On today’s show, we are joined by Mark Korthuis, President and CEO of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation in Edmonton, Alberta. Glenrose is Canada’s largest freestanding rehabilitation facility. Its mission is “enabling patients with impairments or disabilities to reach and achieve their optimal physical, sensory, psychological, spiritual, and social functional levels.” Mark takes us on a vivid tour of the Glenrose Hospital while giving us insights on his experience in leadership and philanthropy. Tune in and find out how the Glenrose Hospital gives hope to people seeking rehabilitation from illness and injury.
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Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation With Mark Korthuis
In this show, we have Mark Korthuis. He’s the President and CEO of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation in Edmonton, Alberta. Mark gives us a candid look at his own leadership journey. He makes an interesting case for irrational optimism as a CEO in the social profit sector. Along the way, he takes us on a very vivid tour of the Glenrose Hospital, Canada’s largest freestanding rehabilitation facility, and the important role that philanthropy plays in ensuring a better future for those seeking to recover from illness and injury.
Mark goes deep into his own experience. For those of you that know Mark and have had the chance to listen to his wonderful podcast, Confronting the Madness, you will know we are getting the authentic real deal. The real Mark comes through. If you haven’t heard that podcast, I encourage you to listen to it. In the meantime, please enjoy my conversation with Mark Korthuis.
Welcome, Mark. It’s great to have you on the show.
It’s great to be here. It’s good to see you again.
If you can believe it or not, not everyone is fully familiar with the work of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital and the foundation that you lead. Can you explain what the organization is, what it does, and how it’s unique in the healthcare system?
First of all, as a foundation, for me, it’s always important to remind myself that we are in the people business, and so is healthcare. The Glenrose Hospital supports people who have chronic and, oftentimes, complex conditions, illnesses, or injuries that come from acute care for a variety of different conditions. We support the entire lifespan. Whether it’s your child, your teenager, your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa, your great-grandma, or your great-grandpa, we try to help them regain their independence in the best way possible for their individual condition.
As a foundation, we are focused on providing critical support for areas of research, innovation, technology, patient care, and education. It’s all of the things that foundations normally support. We are becoming more hyper-focused on trying to enable the hospital to become a nationally renowned center for translational or applied research. We do have all of the elements here to work on that. Health technology is a critical operating function of the hospital and has been for decades. It’s a question of how we help patients regain their independence quicker, faster, and more effectively.
It’s an enormous place. Having lived in Edmonton, myself, people talk about Glenrose as a small hospital next to Alexandra. You have got 16 specialties and 43 subspecialties. You are serving tens of thousands of patients every year. As the foundation, how do you zero in on those priorities that you are going to raise money for or that you are going to invite your donors to join you in providing that margin of excellence for patients in the hospital itself?
As a foundation, from a business perspective, if you could call it that, it’s an interesting challenge. We are a unique healthcare facility in the province and country as the only standalone or the largest standalone rehabilitation facility in the country serving 80,000 patients every year. The challenge for us from positioning or how we focus is because we support so many different areas across the healthcare system, it’s trying to think through, “Where is an area that has the highest need? Where is the area we can have the biggest impact? Where’s the area in which we can make investments with our donors that have a future potential impact?”
We are thinking through, “What are some existing technologies that we have here that we help patients with? What are some future technologies that may be emerging?” We are thinking about the areas of machine learning, robotics, artificial intelligence, and things like that. As a foundation, how do we bridge the divide of what is necessary that the hospital requires? What is necessary to help improve the patient care that the patient requires? How can we think about aspirations and dreams of what the future of healthcare can and should look like?
We know there are challenges that exist in the system and have for a long time. As a special hospital that isn’t an acute care hospital, we can play a unique position in the system to test trials and validate new ideas in real-time with the permission of patients or with the support of researchers and industry partners as well. It’s trying to think about, for me, trying to marry the need of what a donor desires to support, what the hospital thinks is practical to support, and what the external community of partners, whether that be the universities or the industry partners, can help build upon. We are then collating that into a cohesive vision of what’s possible.
Throw all of those elements into your magician’s hat and tap it with your wand a few times, and then your priority list comes out.
You put it in a blender. Sometimes, the smoothie doesn’t taste very good, so you add a couple more fruits and vegetables. Hopefully, you get to a place in which you have an aspirational vision that can help patients now and in the future. The Glenrose is all about helping someone regain their independence and improve their quality of life after a serious accident, injury, or illness. Oftentimes, it’s very complex. It’s trying to be rooted in the base case of what it is the hospital does and how the foundation can help. It’s also thinking through how potentially the hospital might be able to deliver services differently or improve them in ways that.Glenrose Hospital is all about helping patients regain their independence after a serious accident, injury, or illness. Click To Tweet
As a system, the healthcare system is strained. Clinicians are strained, stressed, and overburdened. To ask them to do some of that aspirational thinking about things that may exist in the future is not in their purview. How do we help unlock some of those ideas with all of the experts and specialists that we have at the hospital? That’s the game. I don’t think I gave you a specific answer, and maybe that’s because this isn’t a very specific place.
Let’s come at it another way. I know you are very active in the community. You are talking to lots of people, lots of partners, and especially donors. What are the kinds of questions donors ask you when they are thinking about giving back to Glenrose? Presumably, they are aware of it or they have benefited from it, or someone close to them has benefited from the great work that happens there. What are the questions they ask you as head of the foundation about the hospital?
I’m always surprised by how many people do know about Glenrose. We did a presentation to a group of funders. I could see the chair nodding and smiling. She shared afterward how her husband was at the Glenrose after a severe motorcycle accident. For those that know what the Glenrose is, which many people in the community do because they have been touched by it either directly or indirectly, understanding that patient care and the type of quality of care that’s provided at the hospital is second to none.
This sounds stupid, but everybody goes on Amazon.ca to look for reviews. If you are going to buy a book, a product, or a service, you scroll through it. I don’t think you often get that where if you Google the Glenrose and check out the Google reviews, you are getting 4.5 or 5 stars in a hospital care setting or a hospital setting. That’s what you get with the Glenroses.
If people don’t know about it, it’s to underscore that the people here care deeply about patient care and have the ability to spend oftentimes months or years with a patient. That’s because they may have a chronic condition that they come back to time and time again at the Glenrose either to get reassessed because they are growing as a person or any sort of equipment needs to be adjusted or remade.
The patient care is exceptional. Relationships, much like donor relationships in the foundation world, are critical. It’s not you are in and you are out and we are never going to see you again. It’s like, “I know I’m going to have a long-lasting relationship with you. It’s in my best interest that we like each other.” It’s not that I give you a prescription and you leave and we never see each other again. Relationships here are critically important.
The other thing we would say is that we provide specialized rehabilitative care in many areas that nowhere else in the province does. That ranges from spinal cord injury to spasticity to pediatric rehabilitation to prosthetics and orthotics. We are a specialized hospital that provides complex care to the most complex patients. As a base case that interests people, it’s like, “That’s in Edmonton?” It’s like, “Yeah.” That gets them interested, and then it becomes, “I’m interested. What are you doing next?”
Let’s do that. What are you excited about that’s happening and that you are talking to donors about there at the foundation?
I’m excited about a couple of things. One, at a macro level, thinking about helping to enable Glenrose to become a nationally-renowned research hospital is something I’m interested in. We do some work in that area, but we have the opportunity to expand in that area.
If I could jump in there, what do you see as the role of philanthropy in getting Glenrose that national reputation that it deserves?
Traditionally versus what I see now and what I see our role as, it is different. Traditional philanthropy would be there is a grateful patient who receives quality care. They are somebody who receives quality care. They want to make a contribution in honor of that care. The foundation is more of a middleman between a donor and the hospital. Sometimes, there’s not a lot of foresight, or there’s not a lot of thinking that goes into, “What are we going to do with that contribution?”
Health foundations and this is where I get excited and interested, are playing a more active role in thinking through how we maximize the impact of a donor’s dollars. That involves a lot of fact findings. It involves being curious. It involves speaking to a lot of different people, both inside and outside the hospital, to think, “What are some common themes about challenges that exist? Why aren’t we nationally renowned in this area right now?”Health foundations are now playing a more active role in thinking how to maximize the impact of a donor’s dollars. It involves fact-finding, curiosity, and speaking to a lot of people both inside and outside the hospital. Click To Tweet
As you speak to the universities and the leaders of the hospital, one of the common themes I heard is that there is a desire to be that. That’s good. It’s not just the foundation or a donor pushing something down somebody’s throat that doesn’t want it. I hear that, and then I hear, “What are some of the constraints that are hindering that from advancing?” You then hear, “Nobody has time to dedicate to moving this forward.” I’m like, “Can the foundation help with that?” They are like, “I think so.”
Space is another problem. There’s no space at the hospital where we can have clinicians, researchers, and industry partners come together to try to solve a problem collectively. We have funding. That’s what we do. We raise money for new spaces. That’s easy. Those are different things. There’s the resource aspect, coordination aspect, convening aspect, and then the execution aspect.
Foundations are often seen as transactional funders and fundraisers. What I get excited by and what our board is excited by is being more of a formal partner with the healthcare system and with external partners to try to think through how can we do things better for the benefit of the patient. To become nationally renowned, we have to start somewhere. One of the campaigns that we are working on is because we thought through, “What are we good at? Who’s good at it? How can we make some seed investments to help advance a smaller project underneath that larger vision?”
We have launched a $4 million campaign to build out what we are calling the Imagination Center. Within it is going to contain specialized pediatric rehabilitation applied research projects in labs that are going to look at new and novel ways in which we can treat complex challenges that our kids are having. Within that, our flagship project is focused on utilizing brain-computer interfaces for the pediatric population that has severe communication or movement challenges.
The simplest way to think about what a brain-computer interface does is that children that are cognitively able to are able to think and have their own thoughts and ideas, but aren’t able to interact with the external environment. You can think something and action are taken through the use of a computer interface. That could be interfaces connected to any sort of technology that we can think of.
For example, we have one young patient who all she wanted to do was play fetch with her dog, and she is not able to do that. For young people, for our kids, play is one of the most fundamental things you have the ability to do. It’s so important in your growth and development. All she wanted to do was play fetch with her dog. There are electrodes that go on Olivia’s scholar brain, and then that’s connected to a powerful computer in the interface. We are able to connect that computer to a little ball that all she has to do is think and throw. Since the machine learning algorithms were able to detect her signals and her brain waves, it moves the ball.
That’s one patient. It’s one example of what’s happening at the Imagination Center. The potential for future applications is endless. We have another boy who all he wanted to do is play video games with his brother. That was impossible before. In the future, he wants to be a crane operator, and that’s possible. The advancements in technology happen exponentially. Don’t think that that’s not possible.
Our new vision for the foundation and the hospital is the idea of reimagining human ability. I like that. That excites me because you think about the idea of trying to help someone regain their independence, and some of these patients have never been independent in that way before. It’s unlocking their independence, which is a whole new idea.
I get excited about the idea of helping catalyze our health ecosystem in the rehabilitation space to be a national leader in this area. That’s starting with the pediatric population and our Imagination Center campaign and using the brain-computer interface as the launchpad or our flagship project as an exemplar of what’s possible. All that’s incredibly exciting. It’s super cool.
What I like about how you told that story and walked us through was you started out with, “It’s complicated.” As two fundraisers having a conversation, we know that complicated or complex is often pushed language for donors. It pushes them away. Starting with the reality and complexity of the health system and the complexity of the care provided to many patients.
You brought it down to that simple pursuit of play for those two kids in your examples, whether it’s to play fetch or to play video games. That’s such a powerful way of connecting the complicated, complex works of the smartest kids in the class doing the care at the Glenrose to what’s going to motivate the donors to your foundation.
It’s a great example when we hear people talking about fundraising needing to be more about storytelling. You walked us through how you start with the big-picture technical work and bring it back to the heart of the work, the margin of excellence and care that donors can play. I appreciate that.
I want to pivot away a little bit from Glenrose and talk about your journey as a CEO in the sector. You have been with Glenrose for a couple of years. Before that, you were with the Mental Health Foundation. As a second-time CEO, what learning did you take from that first experience in your role at the Glenrose when you walked through the door in October 2020?
I have reflected on that a lot. I come from a competitive sports background. I played high-level soccer or professional soccer. I have always been hyper-competitive. Winning and losing have been my mindset. When I went into the role of the Mental Health Foundation, I was hyper-focused on the idea of increasing revenue, minimizing expenses, and increasing distributions to the mental healthcare system as, those are my metrics. Also then, the fourth one, which is less quantitative, is we want to be the go-to place for mental healthcare in the province. I was hyper-focused on that.
What I learned from that, and hopefully still working towards getting better at, is numbers are important. There’s no doubt about that, but it’s how you think about those numbers and why they matter to the work that you do. That’s more important. Even though I was successful, if you look at the last five years of the mental health foundation’s financial statements, one of the places where I fell short in was my time preference was much too high. That means that I was thinking too impulsively about something without having a long view. When I think about a long view, I think of five years plus, like, “How do I want to leave something that’s going to have stain power beyond my tenure?” I have taken that.
It’s been difficult because as somebody who raises money, you get this hard wiring in a place where topline revenue is something that’s a validator for you. Maybe that’s not all people, but I grew up thinking, “I need to raise the most money possible.” The question starts to become, “What kind of money is it and what is it for? How does it fit with the strategy? Is it going to help people today? Is it going to help people tomorrow?”
There are a lot of different things to consider when you think about what money you are bringing in and why. If it’s restricted to the narrowest thing possible, is that as good as people believing in a vision to become the most nationally renowned for clinical research for rehabilitation medicine? How do you quantify the influence you have to exert over bringing together disparate actors and then encouraging new researchers to come to the city? You can’t. I had a difficult time with anything outside of my measurable world thinking that mattered.
What made the difference? How did you find that switch and flip it?
Let’s go through what I call the five fiscal years that I was responsible for the budget of the Mental Health Foundation. Quite honestly, without getting into great detail about it, I became hyper-focused on the work during COVID. It’s the flight or fight complex that took over where I was going to take on all of the problems I could possibly have within the mental healthcare system. I got focused on that. It became unhealthy to the point where I was getting so overly obsessed with winning in the way in which I defined it, which isn’t winning.
My time preference kept getting higher. I was too in the weeds and I didn’t zoom out and see the bigger picture. Relationships are something that I hold very dearly. I hold them forever. If I meet you and you hold the same ethics and values that I do, you will never be out of my mind. I will always think of you if there’s something that I can help you with.
There were 1 or 2 relationships during that time in which I did a disservice, which I have never done before in my life in that type of way. That type of pain that I had with my own internalizing was something that sometimes, you have to suffer an acute experience in order to realize that you are not looking at things the right way. It was certainly a specific thing that happened that was painful for me to reflect on how I was evaluating what was important to measure success. That took five years. Part of it is growing up as a person, too. I was 32 when I took over the Mental Health Foundation. You don’t know what you are doing either.
I’m sure that’s not what you said in your interview, but it’s more in hindsight that you realize that.
My problem is I’m honest to false, so maybe I did say that. The thing is it’s not as though to become a CEO. Some people might, but it’s not like I was VP to a CEO for five years. I didn’t have a manual to go into. For me, it was trial and error with everything I did. It’s through error that you learn to grow. It’s not through the good times. It’s through the challenging times that you have to burn off some of that deadwood.
Leading a larger team there at the Glenrose, how do you approach communicating that where it’s through the things that don’t go quite right that that’s how we learn and get better as you are leading a team of individuals who are probably motivated by many of the same metrics that you were formerly?
It’s always going to be a balance. There is a healthy reason why you want to have metrics and goals that are quantifiable. It’s the balance between appreciating the effort and the inputs. The outputs aren’t always going to be fair. As long as you are putting the right effort in, the fruits of your labor will be sown eventually over time. Fundraising is a good example of that where these things sometimes take years. If you burn a relationship to repair, it also takes a lot of time. Certainly, for us, there were some relationships that were left dormant. I don’t want to say anything disparaging about the past. It’s more so there was a transition with CEOs, there was a gap, and there was COVID. It was a challenge to maintain relationships in a deep way.
To think about all the success, it’s the effort put in. It’s my job to have a strategy that’s aspirational that helps people want to put in that effort for intrinsic reasons. I coach soccer. I coached my 10-year-old and my 8-year-old. My girls are very good. They are one of the best teams in Edmonton. We played. I had this like, “This is bad. People are going to think I’m a little over the top. I want to win.” As the other coaches, when we all played soccer there, they were like, “We want to win.”
We lost 2:1. I was so mad. I was mad because I lost as a coach. I went home and was like, “What the heck am I doing?” I have gone back to the girls because they were starting to have this burden of expectation to win. I said to them, “If you are having fun, that’s number one at this age. If you are improving, learning, and putting in the effort, that’s also important. The winning will come, but you have to put in the effort.” That’s also what I try to have as a leader. It’s the effort and the caring that matter. The dollars are also important, but not at all costs.
The old saying is you are entitled to the work. You are not entitled to the result, so get to work.
That’s right. Fundraising is funny, too. Sometimes, people don’t do the work, but all of a sudden, they get the results. The opposite’s also true. People are putting in the work and the results might come in three years when they are gone, but that’s the nature of the beast and that’s the game we play. Like everything, it’s the process. The process is the outcome. That is the way I want to look at it.
Reflecting on that, I know that the largest individual gift that I was ever directly connected with came as a result of a 25-year relationship with the donor. I had only been with the organization for 3 years at the time or 4 years maybe. It wasn’t my relationship. I was in that steward role of harvesting what had been planted many years ago.
We are coming near the end of our conversation. As a leader, you have been candid in sharing some of your own reflections on your own leadership journey. Who is it that you look to for advice or guidance when you encounter some of these challenging issues or these pivotal moments in your leadership journey?
Some leaders aren’t transparent enough. I fall in the category of TMI or Too Much Information. It’s like an overshare. If you are in my orbit and I’m in the mood to talk, everybody is my cognitive behavioral therapist. I would say that what’s been helpful for me in this particular role is that I have been fortunate to have a strong board chair. We were able to establish a pretty strong working relationship even before she became the chair. She’s an exceptional leader in person.
As much as I overshare even with her, that allows me to say whatever is on my mind as a person and know that she’s not going to judge that. Maybe she will fire me one day for oversharing, but we have a real relationship as human beings. She’s been very important in my life. I have had some old bosses from when I worked at the U of A. I had an old boss whom I will give a shout-out, which is Eric Upton.
He is a retired Eric Upton.
He is a former five-time Great Cup champion. He is a Great Cup champion five times over. My dad passed away when he was 53 from brain cancer. He hasn’t been around for many years. You meet someone who has a similar essence to your father. He is like a father figure to me. I don’t necessarily go to him for specific things, but I go to him as a level set for what type of person I want to be as it relates to ethics, values, and how to treat another person.
We go up for lunch once a month. I love to shoot the crap with him because he’s also a locker room guy. If I’m complaining about something, he is not going to say, “It’s okay.” He is going to say, “What are you complaining about? Suck it up. Put on your boots and get out there.” Sometimes, I like a shoulder to cry on, but more often than not, I need a kick in the butt, and he’s good at that.
That’s great. I know Eric. What a great guy and what a good mentor to have. That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. I want to come to our last question. This is my favorite question to ask our guests. Working in this sector means that you can’t be a pessimist. Being a pessimist is a privilege. That means that other people are looking out for you and protecting you. With your optimist eyes on, what are you most looking forward to?
I have been in these two roles. In the healthcare system, especially through COVID, it’s easy to be a cynic. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of cynicism and pessimism. Everything is how you look at it. It doesn’t matter what position you are in. I highly recommend people read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is about a psychiatrist that was in a concentration camp in Auschwitz and was able to find meaning in the darkest of places.
I always like to reflect on the fact that, for me, in my role, first and foremost, it’s one of the greatest privileges a person can have. The type of things that you deal with that are annoying and complex is a blessing. You should wake up every morning and think, “I am lucky that I get to sit here and try to figure out how to make people’s lives better.” It’s frustrating because you can’t or you can’t do it better. That’s my privilege.
To think about optimism, your job as a foundation is to be an optimist in the darkest of times. It’s easy to be an optimist when everything’s rosy, but when everything’s at its worst, you have to be at your best. That is what you get paid to do. It’s something that I’m telling myself more than anybody. It’s easy to fall into the trap of cynicism because things are complicated. Bureaucracies are complicated. Fundraising’s hard. The world is complex and dynamic more so than ever.
I’m optimistic about the human condition and the people that I meet every day, whether they be patients, staff, or donors. The more I talk to people, the more I realize that most people are genuine. They are wanting to do better for themselves, their families, and their communities. That’s the same with donors. We are all in this together, trying to be the best versions of ourselves every single day. It’s my responsibility to be optimistic, whether that’s rational or not.The more I talk to people, the more I realize most people genuinely want to do better for themselves, their families, and their communities. Click To Tweet
Somebody wrote a book. It was Matt Ridley. It’s called The Rational Optimist. It’s how you can make a case for rational optimism. I want to make a case for irrational optimism where even in the face of things that you think aren’t possible, you have to be an irrational optimist. It’s like Steve Jobs. He had the mind distortion field where he’d refused to accept things that weren’t possible. The future is what you make it, so there’s no such thing as being a rational optimist about the future. It’s only as rational as you make it become. Until it’s rational and real, it’s just an idea and a dream. That’s what we work in. We work in the people business telling dreams through our relationships and talking about them through a story. I love that. That’s the best.
I love the case for irrational optimism. We are called upon when things are very difficult to be those optimists often as leaders in the sector. You have done a wonderful job of sharing your journey and being candid about it. I appreciate that. Thank you for being on the show.
It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
- Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation
- Confronting the Madness
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- The Rational Optimist
About Mark Korthuis
A values-driven leader with progressive experience building organizations and driving positive societal change. Influential, inspiring, and approachable communicator able to reach and engage teams and stakeholders while building successful collaborations, partnerships, and relationships. Decisive, process-focused, and highly strategic with demonstrated success leading, implementing, and communicating visions. Excellent interpersonal skills with the ability to seamlessly navigate complex policy, process, and people-related organizational dynamics.