10 Nov Not Alone, But Together: The Long Run Interview with Allison Alley
Long Run Consulting is focused on supporting and promoting the generation of executive leaders that is stepping to the forefront in the not-for-profit sector in Canada. Those who would dare to lead in this volatile and uncertain world must be courageous and sure of their purpose. Ed Wilson found such a leader in Allison Alley, president and CEO of Compassion Canada, when he spoke with her a few weeks ago. Allison assumed leadership of Compassion Canada in October 2019 following Rev. Barry Slauenwhite’s 26-year tenure in the role. The dialogue recorded below is an edited and condensed version of a longer conversation.
Ed: I’m interested in your story. I came to know you when you were already serving with Compassion in a responsible role—but leading up to that day, how did your leadership journey evolve and when did you begin to aspire to a leadership role?
Allison: There are a couple of markers that stand out for me. The first is that I accidentally bumped into the reality that God had given me the gift of leadership. I grew up in a Christian home, and as a tween I had what I affectionately call a “modest rebellion stage.” It wasn’t something significant to write home about but it was enough that my parents decided to send me to a local Christian high school. At the time I did what any upset young tween would do and I decided to neglect to participate in the core of the program, which was a mandatory Bible class. And so that’s what I did in my grade 9 year. If I remember it now, I not only neglected to show up but I successfully encouraged my peers around me to do the same thing. And, at a certain point, I caught the attention of the principal and he pulled me aside to replay what he was seeing happening. He said to me that in my attempt to rebel he actually saw in me the gift of leadership and the gift of influence. And it was a gift given to me by God and it was a gift that I could use for good or I could use for ill. Ultimately, I chose to take the path of using it for good, which was largely supported by him and the teachers giving the opportunities in that school to flex that muscle and get involved in positive ways. That was really significant for me.
“I was able to grow my emotional intelligence as a relational and people-oriented leader by being thrown into things that, quite frankly, were well beyond my years.”
Another marker was Youth With A Mission. In the [YWAM] Discipleship Training School I spent a lot of time beginning to understand spiritual formation [and] my own spiritual gifts. To hear someone say God has given me the gift of leadership and then to do the inventory myself and discern my giftedness set (which is leadership, administration and wisdom), and to begin in a more structured way in the context of outreach in Chiang Mai, Thailand to use those leadership gifts was another significant thing for me. But the unexpected part of my journey is that I came back from YWAM and God opened doors for me to learn by doing for quite some time. I was given opportunity to lead in the marketplace at a very young age to the credit of those business leaders and entrepreneurs. I was working at an entry-level position, [then] they promoted me to sales manager, then they promoted me to general manager, then I was leading the launch of different franchises in our region. I was in my early twenties and I was leading people, quite literally, three times my age. Which means it came with lots of failing and learning, and I would say looking back I was really able to grow my emotional intelligence as a relational and people-oriented leader by being thrown into things that, quite frankly, were well beyond my years.
Ed: I’m interested to hear you talk about the role that your predecessor, Barry Slauenwhite, had in preparing you for leadership. I know a little bit about the story—I know that even though he was not able to directly influence the choice of you as the next CEO of Compassion he had some thoughts along that line for some time. Was that reflected in his posture toward you?
Allison: Yes. Barry, in his wisdom, took succession very seriously and talked about succession being an act of stewardship and an act of worship and that woven into succession is a passing of the baton to the next generation, which comes with a need to not just be open to change but to celebrate it and set the organization and your successor up to step into that. He did all of that. And, yes, he saw something in me and provided opportunities for me. I remember a defining moment where there was an event they wanted Barry to speak at but he wasn’t available, and he asked me to go on his behalf. I remember saying to my husband, “You’re never going to believe this! He wants me to go!” And that extension of trust to do something significant and represent the organization, I learnt through that. I wanted to rise to the occasion and do well there. But, again, he took risks and extended opportunities. He continued to do that through the whole succession process. There’s a lot I could say here. He positioned me, once I was appointed as president-elect, as the co-leader, not the learner. He would say, “I want to be clear. Yes, I’m still your CEO, but Allison and I are walking together. Anything that is future-looking—she’s the decision maker. Look to her!” So he really did position me and the future of the organization well.
Ed: I’m interested to know how you would respond to this question. We perceive God’s goodness in the way things turned out for you and for Compassion Canada. It’s a hypothetical question, but where do you think you would be in terms of your posture today had you not been the successful candidate for the CEO role at Compassion?
“Even through the succession process I was saying, ‘God, not my will but yours, not my plans but yours.'”
Allison: I know where I would be today. Part of my journey was moving from the marketplace to ministry, and the reawakening of the calling that God had given my husband and I to live on mission and to prioritize kids and the poor. I [had] started focusing on my career and stability and those things, very slowly and in a way that I didn’t even notice until I woke up and thought, “Hey, that’s not the way I want to live my life, that’s not what it means to be a steward and be faithful.” Not just with the financial resources that I have but also my time and talent and influence and gifts. So, God called me into ministry. I came into the organization with a deep sense of calling to be an advocate for kids and the poor, a deep appreciation for the ministry of Compassion. Even through the succession process I was saying, “God, not my will but yours, not my plans but yours,” so that when Barry said to me, “Who do you have in mind? Who should we be thinking about?” I said, “I’m not sure, you may need to go external.” I gave him a few names. And then he said to me, “What would you say, Allison, if I told you that a lot of other people I’ve asked have said you, that they’re compelled to follow you?” And I said, “Well, I guess I may need to get over myself again and see if this is God’s plan.” So it wasn’t something that I was pursuing, it was an idea that I caught up to. So where would I be? I would be at Compassion, I would be leading in whatever capacity God was calling me to lead, which likely would have to do with communication and team development and growing people as thinkers and influencers, that kind of stuff. I would be doing it for the sake of “the least of these” because that’s what really gets me up in the morning.
Ed: That’s very inspiring, Allison. If I was twenty or thirty years younger I might be asking you for a job!
Allison: There is one part on the equipping that you should at least know. When I started at Compassion and I thought I want to maximize my impact here, I really felt that God was calling me on a formal equipping journey. I felt as I looked around, there were three key prongs of leadership that would increase my impact in our environment. One was as an executive, the reality that, as you know, as a not-for-profit [leader] you are leading technology and marketing and sales and all the things that you have in a marketplace environment. The second was a practitioner. I felt like I wanted to learn as much about international development as possible, to really be able to invite people into a comprehension of the work that we do. And then, the third was a shepherd, someone who desires to lead in a faith-based organization by giving people opportunities to be transformed into the likeness of Christ in a way that grows them and therefore grows the culture and influence of the organization. So that led me to say, “I want to grow formally in all three areas.” So, I went to seminary and did a Masters of Arts in Global Leadership, was in a cohort with leaders from 25 countries who impacted me way more than I would have imagined. I did an emphasis in International Development and Urban Studies while I was there. And then I went to Ivey [School of Business] and did an MBA. That was an intentional choice and a big commitment that was drawn from my place of calling.
Ed: I’m glad you reverted back to that topic because that is something I wanted to draw out of you earlier on and we moved on beyond that. So, thank you, thank you for introducing that. Just to wrap up, Allison, what words of advice do you have for young emerging leaders, those who would come to you with questions about what they ought to be doing to prepare themselves for a position of responsibility in the not-for-profit sector or the local church sector or business. Do you have any words of advice for young leaders?
“The message God has placed on my heart in this season is ‘Allison, not on your strength, but on mine. And not alone, but together.'”
Allison: Learn by doing. Inherently, I think, the younger generation is doing a lot of that. They’re starting businesses and they’re putting themselves out there. Finding the opportunity to try different things, to learn from different people, to read different books, volunteer in different capacities. It grows you, and I think well-roundedness as a leader is really important. Certainly, as you become a senior leader, emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence require well-roundedness and learning and working in different ways and different capacities and different contexts. So, try new things to give yourselves opportunities to learn and to fail and to grow. But, I’m a new first-chair leader and the message God has placed on my heart in this season is “Allison, not on your strength, but on mine. And not alone, but together.” I think what can happen as you grow in influence is that you can think this whole thing is dependent on you, on your intellect, on your know-how, your stamina, and it really is about God’s Spirit working through you, your rootedness and groundedness in him, leading from a place of rest in him, and then not doing it alone but together, building a discerning community, a collaborative, diverse team, where you really can—not just in theory, but in practice—do more together, better together than you could ever, ever, ever do alone. And I think the layers of “Not alone, together” go out far—into your own team, into your sector, your country, globally, church, parachurch. Those are the words that I’m reflecting on a lot right now.
Ed: Great words. Thank you so much.
Allison Alley is the President and CEO of Compassion Canada, a global development organization that exists to permanently end childhood poverty in all its forms. After spending more than a decade in leadership roles in the marketplace, God used her love for her own children to call her to be an advocate for all children, especially those living in poverty. Allison holds a Master of Arts in Global Leadership with an emphasis in International Development and Urban Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School. She and her husband, Tommy, live in London, Ontario and have two daughters.
Interview © 2020 Long Run Consulting. Photo used by permission Allison Alley.