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Social Profit Leadership with Pascal Spothelfer

By July 8th, 2023No Comments15 min read
Home » Social Profit Leadership with Pascal Spothelfer

Not everyone can be a leader. Leadership is a privilege and it is about getting people together to achieve a specific purpose. Having the opportunity to be a leader is Pascal Spothelfer, CEO of Genome BC, who has taken on leadership roles in both the business and social sector. Shifting from profit to non-profit organizations and vice versa, Pascal describes that leading both sectors is not entirely different as the purpose to achieve a specific strategic mandate is basically the same. As Pascal dives into social profit leadership, he outlines the critical roles of the CEO and the importance of finding your purpose as a leader and understanding what the organization exists to do.

Listen to the podcast here:

Social Profit Leadership with Pascal Spothelfer

I have a special guest on the show, Pascal Spothelfer who’s the CEO of Genome BC. He’s a great leader in the sector over a number of roles that we’re going to get into. First off, I’d like to welcome Pascal to the show. Welcome.

How are you?

I’m doing well. Thank you for being a part of this. One of the things we ask people right out of the gate here on the show is to talk a little bit about how you became CEO. Tell us about your first leadership role in business and in the social sector.

I became the President, Chief Operating Officer first and then CEO in 1994 at the company in Calgary called NovAtel, which is a technology company. That was a turnaround mandate and I was at the tender age of 34 so that was an interesting experience.

From there, where did you go?

I stayed there until 1998 to see the initial public offering. I worked for a year as a Senior Vice President at a tanker shipping company in Vancouver, Teekay shipping. After which, I was hired again in a turnaround situation at Spectrum Signal Processing where I spent the next few years as CEO. I was reminded by my wife at some point that given that I was traveling about 40% of the time, I didn’t see my kids grew up. I made my best efforts, but it’s difficult when you’re laid out much. I left as part of a transaction and decided to do something different.

I joined the BC Technology Industry Association as CEO. That’s my departure from the for-profit sector and spent a few years there. I had made a commitment for a few years. I spent a few years. My firm intention was to go back into the for-profit sector having numerous discussions and they were looking for another COO role. That’s when I was headhunted into UBC to join their executive as VP of Communications and Community Partnerships. I’m essentially VP External. That was a firm departure from the for-profit sector and was an interesting experience. It’s a fabulous and broad organization. After leadership changes at UBC, I left as well after a couple of years. At that point, going back into the for-profit sector was not that appealing. I was doing consulting work and then was headhunted to Genome BC.

To go back to that switching to the Technology Industry Association, what were some of the differences you noticed right away between the for-profit world and the not-for-profit world?

Moving away from being the CEO of a publicly traded tech company with quarterly earnings, there is the element of high-stress recurring delivery of clear deliverables that are purely financial. That’s the biggest difference. From a leadership point of view, the differences are not that great. It’s leading an organization that’s made up of people and guiding the organization to achieve its strategic mandate and defining that strategic mandate in the first place. That’s the same whether it’s for-profit or not-for-profit. The purpose and the way measurement happens are both different.

Once somebody else defines you, it's very hard to change their opinions. Click To Tweet

I’m sure you noticed some differences in the conversations you were having with your board members.

The boards are different to start with. Companies tend to have smaller boards. Particularly publicly traded companies tend not to have specific interest groups on the board. It’s trying to get the best skills that could assist the CEO in guiding the company. When you go into not-for-profit boards, often it’s more of community representation. They’re larger. There are stakeholders that are on the board. It changes that and board members also are generally not compensated and not profitable.

How do you keep their attention or their focus on the issues that matter most at the organization when they don’t have that incentive?

Board members are motivated by a purpose and not just management than we all are. They joined a not-for-profit board for a reason because they are engaged in the subject matter. They want to make a difference. As long as they feel that they participate in making a difference, they will stay on board. We also have occasionally board members who want to be on board to be able to say they are on the board. They’re working with the board leadership within a matter of navigating around that and make sure that they understand that they should spend the time somewhere else.

Making it clear what the purpose of the board is and the direction of the organization. In your role at Genome BC, you have a motivated, engaged board. How have you managed to keep them focused as tightly as you have?

I benefit from the work that my predecessor has done. I’m putting a lot of things in place to make sure that board members are engaged and they can make their contributions. We have to continue most of the things that I don’t have to put in place. This is a few examples. One, we are as a professional in putting together board materials, timeliness of materials, etc. as any for-profit corporation. We have committee structures that are astringent as any for-profit organization. We make sure that our board meetings are reasonably short.

Board meetings always include an upfront section where one of our researchers or somebody who we fund or does work in the area of genomics presents for half-an-hour. It’s important for board members to see the work we do and the people who directly do the work are much better to communicate than we would ever be. We also make sure that we keep the reporting part of the board meeting as short as possible. The materials have to cover that. We always have a meaty strategy discussion that allows the board members to dig in without having to be familiar with all the operational details on the organization, which they wouldn’t be.

You’ve gone through a strategic planning process with that board. How did you guide that process within that format?

I’m a firm believer in the government’s principle that the management develops the strategy and the board questions and ultimately approves it hopefully. It is the management’s role to develop the strategy and not the boards. However, given that in the end, the board has to assess the strategy and approve it. I make sure throughout the process that we checked in with the board at every stage, that we discussed the key principles that we are looking at. We started with a value proposition. Before moving on, I made sure the board was on board with this value proposition. We did that at each stage of the development of the plan. At the end, when the board was approving the overall plan, it was still management’s plan, but the board was not confronted with the brand and document they had never seen before. They were familiar with the key tenets of the plan.

In an area that is technical and requires a great deal of expertise in genomics, as the leader without that deep background in genomics, how do you facilitate those important conversations about strategy?

It takes a basic understanding, which not being a natural scientist, I gained over time. We have fantastic people in the organization that understand genomics well. We are conveying the essence of genomics, it’s importance and what it’s all about to our stakeholders on an ongoing basis. We do the same with our board. They are in it much more regularly than the government contacts and others who have to understand it as well. Conveying the fundamental principles, the importance and how it holds together doesn’t require a scientific understanding. We have to be able to do that in any case.

Being able to communicate the need to focus is a bigger priority.

We have to remind ourselves to focus. It’s more of the board that reminds us to focus because there are many exciting things around that it’s difficult for us to do it. That is then the role of the strategic plan to tell us what’s within the scope and what’s not within scope. We can then remind ourselves of what that is.

We’re talking about the board now. One of the things that have always struck me about the organization that you lead is that there are many stakeholders with such intense feelings about what the role of Genome BC is. How do you keep all of those stakeholders, governments, researchers that you fund, the community around and the industry around genomics understanding the role that Genome BC has selected for itself?

That’s why we spend a lot of time in our strategic planning process to clarify our value proposition. It’s something that’s not regularly done for organizations, generally for product and services. We have such a diverse stakeholder group with many different stakeholders, it was important to understand what value we are creating. How are we creating this value? Why are we able to do so and to have all these stakeholders in mind when we worked through that? Having been around for many years, there is a good understanding of what we do. The challenge is as we are increasing the scope, which we will be doing on a new strategic plan, it’s conveying these changes and making sure that everybody understands what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. In the end, it’s constant communication, constantly being in touch with them and listening to understand where the concerns and the questions are.

One of the pieces of advice working with a lot of clients is you have to define yourself clearly with your value proposition. If you let others define you, you’re not going to like the answer.

You might not and once somebody else defines you, it’s hard to change their opinions. They will see you through that lens for a long time. It’s much easier to convince somebody who doesn’t have a preconceived opinion of what you’re doing than the other way around.

One of the reasons I was excited about having you on the show is that you have invested a lot of time and energy in being a good leader. I wanted to get some of your thinking about what makes a good leader in the not-for-profit sector.

Authenticity is one of the hallmarks of great leaders. Click To Tweet

A good leader in the not-for-profit sector and a good leader in the for-profit sector is a good leader. It’s always leading people that make up an organization and to bring them together and have them go into a coordinated direction. One of the things I’ve learned is when I went to the Swiss military and it influenced my leadership style a lot. It’s a colleague who was in the Israeli military who put it best. He said that if you operate in that environment where you are with the people you lead 24/7 and they see you when you’re happy, when you’re angry, when you’re fresh, when you’re tired. They see you in every stage of your life, you have to be authentic. You cannot fake it. Authenticity is one of the hallmarks of great leaders. It allows them to be vulnerable and it allows them to be their true self. That makes it much easier to lead a group of people. It also enables me to learn constantly because by being vulnerable and being open, it invites feedback from other people and from my colleagues. That, over time, makes me a better leader.

Are there times when you have to remind yourself to be open, to be vulnerable?

Most leaders have an ego and I’m not an exception. It’s not always nice to hear the weaknesses and to hear the criticism, but it’s the key to learning.

You’re unique and you’ve been successful in moving from the private sector to the social profit or not-for-profit sector. It’s a question that a lot of people in the for-profit sector look to do at some point in their career. What advice would you give to someone who was considering that move or was moving into a social profit leadership role?

Find the purpose. That’s what will drive you. It helps to have been in the for-profit sector because generally, the stresses are different. I’m not saying that it’s stress-free in the not-for-profit sector. Not at all. It’s different stresses. The world of a for-profit is clear almost because the measurements are clear and it’s a fabulous experience to have before going into the not-for-profit sector where often measurements are fuzzier. The mandates may not be that clear and gaining that experience in a more black and white environment is valuable.

If a former colleague from your for-profit world called you and said, “I’ve accepted the CEO position of a social profit organization,” what would you say is the way to make that transition?

By the time that person has accepted that new role, they have made the transition because they generally will make that transition for the money. There is something else that must have motivated them to do that and that’s the key to the transition. He changed the purpose of this surely. Not-for-profit CEOs are well-paid executives, but the motivation is not to make more money for yourself and others. The motivation is to pursue the purpose that not-for-profit has. The moment you have accepted the role and you have made that transition, then it’s all about pursuing that. That’s the same in life. It’s pursuing the passion at the end of the day.

Do you think having been a leader at such an early stage in your career has been helpful to keep you open to learning or open to the new experiences you’ve encountered in your career?

I had effectively four years of business experience before I became a CEO. There are a lot of things I didn’t know. I grew up in Switzerland and I worked in Germany. My first CEO role was in Canada. It’s a different culture. It’s an industry I’ve worked in before. It’s a stressful environment. I had to rely on my colleagues and on my team because I was fully aware that I didn’t have all the tools and everything I needed. You realize later that this doesn’t change that much because we’ll never know everything, and we always can add to our arsenal into our toolbox. Having been there and having all the insecurities that came with it helped me to keep that open mind.

With other leaders you’ve met in the social profit sector, do you see them struggling to keep that open mind? Is an open mind a hallmark of the sector in your opinion?

This is a result of personal attributes and experience. I don’t think there is a real difference there between the not-for-profit sector and the for-profit sector. Quite often, it’s also where the people make their experiences and what opportunities they have to learn formally and what opportunities they have to have mentors that help them. Smaller companies make it quite often harder to gain these experiences because there is less opportunity to get mentored and to get exposed to other ways of doing things.

In addition to being a CEO of Genome BC, you’re involved in quite a number of community leadership on the board of a number of other organizations. How does your time as board chairs, past chair or board member influenced the work you do as a CEO?

Serving on other boards is a learning experience because now I’m looking at the CEO, assisting the CEO and working with the CEO. It’s a different perspective. There is no organization where there aren’t some nuggets that I can take out of and add to my own set of capabilities. The other thing is giving back to make the community stronger and make it better. I’m living in this community, my kids are living in this community, our staff here and our organization. Making it better as a mandate we have and we have the privilege of leadership.

I often recommend to CEOs I’m working with that they be involved in an organization other than the one that they lead. It does give that perspective and you can understand how board members are looking at the CEO when you are a board member or chair yourself.

CEOs on boards are helpful for the CEO that’s reporting to the board. They know that they’ve walked in these shoes so they can be helpful.

Pascal, I want to emphasize three points that you made that are valuable and I hope our readers will take away. One, you said that one of the critical roles of the CEO is to focus on defining the value proposition of the organization. Making sure that internally at the board level and with all of your stakeholders, people understand the importance of what the organization exists to do. Your advice to leaders is to be authentic and to be your true self. I appreciated that you were candid enough to share that sometimes there are some challenges doing that even for you after many years. Finally, find the purpose of the organization. Find your purpose as a leader, as a way of acting as the leader of that organization. That’s powerful advice to anyone who was in the role or someone who is aspiring to become a CEO on the social profit sector. Be true to yourself and that’s going to get you further than pretending to be something you’re not. Thank you. I appreciate you being on the show. All the best to you and your colleagues at Genome BC.

Thank you, Doug. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks.

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About Pascal Spothelfer

Dr. Pascal Spothelfer is a seasoned leader known for bringing forward innovation and commercialization at the intersection of industry and academia. He has held several senior roles, in both Europe and Canada, across industry sectors ranging from technology, not for profit organizations and academia. His experience spans general and change management to broad based stakeholder relations.
Prior to joining Genome BC, Pascal held the position of Vice President Communications and Community Partnerships at the University of British Columbia where he led marketing and communications, government relations, public affairs, the entrepreneurship program and other externally facing functions. Pascal has also served as President and CEO of the British Columbia Technology industry Association, and Spectrum Signal Processing respectively.
Pascal is very engaged in the community. He has served on numerous boards and is the past chair of the Board of Vancouver Opera, the entrepreneurship@UBC Advisory Board and past chair of Copperleaf Technologies Inc. He has been an active member of the Young President’s Organization since 1997.
Pascal holds a law degree and a PhD in law from the University of Basel, Switzerland and a Master of Business Administration from INSEAD in France.