Leadership 2022: How CEO Erin Seeley plans to lead YWCA Metro Vancouver from behind

Seeley practices giving "fearless advice" to policy-makers.

This year, we focus on those who have taken on new roles at the top of an organization recently, and quiz them about the changing landscape of leadership.

Erin Seeley’s first memory of being a leader goes back to assigning roles in a preschool play. “I was always an organizer or convener,” she laughs.

Before she joined nonprofit organization YWCA Metro Vancouver as CEO this past June, the Powell River native spent 15 years in public service. She held various roles spanning immigration, labour market programs and real estate regulation. She served as the executive director of immigration programs for the provincial government, as senior VP at the BC Financial Services Authority and as CEO of the Real Estate Council of BC.

“I’ve been passionate about child care, women’s economic opportunities, as well as affordable housing,” Seeley maintains. She is on the board of Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, a social services organization based in the community she lives in. “[Joining the YWCA] was a way to marry my leadership experience and my community advocacy.”

Being involved with the immigration sector for a decade exposed Seeley to the elaborate challenges newcomers face in Canada. During the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015-16, her dedication to helping foreign families settle sharpened against the rising number of new arrivals.

She found her niche in addressing big policy questions: “How do we meet the basic needs of women in our society? How do we empower them economically?” The higher she climbed the leadership ladder, the bigger the problems on her plate. When the pressure to get stories from the ground up to government officials grew, Seeley learned the value of working on the delivery side of programs and giving “fearless advice” to policy-makers.

“I don’t know if birth order is everything, but I’m from a long line of female firstborns,” Seeley says. “I always felt empowered by that in my life and felt like I had an opportunity to use my voice. To lead as a woman, where you can be caring but also decisive, firm and bold, those are things that I’ve aspired to be.”

She’s been exhibiting those qualities from a young age. Seeley pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science and Hispanic studies from UVic even though her dad warned her not to, claiming that it would never land her a job. She then started working in international development in Latin America, but the struggles that come with living overseas called her back home to help people in her own community. In Vancouver, she earned a master’s in international leadership from SFU, graduating in 2008, just after she gave birth to her first daughter.

Over the years, Seeley’s idea of leadership has changed. She used to think she could do it all herself, from listening to employees to being cost effective, but with time she’s come to appreciate delegation and teamwork. “You have to lean on other people, and that wasn’t always easy for me,” she admits.

In taking the baton from Deb Bryant, who served as CEO for three years, Seeley respects her predecessors’ fingerprints on the organization but also hopes to “modernize” moving forward—starting with an updated mission statement.

“The mission statement is: Advancing gender equity alongside women, families, Two-Spirit and gender diverse people,” says Seeley of the revision from “Touching lives and building better futures for women and their families.

“And it’s that ‘alongside’ that I really want to be mindful of.”

YWCA Metro Vancouver has long been involved in detangling the complexities associated with Truth and Reconciliation and anti-racism. In the years to come, Seeley plans to lead from behind so that Indigenous and racialized voices get a seat at the table. “It’s hard, it’s emotional, and by nature means that we [as an organization] shouldn’t always lead,” she insists. “I think that’s a different leadership style than we’ve been accustomed to.”

The CEO has come a long way from serving hot dogs at the hockey rink and volunteering as a Girl Guide. The YWCA’s broad goal is to create a “just and equitable world,” and Seeley is excited to work with government and nonprofits to further its employment, child- care and housing programs.

The nonprofit now offers transitional housing for women fleeing violence as well as permanent housing. One of its newest housing developments, xwƛ̓ əpicən, was created in partnership with housing organization Tikva, the Association of Neighbourhood Houses of B.C. and the City of Vancouver. It’s been open for a year now, with mixed-use floors for seniors, families and single moms.

“It’s not just being a landlord of buildings—we have community development workers who can provide assistance for the tenants in relation to employment programs or mental health services or food access, or even just connections to the community,” Seeley adds.

Despite the hindering impact of COVID on the delivery of programs (many of which are in person, such as YWCA’s single moms’ group), the YWCA Health + Fitness Centre and the YWCA Hotel in downtown Vancouver are back up and running. The nonprofit has grown significantly over the last five years, primarily thanks to its government-funded employment programs.

When she’s not sponsoring children or animals, Seeley is leading her team of 500 to help newcomers land on their own feet. With the understanding that delivering programs— especially ones that involve the complicated world of housing—is always a challenge, the new CEO is set on shattering some ceilings.

Q&A with Erin Seeley

Who are your role models today?

My family and friends—my husband and my two smart teenagers in particular, as well as my support network of amazing friends. I’m inspired by the way they think deeply and care about the world, and work hard to make a positive impact.

How do you handle criticism?

It used to sting, but I’ve learned to get past the emotion and see how valuable it is. Giving and receiving feedback is a huge part of my leadership style and the people who take time to give thoughtful, constructive criticism often care the most.