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Thoughts From 20 CEOs On Leading In 2021 With Margaret McNeil

By July 7th, 2023No Comments28 min read
Home » Thoughts From 20 CEOs On Leading In 2021 With Margaret McNeil

What happens when you put the minds of 20 CEOs in one space together? The amount of wisdom would be mind-blowing. Letting you in, Senior Associate of The Discovery Group and respected leadership coach Margaret McNeil, joins Douglas Nelson in sharing some of the thoughts and inspirational ideas from 20 CEOs during their recently led Roundtables just this January 2021. They exchange stories of what transpired there and share some of the tactical tools that these leaders are using in their respective organizations. From the heightened expectations to lead better this time of COVID-19 to being vulnerable, adaptable, and resilient, Margaret and Douglas cover different facets of being a leader now more than ever.

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Thoughts From 20 CEOs On Leading In 2021 With Margaret McNeil

In late January 2021, The Discovery Group hosted two Roundtables of twenty CEOs asking them their feelings, thoughts and plans for leading their social profit organizations through the challenges of 2021. In this episode, we’re going to share some of the outcomes of that, thoughts, inspirational ideas and some of the tactical tools that those leaders are using to lead their organizations. To help me with this is my colleague, Margaret McNeil who joined The Discovery Group as a Senior Associate and took the lead on setting up the CEO Roundtables. I’m pleased to have her on the show. Welcome, Margaret.

Thanks, Doug. I appreciate it.

We had a diverse group of leaders from across the entire social profit sector. We would have done it in the same room, but it was the same Zoom room. What were your initial thoughts and reflections after having spent the two days with those leaders?

I was impressed with the leaders that had joined us over the two sessions. We could hear their strength and their commitment to their organizations and to see their organizations through the pandemic. All of them were mission-focused and also incredibly adaptable to the changes that are needed in order to sustain the organizations and the services that they deliver. One of the curious things to me was that by and large, as leaders, their expectations of themselves have increased over 2020, at a time when the challenges of sustaining things to the next period are increasing too. This is incredibly critical and important if they’ve got expectations of themselves that have increased, we’re still in this for an unknown period of time. A number of leaders raised issues that they’re feeling tired and needing to make sure that they stay strong and resilient through this period so that they can support their teams and their boards through this next period as well.

It was fascinating to me that the expectations had risen on themselves, but most of them or all of them had moderated expectations of their teams. They recognized the reality of people working from home and managing families. We saw the appearance of a couple of family pets throughout the course of the session. As people are managing, they understand their teams need that support, but they weren’t giving themselves any credit or any slack. To a person, they said their expectations of themselves as leaders had increased. We used a framework for that called Sprint To a Marathon because as you and I talked about several times before the sessions, when the pandemic hit, leaders were like, “We got to get through this. We got to figure this out. What’s our immediate response.”As we came into the fall, realizing this is going to be a much longer journey than any of that anticipated, that people were realizing they need to shift from running as fast as they could to something that was more sustainable. It’s that 100-mile ultra marathon. We talked to the group about how ultra-marathoners don’t start with, “I’m going to run a 100-mile race,” but they have a plan to break that 100 miles into sections to get through that one section and then move on to the next, to make it more manageable. Did you hear leaders thinking in that respect that this was that ultra-marathon and they’re able to break it into those smaller pieces?

I did hear some of those comments. Particularly, in the exchange between the people who were attending, a couple of the leaders were intentional about, “What do I need to keep? What do I need to go? What needs to go? What I need to do differently?” There’s no way that you can keep going at the same pace and have the same expectations or even higher expectations of yourself. It was encouraging to hear that thinking among some of the leaders that they realized that they can’t do it all and they needed to stay focused on what the critical elements of achieving their mission is. That meant letting go of somethings and they were okay with that. Other members hadn’t gotten to that point yet, but I think part of what happened too was that the exchange between them as colleagues was an empowering thing when that peer learning was going on in the session as well.

During this pandemic, leaders realized they need to shift from sprint to ultra-marathon. Click To Tweet

I took away a great sense of optimism, not just for the sector, but for the individual organizations. We had leaders who talked about using the pandemic to accelerate changes in service delivery, to do things more online and to meet their clients where they were at. There was a lot of conversation about being able to be more creative in how the organization operated. What I’m going to hold on to for the longest was the sense that challenges like this are why the social profit sector exists to be able to meet the needs of the community in the most challenging of times. To do that in a way that is supportive and meeting people where they’re at. We heard that from arts through health organizations, delivering when it’s needed most.

That’s an interesting point because it is the social profit sector that is able to pivot quickly and be very responsive to what the community needs are. What was interesting in the conversation is that some of those organizations have now turned some of those strategies into supporting staff and supporting their teams. That energy that was needed at the beginning, as we’ve said, can’t be sustained, but they’re learning from that. Also, learning how they can use some of those strategies, which are much more sustainable in nature to able to keep their teams and the individuals within their organization whole. That speaks to one of the things that we’ve learned that effective leaders need to do in the next year. That’s that they have to understand and appreciate the effort and show that they care for their people. You can’t do it in a passive way. It has to be in an intentional way and trusting that creativity that they’re seeing within their organizations. That’s a great way too, I do that. There was a lot of concern about the health of their teams, the challenges of working remotely, the challenges of having conflicting priorities at home and also changing how the work gets done. A lot of the work is now being done virtually when it would be done face-to-face before.

Leaders are finding that they need to spend more time with their team members as individuals. The other thing that we’ve learned as well is that you also need to continue to put a priority on team effectiveness and know as the team, what you are collectively striving for and how you’re going to get it together or keep it together. This is a time when it’s still possible to have team retreats. You can do it differently, but they are still important times to make sure that your team is staying connected around the mission of the organization.

One of the things that I wasn’t expecting to hear was that a number of the organizations have done away with performance evaluations in the traditional sense that, “There’s no way we’re going to be able to do that. We typically do, so we’re not going to do individual performance reviews.” Did you notice that too? What do you think that’ll mean inside those organizations going forward?

I thought that was an interesting comment because certainly in the HR or the people and culture world, the notion of the performance review is starting to change quite a bit from looking at past performance, measuring that and looking at building the capacity and building new skillsets within individuals. It was refreshing for me to hear that some of the organizations are saying that, “This is the time for us to take a look at performance reviews. Our ability to plan is not the same. To assume that organizations can continue to measure in the same way is no longer true.” I was very encouraged about that, given that the literature certainly supports that shift. If people are experiencing that shift, as you said earlier, some of these changes that organizations might’ve been contemplating are being accelerated because the opportunity is there for them to accelerate at this time.

I want to take a step back there. One of the questions I wrote it down as we were going through the Roundtables because I wanted to ask you when we were doing the show. We intentionally set it up as the airlines tell us that we were going to ask leaders to put on their own masks before they looked after their teams. We asked them to talk about how they were doing. Almost every single leader talked about their team first. Were you surprised that was as universal as it was?

DSP 5 | CEOs On Leading

CEOs On Leading: The reality is we all have to be adaptable all over time regardless. Being adaptable is key to success both now and in the future.

For leaders to be vulnerable, it is a real challenge. As the leader of the organization, you want to be supporting your teams and your team comes first. That’s what leaders do. Through the discussion, as we got into it with both group groups, I think people let down their guard a little bit and did start to talk about some of the things that they are struggling with as leaders, given that they’re tired too. That to me was an important piece given that if they haven’t yet found the ways to re-energize themselves and find things that give their own lives purpose, what they want to leave behind, what they enjoy and are showing that to their teams. It is going to be hard for them to continue to show that leadership. The other thing that encouraged me about that is that I heard from a number of the leaders, the desire to be more vulnerable with their teams so that they can show their teams that they’re not this superhero who can manage through everything, but that they’re vulnerable too and that they’re looking for ways to make sure that they can sustain their own energy because resilience is going to be key to being able to collectively move through this and in a productive and healthy way.

We’ve talked a lot about here at The Discovery Group with a lot of clients and I’ve had lots of conversations, what’s the difference between resilience and adaptability? Resilience is that resisting until such time where we can spring back to the way we were and adaptability is, how can we change? You said it best. They’re getting used to riding the waves and they’re comfortable with, “How do you plan for an uncertain future?” The first thing is you recognize that the future is uncertain and build that into how you’re thinking about supporting your team and setting plans for 2021. That comfort level of understanding that 2021 is going to be different because it has to be different. No one has that crystal ball. No one can say, “This is exactly what’s going to happen. We’re going to be through this by October 1, 2021. The weekend after Thanksgiving, everything’s going to open up.” We don’t know that and leaders still have to lead despite that ambiguity. We heard a lot of people are comfortable with that. They’ve found their sea legs.

I was encouraged about that adaptability. A lot of them were able to talk about what some of their team members had done that had surprised them about how they had adapted to the changes. To assume that change wasn’t here before is a bit naive on all of our parts, but this need for being able to pivot and engage teams quickly on how to make those adjustments and engage teams in how to do that, the creativity that we heard was outstanding. The reality is we all have to be adaptable all over time regardless. This has put it all at the sharp end of the pencil and that this issue about adaptability is such a core quality that is required for leadership in bringing that to their teams and more broadly through their organization. That being adaptable is key to success both now and in the future.

In advance of the session, we’d provided a couple of good articles to get the group thinking about the leadership challenge that leaders are facing here in the sector. I wonder if you could summarize a couple of those quickly here for our readers to get a sense of the depth of the conversation we were having.

There was one article that is from HBR and I love the title of it. It’s How to Lead When Your Team Is Exhausted and You Are, Too We did have one of the leaders in the group say that after the holidays, he thought everything’s going to be fine. Come back in January 2021 or at the end of January 2021, it’s like things have changed again. Some of the things that I took away from that or recall is that to manage through this next period, leaders need to examine their personal resilience and that of their team members. That means that they need to spend more time with their team members about what is going to be meaningful for them and how they can help with strategies to support that resilience and support that adaptability for both themselves and their team members.

There are some pieces in that. One is the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important, which leaders face a lot of the time regardless, but staying mission-focused when everything is coming at you and people are looking for certainty is an incredibly important piece to focus on. As well as providing that comfort and compassion to their team members because this pandemic affects everybody in very personal ways, but providing that compassion and support while finding new ways to energize themselves and be committed to the work that needs to be done to sustain the services and sustain the organization.

This issue about mental wellbeing is an important one right now. At the same time, there need to be some limits set around that in order for that to happen. Another thing that came out from that article is that our job as a leader is to energize everyone every day. That includes themselves. I’d say that being intentional about that and letting leaders, letting their teams know what they are doing sets an incredible example for what leaders need to do to say, “This is me and how I am managing through this period,” but supporting their teams to find those things that keep them engaged and energized every single day on a personal basis is incredibly important.

We’ve heard from lots of leaders across the country that are suffering from that rally fatigue that needing to get everybody else up every day is exhausting to them. Particularly, some of our leadership colleagues who are more introverted, that is a heavy lift every morning. We heard from the leaders, lots of different strategies for how they’re doing that, whether it was weekly check-ins with everyone on the team or even daily check-ins for certain periods during the pandemic. A lot of the leaders we heard from are finding their own way or the ways that work best for their organization.

Leaders are finding that they need to spend more time with their team members as individuals. Click To Tweet

Those are things that came out of the Forbes article and it’s the Three Things The Most Effective Leaders Will Do In 2021. I mentioned a couple of them earlier is to understand and appreciate the effort the staff and the teams are making. You have to show in a demonstrable way that you care about your people and you build trust through your actions around that. In the team effectiveness piece, we talked about before, people need to get together. This is a time when people are working much more independently largely than they have before. I would encourage leaders to be focusing on their team effectiveness to keep everybody focused around what is most important and what you’re collectively working for. The third part for me that came out of the article is about leading on purpose.

This speaks to the self part as leaders. A number of them, we heard about what is important to them. They know what they enjoy and they know what brings out the best in them and the impact that they want to have and the legacy that they want to lead. They need to be intentional about that and share that with their teams because then it gives their teams the permission and the ability to think about those things themselves because that’ll help guide and ground the individual leaders but also be incredibly motivating to the people around them in this time that is uncertain for the foreseeable future.

That uncertainty was reflected in the conversation about the board and how the different board of directors had responded to the pandemic. We heard a lot of differences about how boards had responded. Initially, there was a similarity and the boards were like, “What’s going to happen? What are we going to do during this lockdown?” Over the course of the summer and the fall, there were two paths that the organization board seems to follow. One was to get right into the gears of the organization, paying attention to the language of the annual fund, how checks are being cut and into the gears, which is a certain form of problem. We heard from other CEOs and I was surprised by the number of them where the boards had drifted off into the stratosphere. Someone who was responsible to work, what were you thinking when you heard how the different boards had responded?

I was quite curious about that because I think at the end of the day, boards want to help. At a time like this, it’s hard for boards to know how to help. People on boards are often looking for those things that they can measure because it gives them something concrete and something to hold on to. That dip into operations to me or desire doesn’t come as a big surprise. For the leaders to help their boards keep focused on the horizon and letting the leaders and the teams navigate when boards want to be steering the ship is a challenge. That’s for the boards that are dipping more in. For the boards that have checked out a little bit, it’s the same symptom. They don’t know how to help. The leaders need to be looking and helping their boards with very concrete things that they can do to help because, at the end of the day, that’s what boards want to do. The more guidance that their leaders can give them, the better off they’re going to be in the long run when we come out the other side of this. Doug, I’m curious about your thoughts about that as well.

DSP 5 | CEOs On Leading

CEOs On Leading: To manage through this next period, leaders need to examine their personal resilience and that of their team members.

We’d asked everyone to think of some positives and some negatives about how their boards have responded. The positives were inspiring. People who were using words like, “My board was generous leadership, heroic, open creative, supportive and champions.” There were some great examples of community leaders rallying in constructive ways to support the social profits that they serve. That was good to hear. Some of the challenging words were the issues exactly as you described them, boards are wanting to help but not knowing how and that’s showing up in some strange ways. There was a great discussion among the participants about how they kept their boards activated and on focus and on target. We didn’t hear and I thought we might have any discussion of boards wanting to do some mission drift, like, “Should we be doing this work we’re doing anymore as a response to the pandemic?” That didn’t come through from any of the participants.

What did come through that I found encouraging was that some of the CEO said they had narrowed the focus of the board in terms of, “We’re going to measure our progress from now until the end of March 2021. Here’s what we’re going to focus on. Here’s how we’re going to measure our success over this short period of time.” There is no ability to plan with such an uncertain future. Looking out what’s the world going to look like twelve months from now doesn’t help to lead an organization. It was encouraging to hear boards that were open to that focus on the mission and using milestones as a way to measure progress until a longer-term operational plan or an annual plan can be set.

That gets nicely in that sprint to marathon analogy in that. You look at it in smaller chunks to be able to achieve those smaller chunks while not losing sight of what the bigger picture looks like. Two months timeframe is a manageable one for boards and a manageable one for leaders at this time as well, not knowing how their worlds are going to be changing over the next few months. It certainly changed in the month of January 2021 far greater than we anticipated. We need to make sure we’ve got strong oars to manage the waves, but again, not lose sight of the horizon, but keep it in manageable chunks that we need to be working through.

You mentioned strong oars and that is, “Everybody in the boat pulling.” One of the things these conversations underlined for me is how quickly we need to get rid of the phrase “nose in fingers out” when it comes to governance. Mission-based organizations that are attempting to have a positive effect and make a positive change in the world need their boards of directors, all of their staff, and all of their donors doing everything they can to uplift the organization and help advance the mission. Not the idea of a nameless faceless board of directors with their arms behind their back, peering over the shoulder of the CEO does not match what success looks like in the sector. The pandemic has made that obvious. The organizations that are struggling either because the board has gone missing in action or that the board has not been able to engage in helping to advance the mission in ways that are possible during the pandemic.

I’m hoping that one of the things we and all organizations in the sector can take away is this outmoded idea that the board is peering over the shoulder of management and that constitutes good governance because what we’ve seen over 2020 makes it clear that is not good governance. That is a fast way to a lot of trouble for organizations. To end more constructively on that point, those are organizations where the boards are contributing to that, advancing that mission and the lifting up of the organization. We’ve seen the revenue either sustain or even grow. We’ve seen mission being served, clients being helped and the missions being advanced in ways that no one could have guessed last March 2020. It positioned them very well for the last little bit of our marathon here and through the end and the recovery from the pandemic.

We heard from a couple of the CEOs that they were much further along with their plans in 2020 than they expected to be. It’s a lot because their boards have been able to lift up and move through. I also want to underline the importance of gratitude. Often, there’s a bit of a divide between the leadership team and the board of directors. In some organizations, it’s the CEO that spends most of the time with the board, not all, but in some. For the board to take the time to say thank you to the leadership team here helps to bridge that gap and helps everybody feel so they are working towards a common goal and are aligned in their particular roles around achieving that common goal. That piece around gratitude is an important one. Sometimes leaders need to point their boards in that direction that they do need to do that. When I’ve seen that done before, the impact has been incredibly powerful on energizing and having leadership’s team feeling valued and feeling seen for the effort that they’re putting in.

We did hear from a few of the leaders who said that they felt personally well supported by their boards. They felt like the boards had their back and were looking after them as leaders, which was encouraging to hear. I like the extension you’re adding to that. When the board makes that same support clear to the rest of the management team, it goes a long way.

Resilience is key to being able to collectively move through this pandemic in a productive and healthy way. Click To Tweet

It’s an interesting time to be looking at board CEO or leadership team dynamics, given that and we are in these unusual circumstances. A couple of the leaders did mention the phrase, “In adversity comes creativity or opportunity.” A number of the CEOs and EDs that we brought to the table talked about that where it was getting an opportunity for different kinds of discussions and to do things differently than they had had before. As much as the comment might seem a little bit trite, I think it is an important one. It does give the opportunity at a time of so much change to look at doing things in a different way. The way that we ended this conversation was a future casting exercise that had the CEOs looking ahead to the end of 2021. In that, they would be writing to an important stakeholder about how their organization has stayed true to a mission. I’m interested in why this is important for leaders to look ahead and what did we hear from the leaders about this?

We talked about the importance of using two-month milestones and breaking the ultramarathon down into smaller sections. That’s all very true for how you move through the day, move through the week, move through the quarter. It’s also important for leaders to stay focused and always have an eye on what that North star for their organization is. We like to use the future casting exercises with management teams and with boards to say, “Let’s look out over a period of time and assume that we’ve been successful in achieving our strategic plan, achieving our annual plan, achieving this organizational transformation. Work back what have we done in order to get to this place.” It helps put people in the mind of what are the positive change that is required to achieve that goal. 

As CEOs are caring, supporting for their teams, leading their missions, working with their boards, the pandemic is like a time of scarcity that can narrow our focus and that’s positive. That’s what evolution gives us is our ability to focus on the immediate problem in front of us. I’m convinced that the leaders that are most successful are going to be those that are able to manage this time of relative scarcity in a way that allows them to keep one eye or one portion of their eyesight on that true North and the mission of their organization so that they’re able to communicate. “The pandemic has touched us all, in our organization and service to our mission, here’s how we’ve responded,” in a way that is going to excite their donors and make them feel proud to be supporters of the organization.

CEOs On Leading: There is so much strength within the sector, both in terms of their own organizational strength and commitment to a healthier civil society.

What we heard from the CEOs was something similar to that. A recognition that it is hard to look ahead. It is hard to be looking out into the middle of December 2020 to writing that year-end thank you notes to donors and you should write thank you notes to donors every month of the year, but the exercise with the middle of December 2020. What are we going to be proud of having achieved with respect to our mission? They all knew what they wanted to achieve, but then when you say, “What are the three action items you’re going to take away from this conversation and set in motion over the next couple of weeks?” That’s where it got a little harder. Taking that big long-term vision and breaking it down to the tactical, “What am I going to do now because it’s Wednesday,” can be a challenge for leaders. Discipline is important, particularly in this uncertain time.

Most organizations have some border organizational calendars where there’s a time at which your planning gets done and your budget gets prepared. You have your AGM, your financials get approved and performance reviews are done. You can almost write that into one of the activities in the annual calendar that needs to get done. It makes it a little bit easier when it’s written down and leaders don’t have to think about it in a future way. You need to think about it as something that needs to be contemplated and done but to write it into what your expectations are for 2021. Part of your annual cycle is a good discipline.

One thing that is always true, and I know this is something you believe as well, that it is important for leaders to have a set of goals that are for themselves in their role that is separate than the goals for the organization. It’s a way of keeping leaders to be able to measure your progress and what are often challenging issues that you’re trying to change and move forward, but it’s also a way to get energy from those achievements that you hold for yourself and will necessarily be in service to the organization. Making sure you keep those two things separate and clear in your mind is important. It brings me back to my favorite Marshall Goldsmith quote, which is, “Simple does not mean easy.” It’s easy to say, but difficult to do. I was encouraged with the number of the leaders that we spoke with. They do have that clear sense of North Star firmly in mind.

To me, that was one of the final takeaways that were an incredibly important piece that I don’t think any of the leaders had lost their North Star. Some of them through the discussion was given some things to take away and to think about that they hadn’t necessarily thought about before, but I was impressed with the forward-thinking orientation of most of the two groups that we spoke to. It gave me a lot of hope and optimism about the continued strength of the sector through this next period and into the future.

As we wrap up here, I’ll ask you to share any final thoughts you had on the Roundtable. Anything that’s going to stick with you?

A few things that I take away from our sessions is that a number of people talked about appreciating having the time to think, and the time to step away from their day-to-day work and focus on what’s most important in their leadership. That is normally something that leaders have an opportunity to do. Sometimes there’s a Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting and people come away from the end of the day and incredibly tired, but that importance of time to think and time to connect with colleagues is incredibly important that leaders need to do regardless. It’s even more important now. These are lonely jobs. The pandemic has exacerbated that in some ways, because people are focused on their organizations, but this ability to reach out and use their colleagues or use a sounding board or a strategic counsel to be able to work through some of these issues are things that are important ones that the round table had some discussion about. The appreciation that we heard for bringing people together was quite heartwarming. I was quite excited about that.

We started the concept of the Roundtables switching from a sprint to a marathon. After everything you heard, do you think that analogy still applies?

We need to make sure we've got strong oars to manage the waves, but again, not lose sight of the horizon. Click To Tweet

I think that analogy is more true than ever. A number of the leaders that we talked to said that they thought they would come back refreshed after the holidays. That was not the case because January 2021 has thrown a lot of curveballs with respect to the pandemic response. That marathon analogy still works incredibly well. What works incredibly well about it is to break it down into those 5-kilometer chunks. We don’t know how many chunks and we don’t know for how long, but we can all see a couple of months ahead. To be able to take it in that step-by-step phase takes it back to that marathon analogy. It’s truer now than it was in 2020. One of the things that I’m curious about is, what can leaders do whether they’re CEOs or not do to continue leading through 2021?

The leadership challenge in the sector is always a great one in terms of good and wonderful to be on, but also in the enormity of the responsibility that comes with leading many social profit organizations. It’s going to be more true than ever in 2021. The biggest thing is to recognize that while your job may be lonely, you can’t talk to your board about certain things and you can’t talk to your team about the board and vice versa. Find a community, work with advisors, stay connected to peers and think about managing your own energy, own goals in parallel, in support of the goals that you have for your organization. Margaret, everybody should stay connected with us here at The Discovery Group. We’d love to keep the conversation going, not just with those twenty CEOs that we spoke with, but with the entire sector where the leadership challenge is great, but we should all expect that because our job in the sector is to change the world for the better. I think we’re in good hands.

If there’s anything to take away is that there is so much strength within the sector, both in terms of their own organizational strength and in terms of commitment to a stronger civil society that I left the session encouraged about that and optimistic. The opportunity to help to support organizations through all of this change is a real honor. The more that people can do to reach out to get that support, the more we can do to help support them and the sector to achieve its overall goals.

That’s a great place to end it. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you, Doug. I appreciate it.

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About Margaret McNeil

DSP 5 | CEOs On Leading

Margaret McNeil, MScN, C. Dir. is Senior Associate at The Discovery Group. She works with CEOs providing coaching and counsel on navigating organizational transformation. Formerly CEO of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice and winner of the 2020 Waterstone Award for Most Admired CEO in the broader public sector category. Margaret is deeply committed to strengthening the sector’s impact on the lives of our citizens.

Margaret has focused on making a difference in the lives of vulnerable populations and leading organizations to make significant and sustainable organizational change. The Beedie School of Business has recognized Margaret’s leadership as ‘Mentor of the Year’ as has Business in Vancouver with its CEO of the Year Award in 2017.

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