Originally published by Tim Redpath
Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.
Linda Eagen is president and CEO of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Her dream is to change the cancer experience for families in her community – families like her own. Linda’s involvement with the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation began in 2004, first volunteering on the Board of Directors, then transitioning into Campaign Director, before becoming president and CEO in 2008.
Over 20 years she has raised more than $150 million for social, arts, health and educational organizations. In 2002 she obtained an MBA from the University of Ottawa. In 2018, The Women’s Business Network honoured her with a Businesswoman of the Year Award.
I was so very shy
I would eat my lunch in a bathroom cubicle in high school with my feet on the door, so that nobody would know I was there because I could not handle the crowds. I was so very shy. One day Linda, a school friend of mine, knocked on the door and said, “I know you’re in there. Come on out. You’re coming to the café with me.” She carried me through Grade 13. I met her again about 30 years later and we went out for a meal. I said, « You need to know what you did for me in my life. » She didn’t know; she had no idea. We were both crying in the restaurant.
I was going to be the Prime Minister of Canada
As a young child, I remember always rallying the cousins and organizing games and getting them to do things. I remember sitting by the campfire when I was a teenager and telling my parents I was going to be the Prime Minister of Canada one day. After I was married and we had children, I wanted to stay home when they were young, so I made work happen for me at home. I set up a catering business and I started a day care.
I quickly realized I was not afraid of failure. If something does not work, I turn around and try a different approach. The day I decided to go out to work I looked for a leadership role in an organization and I found one at my Alma Mater, the University of Ottawa. They were looking for a manager for a fund-raising position. I wanted that job. They were looking for experience organizing events – tick, I ran a catering business. They were looking for telesales experience – tick, I sold cemetery plots on the phone.
Serendipity plays a part in my life and in my leadership
I lost all four of my grandparents to cancer. Both my parents are cancer survivors. They had access to the treatment they needed but not necessarily the care. When two students in the fundraising management course at Algonquin invited me to join the board of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation I saw it as my chance to make a difference. A few years into my term, the board chair asked if I would join the staff to head the campaigns.
Serendipity plays a part in my life and in my leadership. Things happen for a reason. Before we even knew we were going to build the centre we got a bequest of $250,000, from someone I had never met, for a “Survivorship Centre”. We built a park and were looking for a place to put the centre. When we were at the ground breaking for the park, I turned around and saw a for sale sign on the lot next to the park.
The biggest mistakes I have made in the last couple years are when I push back on my instincts. If I know something is not quite right, I feel it. Every big mistake I’ve made I’d say in the last five or six years, I can attribute it to not listening to what I felt – not letting serendipity in.
My personality profile shows I am very comfortable with risk
I am a passionate leader; not formal at all. I think and make decisions quickly. My personality profile shows I am very comfortable with risk and I work at a high pace Sometimes we need speed, other times it scares people. I have learned the hard way to give others time to process ideas before making a decision. I’ll say, “Here’s what I think we should do. I don’t want you to react now. I want you to go away and think about it.”
When I was in grade six I would do my homework until all hours of the night. I had a pencil and my fingers were sore and pinched. I did the whole math text book, all the exercises, within the first semester. My dad would say, « It’s not right that they are giving you this much homework” and he went to the school to complain. The teacher explained I had done the whole year’s math homework before Christmas. I was just so driven.
I do the dance of joy when I get a new idea
I am hungry for learning. I dedicate at least an hour a day to learning – books, internet – and this desire fuels my leadership. At the University of Ottawa, I would see another University that was raising more money than us so I would pick up the phone and say I wanted to visit them to see what they were doing differently.
Part of the attention to learning is to be an idea generator and to help others generate ideas too – finding different ways of doing things, whether it’s tackling a problem or engaging with people. You don’t have to completely reinvent yourself, you just add another layer, and that layer is knowledge. I enjoy coming up with new ideas. I do the dance of joy when I get a new idea. I wouldn’t work well in an environment where you had to do the same thing every day.
I hate rules, especially when it comes to people
I treat employees like they are people. I take care of them. I hate rules, especially when it comes to people. People can do the right things if you trust them to do it. If you don’t trust them, then why are they on your team and why are you the leader?
You have to stop and talk to people. I go to the lunch room and I talk with everyone. Even though it’s important, I forget sometimes because I get busy with something else. Then shame on me because I expect the people who are leaders in our organization, who are the managers, to treat everybody alike. It’s part of my job, as a leader, to lead by example.
I feel like I am living my life according to my values. I think I am living a life of purpose, as opposed to doing a job.
William Ward’s famous quote, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it”, has become my life’s mantra. Every day I dream to change the way we experience cancer.
I couldn’t stop crying long enough to tell her
I am also a compassionate leader which holds me back sometimes. I decide what to do very quickly, and I rarely turn back but compassion can slow me down. I had to let someone go once, who I really respected. I couldn’t stop crying long enough to tell her, so the Human Resources person told me to leave the room and she finished the meeting.
Leading inside the public health care system can be dispiriting
I have been trying to move cancer care into the public health care system for years. I feel like I have pushing a boulder up a mountain for 10 years. I know the boulder is going to get to the top and roll down the other end of the hill and we are going to do it before I retire. Leading inside the public health care system can be dispiriting. There are lots of arguments, disagreements, people fighting for their own piece of the system.
Sometimes, you walk out of meetings feeling like they think you are from Mars or something.
We all know the system is making the decisions, and it’s stuck. I continue to believe in the people – they know someone who has cancer – their brother, their sister, somebody. They know the statistics, they know the evidence, they know what’s done in other countries. I just need to develop compassion for the system that is holding us back.
I want to finish this. I don’t want the boulder to slip back. Honestly, I was meant to do this job – that’s the serendipity. I was meant to do this, everything. A lot of it has been hard; most of it has been very rewarding. It’s my job.
Don’t wait to step into your leadership shoes
It took me many years to step into my leadership shoes. When I first got a personal secretary, back when I was working at the University, I did not know what to do with her. This person was there to serve me, and I didn’t feel I deserved her. For years, I struggled to tell people my title – I would just say I was part of the team. It was our marketing person who helped me see my title will open more doors and help me do my job. My mother was so excited when I became president and CEO she told me I had made it to prime minister. Nowadays, I am proud to call myself the president and CEO. It gives me joy to have that responsibility.
I would have liked to have had the confidence I have now and the pride in my leadership, sooner in my career. I think it was a leftover from my shyness as a young girl. Instead of denying it, I have embraced it now.
I mentor students at the University of Ottawa and I tell them, « Don’t wait to step into your leadership shoes until you’re halfway through your 50’s. Wear them. Own it. You must have the confidence to be a leader and to talk leader-to-leader”.
Sometimes leaders need to give people a hug
When I became president and CEO at the foundation, the first annual reviews I got were, « You don’t behave like the CEO. » I did not understand. Was it my clothes? Was it my lack of a poker face? They said, « No, no, no, it’s not that. You bring cookies to a meeting, you pour the coffee. You should be telling your people to do it. You shouldn’t be doing it. » Or, « You give hugs to people ». I told my staff about the comments and we had some fun with it for a while. I did try to be more like a CEO but after a time I said, “No, I am just going to be me”.
The Foundation is successful, so I know I am doing a good job. People with cancer, or donors giving money to the cancer foundation, don’t want to deal with someone in a suit – sometimes leaders need to give people a hug, or an expression of love.