Emotional intelligence Leadership Personal growth

LeaderLab: How to lead your vision with emotional intelligence; featuring SickKids CEO Ronald Cohn

Businessman holding plush heart over chest

Dr. Ronald Cohn, the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Hospital for Sick Children, shares what he has learned about getting people on board with a new vision and leading with openness and empathy.

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In this episode

We discuss:

  • Why Dr. Cohn chose pediatrics (1:02)
  • When he first recognized himself as a leader (2:06)
  • The difference between operational and visionary leaders (03:17)
  • His leadership strengths (04:26)
  • The importance of getting people on board with a new organizational vision (07:41)
  • What he’s doing to get people onside (10:44)
  • Why it’s important for the vision to be supported by people at all levels of the organization (12:52)
  • The importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) for leaders (13:59)
  • How leaders can display EQ with their team (15:16)
  • How to foster autonomy in your employees so they’re comfortable taking initiative (18:26)
  • His top piece of advice for leaders (19:30)
  • The craziest place he’s been to (21:10)

Ronald’s advice for leaders:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge the status quo (02:45)
  • Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses (03:17)
  • Be humble enough to delegate the work you need help with (06:04)
  • Be empathetic and compassionate (14:33)
  • Never underestimate the value of EQ to build trust, consensus and to motivate (15:52)
  • Provide guidance and empower employees to make decisions (17:50)

Memorable quote:

“Leadership is defined through personality and action, and not necessarily through titles.”


More about Dr. Ronald Cohn:

Dr. Ronald Cohn has served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The Hospital for Sick Children since 2019. He initially joined SickKids in 2012 as chief of the Division of Clinical and Metabolic Genetics, co-director of the Centre for Genetic Medicine, and senior scientist at the SickKids Research Institute. He became chief of Paediatrics at SickKids in 2016, as well as the chair of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto, where he was also part of the Department of Molecular Genetics.

Dr. Cohn was the first combined resident in paediatrics and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University, later becoming the director of the world’s first multidisciplinary centre for hypotonia at that university’s McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. His research focuses on implementing genome-editing technologies for the treatment of neurogenetic disorders, and he has developed an interest in applying a concept of “precision child health” to the care of children – something he has worked to implement at SickKids through the use of cutting-edge technology (such as artificial intelligence, genomics, advanced imaging and innovative procedures).

Some of Dr. Cohn’s awards include the David M. Kamsler Award for outstanding compassionate and expert care of paediatric patients and the Harvard-Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics Award in Medical Genetics.

Links to additional resources:


SickKids Strategic Plan 2020-25

Full Biography of Dr. Cohn

How to Donate or Get Involved


About TILTCO, Inc.

TILTCO is a boutique consulting company that helps leaders define and execute their strategies in order to achieve extraordinary business and personal results. Founded by Tineke Keesmaat, who has over 20 years of leadership consulting experience with McKinsey & Company, Accenture and now TILTCO Inc. To find out more go to www.tiltco.ca.

Full Episode Transcript:

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Healthier children-- a better world. This leader is at the forefront of making this vision a reality.

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Leader Lab, where we talk to experts about how leaders can excel in a modern world. Helping leaders for over 20 years, your host, Tineke Keesmaat.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I'm thrilled to introduce today's Leader Lab guest, Dr. Ronald Cohn, the president and CEO of The Hospital for Sick Children, also known as SickKids in Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Cohn is a global award-winning leader in the field of pediatric genetics research. And as the new leader of SickKids, he's set a bold ambition to build a precision child health system. This system will aim to leverage the best of technology to analyze genetic, physiological, medical, and social determinants of health care in order to offer highly individualized care and improve pediatric health outcomes.

Dr. Cohn, thank you. And welcome to Leader Lab.

Doctor Cohn, can you start by telling me why you chose a career as a pediatrician and geneticist?

RONALD COHN: When I went to medical school, I actually always thought I would be a shoulder surgeon because as a student I worked in an emergency room. And I thought the coolest thing would be to repair shoulders and then traumas. And then our closest friends had a child born with what people back then thought was called mitochondrial myopathy, which I had no idea what this was. And I then went on to do my research as a medical student in this area. And that's how I became a pediatrician and geneticist. And interestingly enough, 28 years later, just a few months ago, we finally made a diagnosis in him through genome sequencing. So the whole story became full circle just a few months ago. So that's more of the reason how I became a pediatrician and geneticist.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. Clearly pediatrics and geneticists with a very personal career choice for you. I'd also love to understand when you first recognized yourself as a leader.

RONALD COHN: When you ask me about leadership, I will tell you, very early on in my career-- and I had lots of different mentors. Someone once told me leadership is defined through personality and action, and not necessarily through titles. And I was told this after somebody observed me during a meeting we had where we discussed certain issues around the training program back at Johns Hopkins. And then this individual came to me and said, you demonstrated leadership today by challenging the status quo, by asking interesting questions, and coming up with certain ideas for solutions. And that's what a leader is. And that was really the first time when I started to think about, oh, maybe I am interested in leadership.

Then over the last probably 12 years I have taken on initially small leadership roles to see whether I enjoy being in a leadership position. And I quickly found out that there are two different types of leaders in general. There are the so-called managerial operational type leaders. And then there are more the big picture, visionary leaders. So I quickly found out that I'm more of a big picture, visionary leader. And I need a good team of people and individuals who help me on the more operational parts. And then over time, leadership opportunities came up. And I was most of the time intrigued by them and went after them.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So you said you first started to try a few small ones to see if you would like it. Clearly you have enjoyed it. What is it about being a leader that excites you?

RONALD COHN: So I do think as a leader you have an opportunity to shape a certain idea and vision, no matter in what kind of position you are. As a training program director, I had the idea of creating a new training program with the partner side at the NIH in Maryland. So I think, number one, it's trying to think about, what can we do to make things better. What's the vision?

Number two, I really do love problem solving. And if you're in a leadership position, people come to you with a problem. So there, I think there are a lot of individuals who actually don't like this so much. And some people often tell me, oh, how I can listen to all these problems of people. But I actually enjoy it. I'll enjoy when somebody comes to me and says, I'm stuck. I have a problem. Can you help me think this through?


RONALD COHN: And then you go through the process of trying to help somebody come to a solution rather than telling somebody this is how you need to do it.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I want to go back. Early on you said, quickly discover that you are a visionary leader-- so big ideas, but that because that's your strength, you need to surround yourself with a great team of operational people. How did you come to that conclusion about yourself?

RONALD COHN: I'll give you a very practical example. My first leadership role was as the training program director for the medical genetics residency program at Johns Hopkins. And when it came to putting together the schedule for the trainees, there was a task that the previous program director usually did by himself. And I realized, I don't want to do this. There's too much nitty gritty work. So I asked my program coordinator, can you just give this a stab? And wherever you have a problem, then you come to me. So there was a very practical example of how I realized this is not my strength.

And look, the more leadership you take on in terms of the scope of what you are leading, the sooner you realize you can't do it all. And you need to realize, so what are your strengths. Build on those. And be humble enough to realize, OK, this is what I'm not good at. Make that clear to others-- that I may not be really great at this or that. And then have individuals who help you in specifically these areas.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great. There's a great humility in that-- I think just being very aware of what you're awesome at, and then being OK with asking others to kind of--


TINEKE KEESMAAT: --lean in when it's needed. That's amazing. You talked about being a visionary. And I know you're in your first year in your new role at SickKids. And you mentioned that part of your first task was setting out a new vision for the organization. Can you talk to me why it was so important to you to start with the vision?

RONALD COHN: In general, I think if you think about a vision, there are many components to this but probably two really critical ones. Number one, the vision needs to somewhat challenge the status quo and move-- in this case it's the organization. But it can be a program. It can be a group-- forward, and make something better. Achieve something better.

And I think what's also critical for vision is that it is compelling enough that you can get individuals excited about your vision. So they want to be part of the vision because whenever you really challenge the status quo, you ultimately change something that people have been doing for many years. And that's obviously always difficult. It might be particularly difficult in the medical area where people are very used to certain ways of how to do things.

So if you feel like you want to change this, the only way you can do it is by getting people excited about what it is you're proposing. And really have them buy into the idea you have the vision that I am putting forward, and I'm continuing to talk to individuals about it, is really around precision child health.

And what it means in a nutshell is that you challenge the status quo by moving from a very crude analog data system to a much more artificial intelligence, machine learning driven health care system where really artificial intelligence provides a tool to you to make you a better health care provider, where you move from this one-size-fits-all to a truly individualized concept where you recognize that this individual in front of me is just not the same as the other person, even if they have the same disease.

And you do all of this by leveraging the knowledge we have in genetic research. But also not just the genetic data research-- really trying to span the entire spectrum between your genetic code and the postal code. And bring all of these data together in order to help you make the individual decision on whether it's the diagnosis and/or the management of the individual patient.

And when you talk to people about it, I would say 90% staff members here get excited about it. And that's what I initially doing my first 12 to 18 months wanted to accomplish. I wanted to get people excited So they can go on this journey with me. There is one thing of me putting out a vision. But if you have 10,000 or 13,000 people in an institution and nobody buys into it, then it implodes right there.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And so how are you getting people excited about it? Clearly it's a compelling story. And the purpose beneath the vision that you just outlined in itself is innately inspiring. But what are you doing day-to-day to get team members on board?

RONALD COHN: There is the day-to-day aspect. And then there is the aspect of just going around the institution and talking to a lot of people about it. You can put out documents that describe it. You can put out one-pager illustrations that try to bring home the message. But at the end of the day, you need to tell and explain people, this is what I mean when I talk about precision child health.

And from a day-to-day perspective, it's an interesting question. I often try to inject the overall concept into a daily problem that comes up. So when we sit around the table, whether it's with the senior management group or whether it's with other individuals, and something comes up where I feel like this concept of the individualized medicine is actually related to this problem, then I mention it. So you risk that people get sick and tired of Ronnie talking about precision child health all the time. But I do think it's important to bring a vision to life by concrete examples that apply to maybe even your day-to-day activities.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And I love how you said it will probably be 12 to 18 months of talking about it before people actually understand it and be excited about it.

RONALD COHN: Excited about it, and I think the first measure of success is that in 18 months, everyone in this institution knows what I'm talking about when I mention precision child health. So I can go to anybody here and ask. If you would go and ask them, so what is this precision child health, then everyone would be able to give you a one, two, three minute elevator speech about it.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great. That's great. And how far along do you think you are so far?

RONALD COHN: That's a hard question. I don't know.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's awesome.

RONALD COHN: At least halfway through, I think.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Are you helping to connect people's individual work to it? Or is that something that comes later? So if I'm at an office administrator, for example, are you helping me think about how what I'm doing in my day-to-day connects to it or--

RONALD COHN: Absolutely.


RONALD COHN: And it's actually interesting that you use the term, administrator. What's really critical for me is that obviously this vision is applying a new care model to improve outcomes of children who come to our hospital, or even for healthy children. But in order for this to happen, it's not just the health care providers and scientists who need to understand the concept because there are people in HR or finance who do certain things that support this vision. And they need to understand not only the vision but how they contribute and how they are an essential partner to the vision. So I speak about this a lot to even people who initially feel like, so what does that mean for me.

So I agree with you. I'm obviously biased because I think of myself as someone who has a very high EQ. My colleagues also comment about this. But I will tell you. Obviously I started with the equation aspect as a physician only, not as a leader. Right? And I tell medical students or residents everyone who makes it through medical school is smart. And they all become good physicians. The ones who have the EQ and are able to provide empathy and compassionate care-- these will make the great physicians. And that's where you see the difference.

And over time I realized that to some degree I think is true for leaders as well. Almost everyone who is in a leadership position is very intelligent. Obviously some are more intelligent than others. But you don't rise to a leadership position if you're not smart. But I think times have changed in our society, where the so-called type A leader who is just telling everyone what to do is really not the kind of leader we are looking for these days. I think we are looking for a leader who can show some of this emotional intelligence. But first and foremost you live it, and by showing it to them.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Give me an example of what that might look like in your day-to-day.

RONALD COHN: I think there are many, as sometimes it's just the simple things. If maybe I know that somebody on my team had a rough day the other day or is going through some personal problem, just making an effort to go and ask the question, how are you doing today. Sometimes you see during a large group meeting that somebody is not comfortable with something. Then going to the person and saying, I think you are not comfortable. Tell me more about it. I think these are some of the very, very small aspects.

And then from a bigger picture point of view, there are certain things that I think you need to focus on when it comes to emotional intelligence. Part of this is professionalism. So there should be-- well, I have a zero tolerance for unprofessional behavior. There is no excuse ever to behave unprofessionally. Transparency is another aspect of emotional intelligence in my mind. Being comfortable talking about this or these are the issues. Being open about it.

And I think if you do that, you, A, gain a lot of trust from the people you speak to. And over time I would hope you create an environment and safe space for others to behave the same way. But I do think that's one of the few things where a leader can demonstrate certain aspects of leadership. And then others can feel comfortable to be the same.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So they see it. And then they can live it because you've created the environment where it's--


TINEKE KEESMAAT: --not just accepted, but that's the behavior that celebrated or expected in the organization.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great. When we were initially talking, you also mentioned that you have a strong belief that your role as a leader is to unleash the potential of the talent who is working for you. I'm curious if you can tell me a little bit more about why you value that so much. And again, what do you do in the day-to-day to make that possible?

RONALD COHN: See now, we are blessed here to kids to have an unbelievable talent pool of health care providers, scientists, administrators, really in all aspects of this institution. You have people who are not only unbelievably dedicated to our mission and to the work they do here, but are also incredibly skilled.

When I mention this term, unleash the talent of your people, what I really mean by that is that people have the freedom to operate and do things the way-- how I think they need to happen. And my role really is just to provide guidance and the opportunity for them to feel comfortable and safe to go after whatever they are doing, whether it's a scientist, whether it's a physician, whether it's somebody in finance, human resource, or wherever.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And what does that look like? So they feel safe that they can go after it. What does that mean in practice?

RONALD COHN: For example, that people have a certain degree of autonomy to do things. I think if you are a type of leader who has to kind of say yes to everything that someone wants to do, then I'm not sure that that really helps to unleash the talent of someone if they always have to think twice about, is this the right thing because I have to first get approval from Ronnie. So I think if you create a situation where people feel comfortable just making decisions to a certain degree at their level, then that's how you unleash talent.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: This has been amazing. And I've learned so many things from you already. Now I have a challenging question for you. If you could pick one piece of leadership advice that our listeners could take away that would make a big difference in how they show up as a leader day-to-day, what would that advice be?

RONALD COHN: That is a very challenging question, I have to say, because usually I try to define my leadership through three things. But if I really would have to go down to one aspect, then it's honesty.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And tell me a bit more about that.

RONALD COHN: So be honest to yourself. Like I said, know what you are good at. Know what you are not good at. Be honest to the people you work with if you don't like something or if you think something is not going the right way because I think if you demonstrate honesty, you also demonstrate a part of yourself as a vulnerability. And if you are honest to others and yourself, and comfortable enough to show that, I actually think that people trust you much more than if you should try to glean all the things or try not to be honest, true to yourself or to others who may need to hear something that is even not so comfortable.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I love that. So again a big theme for you around trust and having people trust you and trusting others.

RONALD COHN: It all feeds back to the emotional intelligence, right?

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's right. I think that's great.


ANNOUNCER: And now let's get to know our guest a little better with some rapid fire questions.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: This has been fantastic. Now we have some fun questions for you.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Again, these are-- no need to have an answer to each of them. And don't overthink them. So first--

RONALD COHN: So quick response.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Quick response.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: So the first question is, what's the craziest place you've ever been.

RONALD COHN: I think the craziest place I've ever been was the subway in Tokyo.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I think you've already answered this one. But are you a morning person or a night owl?

RONALD COHN: I'm a morning person.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: You as a teenager in three words.

RONALD COHN: Stubborn, mature, sensitive.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Your favorite emoji.

RONALD COHN: I don't really use as many emojis.


RONALD COHN: I would say it's the emoji with the kisses and the heart.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Cute. And the all important question-- how do you feel about Brussels sprouts?

RONALD COHN: So an interesting question. I love cooking. That's my hobby.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Oh, that's right.

RONALD COHN: So I actually love Brussels sprouts. You can make Brussels sprouts in really interesting ways that even children I think would eat.

ANNOUNCER: Thank you for joining us today on Leader Lab. Leader Lab is powered by Tilco, helping exceptional leaders achieve extraordinary results, and the Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School, Canada's home for learning and development. You can learn more about Tilco and Leader Lab at Tilco.ca. And to find out more about the Ivey Academy, go to IveyAcademy.com.