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Heather McDonald, CEO of LOFT


Q&As with Heather McDonald

Heather as the CEO of LOFT you have a long history of successes. Please share a few achievements that you feel really proud of.

I am really proud of how my team and I managed the pandemic. In a recent interview, Jim Collins shared that an organization needs a “heartbeat march” to keep it focused and in control during chaotic times. We moved in lock step, sharing important information with our entire team quickly and clearly. Mechanisms were put in place to respond promptly to staff and we were unafraid to move first. Our entire senior team, including myself were re-deployed during the pandemic. We were there for each other.

We applied for the National Employer of Choice Award during the Omicron Wave. People were exhausted and we figured that was the best time to test our culture. We were awarded the award—a huge accomplishment.

Not only did we keep moving forward, we ended up leading work in the province to help other agencies manage.

Our staff team’s values reflect a potent balance of humility and unstoppable will. That combination meant we not only kept our staff and clients safe, we thrived. We had our fastest growing year during the peak of COVID. We looked up and ahead and were ready to help more people falling through the gaps of our health care system.

LOFT stands for Leap Of Faith Together. We take smart risks for the right reasons. Along with our Board, we are unafraid to do what’s right, even if it can be a little scary. As an example, we are building a purpose-built 100 unit building for at -risk seniors with behavioural, mental health and addiction issues in Bradford, Ontario. LOFT’s heartbeat march is moving this forward every single day. It has not been done before and we are always willing to be the first to get it done.

In hindsight are there some things you would have approached differently?

I revisit my failures often. As my colleagues would know, I share them easily and repeatedly to make sure I don’t make them again. When I first became CEO 5 years ago, I had so many ideas. I felt that I wanted to show everyone they had made the right decision to hire me. We moved a lot of administration projects ahead quickly. I underestimated the change management effort required and the cost to maintain the changes. We have learned to better pace ourselves.

How is your organization adapting its structures and processes to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are top of mind? Please share your experience in leading a culture and perspective change by your Senior Management team.

I love the term ‘perspective change’ in this question. I think that’s bang on. LOFT has made some big commitments related to diversity, equity and inclusion and I am very proud that it remains a top priority. Changes are happening.

The first big decision was that I would lead this work. And I got some help from an outside anti-racism consultant named Christina Sackeyfio who is terrific. We surveyed staff and catered our Anti-racism action plan to what was important to them. A staff anti-racism working group that I co-chair is in its second year. We tackled our LOFT policies first then altered client surveys, offered new trainings to leaders, and changed incident reporting procedures. I’m also excited about reaching out to new vendors and exploring supports to expand our Board representation.

I share this sentence every opportunity I get: “LOFT is an actively anti-racist organization. We choose growth over comfort”. And things have gotten uncomfortable—but that is how we learn! As an example, last year I shared a filled out Anti-racism self- assessment form to our staff group last year. They challenged me and said that it made more sense if they filled out the form instead of me. They were absolutely right! That decision ended up leading us into some rich work that taught me about how to communicate anti-racism work across the organization.

Your thoughts on increasing the proportion of women in leadership positions in the Sector would be appreciated. What needs to change and how can we build momentum to ensure changes are made?

I think how women lead can be under-valued. Personal humility and servant leadership aren’t flashy, but they are absolutely effective.

I also think degrees like social work (which is my degree) are not as valued as others for leadership positions. But the pandemic has taught us that emotional intelligence and compassion are core requirements for leaders. We need to open our arms to new paths that women take to leadership positions.

Women pass on leadership positions because they are balancing the needs of their family. The assumption that a leader who works until 11pm every night is better than another leaders needs to be thrown out the window. Championing work-life balance is so important. I often say that you will be happy working at LOFT if you are the type of Mom, Dad, partner, friend, sibling, daughter, or son you want to be. And CEOs should demonstrate that by example and be brave and share it with others.

The labour shortage is real and tangible. Surveys indicate that young people are looking for organizations with a social purpose. What does the Sector need to do to attract and retain young talent?

This has certainly been on my mind as the health care sector is seeing huge staff turnover. And this has a big impact on work culture. Young people need to see meaning in their work and they need to see a vital environment.

Any non-profit has the gift of social purpose due to their mission. LOFT’s mission is “help people achieve their optimal health and well-being. LOFT offers unwavering support and hope”. Staff work at LOFT because it’s a personal calling and I am humbled and honoured every day that our staff has chosen to work here. All staff must see the impact they are making—this should be reflected back by their teams, colleagues, in all agency Town halls, and in all communications. People need to be and feel appreciated for their sacrifices.

LOFT has a robust student placement program where we provide a great group learning experience for students. We hire about 75% of our students. We want our students and new staff to feel that they have huge opportunities across LOFT. We want them to explore serving different age groups and access training through our tuition reimbursement program.

This year, we are hosting events for our staff to visit our programs to get staff excited about places that could provide professional growth for their entire career. I bought an orange inflatable dancing person like you see at used car dealerships—I can wait to use it!