Moving into the C-suite

Susan Smith, COO of Habitat for Humanity Canada, shares her thoughts on self-employment and the importance of inclusion.

Q: You were self-employed for 20 years. How did that prepare you for this position?
After running my own accounting firm, I started a management consulting firm. I worked with a number of well-respected chief officers. I saw the skills they possessed and I developed those skills myself. I also kept my foot in the door of the financial industry. With my CPA, if I’m in a room with an executive, we can have a conversation with a strong basis on financial planning and move into other areas from there.

Q: What made you decide to apply for the CFO position at Habitat?
I saw it as an opportunity to contribute on a national level to an issue and mission that resonates deeply. I came to Habitat as a CFO a little worried about being pigeonholed. But I wasn’t. I had a hand in so many different aspects of the organization. Within six months I moved into the chief operating officer role.

Q: How do you use your management and financial skills as the COO?
Twenty years ago, very few charities had business models. Now many have strong business frameworks, same as the profit sector but with a different cause. When I got here, I was able to take my profit sector work and bring in solid business practices.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

When I look back at my accounting firm, I was still finding my own style. I made a couple of noninclusive decisions that cost me some key staff members in the middle of tax season. So my leadership style now is one of inclusion and transparency.

Q: How does inclusion influence your role at Habitat?
Right from the get-go, I didn’t think of my position as a box around a financial area. It’s an integrated role with every other area. Before I arrived, the departments were very siloed. So a main theme has been integration. Everyone is on board and we are having conversations. This year’s theme is One Habitat, which expands on the idea of integration across the country to all affiliates.
Susan Smith is an entrepreneur who helped small-business owners for two decades before joining Habitat for Humanity Canada.