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ORCA Leadership Series – Sharon Toor

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Meet Sharon Toor, Chief Executive Officer of Sagecare Inc. From her humble beginnings, Sharon has been distinguished within the sector for her advocacy efforts on client-centered care and for setting industry benchmarks.

Sharon has also been leading her company through a global pandemic, one that has taken a devastating toll on health care workers. Her compassionate nature and forward-thinking approach to leadership has allowed her to effectively navigate her staff through these trying times.

As part of the ORCA CON 2022 program, Gillian Smith, Managing Partner, Toronto, NATIONAL Public Relations, met with Toor for an in-depth conversation to unpack her thoughts on leadership, her career journey, and her advice for aspiring leaders, women, visible minorities, and those making their way into this sector.

ORCA Leadership Series with Sharon Toor featuring Gillian Smith – filmed as part of ORCA CON 2022.

Conversation with Sharon Toor

Note: This interview transcript has been edited for content and length.
Gillian: Sharon, thank you so much for joining us today.  

Thank you, Gillian, for having me and giving me this opportunity to share.

Gillian: I know that everybody’s really excited to hear your story. So why don’t we dive right in, tell us about your leadership journey.

My leadership journey started quite young, actually. I belonged to a family of engineers, nurses, and health care professionals. Since I was little, I was part of a nurturing environment; providing to the community and being engaged was something that was inbred. My mom is in the same sector and has kind of pushed through, so since we were little, being a part of the communal churches, being part of the homeless shelters, and volunteering at the hospitals was always a norm for me. The more I volunteered as a teenager in hospitals, the more I realized the vulnerability that exists there. There are people needing to advocate for themselves, but not really understanding how especially where there were language barriers. I was very happy to be involved with them since I speak two other languages plus English. So, the advocacy piece, and bringing the autonomy piece, was always something that was a very natural instinct to me. As I grew, health care, policy development, stepping in and supporting and breaking the red tape was something that just kind of felt normal. So, here I am, multiple years and a few decades later, where I’m still working on breaking that glass ceiling and continuing to minimize the red tape.

Gillian: It’s interesting that you’ve embodied the qualities of leadership and bringing them on very young in your life. But tell me Sharon, what does leadership mean to you? When you think about leadership, what does it mean to you to be a good leader?

To me, I was initially taught when I did the courses, to view it as managers versus leaders. You understand and you learn very quickly about how to be a good manager; you manage your time, you multitask, you allocate and organize things. But, to me, being a leader is something that I had to understand internally. I needed to be the person to kind of feel it and be on the frontline. So, as you had mentioned earlier, I started as an RPN while I built myself up to this current position. I have done the front desk role, the PSW/RPN role, so I was learning from the ground up. I was understanding what their barriers were, understanding firsthand what changes needed to come through. But anytime I implement something within my facility, I always put myself in their shoes. I need to know what my team members are going to feel. What my residents are going to feel and what their families are going through. To me, a good leader is somebody who not only foreshadows but also feels empathetically as to what that change is going to do or how that momentum is going to impact everybody. So, I’ve always put myself frontline first and then as a leader.

Gillian: That’s interesting that you say that. From a young age, you put yourself directly in the shoes of those you were caring for, and then as you’ve grown as a leader, you’ve been learning about those you work with from ground up. That’s a fascinating way to look at it. How have your passions as a leader expressed themselves? Where do you really dig in as a leader?

My biggest passion on a day-to-day and especially through the pandemic, has been my staff burnout and their coping mechanisms. Looking at how a resident or in-hospital patient, my staff members, or even myself and my management team, cope with the situation. How we come out at the end is one of my biggest passions; I always focus on the human first. Yes, I can make policies. Yes, I can implement new resources or new Hoyer lifts and equipment. But how are they going to take that change momentum? So, looking at the issue and then knowing how the human is going to take it on and how it will impact their emotional stability. That has always been my passion, whether that was my patient or my staff member. I always focus on a positive approach, a comfortable calm demeanour, and understanding that the person is my biggest resource and ally. Not so much the policies and the resources I implement.

Gillian: Well, you mention the “c-word” that nobody wants to talk about anymore. But you did mention COVID-19 in your answer and so much research has shown that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and not to mention women in leadership roles; not to mention women, like you and me who are mothers working to keep our kids going at the same time. How have you found, as a female leader, grappling with getting yourself through pandemic times and that feeling of burnout as you’re trying to lead a team, who they themselves feel burnt out? How have you managed that?

As I said, and this will be a common theme throughout the interview, is that frontline, being present with them. In 2020, when we went through a huge, massive outbreak, I was thankful my nursing background did assist me because I was frontline with them. I wasn’t a CEO, and I wasn’t a team lead, away from them. I did the 18-hour days with them. I was away from my daughter, who was at that point six years old, for about six and a half weeks; living with my staff members on the floor, living in the facilities they stayed in because none of us wanted to take it home. So those tears, those holding hands, and hugging each other, was there from the floor up for all of us. Having experienced that with them, I knew that loneliness, that exhaustion. I understood on the days that my team members were a bit snippy; it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t targeted towards management. It wasn’t targeted towards the RHRA or the Ministry. We were tired; we were all done. So, focusing on that and remembering my dual hat – yes, I was a nurse at that point, but how do I keep them calm? How do I still have humour? How do we have music playing on our speaker system? We went from Frank Sinatra all the way into R&B because we needed a Dance Tour Day. We had food delivered for us. We had costume days during the outbreak, because really, we were family at that point. We couldn’t see our spouses; we couldn’t see our kids. So, focusing on my team again and finding humour in it. Even when you’re low, just laugh it off. When we were tired and we had no makeup on and our hair was on top of our head, we found humour in it.

Gillian: It sounds like it was a trial which is such an understatement, but it sounds like a real consolidation of the leadership skills that you’ve been acquiring throughout your career.

Yeah, it helped me because I had experienced this with them. I knew where the challenges would be. I understood when our staff members and our PSW/nurses were going through such a trial moment. That assessment piece or the troubleshooting to step back when you’re in a fight or flight versus when you have a longer time duration. Those are two different things. This is fight or flight; they just want to act. So, my role wasn’t so much, to be on the floor and do wound care, get them ready or get them changed. Mine was to be present on the floor and be ahead of the game, to keep telling them what they needed to do, and it had to be a very quick communication piece. So yes, having been in their shoes to know where the challenges would be was always a big help.

Gillian: Let’s shift gears a little bit because I know you’re very passionate about talking about women in leadership roles, and I’d like to delve into your thoughts there. As a female leader, have you encountered any barriers to your advancement?

Yes and no. I have been fortunate enough that my mom has been in this industry for a long time, and I’ve been in this industry since I was 14. Whether that was through volunteering, front desk work, or at the hospital. In a small community of Brantford, I had built my name; I had built my position already. However, once I stepped out of Brantford and left public health, left that small-town mentality and stepped into the Toronto environment, it was difficult. It is difficult when you’re coming from a small operator in a small town of a bed of 42 and then stepping up into large operators and you’re making your name. So that push, whether it’s a female or a newcomer male, is there. But definitely for a female, you’re trying to organize and balance your personal life. We’re trying to be moms, and wives, and daughters-in-law, and culturally there were so many other tiers to it. My in-laws live with me, so all those things. Absolutely, always having to push through a bit more, doing extra hours, making my presence known in the community a little bit more. But also aligning myself with other women who are very powerful and strong. I have had great mentors that supported me. Judy Shamian, who is the CEO of World International Nurses, she is one of my mentors. Roslyn Schulz, who was a CEO here prior to me, was a mentor. Throughout my process, there have been very strong leaders who have said to me, “Here are your strengths and I would love to see you progress on this,” which I’ve always taken very seriously. Yes, there were certain elements where I was like I wish I could have that role. I’ve been passed for roles before because they’ve said, “Well you have great experience, but you are a small operator, you haven’t done this.” So, I’ve said, “Okay well, how do I break that niche? I need to get out.” I’ve taken a lateral movement position before stepping into large operator roles. I went from admin to a Director of Care (DOC) role because I wanted to be part of a large operator, so that was checked off under my belt. Yes, there are all these experiences, but I wouldn’t say that I ever had an experience where somebody, to my face, blocked me off just because I am female. This probably had to do with my personality as well, I am fairly bold. So, I’ve usually had people who’ll mentor me very quickly; I’ve been quite fortunate.

Gillian: I am delighted to hear that. You mentioned mentors which I know is another subject you’re absolutely passionate about. Can you tell us what role those mentors played in your life in the development of your career? What questions did you ask them? How did they help?

Absolutely. At every tier there’s been a mentor. I stepped into nursing because I knew I had passion for nurturing, I had passion for health. Medical wasn’t something that I wanted to step into because it wasn’t ongoing follow-up interaction. Nursing or lab work was where my passion was, but as I started to do administrative assistant roles, one of the mentors from Monday Holdings, Steph Monday, the owner, very quickly took me under his wing. He said, “You have great leadership, you’re fairly young, but why didn’t you do union negotiations? Why don’t you take on HR roles? Why don’t you build further on your leadership and management?” Same for my mother who had led. She always said, “You have that passion to push through and advocate, your voice is strong. You always step up and do the devil’s advocate piece and question things that many others might think but say ‘mmm… maybe not right now.’” I will always question by saying, “Hey devil’s advocate, here’s a question for you. Tell me how to go about it?” So, when he asked, “Why don’t you step into union negotiations and why don’t you go into dispute management?” I thought, yeah, I enjoy that. I took some of those courses during my masters and stepped into other roles under Amica’s umbrella. One of my VP’s there, as well as Andrea Prashad, mentored me through there. They were great in leading me by saying, “Here’s a project, why don’t you take this project as your first?” So, when they implemented enhanced care, I was one of the first team members to implement it. It’s always helped when I’ve tiered over to my next role. When I applied for this job, Roslyn and Judith both, during my seventh-stage entry process, very openly highlighted my strengths. I also questioned though that yes, nursing comes to me, leadership and passion comes to me, but how do I grow an organization? I haven’t been in this role before, so the questions that I asked were usually growth related. I always wanted to be a tier ahead. I always wanted to know what the challenge of that facility at that moment in time was. I always wanted to know, well if this is my barrier, what next? How am I going to break this? What resources are you giving to me? And if I don’t have them, who do I know in my circle of care that can get me that resource? I was always networking, always asking those questions about the challenges that are hindering the growth, and always knowing what my competitors, but also my alliances were doing. Those were some of the things I focused strongly on.

Gillian: But now you find yourself in the CEO seat. Do you still have mentors?

Absolutely. I don’t think that process ever changes. As a human, I want to grow, but as a leader, I never want to be stagnant. I never want to become redundant for my team or forget what that empathy piece is that they’re going through. More so, I don’t want to become stale on the research that is out there. I don’t want to be behind on the momentum that others might have or a good, great vision they might have. So always, forever, I think there will be a mentor in my life that’s kind of pushing me a bit further, whether that’s my current employers, my colleagues, or on the ORCA Board. Every time I step away from a meeting or interaction, I always take a thought or a piece that they’ve taught me. There’s always a small element of a leader in there somewhere.

Gillian: For those of us listening right now, that are probably thinking, “Okay, I need a mentor.” How do I get a mentor?

I’ve been there, many times. I’ll look up to some of the women and men that I work with and collaborate with or have sat on boards with, and I think, I need to get to know you a bit better. So, one of the things that a mentor of mine a long time ago said to me was, “When you want to get to know them, it is your need, not theirs.” Always know what your needs are. So, if you’ve already identified you want a mentor, you have already identified that you want to grow. Know where or in which direction you want to grow. Don’t leave it so open and vast because they’ll be multiple people you will meet, and everybody will have some element that you enjoy. So, know where your growth task is, and then start to meet people that align with that. Another thing I learned quite a bit during my mentorship is that emotional connection. It’s funny to say because you’re actually learning and educating yourself, but that emotional connection and passion need to align. Any mentor I’ve ever had or connected with, there’s passion there. I will sit with them informally and we become friends. It’s being able to have that dialogue with them; to open up and tell your vulnerabilities to them. Tell them where you are lacking or where you feel like you’re lacking and want to continue to improve. To be very transparent with that communication because if they don’t know your vision, they can’t guide you. They might not be the direct right resource, but they may say, “I hear you and I have somebody I will connect you with.” So, know your direction, know your limitations, know your passions, and align with somebody who has similar ones.

Gillian: That’s great advice, and it’s such a privilege to be in a position of being able to be a mentor. What do you get out of it, as a mentor?

Oh my gosh, excitement! Any newbie that comes in or any new team member (I will always call them team members), but students that come in, and sit here, that glimmer that they have. The excitement they have when they sit with you – day one or day five – and the passion that they’re sharing with you about what they want to grow into. I love mentoring new university students because they always have the “In five years, I will make changes too”, and I’m like “Right, get it done!” So that glimmer, that excitement, I feed off it. I’m such a positive human being so when I have somebody sitting with me that’s constantly lightweight, has this passion and these grandiose ideas, I’m like, “Give it to me. I am ready to help you through.” It builds me up even. It gives me the opportunity to not just share but hear them out or guide them as to what and how to get what they’re really hoping to achieve, or possibly even giving them the opportunity within our facilities, where they can grow. So, as I said earlier, one of my passions is bringing out new ideas, new researches and giving it a template here. We very openly work with all health students, social work students, nursing students, PSWs, and research for music therapy. We have a lot of music therapy and service students that come into our facilities or psychotherapy students. So, constantly hearing their new visions is a growth for me, but being able to encourage them and be their biggest cheerleader excites me.

Gillian: I love how your mind is always stretched by the new, exciting thinking that they bring to the table. Cast your mind back and you’re that bright light sitting in that chair. What do you wish that you had known then that you know now?

So, we’re talking about my twenties. Oh gosh, that was a couple of decades ago. I think what I would tell my old me is to keep pushing. Challenges occur, life happens; you become a mom and focus shifts. You have health changes; you have career changes; the actual focus of the company changes. Challenges will always come, but I want to remind my old me to keep that vision of my 5, 7, 10, 15, 20-year mark. I’ve been in this field now for 17 years, but still, today, when I start to feel a bit disheartened or exhausted, I will make my list. My mom always laughs at me, she’s like, “You and your lists”, and even my partners always joke with me because whenever they want to talk, I’ll have the excel spreadsheet ready. I have a spreadsheet of just my visions. So, I would remind myself to always add to those visions and constantly keep that spreadsheet ready for myself as my encouragement and as my enabling piece. Because when things get exhausting and I don’t want to make that change some days, I have to remind myself again a change in momentum is needed. I will stay stagnant if I don’t do this, and it is needed for many, not just me. That’s what I would probably tell my younger self. Keep that spark and keep adding to that list.

Gillian: Can you describe how keeping that list has helped you through some of the tougher moments of your career?

As I said, I have lists for everything. I’ve actually made a list for this interview, and what I would probably want to share with you as a mentor and leader. Those lists keep me focused. When you’re in any position, whether you’re a PSW, you have your checklist. Whether you’re a CEO, you have your projects in checklists. Whether you’re a mom, you have your timer set on your phone. My lists help me stay on track. They help me to encourage myself to stay on top of that female, that leader, that’s always wanted to keep progressing forward. There are days when, post-pandemic, post-retention and recruitment issues, all these things that are so strong-handed in our industry occur. My lists remind me of the achievements our industry has accomplished, things my team has accomplished, things, I as a leader or my partners as leaders, have accomplished. So, my lists are those positive rates of push that I need to review weekly to say, “Yep, got that done, got that done, good job, keep going!” Those lists help you. There are days where I take the pencil and I scratch it up because I’m like, “Alright, got that project done.” So, my lists are my encouragement, a pat on the back.

Gillian: I wish you could see my list of lists here; they are very similar.

I don’t think there’s a single leader out there that doesn’t have multiple of their books that they hold on to. They have notepads because you know, if you lose that notepad or your phone, where you keep the notes, you’re going to have to do this again. So, all of us have that.

Gillian: Exactly. You’re navigating so much, and you touched on it just a little bit there when you mention the complexities of the sector. Even in the most normal of times, it’s a complex sector you’re dealing with a lot. But it’s just become infinitely more so, particularly over the last couple of years, and as demographics are changing the landscape in Canada. What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing senior living in Canada today?

One of the things that we are focusing on, as the ORCA team and internally, is recruitment and retention. As you and I talked briefly earlier, this sector does take a lot; you’re being empathetic, you’re being nurturing, and you are constantly on high alert for your residents. You’re their family, you are their advocate, you are their server, their everything. So, you’re constantly at 100 per cent. When you drop from 100, you’re impacting somebody’s entire life. And then we come two and a half years later of pandemic, and our staffing, our PSWs, and our therapists are exhausted. So many when they’re stepping into our industry again, they’re wanting this calmer pace. So, we’re rebuilding. Let’s keep pushing. Let’s keep going and let’s rebuild our lovely residents because their lives didn’t stop existing over the last two and a half years. So, the biggest challenge is recruitment/retention but also the morale, having those great capable team members showing us but staying at that 100 per cent threshold,staying in that positive environment. And then having managers, DOCs, or any leaders who are in that role, to also stay empathetic and remember, “Yes I’m exhausted, but they were providing the frontline experience.” So, those are two of the things that I’ve personally experienced at my work.The positive of the last two and a half years that we’re presently in is that we also, as a sector, got to advocate a lot for ourselves. We were always in the limelight, but a bit in the shadows of others in healthcare. Having pushed through as a retirement sector, made our name through as ORCA, part of the RHRA, all of that. We’ve been able to break that glass ceiling for the industry itself. Not just us. That has been positive momentum. Now it’s implementing the change on the tail end of everything that’s occurred and keeping those spirits high.

Gillian: So, let’s keep going with that. What’s your excel spreadsheet vision for the sector? Where would you like the sector to be over the next three, five years or so?

I think I would like the focus of our team, and I’m speaking for myself, I can’t speak on behalf of everybody else in the sector, but I would like to continue advocating for bringing international recruitment team members; our growth needs to expand. Because internally, the entire Ontario healthcare system is draining out the nurses, PSWs, and therapists. So, we’re all diving into the same pool. Whether they go left or right, we’re all selecting from the same. So, yes, now we’re starting to expand outwards and bring internationally focused team members, looking at their caliber, looking at how to fast track them, and improve them. That education focus needs to be there. More so, giving more opportunities for them to possibly come in as a volunteer and learn hands-on experience because there’s always a bit of a language barrier. There’s always a little bit of experience in culture differences. They really need to be hands-on and understand what our residents and communities need, and now their residents and communities need. So that’s one. And two, more and more opportunities, programs, and agencies that support health care workers. We are constantly, as I said earlier, staying positive for those that we’re caring for. We need somebody to encourage us and to be positive. We still have to remember the human at the end of the healthcare worker. I feel that what the last two and a half years has really highlighted for us, is what programs are present for us to call up or go to, and say, “Give me 10 minutes of your time.” So, definitely programs out there for health care workers to feel revived and pushed. And then finally, more research; new fresher ideas, which our ORCA CON will be doing quite a bit for us. I’m so happy that it’s back in person again this year because that was where we went and shared our challenges. We went and kind of said, “I’ve hit a roadblock” and somebody will say, “Go to table number 29 because there’s an awesome program right there that will help your challenge.” So, I’m happy to see that we’re back on it again.

Gillian: That’s wonderful. There’s nothing like being in person, as much as I’m enjoying talking to you virtually today. Tell me, when you’re trying to encourage people to join this sector, are there any misconceptions or myths that you have to break about senior care, dementia care, or any roadblocks that you’ve been surprised to hear or see?

Not surprised, but yes. A lot of roadblocks and barriers are related to where enhanced care or full element of care comes into play, especially the dementia care clients. Many people will automatically put us under long-term care. Saying, “Well, you’re subsidized,” or “You’re controlled by the government.” Yes, we’re controlled by the government, but we’re a private sector. More than anything, we’re a specialized private sector. So, not just the overall retirement sector, but then being part of a specialized element of it. Constantly having to educate those who are coming in and explaining to them what our resources are versus those who might be living under a long-term umbrella. Over the last few years, we as a sector have had to push through and say, “We’re not the kid brother or sister, we are equivalent.” We’re a very different part of this team. That education piece is a constant for all families or clients that are coming in, even staff members. Many will come in and they’ll say, “My expectation salary is…” and I’m like “Amazing, mine too!” But constantly educating them that there’s a variance between accessibilities, there’s a variance between what our clientele is, and what our resources are. Furthermore, when you’re in the retirement sector, you do have growth opportunities as well. You don’t hinder, you don’t get stuck at the element you’re at because we’re a private sector. We can teach you and get you those educations internally to grow. Reminding them that we are a very strong sector.

Gillian: So, Sharon, you’ve had the chance over your career to work for independent homes and chains, small and large. What do you see are some of the differences between those different environments?

Huge, it’s huge. Having been part of large operators, what I’ve truly enjoyed was how they’re dispersed over the entire sector but landscaping as well over Ontario. The voice they have and the research they can have done on a small community, or they can have research done in a larger metropolitan. How they can go between provinces, how they brought in the educational pieces from all over Canada into our education for the staffing. So, I’ve really enjoyed the large operators’ accessibility to resources and the voice that they hold. I truly enjoyed that part. When it came to small operators, I like the fact that there weren’t so many tiers to breaking that red tape. If my employees bring in a concern, it is very easy for me to then take that, have a thought process, reach out, get the resources, and implement it. I don’t have to do that multi-tier group dynamic piece. So, there are pros and cons for both. I do enjoy the larger operators’ element of huge diversity in client and staff experiences. When I was a DOC at Amica, I enjoyed that I had another 10 or 12 DOCs at a conference that were experiencing exactly what I was. I had the resource at hand. We had the regional directors there that I could call up in a quick second. Here, when my team members come to me, I’m like, “Alright, it’s me. I’m that person, got it.” And so then I have to ask them to give me a few minutes while I call my colleagues on the ORCA Board or wherever and I have to gather that resource for them. But once I have it, I implement it. I’m done. I’m there. I see it, I evaluate it, and then I pull it through, so, pros in both.

Gillian: It’s that diversity of experience that seems to have served you very, very well.

Yes, I’m glad I got the opportunity to grow from the bottom all the way. From small operator, medium operator to larger, to working with public health and the Ministry. It’s helped, definitely.

Gillian: Well, Sharon you’ve been so generous with your time and your thoughts. Is there a final piece of advice that you’d like to leave with the audience today (or final thought)?

Absolutely. We are in a sector of passion. I truly feel that every single person that’s sitting in our audience, every single person that reaches out to us on a daily basis, we make a change for them. We bring in some sort of glimmer or sparkle for them. So, to remind ourselves that we’re doing a very good job. Even if we couldn’t take them as a client, giving them one educational tidbit, giving them one ray of hope. My grandfather always said to me, “Even if you just touched somebody’s hand, you made a change”. So, I feel like every day I love the idea of touching someone’s hand (metaphorically), but we just need to remind ourselves like, pat on the back, good for us for being able to do this.

Gillian: Well Sharon, on behalf of the audience, thank you so much for the time, the thought, and the care that you’ve given in sharing your thoughts with us today. And as the daughter of a dad with Alzheimer’s I want to say an extra thank you to you and to all of your colleagues for all the work that you do for all the moms and dads that are in your care. So, thank you very, very much.

Thank you so much, Gillian. I am honoured that you guys thought of me for this leadership series, and I am so happy that I got a voice again to kind of make that change. I love the idea of this. Thank you.

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