ORCA: I know there are a lot of people who are really interested in your story and your journey, and in fact, when we spoke earlier, you told me about your leadership journey. There were two sections to it; there was the early behind-the-scenes phase and then there was the full out-front phase. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that journey and how one became the other?
Sure. I kind of fell into the sector. It wasn’t something that I had planned. I know of leaders who have talked about how they worked in retirement communities or long-term care – I didn’t do that. I fell into the sector when I was very young and very green just out of university. I didn’t really intend to stay; I guess it was going to be a bit of a stopgap between an undergrad degree and something else that I was going to do. But I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with what we did through the Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA), and I was also always very involved with ORCA.
When I think back on those early years, I realize how fortunate I was to be in this position, and it’s why I never left. I just stayed in the sector. I was given all sorts of wonderful opportunities to be mentored. I wouldn’t have ever called myself ambitious, and people probably look at my career and think that I must have been very ambitious to have had these career opportunities, but I wasn’t. I was hard working. I was super dedicated. I was very, very curious, and I was quiet. Again, people might be surprised by that, but I was this behind-the-scenes person who had the great fortune of being surrounded by some of the giants in this sector.
On my first board of directors meeting, and I got to sit in on every board meeting, I had the likes of Alex Jarlette, Don Stevens, Brent Binions, and Paula Jourdain; and those were just four of the people. I would ask them questions all the time. That’s what I mean about being curious, I was just a very curious person. They took the time to answer my questions so that I could understand the sector better and then contribute. It was such an interesting time… never a dull moment.
So, that was the beginning of my career, and I actually spent a number of years just working. I felt like I needed to sort of do everything and I remember a point in my career when Shelly Jamieson, who so many of you know, became the person I reported to. That was sort of that first change for me, where she looked at me and said, “You know Karen, you have an awful lot to offer. A couple of things: you need to speak up more, and you also have to make sure that you’re not doing everything. Part of your growth will be that you have to delegate.”
I think if you are a young leader reading this, I think that’s such great advice. You do have to do and even in my job now I’m hands to keyboard, I do stuff, but there is a point in time where if you really do want to be a leader, you do have to learn how to get the best out of other people. So, that was a real sort of pivotal time for me, when Shelly was just super honest with me about that. Some of it was hard to hear because I was working so hard, and you know, how could they not appreciate this, but that really, really helped me.
The next really big shift for me, from being someone who wrote what people said or read, to being the one that stood in front of the media or politicians or the membership to talk about the biggest issues of the day, was when I became what was then called the Executive Director, and now CEO, of OLTCA. That six years at the end of my time at OLTCA (I was there 21 years) put me in a position to come to Chartwell, to do the things that I’ve done here.
The thing that I would like people to know about that is, it wasn’t this obvious shift either for me or even for the people who ended up choosing me. I was an underdog for that job. I was thinking about how I’ve had these great mentors who taught me so much, and I had this great kind of sponsor being Shelly. If I could tell my younger self something, in hindsight, I would have said, you probably need to do more to make sure that I was better positioning myself because I did want to do more.
If I hadn’t become the Executive Director of OLTCA, I probably would have moved on and gone somewhere else. So, I think back on that, and wow, did I ever leave a lot of that to chance. I had the good fortune again of having some sponsors, some people who really said, “You don’t get it, she’ll actually be able to do this.” If I hadn’t had them doing so, I’m not sure what would have changed in that moment for me. That is what set me up with the opportunity to become a leader. I wanted to tell that story because I think there are people who are quietly competent, and they maybe don’t do enough to think through how to make sure they’re positioning themselves for future leadership opportunities.
I also think there are people who still need to be mentored, and they want a sponsor. They want someone to say, “Hey, you should be doing this, that, or the other thing,” and they maybe haven’t done enough, frankly, to actually be ready for that next position. So, I think it depends on sort of who you are but in all those cases, I just think you have to think that through. I came so close to that not happening for me because maybe I waited a bit too long for a broader group of people to say, “Oh, wow okay, she could actually do that.” That is the good fortune of having these people who did sponsor me, but also having worked really hard to get to that point.