Skills for Change Connect Series is an interview series featuring our staff and community in the new environment of working and delivering services during this COVID-19 pandemic. For this episode of Connect Series, we talk to Surranna Sandy, Skills for Change’s CEO on leadership during a time of crisis. 

Surranna Sandy has been CEO of Skills for Change since 2012. She brings 15+ years of executive leadership experience in the private and nonprofit sector. Surranna has a Master of Arts in Leadership and Management from Anglia Ruskin University, an MBA in Human Resources Management from the University of Wales, a Hons Bachelor of Arts in Leadership and Management from Northumbria University, a Diploma in Human Resources Management, and a Certificate in HR Management.

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You can read interview transcript below:

Thank you for joining me today, Surranna. I’d like to begin our conversation by asking you what leadership looks like in times of crisis.

One of the most important things for us in the nonprofit sector is to balance the need to keep business operations going and to deliver on the community needs and the funders’ needs based on our pre-agreed contracts. And so for us as we look at the evolving COVID-19 situation, we had to ask ourselves what this means for our  communities. We operate in multiple communities with varied needs. We are in Brampton, in Markham, across Toronto, Flemingdon Park, Monson Dennis area, to mid-toronto and central Toronto. We needed to figure out how we can continue to service our clients while also meeting various stakeholders’ requirements.

For us, good crisis management was analyzing the situation and the impact, developing a very good communication strategy, looking into business continuity and how to navigate risk while delivering programs effectively, and considering not only the current crisis, but post-crisis scenarios. How will we continue once the Ontario emergency mandate for non-essential business is lifted, what would that mean for us?  Is it business as usual? Do we have to think of modified approaches to business delivery? And then, of course, our people. How will our people work? Where? What challenges will they face? So tools, processes and training, and remote support changes as they change the way that they deliver services to our clients. So, there’s a lot of considerations to make as managers, as a board, and as a community member. The big issue is how to remain safe as we try to do all these things.

In the early stages as things progressed from February to early March, what were some of the most important components you thought were most important to deliver an effective crisis response in the event the pandemic happened?

I was monitoring how other countries were managing their outbreaks of COVID-19.  When China shut down Wuhan,that gave the indication that this was serious and that if the virus came to Canada, then we would have to do the same. So I started thinking of what if there is a shutdown of the province – or even just the city of Toronto? What would that mean for our service delivery? A lot of what we do here at Skills for Change are one-on-one personalized services: counseling, settlement services, workshop delivery, language training, we also have a childcare center on site.

The other big concern that I faced was the fact that the clients we serve are immigrants. We have a situation where a lot of our clients were new to Canada, potentially exposed to the disease. The question then becomes how do we keep our staff safe, and how do we keep our other clients entering our center safe, without stigmatizing or stereotyping people, while making sure that people’s human rights are respected and that they are not discriminated against?

Initially, we were monitoring the Human Rights commission and sharing their directives, ensuring that our staff and our community understands that they are not to discriminate against someone or make anyone uncomfortable either directly or indirectly by stereotyping and questioning where they’re coming from.

At the same time, we started training our staff on precautionary measures. Guiding our clients in hand-washing and social distancing measures, providing our staff with as many tools as we could. We provided training, hand sanitizers were provided, and center cleanings were done on a regular basis. These were small steps we were taking before the province and the city of Toronto took more drastic measures. This was done to bring broader awareness to our clients and to our staff in terms of good health and safety measures, while at the same time working against discrimination of our newcomer clients.


The first thing we considered was what remote operations would look like or, if we weren’t able to continue with our operations, then what would be the impact of shutting down? Many of our existing strategies prior to COVID-19 included implementation of technology and solutions that allowed for work flexibility. We had started using Zoom as a business tool last year. We had migrated from an analog phone system to VoIP. The staff was able to access our systems remotely. For us, the ability to transfer from a physical site to a remote site was done in a day and a half.

At that moment, our biggest concern was how to best serve our clients. We were very concerned as we serve a lot of low-income clients who don’t have access to technology tools such as computers, laptops, and high-speed internet to join seminars, counseling, or even to call because they don’t have data plans. Once we were working remotely, how would our clients access the services if they do not have the financial needs and the technology to do so. And on top of that, the problem of assuring that we’re safeguarding client data and information.

How do we make sure that our staff have the right tools to work effectively, without feeling drained and isolated. These are things that we were looking into and considering as an organization to ensure a smooth transition. It’s not just tools, but having all other supports in place, to complement the technology solutions that we had.


For us, the transition to remote work happened in a matter of days, if not hours. What was going through your mind, in terms of staffing needs, as well as ensuring a continued, seamless service delivery to our clients?


We explored a lot of different tools. Some programs tested Google Classroom to see if it’s accessible, user-friendly and intuitive. We provided training to our staff in using the tools. However, it’s not just about having the right tools, but having all other supports in place to complement the technology solutions that we have. Also, we focused on improving communications so that all the supervisors and managers continue to meet with their staff every morning through virtual huddles to solve problems immediately. We interfaced with the staff and asked them what training they needed, what concerns they were having, how they were settling in, how we can support them, and customized technology tools and solutions, and pivoted when the technology tools we experienced weren’t facilitating an effective workflow.

We were also trying to understand our clients better at this time. Understanding what they needed, where they were, and what’s critical to them to ensure that the  technical tools and the approaches worked.

What were the programs that we had scheduled? What and how can we do them online? Training sessions that would’ve been 4-6 hours long, we looked into breaking those into 2-hour increments to alleviate pressure off clients, in case they’re facing childcare issues among many others during this pandemic. 

I am constantly monitoring the situation and  communicating with other CEOs. What are they doing? What tools are they using? I wanted to have a good sense of what the best business practices are and implement them whenever necessary.


What are the key elements of communications you’ve implemented during this crisis? What is critical in communications, both on the staffing side as well as the client side, to ensure that we continue to provide a high standard of service?


Our staff communicates regularly and through different channels. We use currently Slack and Zoom to facilitate meetings and engagement. We also use google classroom. We have ramped up our social media presence to share information, not only about our programs, but also about the current situation because we want our clients to be well-informed. 

Our marketing and social media team, aside from promoting our programs, are putting out information about what is COVID-19 and important facts and information. What are the benefits that the federal and provincial government offers that unemployed job seekers should be aware of? What are the changes being performed by the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario that our clients need to know about? If they’re low income, what are some services and assistance they can use to take care of themselves and family members?

We are communicating with regular external newsletters. We have social media updates about helping the community access information so that they can make good decisions. We also have an internal newsletter every Friday that focuses on what’s going on in the organization. People learn differently, so we also have our Monday Morning “Sip and Chat”, where all staff come together to talk about their programs, to share how they’re feeling, and we get a sense of what’s important, hear their ideas, and learn of the things that are working well. At the management level, we have a meeting every day at 10am, where we share how we are doing with our programs and discuss on improving collaboration, among other things. 

Essentially, its’ a mixture of technology, telephone, face-to-face virtual meetings, so that people feel that there’s a plurality of ways to get and disseminate information. Whether you want to use Slack, Gmail, GDrive, social media, e-newsletters, team huddles, or text someone. We have been providing as many tools as possible so that people find the one they feel the most comfortable using.

Finally, we are bringing programs together to help clients in new ways. Employment teams would traditionally deliver their workshops independently. But we thought that it would be beneficial to bring the settlement team together with employment for our workshops. After implementing that, we bring the staff together and ask: How did that go? What worked? What can be improved? What can we do differently? It’s about testing and trying and sharing new things. Seeing what works, what can be improved, what doesn’t work that can be moved aside or tweaked or adjusted.

One of our main concerns was how do we keep people engaged and involved. By trying these different tools, we’ve seen a huge uptake in engagement and participation and knowledge transfer across the whole agency. This is something that we want to sustain post COVID-19.

While my heart breaks for all those who are suffering, the damage to our community, and those passing away, this situation provided us with an opportunity of innovation and different methods to try out tools and different ideas that we haven’t had the chance to implement in the past.

For example, for the Newcomer Entrepreneurship Hub program, we usually work with one cohort at a time. But given the current situation, we are doing multiple cohorts because of online delivery methods.  Before, people who weren’t in the Ontario region didn’t have physical access to this program. But since the program is online now, we have people accessing this program across the country. For our language training programs, we have participants outside of Ontario, all the way from British Columbia, participating in our classes. It allows us to expand the reach of our services and become more of a regional player, and potentially a national player.

We’re testing different tools, evaluating different management systems, a consolidated approach and a more professionalized delivery method. Currently we’re using google classroom and zoom, and considering also employing Blackboard, a service used by academia, to centralize all the training pieces in one place.

This has been a boon of an opportunity for our social enterprise as well. We are now doing many social enterprise courses online, and we are looking into expanding our delivery online to better reach people in a post COVID-19 world. These programs allow us to fill the gap from our funded programs, which is a wonderful opportunity. The situation has also created opportunities for our staff to develop new skills and new technical expertise by using these tools and delivery methods, which enhances confidence. We’ve also had the chance to allow staff to step up and claim leadership roles and opportunities that they hadn’t demonstrated before, in order to train people, to support fellow staff members, to identify tools, utilize systems, customize tools for the workspace.

Many of our clients are embracing the technology and are loving the flexibility and access, which they want us to continue in the future. It has been difficult, and the transition has had its growing pains, but we have also seen great opportunities to transform our business.


There was a recent Harvard Business Review article on good leadership during a pandemic, and one of the areas the article mentions that leaders should have or adopt is “tapping into suffering to build meaning” – taking your experiences as a leader dealing with previous suffering or loss, and acting with empathy. What does that mean to you? How do you demonstrate this with your staff?


For us, not only we had to deal with COVID-19, but the day before we transitioned to online work, one of our long-term colleagues passed away in our center. We had to deal with a great sense of loss to our community for our transition to online work, and the loss of a colleague and friend who was loved by all.  Personally, as a leader I had to balance the need for operational efficiency of getting things done and making sure tools were  in place for the transition, with the sensitivity and understanding that people may not be in the emotional space to navigate so much dramatic change in such a short period of time.

For me, the most important thing was to navigate that space in trying to understand what people are feeling, because I was feeling the same sense of loss. Recognize that feeling, and give people a needed space to share and express their grief  and participate in that myself. While it may be working with a counsellor while we grieve the passing of our colleague, checking in to make sure people are okay, letting people know that I’m feeling the same way, the same feelings, the same stress. Show people that I am feeling vulnerable, just as they are, and allowing them to feel comfortable to be vulnerable. Also, letting people figure out what works for them and give them the flexibility to work through that themselves. Some people want to speak, others don’t, some want to engage and some need time away.

Some people can adapt quickly, and some can’t, and that’s okay. Accept that there will be an initial productivity drop, because people are going through so many emotional stresses, while balancing a demand for productivity, which can be very challenging when they’re grieving. I took a step back and allowed people to adjust through this grieving process, while also allowing them to find what works for them best.

Make time to talk to staff members and check in with them, ask them what they’re feeling, and listen to them. Give them a space to talk and recognize their feelings. Recognize that our staff is going through various trauma. We’ve lost a colleague, we’ve lost the familiarity of work, we have to adjust to a lot of new training, technology and approaches, we’re isolated, and scared that we might get sick. There is just so much thrown at us, that people need time and space to connect and whatever people need, we would adjust to it.


How do you keep staff engaged and motivated, knowing that this may stretch into the future for an indefinite amount of time? How do you ensure people are taking care of themselves?


One of the initial things that we’ve done is to bring in counsellors. We had a lot of counselling sessions for our staff and provided them the opportunity to have private sessions.  We’ve also asked our staff what they need and want. Historically, we’ve had Wellness Wednesdays and provided sessions such as Zumba lessons and Yoga. We have a quarterly balance wellness initiative, we have arts and crafts,  focus on health, financial, physical and mental health. We are bringing all these things back through a virtual space. We shared a survey online and asked our staff what wellness programs they would find the most beneficial in this working-from-home reality. 

We’re also trying to liven our Mondays Sip and Chat staff meetings through activities, whether it’s a competition wearing a funny hat, having a fun background, or bringing a funny coffee mug. So we’re trying to engage with people and lighten the mood as much as we can. We are doing these small things, while also formalizing our wellness initiatives.

Slack is also a fantastic tool for us, allowing us to dedicate space to wellness topics. We have a wellness channel, a learning and developing channel, and a general channel. We encourage staff to share an article, a video, wellness tips, etc. We remind them to also practice good physical distancing, but still take time to go out for walks, to get some vitamin D because their physical health is still very important. We still want to focus on wellness. We aren’t focused on pushing ‘productivity’ only. We are focusing on getting people comfortable, capable, and confident. Productivity will flow from that.


What are you personally doing to keep good mental health to keep leading the organization?


It’s critical for me to stay physical. I walk every day. I lift weights 3 times a week. I eat well, but I’ve also become an avid baker. I’ve been baking banana bread and pumpkin pie. I’ve also been reading a lot. Balancing movements while also some intellectual pursuits, I’m keeping my mind active.  I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Mental health depends on good physical health, so I try to balance that.

A good self-care routine is also important to me. And I try to think positive. I say to myself ‘yes, this is challenging but I’m surrounded by family. Lucky me, I have a nice home, I have a great job and colleagues who are healthy. So in many respects, this is quite a blessing. Unlike a lot of nonprofits that had to lay off a lot of their staff members or shut down, we are not in that situation. All of our staff members are getting paid. I still have a job. These perspectives help me stay positive, motivated and feeling good.  

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