UHN Foundation CEO Julie Quenneville on Changemaking in the Healthcare Sector

“Leading with a clear, optimistic and ambitious vision has always been very important to me”

When Julie Quenneville began her career in journalism, her mission was to inspire change. Today, more than two decades later and far from the newsrooms and broadcast studios she once employed, Quenneville’s mission remains the same as the newly appointed CEO of UHN Foundation. “My background in journalism instilled in me a commitment to storytelling and advocacy, which has carried over into my work in public service and philanthropy,” she says. “Whether it’s raising awareness about healthcare issues or mobilizing support for important causes, I see parallels between journalism and my more recent roles in terms of their potential to effect positive change.”

Prior to joining UHN Foundation, Quenneville entered the healthcare sector as associate chief of staff to the Quebec Minister of Health and Social Services. She later joined the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) as chief of staff to the CEO before becoming president and CEO of MUHC Foundation In 2015. Over the years, she’s earned numerous accolades, including being named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women, one of Concordia University’s Top 50 under 50, winner of the Women We Admire Award in 2023, and receiving the Medal of the Quebec National Assembly. 

As Canadian Business’s leader-in-residence this month, Quenneville sat down with us to discuss her career milestones, aspirations and advice for future leaders.

You began your career in journalism. Can you share what sparked your venture into public service and, ultimately, led you to UHN Foundation? 

This may be a controversial take, but I do consider journalism to be a form of public service. Though, in observing the many challenges our society faces as a reporter, I quickly became eager to get involved, and just as quickly frustrated with the rate at which change was being made. What inspired me to shift gears was the opportunity to serve as associate chief of staff for the health minister in Quebec. Here, I was able to spearhead efforts to reduce the provincial smoking rate by roughly 10%. It was a significant change for Quebec, which, at the time, had the highest smoking rate in the country—it was very comparable to France. 

This experience taught me that when you bring people together with a common goal of doing good for society, you always find a path forward. It showed me the power of collaboration and inspired me to continue working towards positive changemaking. Transitioning to roles in philanthropy, such as my tenure at the MUHC Foundation in Montreal, came naturally and allowed me to further contribute to building and transforming institutions like UHN Foundation.

Do you think your younger self would be surprised to see where you are today?

Throughout my career, I’ve always lived by my values. For that reason, I don’t think she would be surprised. My intent as a journalist was to be a civil servant, and as my career trajectory shifted into government, I found myself working in hospitals, building institutions and really transforming healthcare. Today, as CEO of UHN Foundation, much of my work is informed by philanthropy, which also exists to serve. It exists to allow our community to protect and enhance our medical institutions. The more I think about it, the only thing that has changed is a strengthened belief that you can truly bring about change. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. 

What would you say has been a significant milestone in your career?

Personally, I consider raising children to be the most significant milestone. Balancing a career with parenthood has been a journey, but seeing my children grow into compassionate, community-minded individuals brings me immense pride. From a professional standpoint, leading the MUHC Foundation and achieving significant revenue growth while fostering a positive corporate culture was a noteworthy achievement. 

As a leader, how do you prioritize and balance the various needs and goals of UHN Foundation?

Prioritization is both the key and the hardest part of a leadership role. In my experience, I’ve learned that finding balance starts with having a clear vision and strategy. I surround myself with talented individuals who share this belief and empower them to make decisions aligned with our overarching goals. While we can’t do everything at once, having a long-term and ambitious vision guides our decision-making and ensures that we focus on initiatives with the greatest potential for impact.

How do you know when your vision is aligned with your long-term goals or whether or not it’s ambitious enough?

If it’s not ambitious and it’s not aspirational, it will never motivate those around you. I think so long as growth is at the centre of your vision, you’re on the right track. It’s our job as leaders to find opportunities for continued growth, and to help identify the strategies to get us from point A to point B. 

What sets apart an exceptional leader, and how do you embody those qualities in your leadership at UHN Foundation?

Empathy is paramount for effective leadership. I strive to lead with empathy, and understanding that our team members are individuals with their own experiences and challenges. It’s a wonderful part of a hybrid work model— the chance to witness people’s lives outside of the office through a video call. I think it reminded a lot of leaders to lead with empathy. Additionally, I believe in transparency and vulnerability, acknowledging that I’m not infallible and encouraging a culture where it’s okay to take risks and learn from failure. Creating a supportive environment where people feel empowered to be their authentic selves also fosters innovation and collaboration. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s effective. 

What is one piece of advice that has influenced your leadership style today?

One piece of advice that resonates with me is to cultivate a diverse network of mentors. Each mentor offers unique insights and perspectives that are valuable at different stages of one’s career. Additionally, I’ve been reminded of the importance of balancing work and family life, understanding that success in both areas requires support and prioritization. Finally, treating everyone with respect and recognizing the contributions of every individual, regardless of their role, is essential in fostering a positive and inclusive organizational culture. 

One of my greatest mentors and friends was the former premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, who always treated the custodian, the intern and the CEO as equals. When we would attend events or meetings, he would go around and introduce himself to absolutely everybody—reminding us that it was extremely important to make sure that everyone understood how important they were to the company. These are the types of values that I try to live by. 

Canadian Business hosted a virtual fireside chat with Julie Quenneville to talk about her career, women in leadership and to discuss how technology and economic megatrends disrupt philanthropy.

Joseph Cicerone
Joseph Cicerone