16 Jan Success Is Passion-Driven: The Long Run Interview with Sally Schroeder
At a time when we are observing a significant exodus of nonprofit governance leaders as the baby boom generation vacates leadership roles, the tasks of supporting and mentoring emerging leaders become critically important. In The Long Run Interview, Ed Wilson talks with young leaders in his network about their vision for leadership and the factors in their workplaces that enable them to grow and thrive.
A few months ago, I sat down with Sally Schroeder for a conversation about leadership. Sally is the Manager, Community Outreach and Intake with Habitat for Humanity Greater Toronto Area. Her husband, Matthew, was also at the table; Matthew is the Marketing Communications Manager at Tearfund Canada. I first met Matthew and Sally when both were MBA students at the Schulich School of Business. The dialogue recorded below is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Ed: Sally, I’d like you to begin by describing your leadership journey.
Sally: When I look back, I think the traditional format of learning leadership was during our MBA in business school. That gave me the technical knowledge and understanding of concepts and how not to do things, but the more organic side of experiencing [leadership] was definitely everything I learned in India. Working with trafficked women in the social enterprise that I was a part of in Mumbai was the starting ground for me. That was seven years ago now. I did not have the skills or knowledge to be a leader but was just forced into it in order to do the project. So that’s where I learned from my mistakes, and from my MBA I learned what my mistakes were and how not to do those again.
“I think the ability to shadow someone at [the CEO] level is one of the biggest opportunities that I’ve been given at Habitat.”
Then I joined Habitat for Humanity GTA as Strategy Officer and Special Assistant to the CEO where I assisted the CEO [Ene Underwood] in her day-to-day work and any project that she would take on in her office. I think the ability to shadow someone at that level is one of the biggest opportunities that I’ve been given at Habitat. Spending time and watching how a CEO does thing and doesn’t do things, how a CEO manages time, resources, anything that comes her way. I did not take on an individual leadership role while I was in her office, I was just part of things that the CEO would take on.
That was crucial to learn and grow, and from there she gave me the community outreach and intake manager role. In other words, she gave me the opportunity to co-lead the team that is responsible for finding the right families that need affordable housing support in the GTA and taking them through the process of purchasing a home, providing mortgage support and educating them to be successful homeowners. So in my current role I lead a team where we work closely with our marketing department, and from there on to generating sales. It’s very similar to real estate world. I say to people that Habitat is like a real estate with a heart because we are the social sector side of it providing affordable home-ownership in the GTA.
Ed: What are some of the personal growth areas that you have identified as you have grown in responsibility in the role that you have at Habitat?
Sally: Being in the charity world, we work a lot with volunteers. We have around 9,000 volunteers in a year at Habitat and around 130 staff, so my team is comprised of an equal number of volunteers and staff. It almost feels that on my days with volunteers I run a different kind of organization than when I work with just staff. And that is something I continue to learn: What is it that a volunteer is looking for? What kind of experience do they want? How can we create that win:win situation there? And a long-term sustainable volunteer team? That’s been quite interesting. Right now most of my volunteers are retired and one of them is over 90 years! They work hard and bring decades of experience and knowledge with them. It’s a very different environment than my younger [staff] team. Learning that has been one area of growth.
The second is, which I truly enjoy, is the fact that Habitat is not a traditional charity. Because we work in the real estate market of GTA building homes, I get the opportunity to bring in that corporate sector style of thinking, of marketing, of sales, and build on our program and processes as we continue to grow as an organization and serve more families.
Ed: I want you to think about the contribution that more experienced leaders are making to your life or your development as a leader: Contributions that you have felt and contributions that you are hopeful you will have the opportunity to experience in the future.
Sally: I think our CEO has played a big role in that for me because coming out of an MBA I did not want to work as an assistant in the CEO’s office but that is the offer that was made and it looked like that was what God was waving in front of me so I took it at that time. Matthew always tells me, “Do you see the experience that you had that other people wouldn’t get otherwise?” As a CEO, she was constantly trying to educate me along the journey. It wasn’t something like, “Sally, just do this job for me”, it would be like, “Do you know why you’re doing this? Let me tell you what I’m thinking.” And the fact that she would take that minute of her busy day to share and teach me along the way made a big difference. Now to step into a department and do things, I have a different perspective because I know what the CEO is planning with an organizational objective and the big picture. She often invited me to join her meetings so I could be a fly on the wall and learn. She very well knew I wanted to do more and she trained and prepared me not only as her assistant, but also for a future role in the organization. It was that kind of transparent conversation where she recognized what I wanted and she invested in me that made a big difference.
Ed: Matt, both of you are involved in roles in the not-for-profit sector; how do you support each other as your pursue those careers?
Matthew: It’s nice to have someone who understands your motivations and can encourage you. We have the same hearts to change people’s lives through nonprofit work. So although our causes are completely different—basically different industries—and our functions are actually very different too, it’s been an encouragement where she can provide me with input. [Sally] often complains that I don’t always take her suggestions but I do quietly! Because we are different in many ways, to get a different perspective is often beneficial.
“I take joy in the fact both of us work knowing that this is not just something that pays our bills, but we care about these things.”
Sally: I tell people at work that by marrying me [Matthew] just by default signed into the contract that he’s supposed to help me with my work, and often when I work on weekends and I go meet our families at their houses or conduct events, Matthew is the volunteer [who accompanies me]. I don’t even ask him, I just tell him, “Hey, we’re going to this place and you’re my volunteer and you have to take notes.” I take joy in the fact both of us work knowing that this is not just something that pays our bills, but we care about these things. Which means there are times when we work outside our regular hours and not that I’m always happy about it, but it feels like it’s still a good thing. I’m excited when he tells me about his work and I want to share ideas. He always helps me with Habitat things, so I really enjoy the support that I get from him.
Ed: Sometimes in the nonprofit sector we can place too much emphasis on the fulfillment aspect of the total compensation package, but would you agree that it is an important component of why you do what you do?
Sally: Absolutely. It won’t have the same priority level for everybody, but I know that success for me is very passion-driven, that’s what leads me to work well and work hard. I need to be passionate about the cause to be giving my 100%, and I’ve seen the difference it makes when I’m not passionate about something. I think it plays a very, very integral part of anyone entering the social sector, but it’s not the only component. It’s the thing that drives me to work every morning, knowing that I can come home and feel satisfied. It’s not just about being satisfied about doing good work, but when I have stressful days I always tell God in my prayers, “Tomorrow if I stand in front of you and say ‘Did I do a faithful job at the job you put me in?’” I want to say I did my 100%, whether I liked it or didn’t like it. And it matters to me that I do this for God and not just for people.
© 2020 Long Run Consulting