Episode 10: In Conversation with Deborah Gillis & Carrie Fletcher

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In honour of International Women's Day, a conversation with two inspiring female leaders on what it means for women to have mentors and champions, and the importance of normalizing conversations around mental health in the workplace.

Today, your host Michelle Holden, Communications and Marketing at HIROC, speaks with Deborah Gillis, President and CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Foundation, and Carrie Fletcher, VP of People and Experience at CAMH.

Deborah and Carrie share the path that got them to where they are today and the important role that sponsors and champions have played in both of their lives.

As former CEO of Catalyst, a global non-profit dedicated to advancing women in leadership, Deborah Gillis has spent much of her career focused on workplace equality and empowerment for women. She’s been on all sides of the table and has seen the value of having champions who advocate for others.

Throughout her career, Carrie Fletcher has spent time on the front lines of healthcare, in health information management, and today she’s stepping up to the challenge of leading and supporting the staff at CAMH as VP of People and Experience. Carrie speaks to the importance of normalizing the conversation around mental health and what CAMH is doing to enhance staff collaboration and leadership development.


Michelle Holden: Hi, I'm Michelle Holden, and I work in communications and marketing at HIROC. This month in honor of International Women's Day, we're at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, speaking with two very inspiring female leaders. Today we have Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of the CAMH Foundation, and Carrie Fletcher, VP People and Experience at CAMH. Thank you so much for both being here today.

Deborah, we'd love to hear a little bit more about your experience before coming to the CAMH Foundation and why you decided to make the transition.

Deborah Gillis: Well, thanks. In many ways, my career is closely aligned with International Women's Day that you're celebrating today. When I was a high school student, I was inspired by a group of women who were advocating for changes to the Canadian Constitution that would recognize equality rights in the constitution, and that inspired me. I believed when I was a young person that I would be a constitutional lawyer, advocating for change. And then many years later, found myself with the opportunity to lead Catalyst, first in Canada and then globally. And Catalyst has a mission and mandate focused on women's empowerment and equality workplace, equality for women. So in many ways a chance for me to go back to something that was a passion of mine from an early age.

I spent time in government, and in the private sector in consulting before moving on to Catalyst and then had an opportunity to join the CAMH Foundation. And for me, in many ways, CAMH Foundation is an extension of all of the advocacy work that I had done for many years. And I view it, actually, as an extension of my focus on inclusion, because I believe strongly that if we create psychologically safe workplaces that enable people to reach their full potential, we will be better off as a society. And certainly mental health is one of the issues that requires more focused attention and conversation; not just in society, but of course in our workplaces.

Michelle Holden: And in a recent speech, you said that creating diverse leadership requires sponsorship. Can you describe a little bit what you meant by that?

Deborah Gillis: Yeah. I talk about sponsorship, and make a distinction between sponsorship and mentorship. Very often when we're talking about people's careers and particularly support for women or diverse employees in workplaces, we focus on mentorship and how important is. And while mentorship is really important, what we've learned over time is that to advance in your career, you do need sponsors. The difference being that a mentor will talk to you, typically offering advice based on their experience, whereas a sponsor talks about you. That's a person sitting around a decision-making table lending their credibility and support, often to your candidacy for a new opportunity or a promotion. And in environments where we know that if you've not already shown or proven that you've done a job, having a sponsor can be really critical in distinguishing you from someone else.

Michelle Holden: You've also spoken publicly about the importance of champions, especially as a credit to some of your own success. What's one piece of advice you would give to someone looking for a champion or a sponsor who can provide that kind of support?

Deborah Gillis: Yeah, so the first part of your question is certainly true. Throughout my career I benefited from champions, who in the same way I described earlier, were very much sponsors for me –  who opened up doors, gave me opportunities, often saw that I was ready for a next opportunity before I really recognized it myself. And that's very typical of something that we see with women where we often rule ourselves out of competitions or opportunities thinking that we don't have all the skills that might be needed. So those champions can be really critical, certainly for diverse employees and organizations, whether it's gender, racial, mental health – the champions are really critical.

And the advice that I would give is one, to recognize the championship is earned. To have a sponsor who will advocate on your behalf, you really need to have earned that support by the hard work and performance that you've put in. Once you have that, then in my experience, seeking out those individuals, asking for their support and advocacy is something that you can do. And I believe that in most cases where someone has the skills and experience, that if you reach out to someone and say, "Will you spend some time getting to know me and supporting me in a variety of different ways?", that they'll be willing to do that.

Michelle Holden: Shifting focus a little bit now to you, Carrie. Can you talk a bit about your recent career shift from health information management to the people side of the organization and what drew you to that challenge?

Carrie Fletcher: Sure. So, if you had asked me around this time last year or told me that I was going to be in the role of a Vice President of People and Experience at CAMH, I probably would have given a little chuckle to you. But it actually speaks to many of the points that Deborah just made regarding sponsorship, regarding having champions and regarding people recognizing a skillset in yourself that sometimes you don't recognize in yourself.

Over the past couple of years, in addition to my previous role in health information management and running an enterprise project management office, I was also tapped with helping the organization to reset its relationships with our two union partners, where we were having a few challenges. And that came through resetting of our joint health and safety committees and also the introduction of a workplace violence prevention committee.

And this was brand new work to me. It really was around pure labour relations and somebody recognized that I would have that skillset to do that. And I took that work on and found myself enjoying it more than I ever thought that I would. And so when the opportunity came up for the Vice President of People and Experience, sponsors and champions reached out and said, "You know what, you should consider putting your name forth." And so, that led me to really learning more about the role and what that entailed and really assessing my skillset. And what it comes down to is I really do enjoy people. I enjoy wanting to make somebody's experience as positive as possible. So it was really important to me and I felt that I could take on the challenge of having that positive impact on our staff's experience at CAMH.

Anyone that crossed into CAMH and worked for us, whether it be in a paid position or a volunteer position, how could I then take my skillset and really have a positive impact on that? And that's the challenge that I chose to take on, and I actually utilize my knowledge of the organization and my knowledge of being a customer of the People and Experience portfolio to really take it to that next level, because I understand how this organization functions, and what impacts I could have within this role to make it an even better place to work.

Michelle Holden: And how do you apply the clinical knowledge that you have from past experience to this role, specifically?

Carrie Fletcher: It definitely helps me to speak the language. Once a clinician, always a clinician. And you go into healthcare and providing clinical care because you want to help people.

Well, being in a role, working with human resources and organizational development, you're wanting to help your staff. So you're just taking your clinical and shifting it from a patient population to a staff population. It also really helps, to be very frank, at working with our union partners. To have that clinical background, to understand the language that our ONA president is speaking to be able to really empathize with staff on the front line and try and make their work environments a better place.

For me to be able to say, "I've been in your shoes. I've pushed an ECG cart around. I've worked directly with patients from a rehabilitation standpoint, and wanting to make them the best that they can, no matter what their clinical diagnosis is. I get it. I've been there, I've walked a day in their shoes." It provides you more credibility when you're trying to make change. As I've used the term "empathy", it really helps you to empathize with them and it helps you to actually work more collaboratively together to come up with solutions that are going to be beneficial for the staff and for the organization at large.

Michelle Holden: Fast Company recently published an article on the disparity when it comes to the number of women in healthcare leadership. One of the reasons they were citing is that women sometimes lack female mentors or a sizable professional network – kind of like you mentioned already, Deborah. And another was that women are less likely to self-promote, like you both touched on. So even with structured mentorship programs in place, not all women and girls take advantage of these programs. Deborah, I'm just wondering how you think we can ensure that the training is there to support the next generation of female leaders?

Deborah Gillis: Yeah, so in some ways I'd go back to the comment I made earlier about the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship. There's lots of research, and this includes research from Catalyst, that shows that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. There is this perspective that we need mentors and that that's what holds women back from advancing across all industries, when in fact the sponsorship is often really critical.

One of the reasons that that's critical is because of the continued gender-based biases and stereotypes that exist. And we see that men are promoted based on their potential and women are promoted based on their performance. And so when you have that gap of, "I think someone will do a good job and they're ready." Versus, "She's done it before." Then the sponsorship becomes really important. So, I think that, again, in developing programs and initiatives within organizations, it's really important to be aware of the facts and how that plays out.

So as talent development strategies are put in place in organizations, that there's a recognition that women may not raise their hand. Carrie's a really good example, she talked about how having the support internally in the organization, recognizing that she had competencies and skills to apply in a new way, that she needed to be encouraged to do that.

Often when there are opportunities presented in organizations and diverse talent don't raise their hands for those roles, it's viewed as not being ambitious or interested in the job, when in fact, it may be just they need a different kind of conversation and encouragement. So, we know that a small portion of someone's career development happens through formal training. It is coaching on the job in the workplace, combined with mentorship and the kinds of opportunities that I've been talking about that are really critical.

And so, again, as those talent development strategies are put in place, it's really important to be intentional, and to understand how these different dynamics can play out when workplaces are not always as inclusive as we'd like them to be and as they should be.

Michelle Holden: So as leaders, you both know that in order to make progress and have some change happen, you need to have an action plan and you need to be able to measure progress on that plan. We recently read a stat that about 40% of companies don't have a plan to advance their leadership team and their staff into leadership. So, Carrie, speaking from your experience, why might this be a problem?

Carrie Fletcher: It definitely is a problem and it's something that CAMH does currently okay, and we're wanting to actually take it to the next level. When I look at Deborah coming into this role, traditionally, given the roles that she had before, you might not think she's the perfect person to run a foundation. Not that traditional background, coming up through the ranks of philanthropy, advocacy work for sure.

When you look at someone like myself, you might not think, "Well, she doesn't have all the human resource and organizational development certifications." But it did take organizations to recognize certain leadership skills. So that's something that I really need to give credit to the CAMH Foundation and to CAMH for, that it recognizes leaders and it recognizes individuals that do have skills. And so we do have a performance calibration table each year that actually talks about the leaders within the organization.

Where is their growth needed to happen? How can we support their growth? And how do we actually find them different opportunities to further their growth across the organization? Without those conversations, without actually thinking about how does somebody grow and how do you build them, some people will do it naturally on their own because they want to seek out opportunities and they need to take the initiative. They earn that right to have a champion and a sponsor. But then there's some people who I refer to as more quiet leaders who lead in the background, yet are extremely powerful individuals that actually need to be raised up and need to have an actual formal plan put in place for them.

And if you want to have a really successful organization, you need to put investment into time investment, money investment, into building those leaders. You want to keep the really good leaders at your organization or if they're going to go elsewhere, if they've been built at CAMH or your organization, then they're going to be advocates for your work outside of the organization and they might take something that you're doing really well and take it to another organization.

Michelle Holden: Is this the same case for you, Deborah, at the foundation in terms of advancing leadership?

Deborah Gillis: It certainly is, and I would say just generally the fact, you know, the stat that you used, that 40% of companies say that they don't have a plan around their people in leadership development, is interesting to me because no business or organization would not have goals and plans around advancing the organization, financial performance, other goals, customer service, etc., depending on the industry.

Why would you not have a plan for investing your most important resource, which is your people. And so I think the intentionality around being clear about the advancement of people and how important that is to the success of any organization is critical. And certainly something, as Carrie's described really well, that our organizations are paying attention to. We don't have it all sorted out and there's lots to learn, but I think there's a clear focus on the need to invest in our people in order to ensure that the organization is set up for success.

Michelle Holden: There's a lot of talk right now about mental health and wellness within an organization and providing more support and more health and wellness assistance to staff. What's your strategy at CAMH to ensure there's a culture of support?

Carrie Fletcher: It's about normalizing the conversation and really just saying: it's here for all of us, all of us are going to go through challenging times. No matter who we are, no matter what position we hold within an organization, whether it be a frontline staff, whether it be one of our environmental services staff, whether it be one of our senior leaders. We all need help at times. We all have challenges. And so we really want to normalize the conversation. That's a really big push.

Earlier, similar to our leadership development, we don't have everything figured out and we're on a journey and will consistently be on a journey because the organization is going to change. The makeup of our patient population is going to change. The makeup of our staff is going to change, and their needs are going to change. So we have to continually be pushing the envelope and really making sure that we're evaluating the programs we put in place – working collaboratively with our union partners, with our leadership partners to make sure that the programs that are being put into place are really meeting the needs.

But it really does come down to normalizing it and making it okay. Just like we encourage our patients to talk about it, to reach out to find their networks, to find their support communities, we have to be giving that same message to our staff. And a few years ago, our staff may not have felt that, and there might even be some stuff now that aren't still feeling that.

So we just have to continue to bridge that gap and make sure that everyone feels comfortable to speak up for their mental health, because it truly is. Mental health is health. We're seeing a huge impact on the campaigns that we're having in the community and policy. Mental health is on every agenda if you think nationally, internationally, provincially, locally. So now it's really taking that in-house and making sure that that's heard with our staff as well.

Michelle Holden: So, CAMH is uniquely positioned as a large mental health research hospital to use its data to drive change. Carrie, can you talk about some of the successes that you're seeing through this research?

Carrie Fletcher: Sure. So CAMH is very, very focused on the usage of data to drive change. It's actually really been over the past few years where there's been the infrastructure that has been put in place to be able to allow the organization to do this and on many fronts.

So from our patient care front, it's a no-brainer. We have a clinical information system that has achieved, many, many accolades and we're in the top five percent in Canada. And, actually, the top very low percentages of number of organizations internationally that having been achieved what we've been able to achieve from a clinical information system. And that really allows us to harness the power of the data, harness the power to make better outcomes-driven care here at CAMH for our patients. But it also leads us to putting into practices for our patients that can be beneficial external to CAMH as well.

We're now really trying to harness that information and that data when we look across our staff. So, what is actually working and the work that Deborah was speaking to in terms of how do we look at mental health within organizations, we're really going to be looking at how do we harness the data, how do we harness the research in order to work with organizations to improve upon their mental health strategies within their organization.

Because if you look at the data, the number of people that, from an absenteeism perspective, that don't come to work because of the mental health and, or addiction problem. Or the presenteeism, so the number of people that are coming into work, but they're not able to be their best selves and they're not able to contribute to the level that they want to contribute at.

How can we use the data that's out there to actually drive organizations to want to do a better job for their staff. We've got the patient side down, now we really need to focus on that staff side. And organizations are starting to recognize just how important this is. As Deborah was speaking to earlier, one in five Canadians have a mental health problem. And so that means that a lot of your staff probably do, and if they're suffering in silence and not feeling comfortable or not feeling supported in their workplace, then they're probably not giving back as much as they probably could to their workplace.

And what we do find is, most people do want to get help and it actually doesn't take a large amount of cost in order to get that help. But we really want to do that research so that we can have the data to really drive the change. Just like we have with our patients, we now want to show that within the workplaces.

Deborah Gillis: One of the issues when we're talking about workplace mental health is that of course we tend to focus on the employees in that organization as Carrie and I have both been talking about. But the creation of the psychologically safe workplace, where it is truly inclusive and where conversations can happen – where it's okay or it's normalized to have these discussions – extends not only to the employee in that workplace, but to their broader family.

So think about a parent or a spouse who's dealing with a child or a partner or a family member who is dealing with mental health issues. Can they talk to their colleagues about it? Can they share openly that someone in their family is struggling with a really serious issue that is of concern to them? And so as we really shift the dynamic in workplaces, you're opening up to create an environment where employees can bring their full selves to work – and all dimensions of who they are – and feel that they can be open and have conversations. Whether it's an issue that they're dealing with personally for themselves and seeking the help and support they need in their workplace. Or it's something that they can openly talk to colleagues about that they're dealing with in their family.

Michelle Holden: Carrie, can you talk a little bit about the level of collaboration among staff at CAMH and how this is encouraged and supported by your leadership team?

Carrie Fletcher: So, I think that we've come a long way in terms of collaboration across the organization. And that's right from the senior leadership tables down to our frontline staff. There's many different formal structures that we do that within.

One of the things, one of my favorite initiatives is, and it really is coming from frontline staff, is what we refer to as "team huddles". So it brings a team that works together on a daily basis to check in to see what's going on, do a safety check to make sure that people feel safe in the environment. And is there something maybe about a patient that somebody should know that will keep them safe in that environment.

And, traditionally, those types of team huddles may have been more of a clinical focus, but we make sure that our environmental services staff, our nutrition staff, our security staff are encouraged to attend those. So then people feel more as that collaborative team.

These team huddles have really trickled into a lot of areas. So we're rolling mode in our outpatient areas, but you'll also see team huddle boards in our more corporate areas as well. The other pieces is they have shout-outs to them so people can feel recognized for work that they have done. So that's just one way.

We also have a lot of cross-collaborative tables that bring stakeholders from different parts of the organization, to make sure that we're recognizing the various different perspectives and lenses that people will bring in. And we really want to understand whenever there's a new initiative, who that initiative is actually going to touch, both from an implementation standpoint but also from an operational ownership standpoint.

Previously, we didn't necessarily do that the best, and this is probably about four or five years ago. So things through my previous life in running an enterprise project management office, we look to try and really bring together the stakeholders – everyone that could be impacted by this, whether it was in a major way or in a more minor way. And then the same thing with an initiative standpoint. The more stakeholders you have around the table, you're building more advocates for that piece of work. You're building people that know about it going on and then they can make the connections out there.

So we're doing a lot of work, also, to try and make sure that we have a much better connection from the senior leadership table. Also down to the frontline staff through things like executive leadership walk arounds. Through CEO town halls. Through barbecues that are put on in collaboration with our union partners where our union presidents and our CEO last summer went and gave out over 1,000 scrolls that outlined the accomplishments of the organization over the past year with a focus on how we were trying to improve our staff safety, both from a physical safety and a mental health safety perspective.

Michelle Holden: I imagine you both spend a lot of time at work and a lot of time thinking about work. Carrie, what do you do in your spare time to keep your ideas fresh?

Carrie Fletcher: I really depend on trying my best to leave work behind. And what I would say is I have a kind of a multi-pronged approach to that. So I really rely on my family, on my partner, and my three children to keep me in check and, trust me, they keep me very grounded. I also am very fortunate to have a very close group of friends, all career women, and I call them my support group and my therapy group. And we actually primarily work out together. So that's a, you know, every morning there's six of us that get together and do some form of a workout and therapy session, we call it.

They really, you know, they get having to go to work and trying to balance life, whether that be children or whether that be other aspects of life. People tend to think of women being super moms and that's not necessarily the case. They can be caregivers for elderly parents, they can be aunts, they can be partners, they can be good friends. So we really need to think beyond that more traditional viewpoint of women.

But, definitely to keep my ideas fresh, I try and make sure that I'm involved in a variety of things. I'll give a good example. A couple of my friends work in the education field and they were actually walking through the preparation of becoming a vice principal and they were sharing a training called, "In the Vice Principal's Chair". And at the same time I had been invited to a table at CAMH about, how do we prepare new managers. And what they were describing to me was just this brilliant training session. So we brought that back to CAMH and now we've adapted it at CAMH. So it's just one way when you look beyond your sector, when you look beyond your role is sometimes where I find my freshest ideas.

Michelle Holden: Deborah, same question. What helps you to recharge?

Deborah Gillis: Well, time, and being disciplined about that. So I think Carrie and I have a very similar approach. Which is you can't bring energy to what you're doing, whether that's to be open to new ideas or new ways of thinking about things if you don't take time to recharge. And a big part of that for me certainly is leaving work behind when I leave work and making time for friends and family, reading books, listening to podcasts, engaging with very different kinds of conversations that allow for your curiosity about the world around you to really be open. And if you can do that, that's what I find gives me energy, new ideas, and just a fresh perspective. Because if we're too tired, too exhausted, we're closed off from ideas, we're not ready and willing to engage, then that's when you lose those opportunities.

So, being disciplined about saying, work is important and it brings so much to our lives, but recharging and the things that give you energy and fill you up and open you up to new possibilities, is really important. And the more you advance into leadership roles, the more disciplined you need to be about that, because there are so many demands on your time professionally. And the flip side of that is I feel a real responsibility as a leader to role model those behaviors so that the same is true for my team. So, when I first came into the role at CAMH Foundation, I said to my team, "You will virtually never get Emails from me on the weekend." I'm very disciplined about it. I respond to emails or send emails only where it's really required. I save drafts if I need to and send them in the morning. But again, I recognize as a leader that if I send a message or I request a meeting early in the morning or late in the day, people are going to feel that they must respond and say, "Yes." So the role-modeling of behavior so that my team also has the time and discipline to really focus on their work life balance and the things that fills them up, is also part of how we make sure there is energy in the organization.

Michelle Holden: So, as we close out the podcast in honor of International Women's Day, I wanted to ask both of you what that day means to you right now and throughout the year and how you reflect on it?

Carrie Fletcher: I think it's always a really good idea to have a specified time that actually more forces you to reflect. So, I really try to be a leader each day that can reflect in how I can support a wide variety of individuals reaching their maximum potential. But when I really think about International Women's Day, I think about the number of women out there that maybe haven't had the same opportunities that I have.

I have to be very honest, I have grown up in healthcare and although recognizing that there's still not the same number of women leaders, it is a sector that does have more women leaders in it than maybe your more traditional banking, insurance-type sectors. I've also been very fortunate at CAMH. I've been at CAMH for 12 years, and I've really grown up professionally at CAMH and in my leadership roles at CAMH. And the leadership at CAMH, and I will say that Catherine Zahn has been probably one of those leaders that has really inspired me, because she does have a very strong focus on developing women leaders.

Also, my previous boss here, Tracey MacArthur, also had a real focus on developing women leaders – on recognizing somebody's potential, recognizing their skillset, and looking at them and open to seeing them in a variety of different roles. And then it's really then how do you take that the opportunity that you've been given and translate that to other women in your life, to other women outside of CAMH. So, for me, that really means, it has me reflect on people that I can mentor, people that I can support who reach out and say, "You know, you've achieved X in your career, would you be willing to give time?" It'll be a very, very rare occurrence that I will not provide that time to somebody because it is so important. The advocacy, the sponsorship, it really is important. I know that I'm sitting in the chair that I'm sitting in today because of those advocates, because of those sponsors of myself personally and my leadership skills. So, I take that very seriously then to pay that forward to somebody else.

Michelle Holden: And Deborah, what does International Women's Day mean to you?

Deborah Gillis: Well, I've just spent the last 12 years of my life in a role that's been focused on gender equality, so it's something that's very near and dear to me – and as I said at that beginning of our conversation – goes back to the time when I was really young woman. I've been the only woman in the room. I've been the woman who has been talked over. I've been the woman who has felt that I'd been overlooked for opportunities. My experience I've seen play out from many, many different women. And then on the flip side, I've been inspired by, and supported by an amazing group of women that I've met across all sectors that I've worked in from business to government, politics, to the nonprofit and charitable sectors that I've had an opportunity to work in.

And I've learned that those role models are really critical. You can't be what you can't see. I've learned, as Carrie has said, how important it is to pay it forward. Those of us who've benefited from mentors and sponsors who've given us opportunities, we have a responsibility to do the same. So, I do think that International Women's Day provides an opportunity for us to stop and remember that there has been a lot of progress, but there's still a lot of work to do to get to full gender equality in workplaces. We've seen that clearly, over the last couple of years, as we think about Time’s Up, and what's happening in terms of the challenges that many women face. And I think that for most of us, we thought that those days were behind us when, in fact, many of those issues remain very real.

So, it's a time to celebrate role models. It's a time to celebrate the successes of women. It's a time to pay it forward. It's time to share our experiences in a way that inspire a new generation of young women. But in doing that, always remembering that there's still work to do and why it's important to continue to maintain a focus on these conversations.

Michelle Holden: Thank you so much for speaking with us today on Healthcare Change Makers. It really has been a pleasure learning about your careers and also what leadership looks like for women, particularly in healthcare today. We from HIROC's perspective really look forward to watching CAMH and the Foundation and seeing where things go from here.