It may seem like a huge move when we think of business people transitioning to the non-profit sector, but Janet Yale has taken that transition in easy strides. As someone who already has a passion for philanthropy, Janet has smoothly moved her way to becoming the CEO of the Arthritis Society (Canada). Janet shares with us the differences she encountered along the way, particularly that of dealing with resources which were undeniably more abundant in the profit sector. Taking us deeper into these changes, Janet talks about being a leader of an organization and how she keeps the focus on the needs of the individuals who are dealing with arthritis daily.
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Leadership Across Sectors with Janet Yale
On this episode, we have Janet Yale who is the CEO of the Arthritis Society of Canada. It’s one of the nation’s largest health charities and an organization that is on the move. Janet, welcome.
Thank you for having me.
Janet, you’ve been the CEO since 2012 and before that, you had a very successful career in the private sector. Tell us a little bit about your path to becoming CEO of the Arthritis Society.
I’m a graduate of UT Law School and I decided I wanted to be a communications lawyer. I spent 30 years give or take in a mix of roles between the public sector to CRTC. I spent twenty years in the private sector into increasingly senior roles and finishing that part of my career from 2003 to 2010 as Executive Vice President of Telus. I was in charge of all of our external affairs, legal, government, regulatory, public affairs, corporate communications and corporate philanthropy. It combined my interest in the communication sector with my passion for not-for-profit work. I helped Telus to reimagine its approach to corporate philanthropy and community involvement. That was what made me realize that I wanted to have the opportunity to work in the not-for-profit sector not just as a volunteer but as a CEO. Here I am since 2012.
Before you made that move, leaving Telus and coming to the Arthritis Society, what were you anticipating the differences between the work cultures would be?
A lot of people assume that business people going to the not-for-profit sector have a huge transition to make, but I had been very extensively involved in not-for-profit organizations. I had chaired the United Way Board in Ottawa, the Board of the Ontario Trillium Foundation. I’ve chaired fundraising committees for various not-for-profits in Ottawa nationally. I was imbued with and I understood the nature of the not-for-profit sector. I probably had an easier transition than many people. Having said that, I would say the biggest difference is that in the for-profit sector, you have a lot more resources than in the not-for-profit sector even though you have these huge challenges. You have to work with much more constrained resources, so I would say that’s been the biggest transition. How to figure out, how to accomplish your large hairy goals, but within the constraints of the not-for-profit sector.When board members do not care deeply for the mission in the not-for-profit sector, then nothing takes place. Click To Tweet
Having watched your organization closely, the Arthritis Society does an exceptional job of stretching the dollars to cover what is a very expansive mission. With your communications background, did you find that came in handy when you were leading an organization that went right across the country?
I think being part of a national organization, which I was at Telus, gave me a sense of the complexity of dealing with an organization that can have a national reach. At the end of the day to be successful, you have to know and understand the local and regional cultures in which you operate. For Telus, consumers in one part of the country are different than an another whether it’s urban, rural, French, English, big cities, small cities or across the mountains versus not. We have the same exact challenges in being relevant for consumers and patients from coast to coast, which is our commitment to do. I would say there was a lot that I learned from my private sector experience that has been very relevant in the not-for-profit sector in understanding the breadth of Canada.
You work with volunteers in the organization all across the country with many advisory boards. You’ve got your large national board. How do you keep the focus on the needs of any individual patient or the people who are at home who are dealing with arthritis on a daily basis?
For sure our success is a function of our ability to engage Canadians with arthritis and their loved ones. That’s the key. Most of our support financially from volunteers is a function of small individual donations on the fundraising side. We get very little government support. Most of our financial support comes from people who have a disease or their loved ones and to me, that’s a real sign of our relevance and reach. We’d like to matter to more Canadians and to more Canadians with arthritis. There are six million Canadians with arthritis. We’ve probably reached on an annual basis about one million of them. We want to be able to transform our business model so that we leveraged technology and online digital tools to exponentially expand our reach so we can engage with and be relevant to more and more Canadian.
Reaching a million Canadians, even on a target mark of six million is quite an accomplishment and doing that in a comprehensive way that the Arthritis Society does is really impressive. How do you keep that focus on the individual and the national organization? How do you drive that through your management team and through your team across the country?
A lot of hard work I would say is critical. One of the things that is important to understand is that over the last few years, we’ve transformed ourselves. When you talk about how efficient we are, that’s been a huge amount of the work. In real estate alone, we’ve saved almost $2 million annually by co-locating with other charities in cities right across the country by leaning up. The only way we have more resources to invest in mission is if we take costs out of fundraising and out of administration, so more money falls to the bottom line. We’ve been very disciplined in our thinking and have just had board approval of a five-year strategic plan called Accelerating Impact, which is making sure that we can matter more and mattered to more people. Our goal is to reach three million of the six million Canadian within a five year time.
The discipline around spending and the focus on mission is a challenge for every organization in the social profit sector. It often takes a great partnership with the board. How do you work with the board to get their expertise and keep their focus on managing the spend and raising the dollars you need?
I’m very fortunate. I have an incredibly supportive board who understands what I call the difference between eyes in and fingers out. They do not try and second guess management. They understand that their job is what I call three pillars: oversight, foresight and insight. Oversight is all of the financial oversight, making sure that we’re well-run and well-managed. Foresight and insight are more around the strategic input. Thinking about what’s coming, the foresight piece, providing insight based on their individual background skills and experience so that collectively we have the benefit of everything they have to bear both in our strategy, as well as in making sure they ask the tough questions around risk. Every time we make a presentation to them, we always challenge them to ask us, “What if you’re wrong? What if this doesn’t work out? How would you manage that risk?” and staying with us through the journey. We work hard to partner with the board in that collaborative way so that they’re very supportive even when things go wrong. Nothing goes right and necessarily the first time but you learn, you course correct and keep moving forward.
There’s a lot there that was helpful. I want to dig into something a little bit more technical. One of the challenges that we see in the sector a lot is you’ve got these incredibly successful, very engaged boards that agree to serve as board members. You get them around the table and then management teams talk at them for a few hours and then they go away until the next meeting. You don’t capture that wisdom and that expertise. How do you continue to challenge them to give you that expertise, to bring their best business minds to your board table?
I would say two key things. One is we’ve created a bit of what I would call a cycle of governance. We have four board meetings a year starting with the approval of our business plan and budget in April to March fiscal year. June is our AGM when we review the performance, objectives for the year and set are Key Performance Indicators and targets. September is when we think about how we’re doing in mission and spend a lot of time thinking and discussing our mission priorities. November is when we then take the mission aspirations and balance it against what we think is likely from a revenue perspective and start to think about what that means for the next fiscal year.
The board members get used to this cycle of what’s going to be material at each board meetings throughout the year. Each member of the senior team is responsible for liaising with the chair of their committee, audit, finance, governance, mission and revenues so that they collaborate with the committee that is most concerned with those issues. That collaboration as well as leaving lots of time for discussion related to that cycle of governance works well in terms of giving the board an opportunity to engage at least for a portion of the board meeting on a specific topic that they know in advance is coming.
Being able to anticipate what the strategic issues they will be seeing or talking about is really important to that.Different people have different capacities. Click To Tweet
It is important, plus they love to learn. In each board meeting we have what we call lunch and learn where it’s a rheumatologist, a researcher, a patient and an advocacy issue. We give them an opportunity to hear a twenty-minute presentation and have a bunch of informal Q&A with whoever the presenter is. It’s very engaging and the insights we get from those conversations help us make sure that we’re on track in terms of the issues that matter most to our board members.
How active are you in board recruitment?
We have a governance and nominating committee. Our chief talent officer partners with the chair of governance and nominating to look at our skills matrix so that we are mindful of the range of skills we need, the geographic mix, the linguistic mix and the age mix of our board. We have three two-year terms for each board member. At the end of each term, we look at whose terms have come up. We use the Institute of Corporate Directors website where that you can post your openings for the board. We help screen those that come forward for review by the governance and nominating committee. It’s a real collaborative partnership effort.
That ICD opportunity is something I know that you at the Arthritis Society make great use of. It’s an opportunity for a lot of people in the sector to use that as well. The quality of your board is one of the great successes of your organization. It is very impressive. When you’re thinking about adding people to the board, what are you looking for in terms of a prospective board member?
What’s most important is somebody who has a passion for the cause. At the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be someone with arthritis, but someone who cares deeply about helping us advance our mission or our growth in some way, shape or form. Without that, in the not-for-profit sector, nothing takes place. Whatever the skills and experience are that we need a mix of, we also need people who care deeply, who are willing to be our champions in their local communities in terms of our local events, our fundraising initiatives and help to spread the word in their local communities through their actions and the way in which they participate in supporting the work of the Arthritis Society.
How active is your board in participating in fundraising?
We have not made it a condition of participation on our board like some other organizations in the arts and culture space where it’s, “Give, get or get off.” We ask everyone to give of their time and hopefully give of their money and recognizing that different people have different capacities to give. A 100% proficient of both time and money is a relative term in terms of the different capacities of individuals on the board. We’ve found that people are very generous because they come to the table with a passion for the cause.
Could you talk a little bit about your regional advisory boards and how that feeds into your national board?
When we created the structure that we have, we have advisory boards in each of our provinces actually that are called divisions. There are ten advisory boards. We are in the process of examining whether purpose-built volunteer committees might be better than general advisory boards because people like to know why they’re involved. We’ve been gradually transitioning from general advisory boards that don’t have fiduciary responsibilities to purpose-built committees, whether for fundraising purposes or mission purposes like advocacy. That’s the transition we’re going through as we build our volunteer engagement strategy and give people either time-limited or purpose-built reasons to engage with us. We think that is the right way to go.
One of the number one things that we hear through our work and talking with board members particularly if it’s an advisory committee, “I came on this committee and I don’t know what they want from me. I feel I’m not being utilized.” That direction of moving to purpose-built advisory committees seems a great solution to that challenge.
It’s tricky because we want to make sure that we engage people in the way in which they want to be engaged. The volunteers we have now that serve on advisory boards of a general nature are being consulted, as we think about this transition in where there are active advisory boards that are working and continue to make sense. We’re not going to disband them. We’re having challenges in recruiting people because they don’t know why and how to get involved that we’re going to supplement or replace what was with, as I say, these purpose-built committees. It will be a transition over a period of time because we recognize we want to keep engaged the people who are already involved with us and doing great work.
That’ll be a trend or a transition to watch carefully. That will be instructive for a lot of the sector in trying to make the best use of volunteers and the expertise that they can attract to their cause. One of my favorite questions to ask successful CEOs that work and have a good relationship with their boards is what question do you wish they ask you more often that they don’t ask?
I’ve been thinking about this issue. I have to say that I actually have a supportive board. We have a tradition at the end of every board meeting as well as every committee meeting of an in-camera session where it’s just me with the board and then the board without the CEO. I have to say that I’m always very impressed at the kinds of questions they choose to ask when the senior staff isn’t in the room and it tends to be, what’s the thing that worries you most, whatever it is. What they want to hear from me is the things that I might not be prepared to say when the senior staff is in the room. I think that’s a real sign that they operated the right levels.
Managing those in-camera sessions is one of the big challenges for a lot of organizations, where boards will want to relitigate issues that have come up in the open meeting. They want to raise issues that might better be in the open meeting. It’s hard to do anything with those discussions if they’re not prepared to have them in an open meeting.
I have to say related to that that there have been some things that haven’t worked out as well as I would have predicted or planned for. One of the things that has been fantastic about this particular board is they stayed with the plan. We’ve taken our lumps for the fact that some things that we tried didn’t work and we’ve had to adapt and change. At the end of the day, they believe in the senior management team. They accept the fundamental premise, which is if they lose confidence in the CEO, the answer isn’t to second guess management, the answer is to replace the CEO. That’s their prerogative and they haven’t, which is fantastic. They stayed with us through this journey, but it is an interesting fundamental question. I’ve seen other examples where they start to micromanage when they get worried about the confidence of the CEO and instead of dealing with the fundamental issue, which is the right to hire and fire the CEO. I’ve always said to the board that if it was confidence, that’s the answer, not telling me how to do my job.
When I was working with the board and one of the board members said, “We are trying to debate the color of the napkins, but we have to realize that all of our plates are broken.” Getting the board to be focused on the right level can be a real challenge. As someone who’s led boards, led an impressive organization both on the board and on the operational side, what’s something that you think we can do better as a sector in terms of board engagement?
One of the things that has worked for me and I don’t know if all boards are capable of this, is for the first few years we were so focused on getting through from one year to the next. We kept talking about a journey and a transition that it was hard to think about a longer-term vision, where there was alignment between management and the board as a consequence engagement about the future of the organization. We’ve worked hard starting with our rebranding exercise, which was grounded in view of how we wanted the Arthritis Society to be positioned or repositioned in the marketplace. Then leading to a five-year plan that has been board approved. It went through a couple of iterations. That’s exciting and engaging because whether you’re recruiting volunteers or staff, it’s all about the talent.
At the end of the day, what gets people engaged in and excited is that we’re on a path that’s clear. Whether you’re involved in the mission, whether you’re involved in revenue, whether you’re involved in the enablers that allow both mission and fundraising to work, we have five-year targets for everything. That is engaging and it’s palpable. People are excited whether or not it all works or we have to course correct it. We have a goal to increase the size of our organization by $10 million. Be really clear and know exactly how we’re going to try and do it. In terms of our impact goals in each of our pillars research, advocacy, information and support, we have a measurable mission and impact targets in each of those three aspects of our mission. We can count it all. We can track it all and people are excited to see the progress.
Rarely I’ve ever heard it said better, to put a flag in the ground and say, “This is what we’re here to do, this is what we need to be focused on and let’s get after it.”
We like to call it an ambitious and measurable plan and I think that’s really important. It’s not just to be able to measure your progress against revenues, which how much money you’re making and how much expenses you have, but how do you measure the impact of your mission? I think donors, patients, sponsors, supporters, volunteers and staff like to know that we’re trying to hold ourselves to account, not just for the work we do, but the impact it will have.
That is a great message to all CEOs and people who want to be CEOs. I want to thank you very much for coming on, sharing your wisdom and sharing a bit of your journey. Thank you very much.
It was a pleasure. Thank you.
About Janet Yale
Janet Yale is an accomplished leader and senior executive with long years of management experience in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Currently, she serves as the President and CEO of the Arthritis Society (Canada) after a long career in the telecommunications and broadcast sectors. In June 2018, she was appointed by the federal Ministers of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Canadian Heritage to serve as Chair of The Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel.
Previously, she served as President and CEO of the Canadian Cable Television Association and, later, as the Executive Vice President at TELUS. Ms. Yale also served as a Director General at the CRTC and as General Counsel at the Consumers Association of Canada.
Ms. Yale is Chair of the Arthritis Alliance of Canada, the out-going Chair of the Health Charities Coalition of Canada, Past-Chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation and serves on the boards of Samara and the Ottawa Art Gallery. In 2008, she was awarded the United Way Community Builder Award for Volunteer of the Year.
During the course of her distinguished career, she has received a number of awards and recognitions. In 2001, she was named “Woman of the Year” by the Canadian Women in Communications Organization. She is a recipient of both the Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals. She was also named as one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network from 2004 to 2006, and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2005, she was named Businesswoman of the Year by the Women’s Business Network and in 2006 she was named Woman Leader of the Year by Federated Press.
A lawyer and economist by training, Ms. Yale is fully bilingual (English & French), a keen marathon runner and passionate about health, the arts and business. She splits her time between Ottawa and Toronto with her husband and grown children.