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Fresh leadership can help to revitalize and refocus an organization

John McFerran

According to the Global Health Council, more than 9.5 million people die every year from infectious diseases. Millions more die from secondary causes related to those diseases.

The International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) in Winnipeg develops solutions that target infectious diseases by improving disease-prevention strategies; enhancing biosafety and biosecurity in labs, hospitals and communities; and commercializing innovative products for public health practice.

“If you take a look at an infectious disease such as HPV (human papillomavirus), that disease has been linked to cervical cancer and other cancers as well,” says John Borody, the non-profit organization’s CEO. “By tackling HPV, the occurrence of cancer can be reduced as well.”

Borody, who previously headed the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM), joined ICID last October. He says being a new CEO has given him a distinct advantage as a leader because he is able to see the five-year-old organization from a fresh perspective.

Q: How did your previous position with AFM help prepare you for your new role at ICID?

A: I was at the AFM for a little over 11 years, which introduced me to working with government, how to look at provincial, national and international policies and what it meant to be part of working groups that developed policies not only for Canada, but for countries around the world, as well. I think the opportunity helped prepare me for my role at ICID. The other thing I found interesting once I got here is the clients I worked with at the foundation have similar issues to those individuals who are affected by infectious diseases. Although we don’t deliver client services directly, we still have an impact in relation to the policies and educational programs we develop. For instance, we recently signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with UNICEF Ukraine to develop an intervention program in partnership with the University of Manitoba that will be delivered to sex-trade workers and injection-drug users to help reduce the spread of HIV. We are excited about this initiative.

Q: Most new CEOs want to make an immediate impact. What changes did you implement right away?

A: When a new CEO comes in, there are going to be some things that make them wonder, “Why are they doing it that way? Wouldn’t this way be more efficient?” Yet, it’s important to bite your tongue and bide your time because you’re not fully aware of the dynamics behind those things. Until you do, it’s better not to make wholesale changes. As hard as it is, you really have to focus on being the listener and not the “sayer.” The only way to learn about the history of the business and the reason why things are done a certain way is simply to ask questions and to listen. When I came to this organization in October, I made a commitment not to make any major changes for 90 days, and I’m glad I did. My views on how we might do things differently changed as I came to learn more about the business and understand how people worked and how their individual strengths and skill sets can contribute to where this organization will go in the future.

Q: You came in just as ICID was developing a strategic plan. Was this timing beneficial to you?

A: Six weeks into this job, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a strategic planning session with our board, and that was a very helpful process as it allowed me to share my vision of where I think this organization should be. It was also very timely. Over the last couple of years, one of ICID’s main focuses was bringing an HIV vaccine manufacturing facility to Winnipeg. When this project was cancelled by the funders, ICID needed to refocus and redefine its direction. An evaluation of our stakeholders helped us to identify what was most valued by those who use our services and better articulate our role in this business. One of the stakeholders told us we’re an organization of 100 bright lights — we’re just not sure which one to focus on. So my challenge has been to get greater alignment and to narrow our focus on a few mainstreams of business activity. One we have had some success with is in the area of biosafety training. We work closely with the National Microbiology Lab here in Winnipeg on training lab personnel from around the world on working within and managing safe and secure labs. One day, I can see us expanding our relationships with other potential partners to develop a biosafety and biosecurity centre of excellence in Winnipeg. With our vision, mission and values in place, we can start to focus our efforts, define our product offerings and narrow those beams of light from 100 to, hopefully, 10.

Q: What are some of the challenges you faced coming into this environment?

A: This is a unique and sometimes challenging environment to work in. In my past positions, I worked with a provincial mandate, now I am working with a much broader international mandate. Another thing I’m getting my head around is moving from an environment where we received core government funding to one where we receive project funding. At ICID, we try to develop products which meet users’ needs, as well as seek out contracts we might be able to respond to. Both ends of the business require looking for work and with that, the funding to carry out the work. Of the 24 employees working here, about half are on a fixed grant. By that, I mean we get money upfront to deliver programs over a defined period of time. The other half depend on the funding we get by applying for contracts to do project work. As you can imagine, working on yearly contracts can be challenging for employees. In the future, I would like to seek more stable funding. I believe there is an opportunity to continue securing long-term grant funding to do specific projects, as well as looking at contracts. This would give us a more stable platform to work under and would enable us to establish a stable of consultants that we could rely upon on an ongoing basis for project work.

Q: What do you see as your strengths as a leader?

A: I think I bring the ability to listen; to test out strategies before implementing and to try to identify the key players and reach a decision before we walk out of the meeting. Does that mean I haven’t already made some mistakes? Of course I have. Innovation has a risk associated with it. Not making a mistake isn’t an option, however. It’s how you recoup from it while you keep the organization moving forward that is important.

I also think I have brought a different business sense to managing the organization. It has helped to instil the idea that every decision we make needs to meet the vision and mission of the organization. Coming from a business background also helps when it comes to bringing the right people together. Today, we’re looking at growing the commercialization portion of our business. To do this, we know we will need people with technical expertise to develop the product, but we also need people with strong social skills to go out there and drum up the business. I am fortunate we have a team of very qualified and dedicated staff at ICID. They listen to clients and understand what they want, so we can show we’re not only able to deliver quality product, we are sensitive to their needs. In order to be successful, we need people of all skill sets. In order to attract and retain them, we need to know what it is we’re looking for and what we want them to do.

Q: Which leadership books are you currently reading or have recently inspired you?

A: I don’t read a lot of leadership books, as I’ve found that most of the literature is about the same things, just packaged differently. However, one I have read and have given to each of my senior team members is The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. It was given to me by a planning consultant named Nancy Peterson who recently lost her battle with cancer. Both she and the book were and still are very inspiring. In fact, I still have a card that Nancy gave me with the book that says, “Make time and space to reconnect with your creative core; may you live creatively, joyfully and well.” I hope she would be proud, as I am trying to do all these things today. The other book I keep by my bedside is Inspiration Deficit Disorder by Jonathan H. Ellerby. It’s a great read for those who are looking for more meaning in life.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, Ph.D, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2011 H1