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Returning To An Organization As A First-Time CEO with Jonny Morris

By July 8th, 2023No Comments26 min read
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DSP 30 | First Time CEO


Nothing beats a comeback more than becoming a CEO of an organization you used to work in. That is exactly what Jonny Morris’ story looks like. Having worked at the Canadian Mental Health Association for a number of years, Jonny left to work at the provincial government and came back as the CEO. He narrates his fascinating story of rising to the top while maintaining a heart that is passionate for service and advocacy. Sharing the challenges he needed to overcome, Jonny lets us in on how he positioned himself as the new leader along with some pieces of advice on in-service leadership mentality and organizational assessment. He also talks about the complexities that come with being a leader and how the organization is raising consciousness on mental and public health issues.

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Returning To An Organization As A First-Time CEO with Jonny Morris

We have Jonny Morris. He’s the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division and a first-time guest here on the show. Welcome, Jonny.

Thanks so much Doug and it’s great to be here. Thanks for this opportunity.

It is great to have you here. When we first met, I was fascinated by your story as someone who had worked at the Canadian Mental Health Association for several years, left and then came back as the CEO. That makes you the prodigal CEO. You’re with the organization in various roles for about nine years, and then you left for a couple of years to be the senior director of policy and legislation in the provincial government here in British Columbia. Then you came back to be the CEO of the organization. Walk us through with what that journey was.

CMHA has been a huge part of my career and I’m starting there in 2008 in a coordinator role, working in campus mental health. It represented a pretty significant milestone in my career. It was in many ways a real exposure to community-based mental health, policy advocacy, community development and also direct service. After nine years, I’ve gradually moved into different roles in the organization and learning lots along the way about leadership. They got to a point when I was in the role of senior director in policy where an opportunity came up in the provincial government, which in many ways represented an opportunity to experience some stretch and some learning that was rare in the sense of where I wanted to go long-term career-wise.

I had done some thinking at the time of what it would look like to come back. A big part of my thinking about leaving was what a return could look like if a top position came up? Arguably, that decision to move into a public servant role was a tough decision. It was a tough decision to leave an organization that I care deeply about. There was an experience that I could not have predicted happening. I can get into that during this conversation around leaving for public service and then actually finding myself working in a context where for the very first time, maybe in the world, a Ministry of Mental Health & Addictions gets created. To be part of a startup ministry and being part of a world thereof building something very new alongside many of the public servants, catapulted my learning in such a way. When the CEO position came up at CMHA, the timing felt right around translating all of that learning into a community sector, social profit and leadership role. That’s where I am now.

You mentioned the startup Ministry for Mental Health & Addictions. What was that energy like? You’re the mental health expert coming into that environment. What was that pulling together experts from all across that field to do something that had never been done before?

It was definitely alongside a whole host of experts at different levels. The uniqueness there, the value edge there was to have so freshly arrived from the community sector and has spent no time in government myself. There were some real themes of uncharted territory and being in a space in a leadership role and then at a director level, to learn the ropes, both to be on a steep learning curve of acculturating and acclimatizing to what it’s like to be in government as a civil servant, public servant. At the same time, acculturate to a ministry that was keen to position itself in some important ways around making a difference in mental health and addictions.

With the transition from a leadership role I care deeply I cared deeply about into a new one, it was an exciting time and one where there was a lot of trepidation about what would happen next. All of that has served me well coming back in this boomerang way because it was also a tough decision to leave. It’s a very exciting place to be if you care about mental health and addictions policy. It was a bit of a leap to come back. The learning curve is serving me well to this date of understanding. When I was leaving, there’s nothing quite a couple of years of public service and many people stay much longer to equip you well to come back to the community sector.

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You’re part of an exciting time creating this brand new ministry, the first in the world as you say. Did you ever look back and look at CMHA, as you’re excited about this new role, looking back at the job you’d come from? How did that change your perspective about the organization?

That’s an excellent question. It afforded me a vantage point that also I’ve used the language of rare or unique vantage point that is important. There’s that perspective piece, that iconic image. You’re on the moon. You look back and there’s the planet Earth. It’s a whole other perspective and not to the same scale. CMHA isn’t the planet Earth, but there is being in a different world looking back on an inherently and incredibly important organization in the context of community-based mental health and substance use care. It was perspective. What dawned on me was real learning at a deep level about what advocacy means.

When you’re in the community advocacy, whether it be systems advocacy or individual advocacy, it has a different flavor and feels in the context of when you’re working on the inside of government because you have the oath to serve the government. Advocacy isn’t part of your day to day craft but in the context of the Ministry of Mental Health & Addictions, what I learned about advocacy is I have a very different role as a public servant. The belief in that change is possible, whether that be through policy or through legislation or through regulation. Those are the skills I learned in the community. That’s what I look back on at CMHA as a training ground for me around advocacy and thinking about ways to change policy. It was invaluable because I was able to use a language and a vocabulary in ways that hopefully it was helpful to those around me, including decision-makers in moving forward.

The other piece to add one more component to my answer to your question, Doug is looking back on the organization. It became clear to me about how important the voice of CMHA is. That’s been a big part of my entry point as the CEO there. It’s the importance of the voice of organizations like CMHA, and CMHA isn’t the only mental health organization out there, but it’s that voice. I’ve used this metaphor most recently in my new role of being a North Star voice. It’s important. From inside the bureaucracy, you are compelled. You’re asked. You’re expected, especially in this current era, to be consultative and to ensure that the voices and experiences of British Columbians are represented in the decisions that you put forward and you make. CMHA represents an important voice that can help be the North Star for change moving forward.

You’re there in the ministry. You have this newfound understanding of CMHA where you had been. The CEO role comes open. They approach you about becoming the CEO and before accepting the position, what did you anticipate the challenges to be? As someone who knew the organization so well a couple of years ago, what did you see are the big challenges of your taking over the leadership of the organization?

As a leader, one of the first challenges I was facing was this theme of acculturation or integration back in. As a member of the team leaving the organization adapts and does its thing and then reinserting or coming back in as if there’s another adaptation. One of the challenges which I framed as an opportunity was how to navigate and position myself as Jonny, the new CEO. Not as Jonny, the senior director of policy that left. I don’t think it’s superficial, it’s branding though or anything but discovering, inhabiting, embracing an identity as the new CEO of an incredibly vibrant and important organization was one of the first orders of business. It’s to set myself up as the new leader and for the organization to position itself. One of my colleagues described that as a dance, finding the right dance step at a different tempo, a different rhythm and a different routine. One of the first challenges was very much about what leader, what stories did I want to be told about me and what stories that I want to tell about myself in the capacity as the new leader of this provincial organization.

On the show, we’ve had several people who’ve transitioned from the private sector to the social profit sector, some who’ve done private, public and social. We haven’t had the chance to talk to somebody who had been at the same organization, left and then come back. That is a unique set of issues to show up as the leader of the organization, in front of a group of people a couple of years before who you were their colleague. How did you approach that storytelling or that acculturation as you described it with those that knew you in your previous role?

One of the most important steps and I know this is part of your craft, we’re in the lead up to executing the decision in my mind of coming back to CMHA. I’m being incredibly respectful of a very skilled group of people who are engaging in that selection process was to work with a couple of people. One particular person in the lead up to was in many ways my coach. Not in a coach as in they say of how to get through a process of recruitment but as a coach that was in the lead up there, enabled me to tease out those factors, those features, those attributes of my leadership that I’d want to amplify.

An authentic and deeply genuine engagement cultivates a healthy dose of expectancy to deliver on the results of your inquiry. Click To Tweet

I wanted to avoid passivity like arriving into the environment and passively or homeostatically re-adjusting because I knew one of the risks was with the boomerang or the return piece that systems re-adapt. I wanted it to be as deliberate as possible to create a stutter into that return that would enable me to achieve all of the things I’ve described. Walking alongside someone who provided a third perspective, a third eye in that lead up was helpful. Someone who didn’t know me in the context was helpful as an opportunity to be reflective and that’s a big part of my training throughout my undergraduate and graduate years of how to be reflective and be cognizant of how you show up. To add in a third perspective was helpful, in cultivating the intentionality that I needed to be able to articulate. You’ve asked me this before and some of our other conversations, to articulate who I am as a leader and why I deserve to lead.

That was a key question and continues to be. I know there’s a book that’s out there now, but how have I come to deserve to be in an incredibly privileged and humbling position of leading a beautiful organization like the BC Division? That was helpful. Being open in a 360 way with incumbent staff and others to ensure that my 30-60-90 were shaped by the organization and I was mindful. You can read all the management texts in the world and some of them are very helpful, but be mindful of those early steps into the organization to come in with real humility and real deference. I could take my cues in a way that would enable me to go on to some momentum and some traction knowing I’d stumble along the way. I would have made a mistake if I’d come stridently in without reflectivity, without that deliberateness. I would’ve made some errors.

There wasn’t putting your boots up on the desk on the first day?

No, which given your observation there that might be a blind spot that I could have fallen prey to of, “I’ve done this before. I know the organization. I know how it works.” It’s a complacency boomeranging back in that I don’t think would have ended well.

DSP 30 | First Time CEO

First Time CEO: Setting yourself up as the new leader in an organization is a dance. It is finding the right dance step at a different tempo, a different rhythm, and a different routine.


In your answer, you gave two good pieces of advice. One was working with a partner or a coach or someone that’s guiding you through and helping you direct your own thinking through the recruitment and the hiring process, coming into the organization with that in-service leadership mentality top of mind. Those are great pieces of advice. What’s a tactical example of that? Tell us a story about how you applied those things in your first couple of weeks and in the organization?

That’s a good question. On the second part, this is one of those frequently cited messages if you’re starting is to complete an organizational assessment. One of the things that I felt was very important for me was to take this reciprocal, two-way shaking of taken for granted assumptions about me as the new CEO, that people might have of me and also that I might have of the organization itself. It’s like shaking the snow globe and shaking those assumptions. One of the things I was deliberate about and I’m still engaged in it, having only been there over three months is a very deliberate inquiry. It’s not quite an ethnographic inquiry, but a pretty deep immersion.

Posing questions of myself or reflexively of my direct reports of my colleagues, of the organization, of folks to drill down into a bit of a matrix. My first coach who I’m still in touch with described it as a bit of a heat map. That often gets called an organizational assessment or management assessment and those kinds of things. Those are the technical words that I use, but for me it was less about assessing that was important. An approach to the inquiry is that the inquiry itself was the intervention of shaking things up. This was an opportunity for my selection committee to arrive and fully inhabit that role as a leader with some intention. That was an important thing for me to do and I’m still doing it. I’ll do it to different degrees but now there are choice points and decisions. That was important to me. It was inspired by that early coaching conversation I had with my other coach and then inspired by conversations I’ve had with you and with others along the way, which has been helpful.

The staff that’s there, that knew you when you were in the organization for the first time, what was their reaction to this process of inquiry that you are bringing to your role as CEO? Were they expecting that from you? Were they surprised that you were leading with questions rather than answers?

We fundamentally change as people, both in our roles and our life experiences. Click To Tweet

I’m not sure. This will be a public accounting of my reflections. I’m not sure if they held a surprise. I’m not sure if they were circumspect or confused, but what I do know without trying to get into their minds was what I experienced in those early learnings which culminated in an all-staff learning was a real openness. I appreciated that as the incoming leader. I’ve appreciated the commitment to compassionate candor. One of my colleagues where I used to work with used to describe it the frank and friendly. I haven’t noticed performativity. I haven’t noticed that the performance of all is rosy. What I’ve noticed is an authentic, deeply genuine engagement with the inquiry and the questions I’ve asked and as a leader, one of course that cultivates and I recognize I’m not the only person who can enact this. It cultivates a healthy dose of expectancy to deliver on the results of your inquiry. Those are the two effects, real engagement and a healthy expectancy for what that inquiry might lead to in the context of our organization.

Were there times early on that people were expecting you to revert back to the Jonny they knew three or four years ago?

I think so and that still reverberates. I hold that assumption about some of the colleagues I’ve worked with previously and what’s happened if I reflect honestly, arguably my inquiry and what happened is co-inquiry. It’s not just me asking questions. People are asking questions about me. It’s important. Fundamentally, roles have shifted. There are different people, organizations reconstituted and reassembled in different ways. I’m different, so it helped put us on notice that all of us collectively, we don’t change. We do change, we fundamentally change, as people both in our roles and our life experiences and organizations evolve. I’d be greatly worried if stagnancy or suspended animation were at play here. There’s always going to be with a boomeranger, as I’m affectionately calling myself, there’s always going to be the expectancy of, “This is what Jonny used to do,” or what happened previously.

I’m sure because we have a core identity and we have core personality features. Otherwise, we do have some constancy over time in how we show up in the world. I know I’m making a sweeping generalization there, but there’s some constancy that I’ve noticed. The questions and the compassionate candor and the spirit of dialogue and leaning in and also being part of a federation where there’s a 360 built-in. There’s the organization. There’s the broader federation and then the broader federation. There’s always a different perspective as a leader within a federation that is unique compared to other leadership positions in the social profit sector. You have an expectancy of, will it be different? Will it be better? Will it be worse? Will it be all of those value judgments we apply naturally as human beings in the workplaces? It’s triply amplified when you’re working in a federated model which has been interesting.

You get into the big chair. You’re the CEO. You had clear ideas about what you wanted to accomplish in the organization and what needed to be done. You got into the chair and were there any big surprises about, “This is a different job or a different perspective on the organization than I expected to have?”

I’m particularly appreciative of the fact that my predecessor afforded me several important opportunities to have glimpses, have experiences of leading the organization through different components. None of that compares to the reality of leading a complex organization committed to making a measurable difference in the lives of people living with mental illness and addiction in this province. It’s a task if I reflect, that is one of threefold. The consumption of energy in that is complex so I’m learning energy management and energy management is critical.

The nonprofit sector, the social profit sector is known for burning the candle at both ends and many of us working. I’ve been able to curtail a lot of that in a good way but recognized the complexity of thinking, the complexity of decision making, the complexity of working alongside, managing. Leading into difficult, challenging, exciting, hopeful times, as is replete with any organization has been interesting in negotiating my relationship to energy. The second of the third points would be as I hinted out of my first part, the complexity. You don’t get that from doing it for a couple of days. I’ve talked a lot is about being committed to service leadership and looking at shared and collaborative leadership approaches and organizations.

Also, doubled with that, there is something about being in the principal role in the organization, the chief of staff role in an organization working for our board. That is back to my 360-piece. Your words, your behavior, your comportment, your effect and all of those pieces are microscopically measured in so many ways. I knew that was coming and I embrace it because that’s important because you can set the tone and what’s resonated for me is the impact of that approach from that position in lots of ways.

The social profit sector is known for burning the candle at both ends. Click To Tweet

There is a great book by Ben Horowitz is called The Hard Things About Hard Things and he’s focusing more on the startup culture and Silicon Valley. A lot of it applies to the social profit sector. The reason why these jobs, particularly the CEO or the chief operating officer jobs or chief program officer jobs feel so difficult is because they are. It comes down to that complexity that you reference. You’ve referenced a couple of times that if these were easy if these challenges were easy, they would be solved one way or another. The path forward would be very clear but certainly in an area like mental health, the path forward is not always clear. How do you deal with that ambiguity in mission or in direction while trying to build and coalesce your organization around that same mission?

This is the message that I shared during my recruitment process and it’s something I hold dearly right now. I don’t always say it wrong but hopefully, you can get the meaning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What’s so beautiful about CMHA is the collective intelligence of the federated infrastructure, which we don’t always leverage to its fullest potential. It’s a fool’s errand to think that any one’s leader or any one’s organization or any one’s entity is going to respond to the wickedly complex problems that sit within the domain that I work within mental health and addictions. I appreciate your language of coalescing. The way forward is through ambiguous and uncertain waters and mental health is a field where lots of changes afoot. It’s a prioritized issue yet we’ve still got so far to go with feeding back stigma and discrimination and all of those pieces. The road ahead is very exciting and it’s a brightly lit road ahead. The light is shining on the path ahead, but it is ambiguous. Relying upon and leaning into a collective brain trust approach to it is the only way forward to navigate that.

You’re relatively new in your role. Many Canadians are new in their consciousness of mental health as a public health issue and as a social issue though many Canadians know mental health from their own family and friends and often many of us, many of them and many people themselves. This issue is gaining more prominence. It’s got the spotlight. How does CMHA position itself to maximize that spotlight to the greatest advantage for those that you seek to serve?

It’s in a couple of important ways and one is to have courage. This was very important to me is to find a way, even if we might be the only voice on our certain issues, to have an emboldened and courageous voice backed up with evidence and fact in a post-truth era. The imperative is to have a bold and courageous voice. A very dear colleague of mine who’s an MP in the UK, he speaks about the moral imperative. Others have talked about the burning injustice that still exists for countless Canadians who live with mental illness and addiction every day. To answer your question, the way that CMHA can be a bright North Star or bright light to use that cliché, but that important concept is to know when it has to go out there. It might be the only voice out there on some issues concerning mental health, but also to have the reflectivity that it can’t be and it isn’t the only show in town.

DSP 30 | First Time CEO

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This is something I learned from my other coach around how do you build coalitions? How do you build communities of support? How do we “people up,” to quote another local person, Vikki Reynolds to use her language, imperfect alliances and imperfect solidarities around a wickedly complex? CMHA and this is at least something I want to try out under the tenure of my leadership with my other colleagues who lead across the province and within my organization, all of us who lead an approach that cultivates those imperfect alliances. That is one way to shine a light on what CMHA can offer. CMHA is uniquely positioned to offer some real things as an organization and it’s also uniquely positioned to offer some other beautiful things in partnership with others too.

Jonny, how will you know that you’re being true to that commitment of being courageous? How do you know what courageous is, at the moment?

It’s being able to live with the consequences of using voice. It’s a challenging dance to figure out but a lot of it relies upon awareness and a tolerance and an embrace upon the implications and the consequences of using voice to speak out on certain issues. Courage isn’t just a state, it’s a practice. You practice courage, you hold courage and you enact courage. I’m careful to say it’s not about me necessarily being the courageous one here. That’s also a problematic construct, but how do we as an organization made up of many parts and as a coalition or as a sector who cares deeply about change in this area and working in partnership with entities like the government on elsewhere. It’s about being willing and able to take the risk and live with what comes out of practicing bold, courageous voice and advocacy. I don’t know if I answered your question.

I like the idea that courage is a practice. It’s not a moment in time. It is a way of showing up in service to the mission, in service to the organization. That’s an important lesson that listeners and all of us in the social profit sector should spend some time thinking about what that means in our work because we are trying and you particularly at CMHA are trying to change the way society works and supporting people who are living with mental illness and addiction. Again, it’s not simple. It is incredibly complex. It takes some truth to power. It takes some biting the hand that feeds you in terms of relationships with funders at times. If it’s your day to day practice, you can’t help but fulfill that. It’s something that I’ve respected in watching you as you are settling into being the CEO. You are the same person in every single conversation. That’s coming through in our talk.

Courage isn’t just a state, it's a practice. You practice courage, you hold courage, and you enact courage. Click To Tweet

Thanks for that. Thank you.

What advice would you have for someone who’s returning to an organization as a first-time CEO?

My advice would be to take nothing for granted. I mean that would be one. First, please take nothing for granted. Challenge assumptions that you hold about yourself. Challenge assumptions that you hold about others in the organization you might be returning to. I think to engage in active practice of helping others. Challenge the assumptions that they hold about you. Be mindful of systems, be mindful of group dynamics and how organizations are evolving or organic ecosystems in lots of ways that are subject to change and are always moving. There’s that old phrase, that the only constant changes. That would be my advice. It’s to embrace the fact that organizations have moved on since you left. That’s something to be being aware of.

Your organization had to adapt without you. They had to get along without you once and be open to the fact that sometimes they might not be ready for you to return. It’s to embrace that adaptability, that evolutionary concept. My other coaching person said that there’s something unique about the insider, outsider positioning of a boomerang as someone who’s returning to lead an organization for some time away. There’s been that adage, “To come back, sometimes you have to go away.” I firmly believe it from a career perspective. I am so grateful for tools and the learning I experienced alongside my colleagues and people I reported to and the decision-makers in the world who I left in government.

I’m incredibly humbled by that learning. That’s important to remember that this move as scary and as precarious as it might feel at the time, pays dividends and not just on a personal level, but actually from the learning that you can provide and give the right to the organization when you return. That’s been the key lesson in this conversation. Even talking with you, has helped hone in my thinking in my reflection, that importance of fluidity, learning and never arriving at the conclusion that things are static. We all move and we have to move if we are committed to this vision of making a social change.

You are one of the leaders in the social profit sector who I think most embodies the mission of their organization in terms of supporting people and providing a place for people to be well as you bringing that to the organization and to those that your organization serves. You are past your 100-day mark. You’re a veteran now. You’re not a newbie anymore. What can we expect to see from a CMHA, BC in the months to come?

There are some secret things which I will reserve. I won’t give away the thrill out here. I do think one of the things that people can hopefully expect is a voice. There are a few things on the horizon, including political processes and elections and those kinds of things. It’s voice. That would be one thing to expect, voice and clarity on a progressive policy agenda that we hope to bring others alongside with us. That would be one thing to look out for. The other thing to look out for is continued excellence in the services that we provide. I look at my colleagues and their branches. They’re leaders of the branch network who provide vital services every day across this province and so more of the same in that context. At the provincial level too, there’s a continued emphasis on embodying what Minister Judy Darcy has said quite often in her tenure as the Cabinet Minister, it’s being a space where British Colombians can truly have an experience of asking once and getting help fast.

At the end of these conversations, I like to underline a couple of things that have happened over the conversations that listeners can take away with them. The one that I want people to reflect on is courage is a practice. How can you bring that to your organizations? Do you work as board members, as leaders and as community members? The theme throughout all of your answers, Jonny, was the importance of listening and adapting, changing your behavior based on what you hear to support those around you. That’s a powerful place for leaders in the social profit sector to start. Thanks for reminding us of that and thank you for being on the discovery part.

Thank you for the gift of your questions, Doug, and the conversation that we discovered together.

Thank you very much, Jonny.

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About Jonathan Morris

DSP 30 | First Time CEO

Jonathan comes back to the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division as CEO after almost two years in the public service working for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, where he played a key role in helping build this new Ministry from the ground up, eventually leading the Policy and Legislation Branch as Senior Director. In this role, Jonathan was responsible for providing advice on a range of complex policy and legislative initiatives, while leading several transformational mental health and addictions programs.

In his past role at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Jonathan provided leadership for provincial mental health and substance use operations through the Association’s provincial office and the branch network across British Columbia. His work focused on addressing systemic disparities between physical and mental health, campus mental health, the criminal justice system, systems transformation, policy and government relations.

Jonathan has a long research and practice history in suicide prevention, has trained as a counselor, and has held sessional teaching appointments at the University of Victoria and Douglas College in Child and Youth Care.

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