Building the muscle

At Ontario Shores for Mental Health Sciences, VP and Chief Nurse Barb Mildon is on a mission to help her colleagues have courageous conversations

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 – Ellen Gardner


Her title at Ontario Shores for Mental Health Sciences is almost too long to fit on the door (VP for Professional Practice, Research and Academics, HR and Chief Nursing Executive), but Barb Mildon likes to keep it simple – VP and Chief Nurse. While the title is deeply meaningful to her, six years into her dream job, it’s become incidental. Today this friendly and dignified leader prefers to focus on getting things done, making sure her staff feels supported and creating safe environments for speaking the truth.

HIROC was fortunate to speak with Barb on Valentine’s Day 2017 in her warm and welcoming office at Ontario Shores.

Can you talk about the philosophy of care at Ontario Shores? What makes it a unique and special organization?

Mental health patients are a very vulnerable population. When Ontario Shores was divested from the Ontario government in 2006, inaugural-CEO Glenna Raymond said we have an obligation to care for our patients, but we also have an obligation to be advocates for our patients. Since then we have embraced mental healthcare as a cause – a focus that has continued under our current CEO, Karim Mamdani.

Credit for bringing mental healthcare into the light over the past decade must also go to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It was started by Senator Michael Kirby in 2006 and has been a champion for changing the attitudes and behaviours of Canadians around mental health issues. Louise Bradley is the CEO (and a nurse—naturally!) – she has refined and mobilized the system in ways that weren’t there before. For the first time the focus is on Recovery, something that was not always talked about in reference to mental health.

The increased visibility and attention by people like Howie Mandel, Clara Hughes and corporations like Bell Canada has also done a lot to reduce the stigma around mental illness.


Like you, our current CEO started out as a nurse. She said the lessons she learned are still with her and to this day she loves nursing. When you look at the profession today, and all the pressures on nurses, how does that affect you?

I was home between terms at nursing school and was cleaning the house. It suddenly hit me that I was organizing my environment just as I had been taught to do in class and that was when I realized I was actually becoming a nurse. What I learned in nursing school and with patients changed me. The importance of stepping up, looking out for others, being in the moment.

We are attracting nurses to the profession, but they’re not always staying and this is disturbing. In the early 2000s, there was a lot of research on nursing and nurses’ worklives – looking at why aren’t they happy, why aren’t they healthy, why aren’t they staying in the profession (Nursing Worklife Study; Nursing Sector Study; the Canadian Nursing Advisory Committee under Roy Romanow). They learned that nurses don’t feel supported; they don’t have the tools they need to do their job; and they’re not being heard. I see my job as making those things happen.


That leads me to the question, what do you see as your responsibility as a leader?

There’s always the struggle when you’re a leader – you need to be looking ahead and planning a vision for the future but you also need to stay close to employees and what they’re thinking about. I can have great ideas but team members will not understand what I see until I ask the questions and listen to what they care about.

I’m sometimes called the bulldog (I’ll take it!) because I strive to live by the philosophy, let’s solve the problems, not frustrate our people. The pressures on staff are not going to go away but we can support them with the right actions.


I can tell that for you, supporting your staff sometimes means challenging the normal or expected way of doing things. Where do you find the courage to do those things?

Courage is actually a big part of our strategic direction this year. Informed by books such as “Crucial Conversations” (Patterson; Grenny; McMillan & Switzler, 2011), we have been talking with our staff about Courageous Conversations, feeling safe enough to say what needs to be said. The whole purpose is to build the muscle of having open and honest conversations.

These skills can be learned. As part of our recovery journey, we looked at care units and all the rules that are in place. Have any of these rules actually been brought out into the light and examined by the team? Are they needed?  Leading is about empowering not constraining…instead of calling them rules, let’s call them guidelines – because that opens the door for discretion and for having a conversation; it builds the muscle.


You’ve always been committed to continuous learning. Why is that a priority for you?

I remember when I came out of nursing school, I thought, that was so hard, I never want to go back to school! Well, a few years later, my manager had to be off work and my boss asked me to fill in – when I started being a manager, I realized I needed to know more, learn more and I was happy to go back to school. Learning is a world of wonder. What a gift to be able to get my Masters and then my Ph.D.


Who have been the strong influences in your life?

My mother and my sisters; a nursing director who gave me my first manager job; iconic nurse leaders and educators. I have been heavily influenced by business and leadership theorists: Peter Senge, Peter Drucker, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. The main thing they’ve taught me is that as leaders, we have to Walk the Talk and Encourage the Heart. I took an EQ course several years ago and I’ll never forget one of the key lessons – you have to be mindful of the gap between intent and impact. Always ask the question: what is my intention in saying these things and is it having the desired impact? I sometimes see a disconnect in the way leaders talk to people and this comes back to Courageous Conversations. We need to help those we are leading feel safe enough to say what they need to say.


These are very tough times in healthcare. How do you continue to inspire and give people scope when there are so many limitations?

When I find myself in a tough spot, I know I have to get creative. The tougher it gets, the more creative I get! In these times, you can’t get more people and you can’t get more money, but I’ve learned if you are creative enough, there is always a way. You have to build the bridge and find the compromise. It always disappoints me when I see a tough situation and the people in charge don’t have the will, the desire or the creativity to find a solution.


Do you have any lessons for our young people just entering the workforce?

Learn how to give credit. Feelings of inadequacy and insecurity prevent people from saying, “good job”. Don’t fall into that trap – be generous with praise and recognition. The work world is going to be tough so deliberately build your resilience. I remember years ago going for a job I really wanted and I didn’t get it – I was devastated. I spilled my sorrows to a friend and she said, “You got snow on your snowsuit – it’s a badge of honour, wipe it off and carry on.” If we change our attitude, we change our life. When you get stuck in a negative spiral, recognize it, give yourself a shake and come out of it.

Barb was interviewed by Ellen Gardner, Senior Specialist, Communications and Marketing, HIROC