perspective, I’m looking forward to building on solid works that have been done in the past. I should acknowledge Janice Perrino who was the Executive Director before me. I knew Janice when I was with the Canadian Cancer Society. She was there in Summerland. I pinned the daffodil pin on Janice. I still talk to her. She deserves huge accolades for leaving an organization ready to go to that next level. She did a tremendous amount of work. I’m looking forward to extending more of our resources into the communities.
We have centered a lot on the tower here at the Penticton Regional Hospital. There are lots of opportunities in the other five communities that we serve. We are intentionally looking at that. There is a clinical research unit that is being opened in the Penticton Regional Hospital. That’s the first one for the South Okanagan. We play a very significant role in that. We funded the capital expansion to make that. I’m looking forward to that too.
There is a lot of good things in there and big work to do over the year ahead. I wish you all success for you, your team and the board at SOS Medical Foundation. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you for having me. I hope I did as good a job as Richard Pass did. That’s a big benchmark.
I’ll let you two decide. Thanks, Sally.
About Sally Ginter
Sally Ginter, is the CEO of the SOS Medical Foundation, located in Penticton and raising funds for 16 Interior Health Units throughout the South Okanagan Similkameen Region. Sally grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, moved to Kelowna as a young adult where she stayed for 20 years before returning to Ontario for 8 years, before returning to the Okanagan in 2021. From 2010-13 she served as Regional Director for the Canadian Cancer Society in Kelowna and oversaw more than 5,000 volunteers in 40 Interior communities. From 2013-2016, Sally served as President and CEO of Kerry’s Place Autism Services, North America’s then-largest autism services provider. In 2016 she was appointed CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities Toronto, leaving this position to take on the CEO role at the SOS Medical Foundation. Sally volunteers as a Director on Autism Canada’s Board of Directors and serves as Chair of its Governance & Nominating Committee.
She holds an Honors B.A. from Trent University in Ontario and an Executive MBA from Athabasca University.Sally Ginter, is the CEO of the SOS Medical Foundation, located in Penticton and raising funds for 16 Interior Health Units throughout the South Okanagan Similkameen Region. Sally grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, moved to Kelowna as a young adult where she stayed for 20 years before returning to Ontario for 8 years, before returning to the Okanagan in 2021.
From 2010-13 she served as Regional Director for the Canadian Cancer Society in Kelowna and oversaw more than 5,000 volunteers in 40 Interior communities. From 2013-2016, Sally served as President and CEO of Kerry’s Place Autism Services, North America’s then-largest autism services provider. In 2016 she was appointed CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities Toronto, leaving this position to take on the CEO role at the SOS Medical Foundation.
Sally volunteers as a Director on Autism Canada’s Board of Directors and serves as Chair of its Governance & Nominating Committee. She holds an Honors B.A. from Trent University in Ontario and an Executive MBA from Athabasca University.
Sally’s husband Lauren is a wine enthusiast and is definitely back at home in the Okanagan Valley. Their son Carson is in grade 12 and their daughter Madeline is at University enrolled in marketing and coding. William, the family Yorkie Terrier, is the boss of the family.