Founders are those people who saw a need and filled it. Someone who has done that in the area of brain health is the Founder of Watson Centre for Brain Health, Mark Watson. Many of us may have been planning to create and start something – be that a business, a cause, a company, or others. Giving us a look of that, Mark talks about what it means to form an organization and everything that’s involved in it. Mark shares his own journey from being introduced to people with brain injury to taking that first big step of starting his own brain center, outlining the transition from being the day-to-day leader of the organization to having an active management role on the board.
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Mark Watson: Ideas to Action
On this episode, we have Mark Watson who is the Founder of Watson Centre for Brain Health among a number of hats that he wears. Mark, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Doug. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
This is an episode where we’re going to talk about what it means to found an organization and all that’s involved in that. Before you founded the Watson Centre for Brain health, tell us a little bit how you got there and what you were doing before.
Before getting involved with Watson Centre Society for Brain Health, I was involved in special education. In that journey, I was very impressed at about learning more about the brain’s capacity for change and neuroplasticity. I was working in the special education sector and the private sector in a capacity serving families and kids with learning disabilities at a school called Eaton Arrowsmith School. During that time, I started off as the teacher and worked my way into administration. Then ultimately, in the admissions role in serving kids with learning disabilities. I came across some families and got introduced to some families of the kids with a brain injury, which ultimately helped us to move into some of the work that is done at the Watson Centre Society for Brain Health.
You saw a need, went out and sought to fill it.
Like with many things, we weren’t sure how we were going to do it but we were quite clear on why we needed to try to do it.
This is one of the reasons why I enjoy talking to founders, people who see that need, understand the why and then set out to figure out how to make that a reality. When did you make the first big step?
The first big step was in the spring of 2013. At this time, I was an administrator in special education with a focus on utilizing something called The Arrowsmith Program, which is a powerful cog rehab tool. At that time, it was rare. It’s now scaling up in many different places around the world and it’s based on the principles of neuroplasticity and was founded by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young. In the spring of 2013, a big mentor of mine in my life, Howard Eaton, and I went out to this conference in Toronto to learn more about what was going on in neurological rehabilitation in brain injury to understand better what was going on in that world. Also to understand if there were some tidbits we could learn and then apply to special education.
What we found there was that there was a pretty significant need for well-integrated neuroplastic work. That was how it started. In 2013, we found that there was a need for more programs like what Barbara had created and then thought to ourselves maybe at some point it’s something that we could study. I remember approaching Barbara, who’s brilliant in my mind. I’m quite biased towards her but I think she’s remarkable. Her work speaks for itself. I approached her with Howard and said, “Would you want to maybe study your work and effect of your work in brain injury?” She turned it around and Howard and I said, “Maybe that’s something you could do.” She’s always been smarter than me and that was another example of it.
You go to her asking for help when she says, “The solution is you do it.”
It wasn’t just that, it’s was like, “I fully support you and believe in you.” Even when I didn’t necessarily fully believe in myself, she and Howard really showed a level of encouragement and belief in me and us as a team to address this research question in service of others with, chronic acquired brain injuries in our community.
That phrase in service of others I know is a big part of all that you do. You decided this is something you’re going to make real. What were the first few steps?
The first big step was to get approval from Barbara to take on some of this research and to utilize some of her programs to have a research at the University of British Columbia. That was a big step, and Howard Eaton was heavily involved in that. He was a big mentor in my life. That was step one is let’s try to study this in a way that is extremely ethical and professional. We approach UBC and ultimately ended up meeting Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul, who ended up being the principal investigator on the pilot study of this neurorehabilitation program in brain injury. That was step one, and the most important step was to get started. As you can appreciate, it’s quite an involved process in and of itself.
When did it become time to the not-for-profit?
I’ll tell a story. What ended up happening was the pilot study was successful, meaning that people showed up from the community who had chronic acquired traumatic brain injury. They engaged in the program which was great and then we saw some positive effect, which was excellent. That led us to say, “What do we then do now? How do we continue the work?” We wanted to do more research but we also wanted to do more third party academic research and also more internal research. We opened up Watson Centre for Brain Health in 2015, 2016 and served just a couple of clients after the research and then ended up establishing, because of social need, a not-for-profit which is ultimately Watson Centre Society for Brain Health that was founded in the summer of 2017. The reason we did that was we saw an opportunity to do more collaboration in the community and hopefully have a further social impact.
That move to open yourself up to those kinds of partnerships and by creating the society, were you surprised by how the community responded?The most important step is to get started. Click To Tweet
I didn’t know what to think because I hadn’t done it before. It was one of those situations of, “Let’s just try it and see what happens,” and the level of support was overwhelming. It was magnificent and fantastic. It was interesting because much of the work going on, and there’s a lot of great work going on in the not-for-profit sector in brain injury, was around social advocacy, housing and employment. On the not-for-profit rehabilitation side and interdisciplinary rehabilitation side, we were quite innovative in that space and that’s part of what differentiated us in the community a bit.
Do you think that focus on some of the social services and social supports for people with brain injuries, having that as a focus of a lot of social profit organizations, is that just because they hadn’t caught up with the science or the science wasn’t there in 2016 and 2017?
There are more qualified people than I had to answer that question but what I have found is that even where we were starting with our research question, looking at interdisciplinary higher-order cognitive function in the post-acute phase is rare. I think it was a noble research question because the dose was relatively high as well, which was also rare. The dose that we’re seeing people go through was at minimum dose is 240 hours over the course of three months of interdisciplinary cognitive rehabilitation, and that is quite a significant dose and quite rare.
What’s been the response of others in the social profit community around brain injuries to the Watson Centre into the work that you’ve been doing?
I’m in a board position with Watson Centre and I think the community has been supportive of what Watson Centre is doing, but I know that a lot more research needs to be done. We need more social support to move this cause along. When I look at other really important especially social health causes like cancer causes, some of the mental health initiatives, heart and stroke and there’s a bit of cross over there. I see such remarkable outcomes and research going on there. It’s very exciting. In brain injury, I think there’s an opportunity together with other organizations to continue the research into not only prevention, which is a lot of good work going on in, but also in post-acute rehabilitation.
Some of the work that we are looking at that bridges into some of those other marginalized populations including some post-acute cancers. We have been in touch with the BC Cancer Agency about that looking at neurological cancers, be it radiation, surgery, chemotherapy or all of the above. What happens when one person is discharged out of treatment and the Cancer Agency did a remarkable job reducing the tumors and getting them healthy enough to be discharged. Then what do we do? How do we deploy resources to help that person in the community increase their independence?
That’s a huge question and certainly a crying need not just in the healthcare system in British Columbia but across North America. I want to talk a little bit about mechanics. You founded the society and you’re in a board role. Tell me about that transition from being the day-to-day leader of the organization that goes from a standing start to a vibrant organization in a short period of time to transition from that active management role to the board.
It was actually quite a good process because we had a good board with us on this helping us to understand how to navigate that transition. Ultimately, the vision here is to help many different communities that are struggling to provide a good post-acute interdisciplinary care. What we found at Watson Centre was people were starting to travel from other parts of the world to try to get access to this work. Because the work is very noble but also very specific and well-scaled, we had to find a way to support other potential organizations to do that, which led me into the role that I’m in, which is working with acquired brain injury wellness which is the program that has developed the intellectual property. With that transition, we had a great team already at Watson Centre and for clarity of roles, I moved out of Watson Centre and the board appointed a new Executive Director, Joshua Poirier.
You said you had great board support around that. As the founder of the Watson Centre, how did you build that board?
One thing you know about me is I’m a passionate person and this cause is so important. I was asking around in the community and a little bit of luck but also just being gritty and resilient around the cause. If somebody showed an interest and had a personal connection to this cause or a level of expertise that we might need, I just ask them, “Would you be interested in getting engaged with this cause?” The response was overwhelming. The level of support was fantastic.
If you had a personal tag line, it would probably be, “A hard guy to say no to.”
Maybe that’s true. I’ve heard that before, especially when it’s something that I really care about. The people that we serve in our community continued to be probably the greatest teachers that we could have about what’s possible.
One of the things that are fascinating to me in watching the development of both ABI and the Watson Centre is how you’ve managed to keep the lines clear between what is the social profit entity and what is the business entity and ABI. How have you found that balancing act over the last couple of years?
For me, it’s about clarity and trying to be extremely clear about those lines and having real clear expectations for people. I think it’s a clear level of role. ABI is a private company that is committed to helping organizations to provide great care for post-acute brain injury and ultimately improve outcome. Watson Centre Society in British Columbia is committed to providing programming that can help improve quality of life for people with brain injury in our communities and that is not exclusive to ABI. That can be social programs that happen on Fridays and that can be counseling independent of doing some of the other work. It’s about social impact with the Watson Centre. I’m really proud of it.
One of the impressive things from my perspective is that you’ve seen the organization grew very quickly and you seem to avoid a lot of the traps that a lot of social profit organizations find themselves in during periods of rapid growth. You have many health professionals working in the organization, you were able to attract them and build those teams. As you grew, how did you make sure that all of the people on the team shared your vision and have that same passion that comes through in everything you say?
It’s something that I actually enjoy, the visioning process. I love studying leadership and I like the Simon Sinek, Start With Why, book. I enjoy that and I’ve tried to instill that into our teams and learning about different organizations and how they tick and how they work. The vision is so important and I kept reading about organizations that were actually seemingly really ready for success. The problem was the vision wasn’t shared and the vision wasn’t really alive. It wasn’t discussed. It was just, “We’ve got to have one of those as a part of the business plan, put it on the wall.” No, we try to make it a living, breathing cause as to what gets you out of bed and work every day. I feel so incredibly fortunate that there’s a level of alignment within our team towards the vision. It’s increasing the quality of life. It’s simple. I think Watson actually just revisited this and I’m less involved in the day-to-day but that’s where the executive director has the opportunity, not the vision but more the mission which is more of the how.Social impact is about the outcome. Click To Tweet
Let us look under the hood a little bit. Can you give an example of how you keep that vision and that mission so clear in the day-to-day?
Something that I will do and in talking with the teams is we want to, and this is something that I’ve learned from not only my family, my father and my mom but also my mentors. Howard Eaton is a huge mentor in my life and he’s not a micromanager. It’s giving people room to learn. A great example of this is one of our team members was on a project and is on a project still right now. She’s working on it. She wanted to ask me for approval and I said, “I hired you because you’re smarter than me. You’re the expert. What we’re trying to do is to improve quality of life for people with brain injury. If what you’re doing, the action you’re taking fits within that and you can argue against that, go for it.” It’s continually coming back to it and empowering people to act and to grow. It’s continuing to come back to make staff meetings a real thing that are timebound and that are focused on us and how we together are going to achieve goals and what individual actions we need to take to fill those goals. That means something that I believe I need to get better at it and continue to get better at is saying no or not yet. You can’t do it all at once.
Many of the great leaders in the social profit sector, and I’m sure in other sectors as well, do have that giving people a lot of rope, giving people a lot of purviews, respecting their professionalism, discipline and letting them run with projects and ideas. I speak to a number of organizations particularly board members who have seen that strategy not work in a specific instance where someone had a lot of rope and they just tied themselves in bigger knots. If you’ve had that experience with somebody having that freedom, having that flexibility and not having that project not be a success, how did you handle that?
I think when you deconstruct it, what I try to do is to be there. If it is a project that requires a little bit more support, I’ll be there but I’ll try to have that other person lead it. If it is a project where something didn’t go as planned, I think that deconstructing it as a learning experience, “Where did we fall off here? Here’s what happened. What could we have done differently and what would we do differently next time?” That could be a great learning and a great opportunity for continued growth.
Do you think that the focus on research that has been so important in Watson, “Let’s find the right answer. I don’t need to be right but we need to get the right answer?” Does that help grow an organization quickly or did you find that as a constraint?
I don’t really know the answer to that. I think inquiry has led so much of this. It’s been truly on wanting to understand how to have an impact and being open enough to know that you don’t know all the answers and I think that’s key. I think that’s important. In some of the work that I do when I talk about what we’ve learned, there’s a slide that comes up that’s a silver bullet. When I talk about that first study, about the cognitive rehab piece that showed some positive impact, I was excited about it. I was more excited than usual. I thought, “This is so amazing. This is going to have such a remarkable impact on the community.” It definitely will and does and is but it took some of the advisors that I had met with on the medical side to say, “Mark, this is great and you should be super proud of this. However, if you want to have even more impact, you’ve got to find a way to integrate these different principles,” which is always the idea. I remember that conversation and it was like, “Okay.” I kept hearing it time and time again from different people. Then it was difficult to go and then, “Together, how are we going to develop this in a way that is interdisciplinary? What research can we look at to help to inform how to best develop a tool that’s going to have an optimal impact?”
With inquiry and interdisciplinary, how did you keep the complexity of what you were doing understandable? Not just for the people doing the work on a day-to-day basis but with the board and the larger community that was a part of the centre?
When you talk about social impact, I think it’s about the outcome. It’s about case studies and stories and then also looking at the data, the raw data of how many people have been served and what’s occurred and also going back to the standard of care. For me, that’s what I keep going back to is brain injuries in the news all the time. It’s not just your multiple concussion cases anymore. It is fentanyl. It is cancer. It is linking mental health and brain injury. It is that. There’s so much work to be done and there’s so much good work already going on. That’s what’s exciting to me. To us, there is a lot of opportunity for collaboration here. There’s a lot of really good work going on in this space.
On that collaboration, have you found that organizations are ready to step up and ready to change slightly what they do in order to be better partners for the work at Watson?
I think so. For Watson, I’m less attuned to the day-to-day. I truly have stepped away from a lot of the day-to-day operation there. I am finding that there is a level of interest in the community for Watson from varying levels, other not-for-profits to private healthcare practitioners, you name it. There’s been a lot of different people that have come in. Ultimately, what we want to try to do is to make this work more accessible. That’s a difficulty. We’ve got to find ways together to partner, to continue to research and understand the effect of this. We see a positive effect but how could we study it in an even larger scale to better understand how to get this program accessible to those different populations that I mentioned earlier.
The journey you’ve just described is the successful founding of an organization and then the transfer of responsibility from founder to a staff-led, board-led model which is the envy of so many organizations that get started. If someone was starting an organization in an area that they were as passionate as you in, what advice would you give them?
I’m still young in this. I’m reading a lot about that too and a lot of people are informing me but what I’m reading is if it’s something that you’re truly passionate and there is a need there, go out and learn first and understand. Then slowly but surely build the relationships in the community and try to understand what’s currently being done and how what you’re doing could maybe help more people because it’s really about the impact for me. It’s not a product. It’s about a system where people could better themselves.
It comes through loud and clear that you have integrated that into your own thinking and actions and it’s really impressive. I want to cover off three things that you’ve said that I think are really important for anyone in the audience as a founder, as a board member and as a leader in an organization. Three lessons that I’m going to take away from this is, one, to share your passion, to communicate the importance and the opportunity for the organization, for the role that you’re trying to fill in the community. Second is to communicate that vision in a way that keeps people focused on the impact, focused on the outcome. The final one, which I really liked and it’s one that I haven’t heard yet in these conversations, is to be present. When the organization is growing, when people are stretching themselves and the organization with things go wrong or go slightly astray that your first answer was to be there and to be present and I think that’s a great leadership lesson for everyone in the sector.
Thank you, Doug. I’m learning every day and I’ve learned from you and we’ll continue learning. The learning never stops.
That’s the great thing about this life. One thing I’d like to listen to is to be able to learn is how they might be able to reach out to you and learn more about Watson Centre or ABI and let you know how much they enjoyed the show.
Thanks, Doug. It’s a pleasure and Watson Centre is here to serve the community in Greater Vancouver. You could learn more about Watson if you just simply go to our website. We’re located in Burnaby, BC inside of Fortius Sport & Health and you can learn more about us online at WatsonBrainHealth.com.A great leader is someone who is always present. Click To Tweet
Thank you so much for being here, Mark.
ABI Wellness is always looking for partners to work within healthcare and social impact space, www.ABIWellness.com.
Thank you very much, Mark. I really appreciate the time.
- Watson Centre for Brain Health
- Eaton Arrowsmith School
- The Arrowsmith Program
- Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul
- BC Cancer Agency
- Joshua Poirier
- Start With Why
- Howard Eaton
About Mark Watson
Brain injury, concussions, and brain change have always been of interest to me. As an educator and athlete, I have always appreciated the role of rehabilitation in increasing performance. Understanding alternative learning platforms have been of interest to me since I was diagnosed with Dyslexia in elementary school.
My early experiences with education helped me develop an interest in understanding different learning profiles in more depth. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in 2001 from the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. I then completed a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership.
My formal career in education began in 2001 with the Eaton Coull Learning Group where I worked with education professionals (district administrators, principals, and teachers) to help students with learning disabilities better understand the nature of their learning differences/disabilities and then devise and implement a plan to steer around these difficulties.
Since September 2005, in my many roles at Eaton Arrowsmith, I have seen firsthand the overwhelmingly positive impact that strengthening specific neurological capacities can have in all aspects of a student’s life. As a co-director of the WCSBH, I look forward to helping to improve our clients’ cognitive functioning through our brain-strengthening program so they can lead more fulfilled and independent lives.