Having a leadership mindset could be developed overtime. You just have to be committed to recognizing opportunities, solving problems and delivering value to the company as a whole. The CEO of the YMCA of Greater Vancouver and the CEO of Canada West YMCA Regional Development Center, Stephen Butz joins Douglas Nelson to tell us more. In this conversation, Stephen shares how he fulfilled his role as a leader while navigating the pandemic, working with his board. He also discusses how to handle adversities and how new leaders in an organization can manage certain issues that have complex solutions. Listen to this episode to help you embrace and understand a set of principles and values that are needed for a strong organization to unfold.
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YMCA of Greater Vancouver With Stephen Butz
Our guest on the show is Stephen Butz. He’s the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Vancouver and we’re thrilled to have him on the show. Welcome, Stephen.
Thanks. It’s great to be here.
One of my personal fascinations is leaders who have great longevity, who are able to serve their mission and the purpose of their organization for a long time. I think we can learn a lot from the skills that come with that long service. You’ve been a CEO in the YMCA movement for many years. How has the opportunity to serve the mission changed over that time?
I’d say that in any leadership situation, whether it’s the YMCA, a charity or another organization, it’s the capacity to know what to hold onto and let go of at the same time. In my career, I’ve been the beneficiary of mentorship from people who have helped me embrace and understand a set of principles and values that I try to hold on to as tight as I can. While acknowledging how you execute and how you adapt to opportunity, risk and all the things that show up on a day-to-day basis are those things that you need to let go of.Boards don't expect you to have every answer. They want to know if you are focused on the right questions. Click To Tweet
There’s a constant back and forth between that. Recognizing that the best of us try to acknowledge that leadership never necessarily solves problems but understands that most problems are held in tension between two ends of the continuum, both of which matter. How we manage, that is what defines great leadership from not-so-great leadership.
As you’ve gone through the last number of years, has your speed with which you can identify what to hold onto and let go of changed or has it remained that deliberative process you described?
You’re asking that in what still consists as the middle of a pandemic. If we haven’t all developed this muscle to move quickly, then we’ve missed the point. I tend to be a person that thinks slowly and acts quickly. I have the benefit of having smarter people around me as volunteers, as board of directors, and as members of my team who understand more about what their particular part of the puzzle is than I do. My job is to help assemble the puzzle in a way that has a certain focus and direction.
For me, the rate of change is a product of having people that can see the world, the opportunities and the risks differently than you in part because you don’t have to depend on your instincts. You can depend on them. When you have that trust and transparency, it makes you more effective as long as you’re willing to listen.
Usually, when it gets to the level of the CEO or whatever you call yourself, it’s not the easiest decision to make. All you got to do is look at those past years to recognize that there have been a lot of difficult decisions made with limited information. You need to have the people around you give you that insight that you don’t necessarily have yourself.
That’s one of the big changes that people experience when they move from whether it’s a vice president or director level into the CEO’s chair. Is that those problems that come to their desk don’t have obvious solutions or don’t always have obvious solutions? They’re complex and they do often consist of those issues that are held in tension, as you described. How do you advise new leaders in your organization to manage those issues that need to be held in tension or don’t have those simple solutions?
When I talk to young people, I usually tell a story and I’m fortunate to have an organization that employs a lot of young, smart, capable people who are advancing in their career aspirations. One day I get a chance to speak to them at a conference they hold for themselves. I told the story of a guy named Keith Jarrett. You may know who Keith Jarrett is if you happen to be a big fan of jazz piano players. He’s regarded as one of the world’s greatest. In 1970, he played in a concert in Cologne, West Germany. It was considered the greatest ever jazz piano recording in the history of the medium.While acknowledging how you adapt to opportunity, risk and all the things that show up on a day-to-day basis are those things that you need to let go of. Click To Tweet
What they don’t tell you is the piano that he was playing on was broken and wanted to have nothing to do with it. He had a very difficult time getting the piano in tune in support of an eighteen-year-old young person who was putting the concert on. The long story short is the panel didn’t work. How do you have what is considered the world’s greatest jazz piano concert on a broken piano, recognizing that all the keys didn’t work? You learn to play the keys he had.
When I think about that in the lens of the charitable sector and leadership, it isn’t about what you don’t have and complaining about why it isn’t happening. It’s, “What are the keys that I have to play?” What made this recording great was that he had limited keys, so he had to be more creative. I think that metaphor and that thinking, you recognize that the good ones that are going to aspire and grow into an opportunity are the people that learned to use the tools they have. To learn from others, to be creative, to find ways of getting things done that would otherwise not be possible and not spend a lot of time worrying about what can’t be done. That’s been my best advice to some people. I wish I would have had more of that advice when I was younger. It’s what I think matters.
You mentioned that as you were earlier on in your career as CEO, you had mentors that you could reach out to and you could talk to. Now, as you’ve announced that you’re going to be retiring and leaving the YMCA, who is it that you look to now when you have a question or you’re struggling with as a leader? Who have you looked to as we’ve been managing this pandemic?
I have been astounded at the extraordinary acts of leadership that have happened around me that have come from unexpected places. I have world-class thinkers on my board that helped me make sense of things, who understand that when I go to them as an individual volunteer, I’m not there from a policy perspective. I’m there as a leader, talking to a leader to say, “What am I missing in my thinking?” They are a colleague. They are a friend. They’re not behaving as a board because they can only be a board when they’re in the room together.
I have those kinds of people and they come at it from the lens of the charitable sector, legal, finance, government relations, the plethora of things or health that show up in our day-to-day work. I’ve also seen it in the remarkable leadership of some of our frontline people who in the midst of going through a lot of change because we had to make some pretty big and vast changes in terms of the way we delivered service.
How we pivoted on any one of a number of fronts to simply sit up and said, “Where can I help? What can I do?” Seeing that potential being unlocked for all the wrong reasons because we were having to respond to a global pandemic was an incredible source of inspiration. The privilege of knowing that they had your back. We had each other’s back.
One of the things that makes being a CEO lonely or can make it lonely is that it can often be hard for CEOs to admit they maybe don’t know everything or that they don’t have the answer. They haven’t quite formulated even the right question. It takes some confidence to go to board members, even though they’re not acting as a board and say, “What am I missing?” How did you get to that place where you were able to ask that question?
I’m a pretty big fan of leading from a position of humility. I don’t start with the notion that because I have a title makes me any more of an expert than many other people. Don’t get me wrong. I got a healthy ego. I know I can do stuff. I know I have done stuff. When leaders are tested and have the opportunity to be vulnerable in front of a board, that’s made possible because of all the things that have happened before that. Your credibility in terms of representing the board’s interests, the credibility in terms of understanding and embracing the board’s authority in a way that is appropriate to a board. Delivering on your promises, your commitments and your plans.
Boards are fundamentally worried when they don’t have reason to believe what they’re hearing. If you position yourself as somebody who only gives good news, who only tells them what you think they want to hear, then you’re at the risk of not having them there when you need them. I’m a pretty big fan of transparency and getting people who are smarter than you in the room. Recognizing that the leadership of a board is only there when they’re all together.
Working closely with a chair who understands that their role is not to lead the organization but to lead the board. There are many little things that come together to make that happen. There’s no one thing but I would say at the heart of it is this desire to work in partnership, to understand that they care as much about the organization as you do and embrace the opportunity to make a difference.
I always say the Y is this tool that is there to provide the community good and make people’s lives better. We ask volunteers and we have thousands of them, including those on the board. This is their way of giving to the community through the organization. They’re not serving the Y They’re serving the community. The Y is a tool upon which we can achieve some big important things that matter to kids and families. Volunteers are the means to the end that they’re seeking, which is to make a difference.
You’ve hit the nail on the head for what makes successful social-profit organizations and social movements. It’s the organizations that don’t define their success through their organizational success but through the impact or what they’re able to facilitate others to accomplish in the community. It’s not about us, it’s about what happens through us. Certainly, more at the last several months have shown the organizations that we’re able to do that well-tended to fare far better than those that were leading with their brand name.
I should also mention in the interest of transparency. I don’t always get it right. I say this out loud. I’m a good plumber. I’m not necessarily a great architect. I’ve learned to become architectural in my thinking in terms of design and strategy but where I’m good at is making sure that the stuff works because I think for it to be an effective charity and an effective leader within a charity, it’s not about the grand ambition. It’s about understanding how the organization works from the ground up.
I try and when you’ve been around for several years in an organization, I try to always preserve this ability to see the Y from the ground up or the pool up, the childcare center up, the camp up or whatever it is that represents the way we interact with people. If we can’t ensure that the governance and leadership in the organization are there to protect the ability of our people to make a difference in people’s lives, then what are we doing? For me, the how matters sometimes as much as the what and why. That’s a plumber’s mentality.
A few of your answers already talked about the importance of having credibility as a leader and as an organization acting in the community. That credibility comes from being able to deliver, execute and make sure the pipes work. That certainly comes through in your approach to it. I want to get into some specifics over the last several months, if you don’t mind because you have described the pandemic is the best of times and the worst of times.
The worst of times, I think everyone can imagine, but I’m interested in how the Y responded because you play such a central role in the lives of many people through the services you provide. Through the physical locations that you have that people make use of. Take us back when you realize that this is going to be significant. This was going to be severe in March of 2020. Where did you start?Lead from a position of humility. Click To Tweet
We started with a set of principles around and I don’t remember them verbatim but they go something like this. “We’re going to listen to the experts,” in particular at that time, those people telling us about the health concerns. “We’re going to do our best subject to that advice, of how we can help the community respond to the pandemic. We want to preserve our capacity to advance and recover.” That means protecting our people, protecting our economic capacity and ensure that in going through a pandemic, which we had no clue of back then, we would be making decisions in a way that would allow us to have room to come out of it. Back then, we’re going, “This might last six months. Who knows?”
I think the other smart thing we did outside of intensifying the relationship between our senior team and every day was, “What do we know? What’s changing? What’s we’ve got to fight?” Boards don’t expect you to have every answer. What they want to know is, “Are you focused on the right questions?” We made sure that on a regular basis, we were saying, “Here’s what we’re working on. Is there anything going on in your world that we aren’t thinking about that we should be thinking about?” That whole transparency and while all of this was going on, prior to the pandemic, we were serving about 125,000 people from 250 locations from Chilliwack to the Sunshine Coast.
We were in major program areas, health and wellness, childcare, camping and outdoor education, youth mental health, employment, newcomers and other stuff. They are all influenced by these principles, but they all had a different way in which they had to respond to the pandemic. In some cases, we had to make some hard decisions to close or contract facilities. Our membership centers, for example. That was where the more difficult work happened because we had to say goodbye and lay off a lot of people.
We had to reorganize. We were reorganizing around, for example, the way that we were going to now communicate. We launched a major set of initiatives around virtual services and pivoted all work to online platforms, which frankly continue nowadays. We reorganized around this fluid situation knowing that we wanted to maintain the capacity, to come out of this in some fashion that recognizes that we may not be the same way coming out when we went in. What happened is we still continue to evolve.
All of the infrastructure and the supports that went along with wage enhancement, government work, the terrific support by the province so that we could position our childcare as an essential service thing. We continued to provide support to working families. The brilliant work by our teams to take all of our employment programs and all of our settlement, new Canadian programs online. The launch of a web platform, which didn’t exist, only in concept. That was the cool thing about it is stuff that we would have spent months pondering about, we didn’t ponder. It is dead.
Having the juice to do that and the people because we were economically on solid ground and we have a great set of leaders, both staff and volunteer. The foundation stepped up. We were able to do things. We were able to help YMCAs across the country as we do in our federation, sharing resources and allowing people who need certain things that don’t have it to, “Here. Take this. Here’s a new web platform. Go.” It was difficult for all the right reasons around people and communities, but in many ways, it was pretty exhilarating.
So much of what the Y does is and has done historically is responding to the needs of the community that it serves in which it operates. How much of that flexibility and responsiveness is part of the DNA of the organization to meet the needs of the community that you serve?
I think that is the key to it. I don’t know how many organizations there are in British Columbia that have been around for 134 years but that’s a pretty clear demonstration of our ability to hold onto a name that’s been around forever, that is no longer young, no longer men, no longer Christian. Sometimes the association exists still but to have a heritage that long recognizing that there have been many different forms of the YMCA in British Columbia, over in Vancouver, specifically over the years.
We were formed six months after the city of Vancouver was formed. Those are back in the days when there weren’t these wide ranges of charitable organizations out there. There were a few that were common and the YMCA back then was one of them. When a community formed, one of the first institutions that showed up was the Y.
We’ve been a lot of different things and we will become another thing, not because of the pandemic, but because of the needs that we’re seeing changing the community. There is more need to address the issues around social inclusion to address the level of vulnerabilities that are out there. To support families raising kids to help them achieve their full potential. To be a place that can be inclusive that brings the community together.
We’ve all heard about herd immunity. I have a board member that says, “The Y can be part of herd connectivity, maybe.” We’ve had big challenges, but it’s another big challenge. I think that’s a tremendous opportunity for an organization like us with others to start to address what’s going to be important to kids, families and communities in the next decade.
Was there a time as you’re navigating the pandemic, working with your board and with the senior leadership team that you realize we’re going to be okay or we’re going to be able to make it through this? If I go back and readers can go back and read some of the episodes we did at the early part of the pandemic. A lot of the leaders we talked to were acknowledging that their organizations were having these existential crises about whether they were going to make it, whether they even needed to exist in a world like this. Was there a moment when you thought that we were going to be able to pivot, we were going to be able to respond?
I may have said I had a moment where it was an existential moment, as you suggested. I think there are parts of that experience that said certain elements within our organization are going to be needed more than ever and certain elements are going to be potentially changing and adapting to whatever needs to play out of it. I’ll give you an illustration. We were planning a major development in a part of Vancouver that we’ve been into. As the pandemic rolled out, we started to see that the objectives of that major development weren’t possible to achieve. The cost structure, the capital investment, the ability to make it financially viable. We need to step away from that.
For us, the adoption was we’re okay to let go of that, but now there’s this other opportunity and the other opportunity is going to be in the area of housing. How we go into an area that we invented many years ago when there wasn’t a thing called social housing where new Canadians came. The place that people from the city came was the Y.
How can we play a role to help deal with some of those issues, which have always been a problem in Vancouver but are going to accelerate in the coming year? I boiled down the key to leadership to two things among many things. Decide what’s important among many important things and everybody gets that. Usually, that means saying no to a lot of good ideas.
The second one is the one that’s the toughest and that is to make the change before you have to. Making change through the lens of crisis is not fun. The ability to see what’s coming and use whatever resource you have to facilitate the change such that if you’re going to go through pain, do it early, do it fast so that you can position the organization for something better down the road. You got to see the immediate and the long-term at the same time.
There is experience and instinct required in that but also probably a lot of faith in the people around you that you’re going to be able to do that together.
That’s where great boards and staff teams come in pretty handy.
As you look ahead to your last couple of months in the CEO chair, what are the things that have changed for the better? What has worked in the sector in the Y over your time as CEO?
For me, what’s worked is this notion of adaption and understanding. As I said, the real problem facing leaders and this was one of those things I wish I learned several years ago, is that assuming all problems can be solved. Leaders that have understood this paradox that there are these tensions up there, being optimistic and realistic, embracing change, preserving stability, being economically focused or being purpose-driven. To recognize that it’s not one or the other, it’s both.
In doing that, operating this big complex organization that I have is to recognize that you need to understand that paradox through the lens of how do you provide community benefit? How do you show up in a way that’s purposeful and consistent with where the community is going consistent with your values while at the same time doing so in a way that can preserve the sustainability of the organization? Hopefully, at least in our case, the ability to do it in a way that makes it self-sustaining.
The YMCA has a model which allows us to drive our mission through the lens of things, which are market-driven that creates the economic independence that many charities don’t have. The success is going to be continuing to advance that model through the lens of evolving needs that communities are going to face and understand. The need for finding places and spaces that bring people together through the lens of inclusion. Our mission says that no one’s ever turned away. Capacity has been one of the major successes of our organization and one that I’m sure will be going forward. The tools to do that are going to change, the principles behind it won’t.
For advice for the social profit leaders who are readers and those that are going to be social profit leaders in the near future by position, not just by action, what do you wish the sector spent more time focused on? What do you wish we did more of?
I wish we spent more time finding commonality in common ground for the purposes of advancing community benefit, as opposed to holding on with dear life, our parochial views of what’s important. I guess I’ll call it achievements and one of the things I hope to get done before I’m hanging up here is, I’ve merged a bunch of, in this case, YMCAs. I’ve become a real student of nonprofit integration and what gets in its way. In fact, several years ago, I did a Master’s degree and the graduate thesis was the anatomy of non-profit mergers, asking the question of why it takes a crisis to get real change?
The answer to the question is, at least, for the most part, that’s the only thing that works. I’d like to find a way and continue to pursue it. There have been some great examples of watching charitable organizations. Understand how they pursue the benefit that they exist to serve differently by working together differently. It can be a merger at one end of the continuum. It can be other forms of collaboration at the other end.Make the change before you have to. Have the ability to see what's coming and use whatever resource you have to facilitate change. Click To Tweet
We’re trying to advance that discussion of YMCAs in BC. I hope it leads us to a better way of providing services to recognize that people don’t care how you’re organized. It’s what happens to their kids and their families that matter the most and we’re starting to see that. Because of that, we’ll be able to solve different problems. I think that’s going to be one of the challenges coming out of the pandemic. It’s not, “Here’s my problem as a charitable organization. Please solve it.”
It is, “What are you worried about and how can I help solve that problem?” If you can position yourself now to do that, the opportunities in the near future are going to be significant. We’re very much working on trying to develop a provincial delivery system because from a provincial perspective, that helps solve problems that people need to be solved.
You’ve touched on it several times throughout our conversation but being able to ask better questions or being able to ask the right question can often be as important as having the right answer. You’ve got to have the question before you can have the answer. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us here and thank you for being on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
About Stephen Butz
Over his 41-year career Stephen Butz has been working to strengthen the foundations of community through the YMCA. As the current President and Chief Executive Officer of the YMCA of Greater Vancouver, and CEO of the Canada West YMCA Regional Development Center, Stephen leads the largest and most diverse operational charity in the British Columbia, Canada whose mission reaches out to over 130,000 people through a network of over 250 program sites and facilities.
Stephen moved into his first association leadership role as the CEO of the YMCA of Cambridge, Ontario in the mid 1980’s. From there, senior leadership opportunities in St. Catharines and Hamilton led him to serve as Chief Executive Officer of YMCA Niagara, Ontario from 2000 to 2011.
With undergraduate degrees in physical education and business, Stephen holds a master degree in Management Sciences from Springfield College in the USA. Among his many community affiliations, Stephen has served as the Vice Chair of the Board for the Niagara Health System, Member of the Board of the Niagara Community Foundation, the Board of Meridian Credit Union, United Way of the Lower Mainland, the Business Council of BC. He currently serves as a Board Member and Vice Chair of Coast Mental Health Society.
Stephen is married to Rosalia who are proud parents of three well-domesticated sons, with the grateful support of two wonderful daughters-in-law.