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Ken Chan was pleasantly surprised when invited to support the transition efforts of two of the Greater Toronto Area’s newest mayors – Mayor John Tory in Toronto and Mayor Linda Jeffrey in Brampton. “My passion for helping build better communities made it impossible to say no to these requests despite an already heavy workload,” said Ken in a recent interview.
A DiverseCity onBoard roster member since January 2011, Ken has a track record of public service. An executive with one of Canada’s top health charities, he is a former police officer and has worked for governments of different political stripes in Canada and the United Kingdom. He also ran for public office as a candidate for Toronto City Council in the 2010 election.
Those who know Ken aren’t surprised that two politicians at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum sought his help. For he is the quintessential leader who is able to engage and collaborate across business, government and non-profit sectors for solutions to societal problems. Thanks to Harvard and top management consultants, we now have labels to describe leaders like Ken: tri-sector athletes or cross-sector leaders.
“I sincerely believe that no one sector can do it alone,” said Ken. “Both Tory and Jeffrey have emphasized throughout their campaigns the importance of working with the leaders from business and the non-profit sectors to solve many of the pressing issues such as housing, employment and transit.”
Ken was quick to acknowledge his rather unconventional career path. After completing his MBA, he worked as an officer with the Peel Regional Police for four years with tours of duty in patrol, drug enforcement and homicide. He then became the Director of Policy and Legislative for then Ontario Deputy Premier and Health Minister George Smitherman.
“There has been one consistent theme for each one of my career decisions, and that’s the opportunity to make a difference,” said Ken. “As a frontline police officer I saw firsthand the challenges many face in our society, like youth at risk, people with mental illness and those living in poverty. When the opportunity for a senior policy role at Queen’s Park came about, I made the jump from policing to public policy.”
From Toronto, Ken moved on to London, England to be an Assistant Director with the U.K. Department for Business where he helped improve the regulatory environment for businesses and non-profits. He then joined the office of London Mayor Boris Johnson, where he advised on policing and community safety until his return to Toronto to run for the City Council seat.
“I ran for the seat because I believe strongly in the importance of strong communities and social infrastructure, and want to be a champion for neighbourhood revitalization, arts and culture, and economic development at City Hall.” He finished in second place, losing by about 400 votes. On election night, in his last speech to campaign supporters, Ken committed to making a difference by working in the non-profit sector.
“Working for a charitable organization has its challenges but it is no doubt highly rewarding. Charities rely on the generosity of donors to keep the lights on while maximizing social impact. Successful non-profits need leaders who can navigate complex organizational structures, have strong financial management skills, can link strategy to execution, and are adept at marketing. For those who have seized the opportunity to work in the non-profit sector, making an impact on society every day of the year is the perk that comes with the job.”
After serving briefly as Chief of Staff to then Ontario Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey, Ken has been the Vice President of Advocacy, Research and Healthcare at Cystic Fibrosis Canada since December 2011. He oversees investments in research and clinical programs, and leads the organization’s advocacy and public policy efforts. Soon after joining DiverseCity onBoard, Ken served on the City of Toronto Licensing Tribunal. He has also served on the University of Toronto’s Academic Board, and the boards of Alterna Savings, North York General Hospital and Sherbourne Health Centre.
So what keeps Ken going? He credited the desire to combine professional success with public service. “I sleep well at night after a hard day’s work knowing I have been able to make a difference in the lives of others.” Having great role models and mentors throughout his career also helped.
Ken pointed out that others can also get into public service by using tools like DiverseCity onBoard. “It is a great resource for anyone looking for a board position. My advice is to take the time to know the organization well before putting your name forward, and consider fit, the sector and commitment level expected. If you have never been on a board before, consider joining a board that has experienced directors who can mentor you on how to be an effective member. Another benefit of the DiverseCity onBoard program is the opportunity to get training on important governance topics like strategic planning, financial literacy and risk oversight.”
Potential DiverseCity onBoard leaders should network with people outside of their usual professional circle and be clear of the specific expertise they will be able to contribute. “I would also encourage leaders of diverse backgrounds to share their stories and mentor our next generation of leaders.”
In Ken’s opinion, effective boards are the ones that embrace diversity of experience, skills, backgrounds, gender and culture. “Diversity encourages innovation and creativity in governance. As organizations — regardless of sector — are facing increasing challenges on various fronts, diversity of thought and experience could help them develop solutions. It’s also important for women, LGBT and ethnic minority leaders from business, non-profits and public sector organizations to be seen in positions of power, influence and leadership by young people, visible minorities, and new immigrants.”