Cathy Cummings—Leading non-profits through change
Cathy Cummings, Master of Business Administration, 2002
Based in: Toronto
Years ago, Cathy Cummings’s kids had a talk with her.
“I get frustrated easily in retail environments when service doesn’t go my way,” Cummings said.
“A little too critical” was how her kids put it. Cummings, entirely to her credit, listened. In response she launched a personal effort she calls the “bouquet project,” in which she registers praise for work well done rather than complaints when something goes wrong. Bucking the trend of Yelp revenge, Cummings began singling out people for praise, and in the process of giving back, found a generally rosier outlook on the world.
Her new job is, in a sense, a perfect expression of that philosophy. Cummings, a graduate of Athabasca University’s (AU) Master of Business Administration program, was recently named executive director of the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations, a global body with its roots in the U.K., which aims to provide a support network and shared information for ALS organizations around the world.
Cummings has a personal connection to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (known outside North America as Motor Neuron Disease). Her mother died from ALS, a condition in which nerves lose the ability to communicate with muscles, leading to a loss of speech, mobility, and eventually functions such as breathing. Post diagnosis, the life expectancy for patients typically tops out at 5 years. ALS became a personal cause for Cummings; she served as chair of ALS Ontario and as board member of ALS Canada, two organizations she then helped to amalgamate successfully.
Her new job is also the culmination of a fruitful career leading non-profits. Cummings started out handling payroll and benefits at the Canadian Auto Workers, now Unifor. While there she enrolled at AU. She had 2 young children, and the school’s flexibility and its well-developed online modules appealed to her. She still recalls an influential AU workshop on knowledge management, held in Halifax.
“The focus was not on technology, which is what a lot of people think of,” Cummings said. “It was more about the human interactions, and how they can play out in the workplace—for example how to change the way sidewalk conversations happen.”
Cummings said the course shaped her management style. When she started her next job, as a vice president at the Canadian Payroll Association, she saw how physical space affects corporate culture.
“The focus was not on technology, which is what a lot of people think of. It was more about the human interactions, and how they can play out in the workplace—for example how to change the way sidewalk conversations happen.”– Cathy Cummings, MBA graduate
“One of the things I noticed is that we worked in a building shaped like an H,” she said. “The elevators were the bar of the H; the president was on one side and the rest of the staff on the other side.”
Cummings was struck by the remoteness this signaled and resolved not to repeat it if she one day found herself running an organization. She soon was, as head of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association (CCCA), a subsidiary of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA).
She stepped into an organization undergoing significant change. The group had just dissolved its board and staff after disputes over funding and the group’s relationship to the CBA. She was hired as interim executive director while they searched for a lawyer to lead the group.
“I said to them in that first interview, ‘With all due respect, you don’t need a lawyer to run an association; you need an association manager,’” Cummings said, and it didn’t take long for them to be convinced. “We had to rebuild the board and rebuild the operation, and we had about 8 months (for an annual conference.) It’s a great learning opportunity to work through a crisis like that.”
The legal sector, too, has gone through upheaval, a reality she saw when she became executive director of Shared Service at the CBA, working with regional offices and subsidiaries to coordinate administrative resources, programs that support member lawyers, and more. Just as outside the law debates swirl about questions of access and affordability, within it, businesses—the biggest consumers of legal services—are demanding change and efficiency.
Some scholars including the legal authority Richard Susskind, with whom Cummings has worked, have explored online courts inspired by eBay’s dispute-resolution mechanism, which has settled some 60 million disagreements without the need for court appearances. A colleague of Cummings’s saw a good model for the legal profession in “unbundling” services the way dental clinics do: when you go to see the dentist, you also see a hygienist, perhaps an X-ray technician, someone in invoicing.
“There are transactional pieces that can be done by a different group or by artificial intelligence,” Cummings notes—changes that would, of course, bring their own set of questions,” she said.
Cummings credits her MBA with preparing her for such strategic challenges in her career. Along the way she has picked up a useful “hobby” in non-profit governance, and some industry recognition—including a 2016 award for a program she helped launch at the CCCA.
The professional certification, offered with the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, aims to give in-house corporate lawyers the sorts of business skills that law school doesn’t teach. That project is what she’s proudest of in her career, she said.
Well, so far. One gets the feeling that Cathy Cummings isn’t done collecting bouquets—any more than she’s done giving them.
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