Announcing Unity Health Toronto’s new chair of the Board of Directors: Colleen Johnston

July 8, 2019

By Jennifer Stranges

Colleen Johnston

Colleen Johnston

Unity Health Toronto is pleased to announce that Colleen Johnston has been appointed as chair of our Board of Directors, effective late June 2019. Johnston is currently vice-chair of Unity Health Toronto, and brings decades of senior leadership experience from the corporate financial industry, where she was actively involved in promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Johnston has served on the boards of Bridgepoint Health, WestJet, Shopify, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and McCain Foods.

Johnston has received numerous top industry honours, and was inducted into Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Hall of Fame in 2007. An accomplished leader with a down-to-earth approach, she is a firm believer in making an impact at every touchpoint.

We spoke with Johnston to learn more about her passion for health care, her vision for Unity Health Toronto, and her unique approach to leadership.

Congratulations on your appointment as chair of Unity Health Toronto’s Board of Directors, what excites you most about the role?

It’s a dream come true for me. I have always been passionately committed to health care, it’s been the main focus of my last two decades of not-for-profit volunteer service. The mission of Unity Health Toronto changes lives for our patients and their families — we are there at the times of greatest happiness, sorrow and vulnerability in people’s lives. It’s hard to imagine three more esteemed hospitals working together to deliver the best care experiences and in such a compassionate way for everyone who comes through our doors. I have the utmost admiration for all health care professionals — nurses, doctors, care workers and those who support them — there isn’t a nobler calling. My mom was a nurse and I think about her humanity every day.

What about Unity Health Toronto is so special to you?

I have had a deep personal connection with Unity Health Toronto. I spent many hours at Providence in my younger years — my grandparents were residents and patients at the “Villa” for many years — they both passed away there. My father-in-law was a doctor who did his residency at St. Joseph’s in the 1940s and several family members were patients there as well. My mom was a nurse at St. Michael’s in the 1950s, my five siblings were born there and also my two daughters. My mom was a patient at St. Michael’s during her adult life and received exceptional care in her final years as she became a complex, chronic patient. St. Michael’s repaired my smashed wrist five years ago after a nasty biking accident. So I am personally indebted to our hospitals!  

Having served as Unity Health Toronto’s inaugural vice-chair of our Board of Directors, you were involved in the decision to integrate Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital. Almost two years later, what do you feel are our biggest areas of opportunity to provide the best care experiences?

I was a huge supporter of bringing Providence, St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s together. And now two years later, our new network has exceeded my wildest expectations. The accomplishments to date have been incredible. But more importantly, it’s how we came together. I think a big part of our success was our shared mission and the shared belief in the values of Catholic health care, instilled by the Sisters of St. Joseph going back many years. It was the goodwill we needed to establish trust and unity (no pun intended) to move our new network forward. The new board was unified from the first day we started working together, putting biases about our legacy organizations in the rear view mirror.

Frankly, though, I think we’ve only scratched the surface on what we can do together. As a family member and patient advocate, I know that our health care system can be tough to navigate, especially for complex patients who move between different levels of care including care at home. Let’s remove the friction from the system and make health care easy for our patients to navigate. I’d love to see more examples of integrated programming and patient-centric solutions across the network. And let’s think even bigger! As one of the largest and best hospital networks in the country, I want to see us step up even more to be the exemplar — the most respected voice and leader in Canadian health care and a model globally — with government, with our donors, with our academic partners and with all the patients who depend on us so much.

Unity Health Toronto recently released its first strategic plan leading us into 2024. It’s an ambitious and comprehensive plan that details our vision and commitments for the next five years. As the Board of Directors chair, maintaining our strategic direction will be a chief responsibility of yours. What is our highest area of priority?

I absolutely love our new strategy and the way it came together, reflecting the diverse feedback and input of so many. It was an outstanding process. We have nine areas of focus, and they all resonate with me. It might surprise you to know that the strategic objectives that most resonated with the board were joy at work and quality outcomes. These are at the core of what makes us special and will set us apart.

You bring a strong background from the business sector, with previous leadership roles at TD Bank Group, as well as a variety of experience on the boards of Bridgepoint Health, WestJet, Shopify, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and McCain Foods. You also have a history of promoting diversity in the workplace and championing opportunities for visible minority groups.

How will your experience and approach help Unity Health Toronto achieve its mission of providing compassionate, physical, emotional and spiritual care to all in need?

I retired from corporate life about a year ago. I was known as an inclusive leader that enlisted my teams to strive for an ambitious future, focused on what really matters, and attracted and retained the very best people and let them shine. I bring the same philosophy to Unity Health Toronto. We have an amazing CEO and senior leadership team. But it doesn’t stop there. We have over 11,000 team members who make a difference every day. The board is here to support you!  

As a leader, I strive to communicate in a straightforward way and minimize jargon, explaining complex issues in plain language. And I’ll ask the same from you when it comes to communication. I will actively look for ways to connect with you across our hospitals. You have my commitment that I’ll work hard as chair to let you do your best work and focus on our patients.  

As a board, we spend a great deal of our time and energy on governance of Unity Health Toronto — the “business” of the hospital including all aspects of strategy and operations. But if that’s all we do, we’ve lost sight of our real collective purpose and why we became volunteers. At every meeting we try to bring the patient into the room through patient-centric stories. We regularly have speakers talk to us about the most important issues facing the hospital and our patients, today and into the future.  

What’s something people may not know about you that you’d like to share?

As a diversity champion, my mantra is “believe in yourself.” For many years, I let self-limiting beliefs get in my way — mainly when it came to my athletic abilities. So I’ve worked hard to push my limits which has included climbing to the top of Africa (Mount Kilimanjaro), completing two triathlons (had to learn to swim!) and a half marathon. It’s helped me build resiliency and push my boundaries. I encourage you to do the same: believe in yourself and anything is possible!