They say some people are born to lead – Trish Hennessy would not put herself in that category. For the woman who has worked with some of Canada’s top thought leaders, helping them frame their arguments to get social issues back in the public discourse, stepping into a leadership role has not come naturally.
Not heard of Trish Hennessy? Perhaps you’ve heard of the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us? Perhaps you’ve heard the issue of income inequality discussed as one of the major challenges facing Canada today? That is Trish Hennessy – though she would deflect all credit to the great “cast of characters” she has had the fortune to work with over the years. She would describe herself as a storyteller that hooked up with smart economists.
Trish has always felt more comfortable in a supporting role – taking a step back, looking at the big picture. Her purpose has been to help leaders working for social change move beyond reacting to problems and to create the necessary space to plan longer term. She recognized our need to change the narrative and become proactive if we are going to succeed in protecting and building a socially inclusive country that meets the needs of our citizens. Her blog Framed in Canada is a must read for a better understanding how to advance your cause.
These days she feels a bit out on a ledge. In her new position as the Founding Director of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Ontario, Trish challenges her comfort zone by becoming the public persona she’s used to supporting. Ironically, as a result of all the support she needs in her new role as front person, she has come to better appreciate her previous contributions.
False humility is a characteristic I abhor. One may be able to accuse Trish of being too humble, but there is nothing false about it. In fact it is her deep humility that makes her such a strong leader. No one can do it alone, though many seem compelled to try. For Trish the path has always been clear: Reach out to and surround yourself with all that want to join the conversation. From the young enthusiast to the experts to the long-time activist and even those that don’t agree with you – she believes everyone has something to contribute.
A lot of Trish’s leadership skills seem rooted in values she developed growing up in rural Saskatchewan, where living on a farmer’s income with a big family was a real challenge. Relying on each other wasn’t a choice – it was a necessity.
The first thing she did when beginning the “Growing Gap” project was consult Canadians rather than assume her team’s perspective was right. In the process, she listened for what turned people off in how they talked about income inequality rather that identifying points of agreement. “I find the learning – the aha! Moments – come from listening to the disagreement, listening to hear where we’re not landing with an idea.”
Harnessing our different skills and energies is critical to success in any social change project. Without continually challenging our own ideas, strategies and actions we stagnate, eventually drifting into irrelevance. Trish Hennessy is hardwired to never stagnate. What she would point to as an ongoing struggle with self-confidence, is actually the key to her success.
As she begins to set up the Ontario branch of the CCPA, between cross-country speaking engagements and media interviews, Trish says she’s mindful that the people involved in building an organization from the ground up tend to imprint on the history of the place. It’s critical to her that CCPA Ontario is not just a topnotch research and communications office, but also a “very mutually respectful, warm, comforting place to be.” With her at the helm – there’s no doubt of success.
True to a woman who has built her career one integrity filled project at a time, when asked where she sees herself in five years – her answer: “I have no idea.”