Dr. Jodi L. Abbott, president and CEO of NorQuest College, is passionate about transformation, and it’s a passion that has taken her from community work, to a master’s degree, to the healthcare field, to the government sector, into post-secondary education and right back to the world of health – and every step of the way, she’s completely reinvented herself and the direction of the places she’s worked.
“I decided to get my master’s degree while working in the spinal cord injury field,” starts Dr. Abbott. “So I got my master’s while working full time at Spinal Cord Injury Alberta. From there, I worked in disability management for a while with law firms and insurance agencies, but decided to go back to school for my PhD. I obtained my PhD and went to work with Catholic Social Services (CSS). I finished my PhD while I was working for CSS.”
Dr. Abbott’s roles at CSS included working with developmentally disabled persons, adoption services, HIV programs, safe houses and family counseling, to name a few.
“One of the great learnings for me at CSS was how important it was to have a vision that brought people from all different backgrounds together,” she notes, hinting at the inclusive policies she would later encourage at NorQuest College.
After her time at CSS, Dr. Abbott joined the staff of the Canadian Diabetes Association and became the executive lead in chronic disease management for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“That is where I got to understand the government and learn how to work with them. We were advocating for people with diabetes to have their supplies covered, and we demonstrated the positive impact this action could have on their lives and on the health system as a whole.
“Through that work I ended up with a government job offer where I managed the portfolio for communicable disease. Then I moved into physician compensation, which looked at paying physicians in a different way when they worked in an academic and physician delivery setting.
“From there, it was on to Capital Health as the vice president for creating clinical pathways for patients in core areas. That led to a senior vice present role, where I was involved with province-wide patient safety initiatives. Here, we developed an alert process that sent a message across the whole system when incidences occurred. Patient complaints were under my area, as was clinical integration for a while. We brought LEAN process improvement, which is usually used in more industrial settings, to transform our work so we were better using our resources and time. Just before I left Alberta Health Services (formerly Capital Health), I took on roles with infection prevention and control.”
It was while Dr. Abbott was at Alberta Health Services that she became interested in NorQuest College. At this point, she was on the college’s board. “The then-president had announced he was going to retire and the college started recruiting. I was intrigued. I resigned from the board and participated in the national selection process.”
She got the job.
When she looks back at her journey, even she is a bit surprised.
“I never imagined myself here, but I know I always wanted to be in an organization where there would be some kind of fire and passion. I’m not the kind of person that can just go to work every day. I live through my work. I really love change – not just for the sake of change, but change to get to a particular goal. Transformation is what excites me and motivates me to do more. I have also come to know myself as a fixer and a builder. In organizations that I’ve worked in, we’ve had challenges. That’s the fixing part. That’s not a negative. It’s how we further develop the organization. I’ve had lots of challenges in the organizations I’ve been in, but to me, it’s how we get to that next stage. The combination of fixing and building – it’s hard…it’s really hard! But I like to do that work.”
Hard work was instilled in Dr. Abbott from a very early age. She grew up in Edson, Alberta, a small town a couple hours from Jasper. Her mother had the philosophy that her children needed to be involved in activities and busy to stay out of trouble. For her young daughter, Jodi, that meant figure skating in the winter and swimming in the summer, along with piano lessons in between. By the time she was a young teen, Dr. Abbott wanted to skate year-round.
“My mother, who was a very strong community volunteer, told me ‘you need to give back to the sport.’ You can start training to become a figure skating judge at age 16, so I did,” she smiles. “It’s an intensive process. You practice-judge alongside a mentor. As you progress through the process, if you are competent and a little lucky, you get the opportunity to write the Olympic exam in Germany. I worked my way up through the system, did the exam in judging, and had the incredible opportunity to judge two Olympic winter games. I personally think you get an opportunity like this once in a lifetime, and I’ve had it twice: the Vancouver Olympics and Sochi Olympics in Russia.”
Of course, her transformative nature would not allow her to stop at being an Olympic figure skating judge. Dr. Abbott has touched, and therefore, transformed the sport at the highest level. After the judging scandal in Salt Lake City (she was not a judge at that event) a small panel of judges from around the world was created. This panel became the Officials Assessment Commission (OAC) that oversaw the ways judges did their duties at the Olympics. Dr. Abbott was one of a small number of officials selected for the OAC. Through the work of the OAC, education needs for officials are identified, and direction, in regards to changes and challenges in the sport, is provided.
“My latest experience for OAC was a test event in South Korea. Every time there is an Olympic event, a large-scale test run is performed on the venues, processes, security, etc. I was there in February and can say that the Pyeongchang venues are absolutely beautiful. From my perspective, they are very ready to host the winter Olympics.”
Wait….what? February? Of 2017? Isn’t NorQuest in the middle of a major transformation right now with the opening of the Singhmar Centre for Learning, runaway growth in student enrollment, the introduction of industry-focused programs and sweeping fundraising initiatives, all of which Dr. Abbott is either directing, leading or heavily involved in? How does she find time to do it all?
To this, Dr. Abbott simply laughs as she gives up her secret to balancing work, her passions and family time. She simply doesn’t.
“I haven’t figured out work-life balance! I don’t think I have it, but I’m okay not having it. For me, what’s important is to balance my activities, but not the time. Balance, for me, is getting results in everything I do.”
She credits her down time, where she relaxes, reads (silly books, no business documents), spends more time with her husband; along with being mentored by industry professionals, mentoring the younger generation, cooking, hand making jewelry and walking her dogs, as the things that fill her tank and keep her from burning out.
But yes, things have also been a little busy at NorQuest for the last six years of her presidency – because Dr. Abbott is transforming the educational institution on all levels.
“When I left Alberta Health Services to come here, I was so excited,” remembers Dr. Abbott. “I sent an email to about 100 people telling them I would be working at NorQuest. NorQuest College has trained about 77 per cent of all the healthcare aids in the province, and it has one of the largest practical nurse programs in Canada – but I had a dozen people email me back asking what province I was moving to! The system I was leaving, where we send all the graduates to, had no idea where the graduates were coming from, and that horrified me!”
It’s true. Just a few years ago, NorQuest was not a name many people recognized as a college, despite its status as one of the most prolific schools for graduates in Edmonton. Dr. Abbott wasn’t having any of that. In addition to getting the word out about the incredible impact NorQuest was having in the Capital City and on the economy, she also looked at what was going on inside the school, and the impact the school itself was having on the students.
For example, one day the college was made aware that a normally great student’s grades were slipping. It turned out that the young lady could no longer afford a bus pass, so she was walking two hours to get to school. A simple bus pass was all that was needed to get the student back on track, but it also got people think about how many other students needed a short-term solution like this.
Plenty, it turned out. One had an abscessed tooth, but no money for a dentist. Others were couch surfing because they couldn’t scrape together the money for a damage deposit on an apartment.
“We identified that, if we asked 1,000 women for $1,000 dollars, we could create a fund to help students be successful, says Dr. Abbott of how the 1,000 Women: A Million Possibilities Movement started. The movement raised its first million quickly, and then stayed in force to launch the Singhmar Centre for Learning and associated child care centre that will integrate with NorQuest’s early learning and child care program.
Other initiatives Dr. Abbott has spearheaded at NorQuest, with the goal of making every program as industry-relevant as possible, include the Workforce Advisory Council, the Alberta Aboriginal Construction Careers Centre and the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation Hospitality Institute.
“NorQuest College is an important player for the city and the economy,” Dr. Abbott stresses. “In the past, we have been, sadly, the forgotten institution. No longer! We have been incredibly grateful for this building and the new building (Singhmar Centre for Learning), but we anticipated the two buildings would allow us our regular growth to 2024. However, I can tell you that we are out of space in 2019.
“Since 2010, we have seen a 114 per cent increase in enrollment and we have 35 per cent more applications than last year. Also, we’ve seen almost a 30 per cent increase in budgeted revenues with most of this being new business opportunities that we have chased.
“We are in a shifting landscape. The direction of the post-secondary environment and its policies, along with governments, students and corporate partners, are changing. We can be responsive or disruptive. We choose to disrupt. We want to lead, not follow. It takes a great team of people to make it happen.”
In 2015, Women’s Executive Network™ named Dr. Abbott as one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada, an honour that “feels pretty awesome,” to the exceptional woman – but she’s not done yet.
Dr. Abbott has come full circle, combining her knowledge of the healthcare field with her passion for impactful education. On behalf of Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, she is leading the Health City Initiative, which will make the city a leader in healthcare innovation, while simultaneously planning another infrastructure build for NorQuest to create a learning and research centre that will test new models of care and teaching in the continuing care spectrum.
Dr. Abbott is profoundly grateful to her mother. “She taught me I could do anything I put my mind to, and not to let anyone bring me down.” She is also thankful for her husband, who she calls her biggest cheerleader and confidence builder, along with her personal and professional mentors and the Young Presidents’ Organization.
“The textbook doesn’t always work,” she concludes. “You need to find your own leadership style, and my way is always about results. Women can be, should be and are in leadership roles because of their results. I need to continue to be challenged. I need to continue to transform organizations. I get excited, fulfilled and rejuvenated by the next big challenge.”
Whatever comes next for Dr. Abbott, she will always be ready, willing and able to rise to the occasion, and transform the people, places and initiatives she works with until they exceed all expectations.