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ORCA Leadership Series – Karen Sullivan

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Meet Karen Sullivan, President and Chief Operating Officer of Chartwell Retirement Residences. Sullivan was appointed COO in 2012 and then became President and COO in March 2020 after 13 years with the organization.

Throughout her 34 years of experience in seniors housing, Sullivan has been an impactful force on the sector and remains instrumental in shaping senior living in Ontario now and into the future.

As part of the ORCA CON 2021 program, Gillian Smith, Managing Partner, Toronto, NATIONAL Public Relations, met with Sullivan for an in-depth conversation to unpack her thoughts on leadership, her career journey, and her advice for aspiring leaders.

ORCA Leadership Series with Karen Sullivan featuring Gillian Smith – filmed as part of ORCA CON 2021, presented October 6, 2021.

Conversation with Karen Sullivan

Note: This interview transcript has been edited for content and length.
ORCA: Karen, thank you very much for joining us today.

It’s my pleasure. It’s really an honour to have been asked to do this. I’m thrilled to be here.

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.

ORCA: You’ve given us a lot to unpack in that answer, but thinking about one particular aspect, what struck me is in what you said, “Sometimes the great work doesn’t always speak for itself,” and that you have to attest to the great work that is being done. Thinking about the advice that you’d give to your younger self and the advice that you give to these younger leaders; how would you recommend that great work is being done? How is it that you would recommend self-promotion in an elegant way, in a way of making yourself known without crossing boundaries?

I think the opportunity presents itself when you can move from, okay I created something, to asking if you can be the one that presents it or talks about it. I look back and I probably should have done that earlier. If people who are in that position can then talk to their leaders and say they’d really like an opportunity. Maybe you’re in a retirement residence and there’s an opportunity at a regional meeting, or maybe you’re a director of operations and there’s an opportunity corporately to ask, can I be the one that speaks to that? Or say, I’d like to be part of x because I think I have something to contribute. I think you have to be a little bit kind of ‘elbows up’. I just think people need to be authentic too. If you’re authentic about that, they’re going to be receptive, right? But it is a fine line, for sure.

ORCA: Taking ownership of the good work that you’ve done, absolutely. Also thinking about younger leaders, I know that you’ve described your leadership style as a bit of a “momma bear.” Talk about how you try and set your young leaders up for success. Talk about what you are like as a mentor, whether that’s formal or informal. How do you try and help young leaders along?

I’ve had different opportunities depending on the point in my career that I’ve been in, whether it’s younger leaders reporting to me or in my current role, where I have really seasoned people, but regardless, I come at this the same way. What I always tell emerging leaders is, if you get an opportunity to do something that’s wider than what you were doing before – because that’s what leadership is, you kind of end up working on a broader spectrum of things rather than being the subject matter expert. I always say, surround yourself with the best people possible. I’ve heard people say that, and then they finish the sentence with, “and then I get out of their way.” I don’t get out of their way. But I don’t think I micromanage, that’s not what I like to do at all. I don’t like the detail of things.

I know as a leader what my role is even if that person is awesome at what they do. I’m thinking about retirement residence general managers, food service and health and wellness individuals, or even corporately. Everyone has a role and it’s really purposeful. How does what they’re doing fit into the broader strategy for the home, for the organization? What’s the context of what they’re working on so that they feel some purpose around that? I think that’s hugely important. What do they need from me? Do they need a decision, do they need to bounce things off me? Do they just need to come and brag a little bit about something great they’ve been doing? You need to understand that they need that from you. I don’t care how old they are, how long they’ve been around – they need that.

They need your time. One of the things I’ve always done is make sure I have dedicated time for the people who report to me. Even the people on the next bench who want to spend a little bit of time and talk to me about things. I look at the higher up you go, in terms of your leadership, the more what you’re doing is getting things out of the way to help other people succeed. I think some leaders miss that that’s their role. It has to be very purposeful, and it takes time and effort to do that, to make sure that you’re providing that for people. They also want you to be decisive. People want direction. They want input, but then they want direction.

ORCA: You’ve spoken about being very purposeful about how you spend your time and that you’re very judicious and know your focus; you need to spend time with your people. You’ve made very conscious decisions to say no to different things. Talk a little bit about that. You’re incredibly busy. How is it that you triage your time?

I would hate to not do things that take me out of the office or away from the screen (whatever we’re doing right now) because then you lose some of the big picture. You need that context. You need to go to things, but you don’t need to go to everything. You need to be there for your team, and I feel like that’s the most important thing that I do. Even when I am more out on the road, I make sure that I still do everything I can to find time for those one-on-one conversations with people. You do have to sort of pick what is important, and for me, they come first before some of the other things.

ORCA: I would have loved to have this conversation face-to-face, but we’re across a screen, so we can’t go without talking about what the last 18 months have been like and leading through a period that’s been challenging for everybody, but acutely challenging for your sector. How has it been over the last 18 months? Where have you felt your most challenged? How have you helped lead organizations through this wild time? 

Everybody has their pandemic story, and we know that from the interactions that we have with people outside our sector. Everybody has a story. Ours, it was so challenging at the beginning and combined with the vulnerability for our residents, that was so hard. Then, this moment of everybody saying, “We’re all in this together,” to that sense of a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of negativities. So, that was hard to have people in our homes and corporate office who were doing so much to get through all of it. It’s been difficult. The thing I would also say is, it’s been amazing to watch people rise to the occasion. We’ve done very well in our sector. We have. When you think of everything that happened, our outcomes on the retirement side have been excellent. I look at, how did we get through this? We were super dedicated people. So many people stepped up, and it was interesting to watch. I had those moments of, “Oh wow, I underestimated that person.” It’s unbelievable what they’ve done to lead through this.

The other thing that has helped at Chartwell is our culture. I say this all the time: you can’t create culture in a crisis. If things sort of aren’t going well, they are going to go way worse when the chips are down. But you can build on your culture if you have a good culture when you’re in a crisis. I look at my team, whether it’s our critical incident command team or the people in our homes. We had just been at our leadership conference before this started. We’d all been together, and we’d gotten jived and pumped, and it was this great experience. There is this common thread amongst so many of the leaders at Chartwell and I think that really helped that we had been together.

I’m an action-oriented leader to a fault. I need to surround myself with people who say, “Perhaps you’d like to look at this research or this spreadsheet,” whatever those things are, because I want to get going, I want to fix things. I think in a crisis it helps to have that kind of leadership. I don’t leave the room without a decision. I push for as much closure as I can get, even if I have to change my mind a few days later because the facts change, or I was wrong. It’s okay. I do think that decisive, action-oriented leadership helped us through the pandemic. To all of you out there, I am so proud to be part of this sector and to have watched what all of you did across the province – and for us across the country – to get through this.

ORCA: Thinking more broadly about the sector, you’ve made so many lasting contributions to the sector over the course of your career. Are there ones that you can point to where you feel particularly proud, and if so, why?

When I look back, managing through this pandemic will definitely be up there, as well as changes that I made when I got the honour of becoming the Chief Operating Officer in this company. I was able to have been here for enough years to know that if I got the reigns on the operations side, I would do some things differently. I am very proud of that. In the Association before that, there are all these different kinds of moments, everything from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms case that we had years ago when I first started, to the 20,000 new beds and all kinds of funding issues. There’s lots of things that I’ve been fortunate to be part of.

The other thing is, whatever I have done and will continue to do, because this is a big part of what leaders do, particularly closer to the end of their careers (and I’m not at the end of my career but closer to that than the beginning), is to get people ready to do what I’ve done. I really believe in focused succession planning and making sure that people have opportunities. I say to my team all the time, trying to make sure they don’t get freaked out by it, “Who’s the next you? I don’t want you to go anywhere, but who’s the next person who can be you?” Those are the things that I’m most proud of.

ORCA: You had mentioned when we spoke earlier about thinking about the next you. You were very clear that there were women before you who helped pave the way, but not as many women leaders as there are now. You’re a successful leader, one that happens to be a woman in an industry that is predominantly led by women. Is there a particular element of that experience that plays out in your leadership style? If so, how?

I’m the end of the baby boomer generation. So, I look at the women who are five, ten, fifteen years older than me and I think in our sector even though it’s women predominant in every way (residents, staff, etc.), I think they helped pave the way for me. I didn’t feel quite as much of that. I probably would have if I’d gone into banking or mining. But people really did pave the way for me. I felt like by the time I became a leader after you know that story I told (I was behind-the-scenes for a long time) that it hasn’t defined me, but I feel very respectful of the fact that they made it easier.

I was thinking about what the board at OLTCA looked like when I started, and it was mostly men; there were two women. In my third year there, Paula Jourdain was the Chair and I’ll never forget she had a baby. So, she was the Chair and she said, okay, well, you guys are coming to my house. You “boys” are coming to my house. That was the only way she was going to be able to chair the meeting because she had a newborn. I remember thinking, “right on, Paula.” People who are just that little bit older than me did a whole bunch of things. Shelly Jamieson also crashed some glass ceilings. But I’m not naive enough to think that there are not barriers that still exist and that we need to continue to work on. I try to watch for that, even in our female dominated sector.

ORCA: It’s an interesting perspective about women in leadership in your sector, but you did touch on obstacles. Maybe we can go there for a second. What do you see as those obstacles that women face in the workplace? 

One of the things that maybe women are a little more reticent to do than men, and this is a real generalization, but I think about even myself in this regard, as you take on leadership roles you have to be the one that commands a room to some extent. You have to make sure even if it’s a small group of people, your department or your managers, that you’re the one who can articulate what the message is, how to put the oars in the water all at the same time and drive some passion into what you’re doing. You have to be able to do that.

People say to me all the time, “oh you’re a natural speaker,” and you’ve always been able to do that. One-hundred per cent no is the answer to that. I’m a natural writer. I think I have some genetics going on there, but I was not a natural speaker. I didn’t have that ability. People who are reading this maybe who have known me for a long time ago might agree.

Let me tell you a funny story. I actually got to be a leader really young. I was the dining room manager at a big resort, and I had a staff of 40 or 50 people, and I had no problem with scheduling them even though I was the exact same age as them. I was 20. Whatever the customer issues were, that was fine with me. I remember a couple of times a week though, I had to do announcements at the front of the room and there were hundreds of people there. There was a jam closet behind the microphone. I used to go in the jam closet because then no one could see me and maybe I could get through the announcements, which were all like “The Segwun has arrived at the dock,” really basic stuff. Why I’m telling this story, is you have to just do it. And as you’re doing it, you get better at it. That’s where sometimes I feel like women don’t take the microphone. It doesn’t have to be a microphone, but you have to learn how to be able to rally your troops and speak effectively. I don’t think you can read a book on that. I really believe you have to do it.

The other thing I’ll say is if you want to be a leader and grow as a leader, you need to be with a partner who thinks that’s awesome and will help and support you. Because if you don’t have that, it’s hard. There’s a lot to doing these jobs. Everything from being a manager for the first time in a department in a retirement residence to the general manager, to a corporate job, you need someone who thinks that’s terrific and is there to help you. Again, I think women have to think about that a little bit more, even in 2021.

ORCA: From the jam cupboard to here. You’ve been able to have an impact on the sector from so many different vantage points. Talk to us a little bit about the ways that impact can be made in the sector. 

None of us, whether we are a part of an individual retirement residence or a big corporate entity that has many employees, work in a vacuum. So, even though we’re not as government-funded and controlled as long-term care, there’s still an awful lot that happens because of what the public thinks and the government to some extent. The best way that you can be involved in that, start to understand it more and have influence around it, is to be part of the Association. I really recommend to people who want to be leaders in our sector to get involved. I often hear people say, “I want to get involved because I just want to go and learn.” I think, okay that’s good, you will learn, but you should go into those roles – there’s only so many of them and if you’ve been chosen to do that – asking how you can help. How can you provide context to the Association staff because you’re an operator and you understand this? How can you make sure you’re reading the things they send you or going to the meetings they want you to go to? I just think that’s important.

When I look and think about so many of you who are part of the ORCA conference, I know you because of the Association. You stepped up and you said I want to help, whether that was years ago at OLTCA or on the ORCA Board when I was on for a period or even at events. I really encourage leaders to think about how they can be involved.

ORCA: How they can learn and how they contribute at the same time, absolutely. Well, it’s been such a great conversation but let’s look ahead at what makes you hopeful about the future of the sector. What are you looking forward to seeing?

It’s a difficult time, right, because we’re still in this. There’s still a pandemic. I’m super hopeful and positive about our sector. I know how important we are to the continuum of care and services for seniors. We should know that even more having been through everything we’ve been through.

I think there are all kinds of good things in our favour even though we’ve had a tough go. Now that includes the demographics. I think people have been isolated in their homes, so there’s lots of talk about needing to make sure that people stay at home more, but I also think it’s been very hard for seniors who have been on their own or have had sort of minimum interaction. I think that’s where we can demonstrate going forward that what we have to offer is a terrific option and opportunity for seniors.

I’m really positive and hopeful about our sector and the people in it, too. Our biggest challenge of course is going to be recruitment. We have to almost reframe for people to understand better what it is like to work in the retirement sector because it is so rewarding.

There are so many people like me who didn’t mean to come to this sector and here we are so many years later. There’s a reason for that. We need others to understand how rewarding this can be.

ORCA: Absolutely. Some of the most meaningful work that can be done. On that hopeful, bright note, we are drawing to an end of our time together. Karen, I want to thank you so much for being so generous with your thoughts, your time, and your comments today. I know everybody will have taken a lot away. Thank you. 

Thank you so much.

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