One-on-One with Dr. Zena Sharman

May 11, 2015

Zena Sharman photo 2Last month we introduced Dr. Zena Sharman, ICVHealth’s new Director of Strategic Relations and Operations. We took the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Sharman to learn more about her both personally and professionally as she steps into this pivotal role.

Dr. Sharman came to us with over a decade’s experience in health research, including seven years of senior leadership and management experience at the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health (IGH). She completed an undergraduate degree at Western University, followed by a Master’s degree at Simon Fraser University, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia. She grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and now resides in Vancouver, BC.

Q1. In your experience, what elements make up a successful strategic plan?

ZS: A successful strategic plan is alive – that is to say, it’s more than a document sitting on a shelf (or in a folder on your computer). It’s a set of measurable, mission- and vision-driven goals and outcomes that guide an organization’s work on an everyday basis. In my experience, it helps to pair a strategic plan with an operational plan and an evaluation plan. These tools (or something like them) are helpful in figuring out the nitty-gritty of how to operationalize your plan and measure your success.

A strategic plan should be a tool for helping you make choices, and to chart your direction in a changing environment. It should be owned and understood by people at every level of an organization, from the frontline staff to the board. It should also affirm and inspire you and your stakeholders as you work toward realizing your mission and vision.

Q2. What advice would you give a young health research professional just starting out?

ZS: Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to pursue opportunities that might not fit with your idea of what your career path is supposed to look like. The smartest and most unexpected early career move I made was to accept a job as the Assistant Director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health (IGH). At the time, I was midway through my PhD and I’d always assumed I would finish my doctoral studies, do a post-doctoral fellowship, and eventually land in a tenure-track academic job.

That all changed when Dr. Joy Johnson, IGH’s Scientific Director (2008-2014), encouraged me to apply to be her Vancouver-based Assistant Director. I had enormous respect for Joy as a leader and as a researcher, and I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was fortunate to have a supportive PhD committee, and with their guidance I finished my PhD as planned while working full-time at IGH. (Not that I’d recommend doing a PhD while working full-time, but it sure helped keep the doctorate in perspective!)

The seven years I spent at IGH were transformative, both professionally and personally. I developed skills in areas like leadership and management, strategy development and implementation, stakeholder engagement, and governance and process design. I had the opportunity to work nationally and internationally, and was privileged to work and collaborate with exceptionally talented and passionate people. I wouldn’t have had these opportunities, or be where I am today, if I hadn’t said yes to an unexpected opportunity in 2008.

Q3. Who are your favourite writers?

ZS: I’m an avid reader – when I was a kid, I used to pull a red wagon full of books home from the public library – so I’ll try to refrain from giving an essay-length answer to this question!

I read widely across genres, and the books that stay with me are the ones that move me or change my perspective on things. Some of my favourite authors are Amber Dawn, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Doretta Lau, Janet Mock, Leanne Simpson, Lidia Yuknavitch, Tom Spanbauer, Sherman Alexie, and Vivek Shraya. I also read a lot of memoirs and mystery novels, genres that enable me to escape into the lives of others.

Lately I’ve been reading books about how people and organizations can succeed at communicating who they are and what they do – like Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Succeed and Others Die, The Brand Idea: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity, and Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. I plan to apply what I learn from these books to my work at ICVHealth as I deepen my understanding of who we are, what we do, and how we communicate that to our stakeholders.

Q4. What motivates you to wake up in the morning?

ZS: I’m a natural early bird, so I’m always motivated to wake up in the morning. (It’s staying up past 10pm that’s the challenge!) 

Q5. What would you like to be remembered for?

ZS: I would like to be remembered as loving, joyful person who cared for her family and community, and who contributed to making the world a kinder, more equitable, and just place for all people. In the timeless words of Maya Angelou, “If I could give you one thought, it would be to lift someone up. Lift a stranger up – lift her up. I would ask you, mother and father, brother and sister, lovers, mother and daughter, father and son, lift someone. The very idea of lifting someone up will lift you, as well.”