Leading a large organization is a huge task and can be very daunting for most CEOs, particularly one that is a national health charity such as the MS Society of Canada. Pamela Valentine is a clinical researcher and a leader of innovation who is also currently the CEO of the MS Society. Pamela relates how she came through the door of the organization in the most opportune time just as they were working towards a change in leadership and looking for somebody who understood their accelerating research process. In this episode, Pamela shares what it’s like leading a national health charity and gives some advice to other leaders and CEOs on taking new strategic directions and leading their organizations in a different way.
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Leading A Nation-Wide Strategic Planning Process
We have Pamela Valentine. She’s a clinical researcher, leader of health innovation and currently the CEO for the MS Society of Canada. Welcome, Pam.
Thank you very much, Doug.
You have an interesting background. You took an interesting path to be a CEO at the MS Society, starting as a researcher and then as a funder of research. What did your clinical research work teach you about leading a national health charity?
I learned a lot of lessons along the way. Maybe it wasn’t as intentional as you might hope, but my early experience of being a basic researcher, working in the context of a clinical unit that was delivering epilepsy services at the University of Calgary. It probably colored my early thinking about maybe that translational process of having clinically relevant questions asked and needing to form the scientific questions that we’re going to answer that clinically relevant question.
You have that background, you work in the funding of research for a number of years after that. What spurred you to take the jump to lead a national health charity?
When you have fundraised in a semi-public but government environment where you’re making investment decisions, the opportunity to have an interface with the community that you’re serving in making those investment decisions, whether that’s in research or the programs that we’re delivering, that proximity was a real interest to me. You can see the impact of your work in an almost real-time way.
What was the response from the board and from the team at the MS Society when you came through the door on your first couple of days?
The MS Society had leadership both from the executive and on the board level. They had done a lot of preparatory work for a change in leadership. The benefit was that I was piggybacking on a strategy that they hadn’t put into play a number of years ago that was about accelerating research. When they went looking for a CEO, they were looking for somebody who understood what that research process was and my background in neuroscience lent itself very directly to MS. They’re extremely welcoming and it’s made the launch of my time at the MS Society quick in terms of being able to affect change.
The MS Society has taken some very interesting and important steps in the almost two years that you’ve been the CEO, including the launch of the new strategic plan, Discover, Innovate and Act. Tell us a little bit about the process that you use to come up with that strategic plan for the organization.When you put big goals in front of really talented people, they drive to the finish. Click To Tweet
It was a highly engaged process from the get-go. It was quite iterative and may have felt a little bit messy at times, but those iterations of talking to our various communities and getting different kinds of perspectives from those living with and inflicted by MS, from the research and clinical communities, our donors and our volunteers. The breadth of perspectives in that iterative process brought us to a place where I’m proud of the strategy and the benefit is that it’s been co-created. The buy-in that has needed to happen happened throughout the course of that creation. That puts us in a very different starting point than if we’d huddled in a room and created a strategy and then said, “Let’s launch it.” People have contributed to development.
It’s always interesting when organizations do cast that wide net that you’re describing to try and take from the perspective of so many stakeholders.
We’re talking to 5,500 stakeholders from across the country, if you can believe that.
That is an impressive number.
It was a good process. Everybody got to go along for a ride so that was good.
Were there things in those conversations or the feedback that you got from volunteers or donors in particular that was surprising to you?
The biggest surprise might have been a validation for the approach of very significant investments in research. When you have to weigh-off the local delivery of programming and dollars are always limited against things that might not seem as tangible, those investments in research. I was a bit surprised that the community that we’re serving and the community that we’re interacting with, our volunteers resoundingly said, “This is important work. This gives us hope. We recognize that the payoff is down the road of the important aspect of the direction that we’re going in.”
That vote of confidence that you received from donors wanting and families and those afflicted with MS saying, “Invest in the future, invest in research or invest in hope.” How does that power the discussions you have with researchers and your board about what needs to happen next?
They recognize than we’re moving in the right direction. What I would say powers them is a bit of the preface that I gave at the beginning of the strategic planning process, which is having been out in neuroscience for twelve years and coming back in and taking a look at where the MS research global community is at relative to many other disease courses. My background is in health writ large. We’ve made a ton of progress. If you think about the fact that many years ago we had three treatments that were available. Now, we have fourteen in Canada and a couple that has been approved by the FDA in the US and will come to Canada in the years to come. We probably have seventeen different disease-modifying therapies. That’s a huge amount of progress in terms of the available disease-modifying therapies that people can have choices about. When we think about what those investments were many years ago that we’re reaping the benefits of and where we might be many years from now, the board and the volunteers are void by that. It’s more than hope, we’re actually making progress.
That moving from three to seventeen certainly is a lot of progress. I’m interested when sometimes boards, when organizations are going through strategic planning, take an ownership role over both the process and certainly the outcome. Given the wide consultation that you undertook for your process, what role did the board play and how active were they in the conversations you had with 6,500 Canadians?
They are absolutely front and center. At the outset, our board is made up of volunteers so they wear multiple hats and so they were along for the ride on the entire process. We ran a number of discussions with the board amongst themselves, but we also took members of that board and populated a strategic planning committee. They were in lockstep throughout the process. We presented back at various stages in the process what we’d heard from all of those consultations across the country but because they are distributed across the country, they often participated in various engagements we held. It wasn’t about telling the board we were running a process. They were actively involved.
Is there a timer? Maybe you could share a story with us of what those conversations taught you as a relatively new CEO to the organization as you were going through this comprehensive planning process.
It maybe retaught me how very important it is to have different perspectives from around the table. On our strategic planning committee or our board member, Susan Senecal, who’s the CEO of A&W sitting across the table from a volunteer that has contributed their time and energy to us for 30 years and has a personal connection to MS. Being able to listen to and appreciate the perspectives of where various people were coming from, in my mind continued to improve the product and the clarity of direction throughout that iterative process that happened over the last few months.
It’s amazing to see what happens when you get people from all different walks of life who are quite interested in the same end goal and the same mission for the organization come together.
As I went across the country with the staff, we would hold various discussions and it didn’t matter at what level in the staff people’s perspectives came from. Everybody could align on what we needed to accomplish and yet those differences in perspectives. I walked away saying, “A-ha.” Out of every conversation there was a golden nugget that if you were listening, you could hear and help to improve the thinking as you went through that process.
It is impressive to hear that the patients do that and to lead an iterative process like that. Were there ever times that you wanted to hurry up and get to the answer?
Yeah, I’m a very intuitive person. From that perspective you do want to drive to the end product because you want to get on with the job at hand. The reality is, here we are on launch day where it’s going up on our website, it’s public. The staff is all celebrating, the volunteers across the country. In reality, we started in it three months ago to start to activate that strategy. In a sense this has already become part of the DNA of the organization and we’re already enacting on it. There’s not a hard start really.
What parts of the plan as CEO are you particularly excited to see get put into action?Don't waste time worrying about whether or not you're being too bold because it sets direction for other people. Click To Tweet
Maybe I can talk about the transformative approach that we’ve taken in and how we’ve structured or framed the strategy, which is quite different for the organization. The first element of it or premise perhaps of the strategy itself is built on the idea that it’s about a broad MS community that needs to be enacted, needs to be mobilized in order to achieve what we want to achieve. It’s not the MS Society and the MS Society alone that’s going to be able to achieve the things and the directions that we’re trying to move in. It’s the entire MS community that will come together to achieve those impacts. The other transformative aspect of it for me is that it is built on measurable impact.
We have more impact goals and strategies that are around advancing treatment and care. It’s about enhancing well-being, understanding and halting disease progression and ultimately maybe this is the boldest of the four impact goals, it’s about preventing MS from happening in the first place. To have that lens of the impact or outcomes that we’re trying to achieve and a measurable framework that sits underneath, it is a fundamental change for the way that the MS Society has been thinking about its strategic direction.
That issue of measuring outcome or measuring impact is a lot of the clients that we work with here at the Discovery group are asking themselves the same question. Boards are asking or funders are asking, “How do you know it’s working?” As you’re in the first days of this new strategic plan, what will you be looking for to know that you’re achieving those measurable impacts?
There’s a couple of immediate success factors in the early days. One is, you know you have an army of champions. We have under 300 employees across the country, but we have 15,000 volunteers. When I begin to hear the echoes of the sentiment of this strategy from the volunteers themselves, I’m going to be void that it has become a fabric of the organization. Measurement is going to be critical to this. We’re in the midst of developing what those measures are. It’s hard work to do because it probably means we need to collect different data. We’ll have some but not all of the data that we want and some of the data will go beyond the walls, virtual as they are. The organization and to be trying to pick up data from that broad set of stakeholders. I’ll know we are successful when we have some of those measures in our hands and hopefully, they tell us where our successes are. I’m equally hopeful that they tell us where some of our failures are. In recognizing those failures, take a different tack, stop doing something. I hope to be able to pivot relatively quickly for the organization.
That pivot is the great art of leading large charitable organizations, particularly investing in research where the investments take time over years. Remaining nimble is one of the essential ingredients of success.
My level of impatience, the sense of urgency I feel on behalf of all Canadians living through with MS or affected by MS is palpable. To be a nimble organization that can make good evidence-based decisions, but in fairly tight timelines, thinking about how we accelerate, is going to be important. It’s important to the person who gives us $1 and it’s important to the person who gives us $1 million. We’re stewards of every single donor dollar. The donors, regardless of what dollar value they give us, you just want to know that it’s actually making a real tangible difference. We need to be able to demonstrate that to them.
I know a lot of your colleagues and leading national health organizations or anyone leading an organization dealing with health in Canada gets a lot of the energy from the conversations with donors because that’s where a lot of the inspiration comes from. How has that experience of talking to donors influenced your time as CEO and the strategic plan that you’re launching?
More and more of the donor perspective is almost one of investment. Part of what the charitable sector is having to think about is what does the portfolio of investments looks like? It might have sound crass, but what is the return on not only the dollar but our human capital, our efforts that we’re putting towards the mission of the organization. That dialogue has shifted pretty substantively in the last five to ten years for the charitable sector as a whole.
One of the things I am always fascinated about and they’re difficult choices for large national organizations to make, but it is the idea of being a funder of research or representing that movement of Canadians who are concerned about MS. How do you try to balance those two ways of being or those two business models at the MS Society?
It’s a great question and one that the organization has grappled with. In my mind it’s not an either/or, It’s and/and. By refocusing the strategic direction for the organization on those impacts, there will be a blend of activities against any one of those impact goals that will cross over the discovery piece. We need more information. We need to put that evidence to work. We are going to need innovation to implement or apply our knowledge base and we’re going to have to work collectively. I don’t ever think about it as a percentage spend. When you’re creating a percentage spend, that’s what you’re driving towards. This strategy shifts us into thinking about what those outcomes are. Fairly naturally, the activities will burrow what that investment split may need to look like.
Anyone who’s worked in a large health organization should take note of that to a distinction there between the percentage spend to focusing on impacts. That trips up a lot of organizations and a lot of your peer organizations across the country.
We’re all grappling with the same challenges. One of the things that are extraordinarily powerful about the MS environment is how linked the MS organizations are from around the world. We have the MS International Federation of all the MS organizations worldwide that get together on a regular basis. We’ve had some fairly significant activities that are targeting gaps. We have the International Alliance for Progressive MS. Six of the MS organizations from around the world a few years ago came together and started this alliance. They have very significantly invested at a global level to try and create a pipeline and accelerate a pipeline of treatments targeting specifically progressive MS. It’s a unique environment to be in. As a charity, we’re all facing the big impact questions.
Imagine for a number of your donors being a chance to be a part of an international movement to better understand and treat MS is a powerful motivation.
Who cares where the answers come from? It isn’t about borders anymore. It’s about crossing those borders and having the world work together. We understand that there’s much more powerful capacity and that we will accelerate towards our goals by doing so.
Looking ahead, what are you most excited about being different after the launch of the strategic plan?
I’m hopeful that the fundraising is even more successful. I’m hoping that various donors, investors, whatever title you want to put on them, that there’s a recognition that there’s a strong direction for the organization. There are very measurable outcomes and that makes the fundraising job and therefore the resources we have at our disposal even stronger than before. That’s a hopeful place to be in. We had our biggest gift in the organization’s history given to us. It’s because of the momentum that has been created that that group invested money or they didn’t have a connection to the MS cause, but could see the need. I hope that the plan has such uptake that as I crossed the country and I hear from volunteers and staff and researchers and clinicians, that entire MS community, that we’re hearing that the strategic direction is being taken up in a substantive way and that we’re beginning to be able to point to measurable differences that we’re making.
It’s a lot to get done in twelve months.
I’m ambitious. When they said, “We want you to drive a new strategy.” I said to my executive, “I’d like to do it in six months.” They all looked at me a bit like I had a crazy talk, but what when you put big goals in front of talented people, they drive to the finish. They bring you a level of creativity and passion that I’m always pleasantly surprised by. I’m confident that we’re going to be in a good place.The importance of a co-creation process is that everybody's contributing to define what the direction is going to be. Click To Tweet
I can certainly hear your passion and your commitment come through in this conversation. One of the things that we don’t spend enough time on is organizations, when we’re asking our donors to see us differently, to give differently, whether that’s more frequently or more robustly, where people who haven’t given to start giving. Our organizations need to be different than they have been in the past. We can’t offer the same solutions. We can’t offer the same messaging. It sounds like you’ve done a very good job of being careful and quick at articulating a new path forward for the MS Society.
I sure hope so. If you talk to all those people, that 6,500 of them that have been involved in the process, you’d hear resoundingly a positive message about where the organization is going and the hope that that process has created.
What advice would you give to someone who’s leading an organization that gets that same message from her board to take a new strategic direction, lead the organization in a different way? What advice would you give to someone starting that process?
I would give the same advice that I had from one of my mentors at some point in my career. She’d done some things that were astounding. I sit in awe of what she was able to accomplish. I said to her, “At what point in your career did you know you could make bold moves?” She said, “I wish I had done an earlier. Think fearlessly and dream big. Don’t waste time worrying about whether or not you’re being too bold because it sets the direction for other people.” Her other piece of advice was, “Turn around because there’s a whole bunch of people who are following you. Have your thought about that leadership that you have the opportunity to create.” Engaging with all those people was extremely informative, but it also let me turn around and see all those people that I can now empower to lead in their way a contribution towards the direction of the organization. Thinking about the leash and the rope that you’re giving people is an important aspect of that engagement process. I don’t think you have to have all the answers in other words,
What do you think gets in the way of leaders or organizations being bold or having that big vision?
There’s a whole lot of things that can give you pause. When I looked for a leadership opportunity, I certainly looked for an organization that I could see the elements that I could build upon. There was a lot of momentum that I’ve reaped the benefits of. Can you ask the question again?
What do you think gets in the way of leaders or organizations taking those bold steps or those big jumps in the direction of the organization?
Organizations can’t break the mold of the prospective at which they’re coming at things. They get told, “We can’t do that because.” I probably as a leader always asking the question, “Why not and what would enable that to happen?” I probably am a bit bloody-minded about I know the co-creation of where you want to end up being is important and then breaking down some of what tends to be ingrained thinking, “Sure, we can do that in a different way. Of course, we can.” Messages are really important.
As your second piece of advice alludes to you, do you need that team behind you to make sure that the organization is moving along with you and you’re moving in a direction that people will follow you?
The importance of that co-creation process is that everybody’s contributing to defining what that direction is going to be. It’s not about what was in my head as my answer. It was about how you worked as a team to create that vision.
You’ve given us a great roadmap for putting together a large-scale strategic plan that talks to thousands upon thousands of Canadians. I wish you all the success with Discover, Innovate and Act, and I look forward to speaking with you again in the future to hear how this plan has rolled out.
Thank you. I’d love to talk to you about it here. I’ll tell you where we’re at.
I’ll hold you to that. Thank you so much, Pam.
- MS Society of Canada
- MS International Federation
- International Alliance for Progressive MS
About Pamela Valentine
A trained research scientist, Pam comes to the MS Society from Alberta Innovates where she spent over a decade and a half leading innovation and change. Her leadership at Alberta Innovates included significantly growing the health research portfolio and strengthening integration of research and health systems to maximize impact for patients and providers. She also led the establishment of a new Alberta Innovates organization that consolidated four corporations across the health, energy, agriculture, and forestry sectors. Pam started her career as a faculty member at the University of Calgary at Hotchkiss Brain Institute and then moved to Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research where she held a number of leadership roles.
Pam believes strongly in collaboration and building robust relationships — and has had a career of working with various stakeholders including from government, private sector, and clinical networks. Collaborating with the board, she will lead a new strategic undertaking that will ensure the MS Society remains a strong national, bilingual organization that delivers exceptional community-based programs focused on enhancing the quality of life of Canadians living with MS.
Hailing from Edmonton, Alberta, Pam is a published researcher and has been awarded the Canadian Psychological Association of Excellence and the Neuroscience Canada Foundation Award. Pam believes in achieving impact in the health domain, a passion she developed as a basic scientist with a strong desire to facilitate the linkage between basic research and clinical care. Pam is motivated and excited by the ability to touch people affected by MS and their families in a more tangible way.
Pam is a strong advocate with an appetite for community involvement; currently she is the chair of the CIHR Institute Advisory Board for Health Innovation, as well as a board member of Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Canada, and Wellspring Edmonton. She is exceptionally proud of her son Josh – a musician and business owner, and her twins, Max and Liz who will be moving to Toronto with her to attend school. If Pam is not seen tending her garden, she can be found cooking up a storm to feed a full table of friends and family.