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Andrea Swinton, executive director of the Ontario chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada, left a full-time position to cover a one-year maternity leave at a higher level. She says it was the best move she ever made. (ANDREA SWINTON)
Andrea Swinton, executive director of the Ontario chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada, left a full-time position to cover a one-year maternity leave at a higher level. She says it was the best move she ever made. (ANDREA SWINTON)

MY CAREER

From Santa’s elf to executive director Add to ...

What is your full name and title? How long have you been in this role?

My name is Andrea Swinton, and I have been the executive director of the Ontario chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada since July 5, 2010.

What exactly do you do?

I am responsible for the day-to-day operations within Ontario, which includes all the fundraising as well as the delivery of the patient services program. I lead a staff of 13 people in offices in Toronto and Ottawa.

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Describe what you do on any given day.

I spend my days engaging with donors, fundraising campaign participants, senior volunteers, and supporting staff. I spend a portion of each day liaising with our national staff and work hand-in-hand with the president of the organization, to whom I report. When I’m not in either our Toronto or Ottawa office, I can often be found out in the field attending fundraising events initiated by our donors, such as a golf tournament or a fishing derby.

What’s your background and education?

I was born and raised in Sudbury, where I lived until I moved to Kingston to study at Queen’s University. I completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology in 1985, and have been living in Toronto since I left Kingston.

How did you get to your position?

Every position I have held has acted as a stepping stone to get me to my current role. My very first job was as a Santa’s elf at the New Sudbury Shopping Centre in Grade nine. This job taught me how to manage difficult customers, both children and adults. After university, I spent six years at the CBC, where I learned the importance of storytelling in television. To this day, I continue to use that knowledge when I pitch stories about our patients, researchers, and donors to the media. I did another few years in brand management for Air Miles. Next it was off to the insurance sector doing direct marketing for home and auto insurance. The marketing experience in the private sector continues to be of use now when soliciting corporations for donations and sponsorships.

It was while working in the insurance industry, that I reached a turning point in my career. Three days before my 40th birthday, the entire marketing department was downsized. I was shocked and completely unprepared. Through networking, I was connected with Paul Bates, the former dean of the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, who met me for a 10-minute informational interview. During our conversation, Paul asked me if I had interest in the not-for-profit sector. He told me he was on the board of a charity and that they were looking for a fundraising manager. That referral was my entrée into the world of professional fundraising. I spend six years at that charity, and then moved on to cover a maternity leave at a charity affiliated with the Toronto Police Service. That year-long contract was what gave me the tools and the experience on my résumé to apply for the position that I currently hold today.

What’s the best part of your job?

I enjoy the variety in my daily activities. Every day, I see how the work we do makes a difference in the lives of blood-cancer patients and their families. I see their faces and hear their stories and it motivates me to work relentlessly for a cure.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part of the job is the flip side of the best part, and that is losing a patient. It is difficult to get to know someone and their family and to have that person die from their disease. It can be emotionally draining and it is a very real part of the job.

What are your strengths in this role?

This position requires a multitude of skills beyond those relating to the business side of things. While I have been quite successful at growing the amount of money the LLSC in Ontario has been able to put toward the cause, I am most proud of my soft skills as a relationship builder, and a leader of the staff and volunteers.

What are your weaknesses?

Sadly, I still need help doing my expense report. Accounting codes, object codes, unit codes, sub-ledger codes, business unit codes times two offices – I cannot keep them all straight. Lucky for me, I have a bookkeeper for whom this is right up her alley. I can handle the bigger picture; but that level of detail is too much for my brain.

What has been your best career move?

Leaving a six-year full-time permanent position as a director for a one-year maternity leave executive director role. My mother didn’t understand why I would leave a job with benefits for a one-year contract job without benefits, but my husband who had always encouraged me during each career move, was very supportive. Having that acting executive director title made it easier to get in the door for other executive director interviews, including the one for my current position.

What has been your worst career move?

Staying six years at the CBC in an entry-level administrative role was a bad move. Looking back, I can see that I was underemployed and bored. Having no one to help groom me for success and not advocating for myself led to a rut that was hard to get out of. I make it a point now to meet with staff regularly to coach them on leadership skills, so that they don’t feel stuck the way I did, but instead have an opportunity to grow as leaders and individuals.

What’s your next big job goal?

President/CEO of a non-profit organization.

What’s your advice to others who might want to follow in your footsteps?

If there is a maternity leave position that is a step up the ladder from your current position, go for it. It could turn permanent. If not, you have a year to look for your next role and you are interviewing at a higher level.

Do you know an executive or leader who has an interesting career story for My Career or My Career Abroad? E-mail mycareer@globeandmail.com

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