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Calm, people-focused leadership guides Sidney’s Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea

Executive director Pauline Finn at the helm of marine-based centre since 2018
Pauline Finn, executive director of the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea in Sidney, worked for almost 15 years for Science World British Columbia before coming to Sidney in 2018. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

In August 2020, staff at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea had to deal with an unexpected shutdown of the geothermal system that continuously supplied salt water to its habitats.

While outside of the centre’s control, staff at the Sidney facility responded by setting up an emergency salt water supply pumping water directly from the ocean. This unprecedented protocol left the marine animals unharmed and sparked significant interest from locals rooting for the centre and its inhabitants.

The experience, which happened mere months into the COVID-19 pandemic, yielded a leadership lesson executive director Pauline Finn hopes to share. “Remain calm,” she said of the stressful circumstance.

“With most things that happen, if you put your hand up and you ask for help, you can get through them. We have a great team of folks and we figured it out. We had an idea what we would do if something like that were to happen, but we never had to do it. And there were moments when a couple of team members had to say, ‘Pauline, we got this,’ but I think, just really try to remain calm, be kind and ask for help when you need it.”

Finn was named executive director at the Shaw Centre after nearly 15 years at Science World B.C. Last year, Science World recognized her contributions to the world-renowned facility by naming her a patron.

“Pauline was loved and supported by Science World staff, volunteers, donors and partners alike and this honour reflects the lasting impression she has had on the organization,” said Launi Skinner of the Science World Society in June 2021.

This theme of working with people from diverse backgrounds is a thread running through her career.

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Running a business and operating a not-for-profit organization like the centre are similar in that they both require keeping a close eye on finances, planning for the future and adapting in the face of change, Finn said. The centre, for example, has such unique challenges as dealing with live animals and adhering to an educational mandate, but there’s also working with people from diverse backgrounds.

“The most challenging is the complexity of the people management,” she said. Finn deals with rank-and-file members of the society that operates the centre, board directors, temporary and permanent staff and volunteers, along with the community at large.

This aspect generates an obvious lesson.

“Don’t neglect the staff, don’t neglect the team and don’t neglect communications and marketing,” she said. “It’s easy to do that, because everything else is more transactional. The numbers are pretty clear. There is no grey area with numbers. You just have to wrap your head around them. But the other stuff is the fuel.”

In short, it is the people, who make the place.

Finn takes this approach with the board of directors – for the first time in her career, she finds herself responsible for such a body.

“This is not just about collecting fancy people and not just making a matrix of skills,” she said, one needs to remember board members are people, too. “You need a diverse group of humans with skills and connections and sensibilities, especially in a place like this that is small enough and very connected.”

Coming from a science background and with a degree in marine biology, Finn has no formal training in business, but completed a leadership course for those managing organizations that engage communities with science. Along the way, she has expanded her knowledge of what one might call hard business skills.

“The financial stuff has been very challenging and it has also been very rewarding,” she said. “I have had the luxury of having a couple of really, really expert, engaged board members and I have told them this: I have had the best professional development of my life by getting to work with them on the finances of this place. It has been super rewarding.”

The centre was forced to confront a very different financial reality through the pandemic. But its management has earned the centre public praise, with things pointing in the right direction.

“Not that we have solved it, but we have a lot more confidence in terms of where we are financially,” Finn said. “That’s really rewarding because I really want to get to the juicy, fun storytelling and some of the other aspects of this centre.”

Ultimately, she sees a strong demand for the centre’s offerings.

“Especially given the last couple of years with the pandemic, people are looking for positive experiences to share with their loved ones, and just that experience of coming to a place of learning and inspiration.”

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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