Skip to main content

Mental Health Is Health with Deborah Gillis

By July 8th, 2023No Comments23 min read
Home » Mental Health Is Health with Deborah Gillis

Mental health is health, and it is a fact that many families have been touched by difficulties in this area in varying levels of severity. Thanks to mental health advocates like Deborah Gillis, the CEO of CAMH Foundation (Center for Addiction and Mental Health), more people have found a powerful meaning in their lives. In this episode, she shares what influenced her to be part of the organization and how advocating for change has led her from working in the public sector to the private sector. Through her experiences, mentorship is something that Deborah is proud of as she talks about her work and responsibility in mentoring others. Being an incoming CEO for a huge organization can bring in a lot of anxiety, which is why Deborah points out that CEOs have to make sure they have proper communication with the board.

Listen to the podcast here

Mental Health Is Health with Deborah Gillis

Our guest on the show is Deborah Gillis. She’s a leader in the social profit world in both Canada and the United States. She’s a real driver of social change. She has held senior positions in the public, private and social profit world. She has been named one of the ten most powerful businesspeople in Canada. Since early 2018, she has been the CEO of the CAMH Foundation. Welcome, Deborah.

I’m happy to be with you.

It is a pleasure to have someone with your background on the show. We have such a broad base of topics to jump into. Let’s start with how your experience as a member of a number of organizations and sectors has influenced your journey as CEO of CAMH Foundation.

I’ve had a long and winding path to where I am. I started my career fresh out of university as part of the public sector team that was negotiating the Meech Lake and then the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord. I went on from that early work to roles in the private sector. I did a stint in politics where I ran for public office and then moved into my role at Catalyst and now CAMH Foundation in the nonprofit sector. If I look through the through line for me in some of those roles, that consistency is about advocating for change. It is about influencing the decisions and choices that leaders make. Perhaps what’s been surprising to me in some respect is the skills and competencies that I took from some of those early roles have served me well as I’ve moved into more senior leadership positions.

Can you tell us a story about advocating for change, one of the first times you remember in your career saying, “This isn’t right. This could be better. This needs to be different?”

That’s probably something that was instilled in me at a very early age, the importance of making a difference and a contribution to your community. I grew up in Cape Breton. I’m the first member of my family to go on to university. I’m the first to have a professional career. I grew up in a house on a dirt road where we didn’t have central heating. There was no bathtub or shower in my house until I was in high school. That instilled in me a sense that both education and hard work were important, but also values that I saw reflected in my parents who also taught us that giving back, volunteering, caring about others in your community was incredibly important. We saw that it worked in our own lives, but also that’s the way my parents lived their lives and continue to do.

That was clear to me early on. As I moved into my career, I saw pretty quickly the opportunity to advocate and play a role in important issues that mattered to me. Early in my career, I was involved in public policy roles in government. I was part of a team that put forward legislation to support gender equality and LGBTQ rights. I was involved in the first piece of legislation that would have extended benefits to same-sex partners. Very early on, I saw that there was a role that you could play in making a difference for people. That has stayed with me and been consistent through my career where purpose-driven work that makes a difference to your community is also very fulfilling because it’s deeply meaningful. It was in some ways for me a diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer that fueled for me the importance that every day and how you live your life and making the most of it is important. In this sector, you have the opportunity to do that.

There's power in the collaboration and bringing different lenses to issues in the partnership of public and private sectors. Click To Tweet

The change from working in public policy and drafting legislation to the private sector, I imagine was it a different way of working and a different perspective? Tell me about that transition.

It was a very different perspective and intimidating in lots of ways. When you make a significant shift in your career and I mean not to say going from one sector to another or going from one industry to another, you have a sense of being disconnected from networks of people and influence that you may have established. People don’t know you. You don’t have the same established reputation to build on and that is a challenge. At the same time, what I learned certainly is that my early experiences in the public sector as clarity around information to help leaders make decisions, around managing stakeholder interests and taking a broad perspective of what stakeholders might be interested in, communication skills and relationship building.

All of those competencies that I acquired during the early stage of my career in the public sector certainly transferred well to my work in the private sector where I was a management consultant really well. There were lots of parallels in terms of what you’re doing as you’re analyzing information, assessing implications, thinking through how something would be executed and, in this case, helping business leaders to make decisions that were in the best interests of their organizations. In some ways, you felt disconnected but at the same time, I quickly understood how a lot of the skills and learning were very complementary to those new environments that I was operating in.

Were there changes or differences that you found surprising?

There are things that you are able to do and the resources that you have available to you in the private sector that were certainly different than what I experienced when I worked in government. That complexity of issues that you’re dealing with in the public sector gives you a solid basis as you move on or at least in my experience as I moved on and made that transition to the private sector.

The point of complexity is relevant to work in the social profit world. I’ve had a few guests on who’ve talked about why the private sector can’t solve endemic social issues like homelessness or the opioid crisis. If they could be solved through the private sector, they likely would have already been. That’s where the important role of the public sector and the social profit sector comes in.

I think the big problems require a variety of stakeholders and different types of expertise to come to them. We shouldn’t expect that the private sector alone or the nonprofit or social world can solve them alone either. I do think that there’s power in that collaboration and partnership and bringing different lenses to issues. If we can do more of those arrangements of bringing people together, that’s when you’re going to have the greatest impact. In many ways, that’s the same message that we talked about during my career at Catalyst, which is the power of diversity is in bringing different lenses, voices, perspectives and experiences to any decision that you’re trying to tackle. If it’s a group of people sitting around a table who all look, think, sound the same, have the same background and perspective, then you’re probably not getting the range of views that you need to tackle difficult issues.

You had a very successful career in management consulting and then made that transition to being the President and CEO of Catalyst, which is an organization that helps build workplaces that work for women. Tell us a little bit about what that was like going into work that first day as President and CEO at Catalyst.

I spent twelve years at Catalyst. I’d been there for several years before I became President and CEO. I joined the organization in 2006 to lead the Canadian Office. In that transition, I’ve told this story that when I first talked to the search firm about the opportunity at Catalyst, I went home that night and said to my husband, “There’s no way they will hire me.” I use that often in mentoring conversations or giving advice to others to say, “We need to step away from that view of, ‘I don’t check all these boxes, this isn’t the right opportunity for me.’” Part of that view that I had was my consulting work had focused on small to medium size businesses. Given my background in the public sector, I’d also worked with clients in the public sector as well.

My view was, “I don’t have established relationships with the largest businesses in the country who were the core constituent group of Catalyst and so I expected that my skill set wouldn’t align.” That was one of those learning moments to say that the things that I had done in my career from relationship-building, analyzing data and presenting them in ways to influence decisions of leaders, to building and bringing together multiple stakeholders to understand and solve issues. Those skills were all very complementary to the work that I did at Catalyst, both in my role at Catalyst Canada but then as I stepped into the role as global CEO.

In your role as global CEO, you were reporting to the board. What were those first conversations like with the Board of Directors?

I was an internal candidate. I had been the first internal successor to the CEO role in Catalyst history. I was also the first person from outside the United States to lead the organization. Catalyst had been established in 1962. I had some relationships with the board going in. Not deep exposure to all of the board, but a few people who played important roles as both sponsors of my candidacy and were supportive of me. As you move into the CEO position, it is a different relationship with the board of directors than that you have as an executive. That was a learning experience for me the first time sitting in a CEO Chair. I certainly benefited from the Chair of the Catalyst board at the time was Peter Voser and Peter had been the global CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. He’s a very experienced board director and executive. In many ways in my Board Chair, I also had someone who was a powerful mentor to me, both in my role as an executive but also in my relationship with the board. Peter was helpful to me in navigating some of that learning curve.

That’s something we hear a lot and certainly matches my own experience of going into a CEO role. The importance of having a good chair for at least the first couple of years that’s willing to provide advice, mentorship and counsel. It is critical to a lot of people both in the social profit sector and I’m sure beyond.

Peter played that role for me. I’m very grateful to him for that because while he was my chair, he was also in many ways playing that role as coach and mentor and drawing on the deep experience that he had as a CEO and as a Board Chair to help me develop and grow and own the seat that I was in as well.

As you move into the CEO position, it is a different relationship with the board of directors than that you have as an executive. Click To Tweet

You’ve mentioned mentoring and mentorship a couple of times. I know that has been important to you. Can you tell us a little bit about the role of mentorship in your own career and your responsibility now as a leader to mentor others?

I appreciate you using the word responsibility because that’s how I think about it. I described how I started in life and where I came from. The truth is I wouldn’t have had the experiences or career that I’ve had without a whole lot of people at every step of my journey supporting me. The mentorship and sponsorship of people who had confidence in me early on, who saw something, who took me under their wing, who gave me advice, who guided my career and who champion to me and gave me opportunities. When I look back on all of those people, and it goes all the way back to when I was in high school, there’s no way that I can pay them back for the difference they’ve made in my life and career, but I can pay it forward for others.

That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. In the same way that I benefited from people who took me under their wing, took their time, saw my potential, gave me support, were available to me and advocated for me as sponsors, I try to do the same thing both formally and informally. I’ve had roles where I’ve created mentorship programs. I have served as mentors to people and have championed others in their career. I also in those relationships make sure that the people that turned to me for advice understand the distinction between a mentor and sponsor. A mentor is critical, gives you advice, gives you perspective and reflects on their career but ultimately, they are talking to you. They are sharing their advice. A sponsor talks about you. That is the person who is raising their voice and lending their credibility to you to say, “I know this person. I’ve worked with them. They’re ready for the next opportunity.” Having those sponsors and advocates have been critical to my career trajectory because I’ve had them at every stage.

The distinction between mentor and sponsor is one that’s often lost. Thank you very much for making that point.

It’s important because often we can confuse the two roles. You can have a mentor and believe that they’re playing that sponsorship role for you. Sometimes they do and that’s a beautiful thing, but they don’t always. This was certainly true in the work that I’ve done in supporting women and women’s advancement. The support of sponsors is particularly important when you are underrepresented or from a marginalized community. Having those voices advocating on your behalf can make a real difference in terms of your ability to get the next promotion or next opportunity and to be viewed as someone who is a leader and on that path.

Speaking of next opportunities, you’re at Catalyst and you come to be the CEO of CAMH Foundation. What is about that opportunity, that position you’re in now that attracted you to it from the outside?

There are a few things. I’ve been with Catalyst for many years. I’d been in the CEO role based in New York for four years. I had traveled extensively globally and had an incredible opportunity and experience. I was starting to feel ready to return to Canada to be closer to home and family. There had been some family issues for me in the year leading up to my change in roles that brought home how important it was to be close and connected. Why the CAMH Foundation came down to purpose-driven work is important to me. It’s my values. It’s where I see myself contributing and I knew that I would only leave Catalyst to do something that would feel equally meaningful to me.

Mental health is one of those issues where, I am no different than the majority of your audience that in my circle of friends and extended family, we’ve been touched by mental illness too many times. I have seen the burden that that creates. I’ve seen how stigma holds people back from getting the support they need or having and seeking the help and the conversations that are needed. Because I’d been touched by the issue and believe that addressing mental health is one of the most critical social, economic, societal issues of our time, I felt like this was a moment where I could help to move that agenda forward. CAMH is an extraordinary place as a real leader in mental health care, in research, in clinical care, in education and advocacy. It was such an alignment for me of both values and mission. It was an opportunity to join a global leader at the forefront of this critical issue.

One of the interesting things about CAMH Foundation and your arrival there was the organization announced the largest gift from an anonymous donor, from any donor to mental health in Canadian history of $100 million. Almost exactly a month later, you’re announced as the CEO.

It’s even serendipitous in a whole other way. When I was living in New York, one of the things that I would do as I was getting ready to go to work in the morning is I would listen to CBC Radio. The morning that I was meeting with my board to talk about my decision to leave Catalyst and to take on this new role at CAMH Foundation, I am listening to CBC and it’s announced that this incredible $100 million gift had been given to CAMH. It felt like I’m doing the right thing here. The timing was perfect in that respect. That gift shows both the reputation and credibility of CAMH, that someone would be prepared to invest in this organization and this issue to such a significant degree. It showed that and it also reinforced that this is a very important moment in the country to do something special and different to change the whole course of both the conversation, the diagnosis-treatment experience of individuals and their families dealing with mental health.

How has the prominence or the awareness of a gift of that magnitude changed the conversations that the foundation is having with other donors?

Gifts of that size and we’ve seen gifts of that size to other organizations in the country, they lift all boats. For us, it reinforces how important our work is, the reputation of CAMH, the opportunity to do something remarkable here. As we talk about our work, what we’re doing and what the vision of the hospital is, it’s a proof point in some ways about how special and important what we’re doing, what needs to be done, the magnitude of the problem and why this is a place that donors are choosing to invest in for all of those reasons.

One of the challenges we see with a lot of organizations both in the United States and Canada is they’re seeking to raise more money and larger gifts. It’s being viewed as a place where that type of significant philanthropy happens that other donors or funders have stepped forward and said, “This is a special place. This is a place that can move this mission forward.” As the new CEO coming in, you’ve got more credibility than probably any other social profit CEO in the country on your first day. How has that accelerated or how has that affected your journey over the last couple of years?

For me coming into the role with this platform, it goes back to what I said, I see this role and this organization as having a real responsibility to take the baton or torch that’s been passed to us and then take the next step and to elevate it. A gift of the size that we received was only possible because of the work that’s happened for many years. The early donors and the leadership of the CAMH Foundation were setting the stage for that to be possible. It is only possible because of the leadership of the hospital. Our CEO, Catherine Zahn, has done a remarkable job in not only elevating the brand of CAMH but in moving the hospital forward in inspiring ways. You can only do remarkable things when the table has been set.

A sponsor talks about you. That is the person who is raising their voice and lending their credibility to you. Click To Tweet

Now it’s our responsibility to continue that path and to tell that story in a way that will inspire others to step forward and help us achieve our vision which is big and bold. It is commensurate with the size of both the need and opportunity and the importance of it. That’s inspiring. It’s motivating for our team. It’s inspiring for our volunteers to be part of an organization that is so well regarded and has so much potential to do good. At the end of the day, that’s the North Star for us. It’s the difference that we can make in the lives of people who are struggling with mental health issues and addiction for their families. That’s the sacred trust. To be able to get out, talk about that and inspire people feels like a remarkable privilege.

How do you keep the focus on that sacred trust or you’ve referred to it as responsibility a couple of times, both in your management team and around your board table?

It is like anything. It is that clarity of message, aligning goals and priorities, and that consistent communication of that. It was certainly within the first couple of months that I was in my role as the CEO of CAMH Foundation that I brought together my leadership group and talked about what I described as our team charter. It was setting out my view about organizational culture, about team dynamics and behaviors, about how we work together and most importantly what our North Star is. In defining the North Star very explicitly for the whole organization to say essentially that our North Star is the patients and families whose lives we are going to make a difference for. That’s what we’re here to do. That’s the starting point because donors are inspired to make a difference for people. We must always keep front and center that’s what we’re here to do.

We’re here to make a difference for the people who are going to be served and benefit from the work that’s happening here both on the clinical side, on the education, in terms of advocacy and the research that’s going to lead to transformational breakthroughs and care. That’s the North Star and that consistent tied back to this is why we’re here. That starts to translate in lots of things that we do from how we talk to donors, to our recognition, to how we think about communicating our work. It’s about the outcomes and difference for patients, real people. At the end of the day, that’s what’s inspiring because anyone who’s touched by this issue wants to pay it forward so that the next family, the next individual struggling with mental illness has a different experience.

How did your management team respond to that team charter?

They responded well, I’m happy to say. It’s been embraced by the organization as a whole. We’ve built it into our strategic roadmap that’s been approved by our board. Very early on in my tenure, it became a touchstone for the culture that we were building. How we were going to work? What was important to us? What did that mean for all of our relationships with each other, our hospital partners, our volunteers, our donors, the patients that we serve and work with? It became a grounding document for all of us about what we’re here to do. It’s very much integrated into our planning and how we think about the work that we’re doing.

At this point, you’re about a few years into your role. What are you looking forward to over the next year or the next year and a half?

The first year that you’re in any role, you’re learning so much: relationships, content, getting to know people. I had not been in the healthcare world before. I had not been living full-time in Canada for a number of years. It’s a lot for me to wrap my head around in addition to the team, our plans and priorities. As I move into my second year, I’m proud of how our culture has evolved. Our leadership team has come together. Some new people have joined us. We’ve got our strategy and plan in place. I’m looking forward to moving into the execution of those plans. Now that the foundation has the knowledge relationships, I know where we want to head, the organization is aligned. We’re ready to move forward to the next phase for us. It’s nice to be in that stage and to have that first year of, “I don’t know anyone, I don’t know anything, I have to learn and I’m the new person.” That’s behind me now and I’m ready to move us forward.

Thinking back over the years that you’ve been the CEO, what advice would you give to somebody who was about to start a CEO job next Monday?

I can only share with you how I approached it. This is true both of my role at CAMH Foundation and when I went into the CEO role at Catalyst. In both cases, I did what I called listening and learning tour. That meant not only getting to know my board and, in this case, hospital colleagues and peers and sitting down with them one-on-one to understand both our relationship, how we work together, what their hopes and aspirations were. I did that with every single member of staff in both organizations. By sitting down with every member of staff, every member of my board, every executive in the hospital, and external stakeholders, including sitting down and having conversations with our donors, it gave me a solid picture of both the issues and opportunities moving forward. I took the time to listen before I started to say, “Here’s where we need to go,” or what changes need to be made. I spent time listening particularly in that first quarter that I was here. That allowed me as I did that to start to shape a path forward for the organization and did that in a thoughtful, layered way of the first round of impressions and then more data to help support that so that people understood. I built some trust and credibility that I was listening and focusing on the right set of issues.

The importance of listening in an organization that’s raising money is very important for any leaders. Thank you very much for sharing that. I want to underline two things that you said for people that they can take away and use right away. I love the phrase that you said that you can’t pay it back, but you can certainly pay it forward. That is so emblematic of the work we do in the social profit sector both as individuals in it and the trust that we hold with our donors as well. The reminder to have clarity of message and consistently communicate that message across the organization, around the management table, and at the level of the board. Thank you very much for sharing that and so much else.

It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Important Links

About Deborah Gillis

Deborah Gillis is President and CEO of CAMH Foundation. As a recognized thought leader on gender equality, diversity and inclusion, Deborah has dedicated her career to driving social change. Deborah’s unique blend of passion, strategic vision and entrepreneurial spirit is helping her lead CAMH Foundation in transforming how Canadians understand and address mental illness, in the workplace and in society.

Deborah put her ideals into practice in her previous role as President & CEO of Catalyst, a global non-profit that helps build workplaces that work for women. She advised some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies on how to accelerate and advance women into leadership.

Deborah began her career in the public sector, where her early work focused on employment equity, anti-racism and LGBTQI rights. She went on to become a consultant and practice leader with global professional service firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton, where she championed initiatives to mentor women. Deborah also worked in the Nova Scotia government, and stood as a candidate for elected office. It was during her time in politics that she first truly understood the power of role models—and the urgent need for more of them—to inspire girls and young women.

Deborah has received national and international accolades for her advocacy efforts and business achievements. In 2016, she was named as one of Canadian Business magazine’s 10 Most Powerful Business People and was awarded the Foreign Policy Association Medal. In 2017, she was appointed to the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders and also accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws honoris causa from Cape Breton University for dedicating her life’s work to advocating for women’s rights and equality. She serves on the Board of Governors of St. Francis Xavier University.