Chief Executive Officer

From opera singer to CEO

an interview with Barbara Stead-Coyle

We are excited to be working with Barbara Stead-Coyle as our new CEO at Muscular Dystrophy Canada. Based in Nova Scotia, Barbara has had an interesting and diverse career that led her to where she is today. We recently sat down to chat with her and find out more about her.


MDC: Tell me about the journey that took you to here.

Barbara: It’s an interesting road that I have travelled. I have a master’s degree in opera – I am a singer by training. I went to McGill and when I graduated I was a professional singer and actress for about 10 years. But in the middle of doing that – like every other actress and singer, you need to find other jobs to do in between – I started working for Polygram music in Montreal, in the marketing department, writing liner notes for CDs. I took a real interest in marketing and communications. I followed that path for a number of years and was fortunate enough to develop my early career as a Marketing and Communications specialist for both the private and public sectors. Government afforded me the opportunity to really learn communications systems and processes, stakeholder messaging and crisis communications. In my role with Federal/Provincial Crown Corporations I learned the importance of being able to ensure that multiple opinions and voices are an integral part of comprehensive communications. I also learned the importance of navigating complex political systems – sometimes at a very fast pace.

MDC: Then you worked at Cape Breton Regional Hospital Foundation for six years?

Barbara: In those six years, I really learned fundraising from the bottom up. The shop was very small when I joined and special events focused. In order to build out a comprehensive fundraising program, with no staff, I started writing direct mail and newsletter, sorting through the data segmentation, setting up lotteries, building a monthly giving program, setting up a capital campaign, including writing the Case for Support, recruiting the cabinet etc. So I really learned the intricacies of how to build a really strong portfolio. From there I was recruited by the Canadian Cancer Society to be CEO of the Nova Scotia division and spent three years in that role. I came at a transitional period. They were in the middle of a big campaign and it was quite stalled, and so it was getting in very quickly and rebuilding the fundraising side of the house to position them to finish that campaign, which we did in about 12 months.

MDC: You have both a personal and a professional interest in Muscular Dystrophy Canada. What attracted you to the organization?

Barbara: I will start with the professional – it seemed like the next logical step in my career development was to run a nationwide shop. MDC is a good size; it’s a good solid revenue with strong leadership at the volunteer and staff levels. From a personal perspective, my family has been very impacted by muscular dystrophy. I have a sister who has CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease), and I have a step-brother who also has muscular dystrophy. So, certainly with my sister, I have grown up seeing what that has done to her physically, some of the challenges of trying to live a normal life, having a family and a career, while at the same time dealing with some of the real struggles from a physical perspective. I hope I will bring that understanding to this role.

MDC: What is your approach to learning about a new organization and its people? Is it challenging when an organization is national and spread out so much?

Barbara: Luckily, I have been leading a nationwide team for some time. In doing that I had to figure out what you just said – how you connect with the person, not just the functions they are responsible for performing. It’s really about taking the time for those one-on-one conversations. Asking them “What are you really feeling great about? What are you struggling with? What do you need from me to help you be successful?” Those conversations, coupled with actually getting to know the person, are key.

MDC: It’s refreshing that you are based in the east coast, because I think with a national organization there is often an assumption is that you will be based in Toronto.

Barbara: When I took over the Vice-President role for the Canadian Cancer Society, one of the things I was very clear about was that I did not want to work out of the national office. I wanted to keep my feet in a division where I could understand what was happening from a frontline perspective. If you don’t have that connect from the frontline all the way up, then sometimes you make decisions that could be not as thoroughly understood. I think staying connected to that frontline is so very important for a leader. As a National CEO it’s also very important to stay connected to donors and clients. If you are sitting in a corporate office all day, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day internal conversations and forget that at the end of the day we are here to serve others we can only do that be being present in their lives

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