Likeability Exemplified

If I were featured as someone who is likeable, I might have mixed feelings about the honour. As I wrote about last week, likeability is a double-edged sword for me. Too fluffy? Superficial?

A deeper dive reveals that being deemed likeable over time requires people to have substance and competence, not just congeniality. And these folks I’m showcasing today definitely do. More than that, their experiences demonstrate that the ability to build deep and lasting relational currency with people can catalyze remarkable impact.

Last week I had the pleasure of spending a full day with John Neufeld, visiting various programs run by House of Friendship, the organization he leads. We talked about how hard it is to remember everyone’s name as the team has grown to 300 people…even as he walked through shelters, addiction services sites, community centres and food distribution sites, calling people by name and asking after their families. The tone was warm, positive and genuine. One of the most memorable stops for me was a visit to a hotel that HoF has purchased and is transforming into a 100-bed shelter that will also contain addiction and primary health care services on site. (See ShelterCare for more details). It’s a bold, quasi-experimental move involving all levels of government, and one that has required John to leverage all of his social capital, including with his own staff. It’s taken far more to make happen than I have space to describe here. The site opens later this month and will provide a dignified, integrated, much-needed base for men who are currently under-housed in Waterloo Region. The rapport John has built with the residents, his team and various collaborators has been a key ingredient to making this remarkable project happen.

Not far away in Hamilton, Ontario, Terry Cooke and Annette Aquin are getting ready to open a new building too. In their case, it’s the Coppley Building, a soon-to-be-restored 165-year-old landmark that will become a community-serving hub.  It will house the Hamilton Community Foundation, that Terry and Annette lead, alongside other tenants. It will provide an inspiring headquarters from which to manage their impressive portfolio, which includes a $50 million donation pledged by a community-minded, local family in 2022 who recognized the “exceptional reputation” of the Foundation. A reputation like that is grounded in relationships of trust and in their case a deep commitment to the city they call home. Having a solid financial base has allowed HCF to turn its attention from fundraising to impact investing and grant-making that is truly transformative. Across several generations, the leaders of the Foundation have built the relationships that are so essential to its impact over time.

Personal relationships do more than smooth the collaborative path toward innovation — they are a necessary condition for it. I am grateful to support the strategies of these likeable, visionary leaders who are leveraging their exceptional relational skills for the benefit of their communities.

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Catherine Wassmansdorf

Catherine Wassmansdorf is the Education Program Manager at The Riverwood Conservancy.

Pivoting work in experiential outdoor education during the pandemic was a lesson in adaptability for Catherine, who adjusted her personal practices, relied on the support and confidence of her organization’s leadership and colleagues, and leaned on their shared mission. She discovered new ways of delivering dynamic and effective programs digitally—including unexpectedly popular online Turtle Time—some of which allowed new participants to join in the fun. She also learned about the limits of adaptability, when constraints did not allow programs to translate well to online environments. “We now have a new capacity,” Catherine says. “We have a sense that we have forged multiple pathways that will help us if and when we have to adapt again.”

Jay Reid and Hayley Kellett

Jay Reid and Hayley Kellett are co-founders of the improv-based corporate training organization The Making-Box.

From roots in theatre, Hayley and Jay use improv principles and skills to help their clients experience change as energizing rather than depleting. The principle of letting go equips teams for uncertainty, while the skill of noticing distinguishes between faux adaptability and factors needed for real change. “’Yes-and’ helps us work together in polarized situations,” says Hayley while Jay says, “There are deeper outcomes in the notion of practicing playfulness together,” pointing to studies demonstrating the practical value of humour in creating psychological safety for teams. The Making-Box itself draws on these principles and over the last few years has itself been a case study in adaptability as it shifted its model and service delivery methods.

Terry Cooke and Annette Aquin

Terry Cooke is the President and CEO, and Annette Aquin is Executive Vice President Finance and Operations of the Hamilton Community Foundation

Rather than likeability being a goal, Annette says it’s an outcome of the work they do—and how they do it. Because community foundations engage in potentially divisive issues, Terry and Annette say decisions must be firmly rooted in research and their organization’s values. Relationships past, present and future drive their work as they acknowledge their debt to those before them. They work hard at building trust, inclusivity, and true collaboration with their community and look to a solid future by hiring well, mentoring, responding to emerging opportunities, and, as Terry says, “creating space for the next person to do what is best.”

John Neufeld 

John Neufeld is the Executive Director of the House of Friendship. 

Building strong rapport is important to John because of his personal story as an immigrant. “I just didn’t fit in. That’s why I’m passionate about House of Friendship—because we make sure everyone belongs.” Investing in relationships and culture, connecting at a human level and tapping into the strengths of his team are key elements of likeability. But John recognizes that rather than seeking to be liked, leaders need to harness courage and passion to make tough decisions, work hard and deliver on their promises. Likeability is a proxy for that kind of integrity. He says, “One of the best pieces of leadership advice I was ever given was to look for ways to add value to other people’s lives.”

Jim Moss and Dave Whiteside

Jim Moss and Dave Whiteside are longtime colleagues, first at Plasticity Labs and now at YMCA of Three Rivers's YMCA WorkWell where Jim is the Leader of Community Development and Dave is the Director of Insights. 

YMCA WorkWell has a mandate to build healthier, thriving organizations and their work offers relevant, evidence-based, recent Canadian data on how organizations can help their people find the right stretch. In their work, Jim and Dave engage in practical and fresh thinking on depletion, burnout, managing your own and your employees' energy. "An elastic needs to be engaged to be useful," says Jim while Dave adds that the last few years have been "a natural experiment that's allowed us to know where we could stretch and where it's not optimal." 

Emma Rogers 

Emma Rogers is the CEO of the Children's Foundation of Guelph and Wellington and the co-founder of the community philanthropy charity Guelph Gives. 

In a social good sector devoted to making every dollar have impact and where everyone is working harder than ever, Emma has a new appreciation of the currency of energy. "It's the most valuable thing I can give someone, and vice versa." Her own energy is admirable and is fueled by her passion for innovation and by the stories of impact from her work, but she leads her team with more than inspiring stories. Instead, Emma implements innovative practices and knows that enabling team members to show up as their best selves is an excellent investment in accomplishing their mission.