Health information is important, especially for first responders. MedicAlert is in charge of all this info. They make sure that first responders get all the health information they need. MedicAlert Foundation Canada is one of the nation’s longstanding health charities. Join Douglas Nelson as he talks to Leslie McGill, the organization’s CEO and President. Leslie’s goal is to increase MedicAlert’s charitable impact, and build on a solid foundation with the first responder community. Learn how MedicAlert works and how they will continue to grow in the future.
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MedicAlert Foundation Of Canada With Leslie McGill
On our show, our guest is Leslie McGill. She is the CEO of MedicAlert Foundation Canada and we are thrilled to have her as a guest on the show. Welcome, Leslie.
It’s great to be here. Thank you.
I have had the opportunity to work with you and your organization but the first question that I and I’m sure many of our readers have is, what is MedicAlert, and are you really a charity?
It’s a great question that we get asked all too often for my liking but we are a charity. What we do is provide high-quality health information at a time of need to first responders. Most people know us by our iconic bracelets. We have been around for many years and that’s what people notice about us because it’s a very demonstrable symbol of who we are but the bracelet is just the beginning. What we have is an extensive personal health record, all self-reported data but verified by medical professionals. That is the key to what we do.
We know no geographic and disease boundaries. I often like to say we are disease agnostic and country agnostic but we have limitations to working in Canada. The beauty is that we have considered consent from our subscriber base. Those are people who want first responders to have that information when they can’t speak for themselves and that’s fundamentally what we do.
It is a powerful and important mission and the role that you play in the healthcare system. It’s one that I know has been disrupted and transformed with digital technology over the last number of years. I want to get into that as part of our conversation but before we get there, one of the opportunities here that I have got you is I can ask you these questions. You had a relatively unique leadership journey coming into the organization and then becoming CEO because you are leading an organization that was in the midst or needed to start a transformation.
Often, when organizations go through a transformation, they bring in a leader from the outside to shake things up and turn things over. You are one of the unique leaders who took on the mantle of this transformation of the organization from the inside. Tell us a little bit about how your journey started at MedicAlert and the moment when it transitioned from being a member of the leadership team to being the CEO.
It was very interesting. The transition had already started prior to my arrival. There were a lot of changes going on within the organization but nothing had quite jelled yet. I was brought into a new role. I was Senior Vice President of Growth Strategy and Operations. My mandate was to make sense out of this big portfolio and drive some efficiencies. That’s fundamentally what I was asked to do but immediately upon my arrival, we knew that was going to shift and change. We had a great CEO at the time. She and I working together decided that we needed to do a restructure before we could truly get into how do we take a look at what it is that we need to change.
Let’s say that in departments within the organization, there wasn’t a lot of collaboration across those departments. I would like to call it collapetition, in some cases. What we needed to do was create cohesiveness and that required some structural change, to begin with. Within eight weeks of my arrival, we structured to primary areas within the organization.
One you might call the revenue side of the organization and the back office side of the organization. That structure really helped. Lo and behold, the CEO at the time decided that she was not going to continue her tenure and the board was looking. She pulled me aside one day for a coffee when we were still face-to-face and she said, “Are you interested in becoming CEO?”
I said, “Are you offering it?” She chuckled and said, “I can offer but this is a great opportunity. You have been an integral part of the organization for the last couple of months making some initial changes and this is a tremendous opportunity.” I took the time over the holiday season, essentially is what it was when she asked me this and to think about, “Do I want to do this?” My own personal philosophy about leading an organization is, “Can I have an impact?” Impact is defined by many different things. If I can’t truly have an impact, then it’s probably not a place I should be. I am definitely not a steady-state person. I am a change agent. I always have been a change agent.
I look for opportunities and here is one staring me in the face. I say I did some thinking over the holidays but really and truly my heart was saying, “This is a tremendous opportunity to have an impact and an interesting challenge,” because we do as an organization fills an interesting gap in the healthcare system, a gap that I think should be much tighter than it is. Most people don’t know that first responders don’t have access to your health information.
People are surprised when I say that, not in a way that they can use. In some provinces, the first responders do have access but the systems are built for hospitals and clinics. When you are in an emergency response system, a situation, or triaging somebody in the middle of the street, you don’t want to be looking at an extensive hospital or emergency medical record at all.
Long story short, I came in. I went through the process. They did look externally as well when they recruited. Part of the reason for the selection and you would have to ask them but I have conversations with my board, “Why me versus somebody external?” I was already entrenched in the organization that was going through change. My history as a change agent was something they were very interested in. It’s the right time and the right opportunity for me and the board to make that decision.
At the end of May 2020, after a better four-month transition period where I’ve got to know the board much more closely than I had because that was an important part of the process of the transition, I stepped into the role six weeks after the pandemic struck and also after another very significant issue. I became CEO the day that George Floyd was murdered. That was also a pivotal moment in terms of my own transition as a CEO because diversity and inclusion, as well as healthcare, became front and center for our organization and our change.
You demonstrated both through your career and short tenure at the organization that you were a real change agent. You had been able to establish something of a track record for changing the organization before being named CEO. What advantage did that give you being embedded in the organization when you went into the CEO’s role for the much larger transformation to come?If you can't truly have an impact, then it's probably not a place you should be in. Click To Tweet
What it would have given me was a much shorter learning curve. Part of the challenge around change is the balance between where we have been and where we want to go. In my experience, you have to have enough knowledge of where the organization has been and the challenges it’s experienced in the past, as well as not too many barriers as to where you want to go. To be a true change agent, not necessarily evolutionary change but revolutionary change, which was required at MedicAlert, it’s about the ability and sense of being able to take a strategic risk. You can’t take risks without knowing where an organization has been and feeling the team along the way.
I’m a people-first leader. An organization that has been through as much change in the past couple of years prior to my arrival as the team at MedicAlert who had been through this as a small team of about 50 people. There was a lot that the team went through and to ask the team to go through fundamentally, what would be a substantial change in the organization would be predicated on their willingness and ability to join me in that journey.
I struggled in that particular instance. It was an incredible team with a great passion for what we do with many individuals who have been inside the organization a very long time. With that combination, we are still at the beginning stages of truly the implementation of our change. So far, we have been a team that’s not held together by paperclips and string but truly works together and understands each other and the needs of the other departments.
That didn’t happen by accident. That was part of the slow burn of getting ready for change, which was accompanied by both technology transformation, human capital transformation, and programmatic transformation. It was pretty big but an organization is made up of people. Everything else is the tools to be able to support the people to do the jobs. That’s what I firmly believe.
Having the opportunity to work with you and your team, I have heard a lot of leaders across the sector talk about being people first or it starts with the team. You were uncommon, exceptional, and how consistent you are in lifting up your team in the conversation with your board as you are talking through your strategic plan and making sure that as the CEO, you were moving in lockstep with the team all the way through the process. You described yourself as a people-first leader. Where does that come from? How do you make sure you show up that way every day?
One of the most underrated characteristics in leadership is empathy. I’m a highly empathetic individual. I have seen and been through quite a bit. It probably comes back to my somewhat circuitous career and getting to the chair as CEO but I have had success and failures. I have also had the benefit of having incredible mentors in my career from very early on as well. I consider myself one of the lucky folks. I fell into that concept of mentorship.
I had a very good mentor, not formal but informal, early on in my philanthropy career. I remember the days of sitting on the back stairs having lunch quietly with her listening to me. She didn’t need to take the time. It’s something that cemented how I wanted to be a leader as I grew in my career. It’s second nature to me these days. I don’t know how to be any other way.
It is the idea of speaking as a we in terms of the leadership team. You have done it in your answer to that last question. You do it consistently throughout even when I would seem to move things along faster. You took the time to make sure it was a we response and reaction to conversations around the strategic plan. Are there times when you have to remind yourself to that we or is it that second nature that you talked about?
I would be lying if I said it’s 100% consistent but I would say, 90% to 95%, it’s a we. I started in my hospital career in the context of a merger in a very highly pressurized set of situations where there was a government commission that was basically telling hospitals in the province of Ontario, “What they were going to do? How they were going to merge? What do they look like?” Where I was, the hospital said, “No. We would like to take the lead.” I was a very junior communications person in that mix who happened to be assigned to that transition committee between two hospitals. I sat and watched pillars of the community, discussed how two hospitals were going to merge and that whole collaborative leadership collegial style of leadership was something that I learned early on.
I didn’t have another model to subscribe to. We did it with the hospitals first and then I went from working in the communications department to the foundations. Eighteen months later, the foundations merged in a similar fashion, and then we did citywide projects with the two remaining hospitals. For the first ten years of my career, this is how we do things in this market. The I piece of it fell by the wayside because I always see that 1 plus 1 equaled way more than 2.
When you find those moments of collegial collaboration as leaders in the social profit sector, we amplify, help accelerate and support that. I’m sure there may have been times in your career where what you arrived a wasn’t collegial collaboration. There may have been other human emotions, avarice, and ego that were on the table. What advice would you have for leaders who aren’t met with that collegial collaboration and need to move a table of prominent individuals or either their management team or board to a place that is more collegial and collaborative?
That’s something I encountered during my consulting days where I would have two clients who needed to work together, “Play in the sandbox,” as they say. Sometimes that can be hard particularly in a social profit sector when there’s a lot of money and opportunity on the line. My counsel, there would be the same counsel, I would give to anyone asking that question is to listen. Listening is a very underrated skill and the ability to be able to not just listen but hear what people are saying, you can find a way to uncover common threads in the conversation and use that to unite organizations.
I had an opportunity in my career in a very different part of the healthcare sector to watch an exceptional negotiator. That opportunity to watch and work with him taught me that a real win in a negotiation is where everybody comes out and thinks they won. No two organizations go in with the same mandate or needs. If you can listen, find those threads, and then come away from a table where everybody believes that they walked away as the winner, that’s great. It’s another interesting skillset to develop for leaders and one that has worked well in my career.
It’s one of the reasons why I think fundraisers or people with a philanthropic background end up making good CEOs. Good fundraisers are really good at listening. Those that are exceptional at it usually stay as fundraisers because they are good at it. Those of us that talk a little bit more end up as CEOs. Does that sound about right to you?
I’m not a traditional fundraiser. I have not come through the fundraising side of the house. I come through the marketing side of the house. I’m a storyteller by nature but that’s also part and parcel of what’s required in the social profit sector. If you can’t tell your story, it makes it harder for the fundraisers who know how to work with a donor, as a donor and engage that person throughout their life cycle of giving. It requires a story to back that up and that’s where I come from. That plus a solid background in operations is what the new CEO, within the social profit sector looks like.
Often, we find that fundraisers are there at the home and need the support of an exceptional Chief Operating Officer. It’s fun to be the CEO, live in that zone, and let the fundraisers who are excellent at that do that work. That’s where I get excited because I hand that off. I will come in and join the party when required but my passion is making sure that the organization is sustainable. That’s part of being a pandemic CEO as well because we have seen such challenges in the social profit sector during the last years and being able to maintain the relationship with the donors.Be a team not held together by paperclips and string, but a team that truly works together. Click To Tweet
It will always be the relationship with the donors as long as you have answers but you need to back that with a solid infrastructure and technology. Before we are going to talk a little bit about that, it was a very difficult position for us to make as an organization and a significant investment that our board had to support but without it, I don’t think we would be staring the upward hill in the face the way that we are nowadays. That’s a positive comment. That’s not a negative comment.
I have said this before on this show and you have probably heard me say this before as well. The world outside of our sector is changing so much faster than the organizations within it. The challenge for many organizations, particularly one with deep history like MedicAlert that is known as the bracelet is just the beginning but the beginning was the bracelet. How do you recognize and say, “Yes, our future is fundamentally different than our founding?”
As a leader, you have had to make the case for that rapid change within your organization as the world has already changed around you. How did you approach bringing both your team and board along and getting prepared for the transformation that you are starting or that you had to get consent for, approval, buy-in for, and now you are headed in that direction? How did you get to that place?
The key thing is data and information. It’s very hard to make decisions without it. It was extremely hard in our organization to mine data with a twenty-year-old legacy system but data can come in all kinds of forms. Part of that is being able to understand how data works to your advantage as an organization, for me specifically, because this role wouldn’t have been for everybody and it’s not just because it’s changeable. It is a role where you truly need to understand the healthcare sector and what’s happening within the sector itself. Across my career, I would like to call it the octagon of healthcare.
Is it in terms of the Ultimate Fighting Challenge Octagon?
Maybe not a cage match but sometimes close. I worked on all sides of the healthcare system with the exception of the clinical side. will leave the clinical side to the clinicians. I passed out in the OR. It’s a true story. Nevertheless, in one of my previous roles, I spent 3 or 4 years in tech. I watched and worked with entrepreneurs in the tech space who were filling gaps within the healthcare system. There are lots of them in the healthcare system and it was a bit of plug-and-play. I’m watching these young people say, “I’m not prepared to have this in the healthcare system but there isn’t a solution, so I’m going to find a solution.”
Taking all of that enthusiasm and applying it within an old organization where I had enough knowledge and context to support that knowledge because I rallied some of the troops out of my tech world that I knew very well to support the argument and said, “If we do not do this and this in our early stages where we replaced our entire IT backbone, which is a daunting task for any CEO, no matter the organization, we would not survive.” That’s how fast the environment was outpacing our organization. As an old charity, what we had worked in our favor was the fact that we were an old charity. We punched way above our weight as MedicAlert in the sector.
Now, we have a digital backbone that punches along with us in this sector. It’s incredible what we have been able to do in a very short time. That provides value to our partners. If we look at it traditionally, we are a very different charity than most. We are a double-sided marketplace. We don’t just have donors but we also have users of our information who are also customers. Those are the first responders.
We spend a lot of time talking about those because technically, we service them. Our subscribers are the ones who provide and trust us with their information but they want us to hand that over to first responders. The world of the first response is changing. There’s no information incur that wasn’t there before. MedicAlert started before the 911 system started. The 911 in Canada started in 1972. We were twelve years older than the 911 system.
The 911 system has rapidly progressed beyond what our capabilities were, so we needed to play a little bit more catch-up. Now, we are aligned and working with the CRTC in doing projects that will help us to get data in the hands of first responders instantaneously. It’s not about the wearables. We spend a lot of time as an organization talking about wearables and things on your wrist.
Coming from that tech background, I said, “That’s nice. Those are maybe lost leaders in our world but where the real heart of our challenge is, is in the exchange of data. We can do that behind the scenes and wall.” We will never get rid of the bracelet because that provides that symbol of comfort and recognition. For some people where their stigma, let’s say in mental health, they don’t want to have the bracelets because they don’t want to be stigmatized by somebody identifying that way.
If we can do a data exchange between our systems and the public service answering systems, then let’s do it. Those were new conversations in our environment and they were scary conversations in our environment. Part of that is about doing tests, pilots, and using design thinking and theory. Build it and break it but doing that with donor dollars comes with risks.
There are all those things in the middle of all of this but there are some incredible people who are willing to support that vision. We have seen that in recent months as we started to make our changes and donors are recognizing and understanding that this is what the new MedicAlert is. We call it MedicAlert 2.0. That’s what we look like and that’s what we need.
What was fascinating to me in the strategic planning journey in the organization was you and your management team had a clear sense of where the credibility of MedicAlert lay. It wasn’t just a symbol, as you say in the wearables and the bracelet but it was in what that represents, which is access to that information at a time of need. Watching the organization and many years of wearables, we learned that its value is so much more than the symbol of the bracelet.When the outside world tells you that you have value, then you better grab it and run with it. Click To Tweet
It came to mind time and time again as you are speaking in this conversation and as we spoke is credibility. How did you, as a leader, approach leveraging the credibility of the MedicAlert name to creating that 2.0, a deeper understanding of the value that is in MedicAlert? The label and brand that everybody loves to a value that is different. How did you help the board and others? Your board was not that far away. Everybody was looking for the path but how did you help the organization navigate that distance between what we have been and what we need to be with that focus on credibility?
We asked the people we serve. It’s as simple as that. When we took a look at our community, our subscribers or even non-subscribers who were familiar with us, we asked them, “Why would you trust us?” We did a combination of quantitative and qualitative research. The quantitative research was a big, long study done by a fabulous firm, LEJ, many of you would know it. The key thing was the one question where we asked if we were to be able to create a national vulnerable person registry, which is one of our visions as an organization is, “Who would you trust to run it?” We had a laundry list and MedicAlert was sitting right on top of that. In the qualitative compartment of our research, we asked, “Why do we sit on top?”
What it is, is that we have no vested interest in the information. That sounds logical and it is true. We exist to translate that information but we are not Google or another digital company. We are not the government. We are not any of those things where people have some distrust. We have many years of track record and that helps.
That combination of things and adding on the fact that our first responder community needs us because that’s what they articulated to us is that they need us to do their work. It is this nice nexus of what we stand for and truly to understand that the value was one of the questions we asked is, “Are we still of value in the digital age?” The answer exponentially was, yes. When the outside world tells you that you have value, then you better grab ahold of it and run with it.
“We better figure out how to make this go somewhere.”
There are not a lot of organizations that have that opportunity. I’m forever grateful and feel very blessed that that is the case for an organization. I say that not only because I’m a CEO but I’m also a many-year subscriber. I know the benefits. I have benefited from having my information available at a time of need. I have lived the experience of our subscribers. That also creates passion in me as well.
The confidence that comes from asking the people you serve and help say, “You know we need to do something here. We have credibility. We are positioned to do this. We have got to find that value.” Were there any surprises that came out of those conversations and that study work that a CEO made you think differently about the best way forward?
The veracity with which people supported what we do was greater than I anticipated it being, which is a lovely surprise to have. What that did was validate, I by nature, am an impatient person. I surround myself with far more patient individuals but what we did with that information told us is that we could move faster than we thought we could move.
That’s particularly helpful because when people want something and have a need or a gap, particularly in the area of healthcare, they want it and they want it now. The pandemic has shown us that with the criticism around the vaccine rollout and all of those things, there are so many things that we can do with our data. What our challenge is not what should we do, it’s, “What shouldn’t we do?”
That is a huge opportunity for us that we took in our strategic plan. As you know, we narrowed our focus to three very specific areas. It’s the areas where we know the populations are growing, areas where we know there are significant gaps in service access, and areas where we can secure the future for our healthcare system. That was the secret sauce behind the decisions that we made.
The team’s enthusiasm of rallying around the things that they knew in their gut but couldn’t articulate, we are now all able to articulate, “This is our mission. This is our mandate. This is where we are going.” There’s no hesitation when you talk to any of our team members about what we do, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. That to me is a sign of a great strategic plan. Thank you for helping us get there.
For an organization that can maybe see the second breath of life. Sometimes after 60 years, it’s hard to see where we are going or you get stagnant. We are definitely not that. Certainly, when we continue to talk to our subscribers because that was not a one and done because we need that feedback and input to be successful to drive what it is that they need because we exist for them.
The way you recount that story, it sounds like it’s a straight line and started from the beginning, and then ended with a strategic plan that everyone agrees to and can talk about. It wasn’t that. It never is for any organization. What was powerful about the MedicAlert experience that a lot of other organizations can learn from was the consistency with which at the end of the process, the board understood and was able to articulate where we are going and why.
After it was approved, your management team is talking about, “Here’s what we get to do now.” It’s genuine enthusiasm and leaning forward to it. That’s the celebration video after you won the championship and after you hoist the Stanley Cup. When there were moments when that wasn’t the obvious outcome, how did you, as a leader, keep yourself leaning forward? With digital transformation, with replacing the backbone and doing a project that everyone knows is going to cost twice as much with 20% of the promised functionality and knowing you didn’t have room or budget for that kind of an outcome, how did you keep going when it got particularly difficult?
You are going to accuse me of being a Pollyanna but I believe in where we are going. It didn’t mean I didn’t have to change my style, my approach or I didn’t have to tweak my story. That’s the only place where I’m at the front of the race. It is on that vision side of things. It’s about being able to get other people to grab ahold and feel that vision along with you or a piece that resonates with them.
We did a lot of work with our board collectively but I spent a lot of time behind the scenes having individual conversations with board members about where they were getting stuck or how they felt it might not be going. I learned a lot about my board members in the process, which was tremendous because being a pandemic CEO, I only ever met them, face-to-face once and that’s not when I was CEO.When people want and have a need for something, particularly in healthcare, they want it now. Click To Tweet
I didn’t have all of that body language that goes along with learning a person or thirteen of them, in my case. It was very important for me to continue to have conversations and bring people along. As soon as board members had their a-ha moment because each of them had it at a bit of a different stage, you could see the momentum built.
I stopped being the person poking the bear. They started having conversations among themselves. They started bringing themselves along from a work perspective. With the staff, it was never a challenge. They were very thirsty to get something done and wanted that change. Change communications as a communicator by trade is part of what I do.
I probably over-communicate but nevertheless, it’s a critical part of making sure that you have a successful outcome in communication. That’s both, influencing, listening, being willing to flex on certain things, being willing to go back and get answers to let people fully understand. People ask questions because they have a gap in their knowledge. That is what I firmly believe. The more you can close that gap, the more you can help people to understand or weigh in with a better option. I’m all about better options.
We work together to be able to create the best opportunity for the people we serve. It’s not going to be without its challenge. Our board is very closely watching the strategic plan and what we will do but they are invested in it and we are having different conversations than we were in 2021. That is thrilling because we are now looking years versus months down the road. That’s a good thing.
My final question for you is you have been through quite a transformational process within MedicAlert. You have mentioned a couple of times being a pandemic CEO and unique characteristics. We are all pandemic CEOs in the sector, whether we are CEOs or not. We are used to this. I’m looking forward to not talking about the pandemic but what are you most optimistic about when you think about both MedicAlert and the sector in general? What gives you hope for what may be coming in the year ahead?
If I look at the sector going micro to micro, there is so much that we have learned as a sector out of the last years. Not in the social profit sector but the slice of the social profit sector. We have learned an awful lot about what not to do. It’s one thing to learn something over two months, it’s another thing to learn something over two years. The ability to be able to make and drive change is something that’s exciting. I’m optimistic about putting MedicAlert back on the map.
We are a national charity that was very visible in the ‘70s and ‘80s for the good things that we were doing, then we flew a little bit under the radar screen. We are doing and still doing incredible things. It would be nice to be able to be back among the very visible because we know that 40% of Canadians need our service. When you have that big opportunity, you need to be visible. You need people to understand what it is that you do. We have the right magic in our strategic plan and operating plan to be able to make ourselves more visible and understandable to the Canadian public.
Anyone reading now would know that there’s a good chance you are going to make that happen together with your team and board. Leslie, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and expertise on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks.