If you were to ask Susan Horvath (’77) her secret to a successful work-life balance, she would tell you that she doesn’t compartmentalize. The President and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) Governors views her work and personal life holistically – everything belonging on one combined calendar. The philanthropic executive astutely remarks that women are often viewed in a negative light when in leadership roles, because they are perceived to have given up something to focus on a career. This is a perception that Susan has actively worked to counteract with her holistic mindset, and perhaps one of the key reasons for her life-long success as an esteemed leader in Canadian fundraising.
Why did you choose Brescia for university?
I went to high school in London and was always aware of Brescia and its excellent reputation. I also knew very early on that I wanted to study in Brescia’s Home Economics program, as it was incredibly well-regarded. Additionally, I always liked the duality of being a Brescia student, where you were able to enjoy classes at both Brescia and on Western’s main campus.
What path led you to your role as President and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) Governors?
I was so passionate about what I learned during my time as an undergraduate student at Brescia, that I knew that I wanted to teach at the university level. After graduating from Brescia, I pursued a Master of Science in Clothing and Textiles at the University of Alberta. Following obtaining my graduate degree, I could have stayed and worked at the University – as there were several openings – but Brescia also had an opening, where I quickly applied. I was thrilled to be hired at Brescia and to be coming back to my alma mater and to Southern Ontario, where both my husband’s and my family were.
From 1979 – 1989, I was on the faculty at Brescia, where I taught Clothing and Textiles. I found that even though I had spent my undergraduate time as a student here, throughout my time as a faculty member I got to know and love Brescia in a completely different way.
While I was enjoying teaching at Brescia, after 10 years I was starting to feel a little bit of “been there, done that.” At 32, I felt that I was both young enough to try a new career path and that I had acquired the transferable skills I needed to succeed.
Coincidently, during my tenure at Brescia, I had volunteered to help organize Brescia’s annual United Way campaign. After working with the United Way team, they reached out to me with a job opportunity that I ended up pursuing. From day one at the United Way, I realized that I loved fundraising. I also felt that a lot of what I learned through my education and experience as a faculty member at Brescia applied to my role as a fundraiser. I loved motivating and teaching people; meeting donors and potential donors and learning about the impact of the United Way. But I also liked the mathematical side of fundraising – setting and achieving goals and performing analyses– all the things a Science degree teaches you.
After my seven years at the United Way, I was headhunted for roles with Western University, Robarts Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society. Finally, in 2014 I was hired at the ROM and truly felt like I was coming home. After having taught a course about historic costume while at Brescia, this felt like life was coming full circle. I have been fundraising for 29 years, and while not every step was planned, it has been amazing.
What are some of the learnings that you have been able to take away from your experience at Brescia and apply to your career?
Brescia is an environment that fosters excellence, leadership and the value of colleagues. Honestly, these three attributes can and will take you through anything. At Brescia, I learned: excellent writing, research and presentation skills; obtained a thirst for knowledge; an appreciation for differences and a focus on creating and maintaining relationships. But, what do I apply to my career? All of these things.
To what do you attribute your professional success?
Three very simple, but powerful factors: great opportunities; strong mentors and a positive attitude.
What advice would you give to Brescia alumnae and students?
The biggest piece of advice I would offer alumnae and students is to test your boundaries. At one point in my life, I could have said that I didn’t want to try fundraising. But once I entered that new world, I found that I immediately loved every aspect of it.
I also believe in the importance of relationships – not only finding good mentors and role models, but also being a good friend and colleague. To this day, I have built a network with trusted people that I can call for a confidential conversation and to get good advice. This is incredibly valuable for me and for anyone, regardless of where you are in your career.
And finally, and simply, I would encourage others to trust your instincts.
How do you define leadership? Or, what characteristics make a great leader?
A great leader must be passionate and be able to articulate that passion. Others often tell me that I make things sound exciting, which I feel is a big part of my job. I know that a lot of my passion and how to communicate that passion came from my time at Brescia.
The second characteristic of a good leader is working with great people and great, diverse teams. For example, if I am hiring for a team, I won’t hire people who are like me, because I know how I think. I will always hire people who think very differently from me. I believe that we come up with the best products because of differences, not necessarily because of our similarities.
Finally, the third characteristic of a great leader is the ability to think creatively as problem solvers. To me, this is key for leaders in order to effectively tackle any challenge.
What are your hopes for Brescia in the next 100 years?
I think that the role of women, and the need for women to continue to be the world’s leaders and change-makers is more pressing of an issue now than it’s ever been. I feel that Brescia’s goal in educating and empowering women to become leaders is so important. I would only want to see Brescia build on and strengthen this legacy even further over the next 100 years.
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