A Conversation with Cynthia Watson

Cynthia Watson likes to say that she “reverse-engineered” her career path. She started in palliative care, working with people in end-of-life care. Then she moved to the Repsol Sport Centre, where her focus was on high-performance athletes.

Now, she’s in her third year as CEO—that’s Chief Evolution Officer—at Vivo for Healthier Generations. At Vivo, the work is all about children, families, and the future. So, as Cynthia put it: she’s moving from death to birth and beyond.

“Chief Executive Officer just seems so military and hierarchical, and I really feel that my role is, ‘ how do we continually evolve and change? And be relevant for the community and serve greatly?’ And that’s the dynamic and energy that I like to bring to the leadership role.” -Cynthia Watson

What is Vivo for Healthier Generations?

At first glance, Vivo just seems like a gigantic recreation centre. They’ve got gyms, a skating rink, a pool, and a climbing wall. They offer personal training and drop-in sports, and they host active programming for all ages.

When they first opened their doors in 2004, that’s exactly what they were: a recreation centre. Then, after ten years of operating as Cardel Place, they re-evaluated their purpose.

“[The board] looked out in the community, and they realized that a lot of the people we serve in the [area] are children and families,” Cynthia said. “And [they] kind of linked that with some of the report cards that were coming out at the time, kids getting a physical activity [grade] F [….] And they thought, if we’re doing such a good job, in sport and recreation, then why are all of the numbers going in the wrong direction […] So we started a research and innovation arm to study what [it takes] to raise a healthy generation. And how do we go beyond the walls of what we are as a Rec Centre?”

Now, after opening their ears to the needs and wants of their communities, they are moving in a new direction.

“We call ourselves a charitable enterprise, [with] a mission to raise healthier generations,” Cynthia said. “And what we love about the model we get to work in is that it is financial sustainable. And when we have an asset like this, we’re also able to be a social-economic generator [….] And at the same time, we’re also this gathering place and this hub, which is our link with Thrive and Momentum. […] We encourage other creative entrepreneurs and socially-minded business people in the community to come together and incubate ideas to make the community prosperous.”

Vivo’s social impact reaches far beyond the walls of their facility. They’re always working on several community initiatives, on innovation, and on co-creating.

“We’ve just received a four year grant from the public health agency to look at play in the community and how we can have people co-create more play by themselves,” Cynthia said. “[And] we work with developers like Brookfield. Livingston is a new community to the north of us, and they’re really trying to develop their community intentionally […] We’re working with Brookfield to look at different infrastructure in [Livingston] and how to build it so that it’s walkable to school, parks are differently, and that kind of thing. But they’re actually co-creating that community with the [families] that live there. And then we’re wanting to take those learnings to see how we can retrofit established communities.”

Leading by listening: Cynthia’s niche

As Vivo’s CEO, Cynthia wears many hats.

“The biggest thing I do is build relationships,” Cynthia said. “Either in the community or with the different stakeholders. And really about advancing the mission for the organization. So that’s partly operating the facility, but it’s also about […] becoming more of a cause and a movement and […] developing sector change, community change, and individual change.”

At an organization like Vivo, which thrives on teamwork and collaboration, Cynthia’s leadership style is built on one key skill: listening.

“My biggest strength is probably the listening part,” Cynthia said. “One of the things I value most about my job is that I don’t need to have all the answers. I have to make certain decisions, but it’s usually based on really listening very intently to the many voices that come into making the decisions.”

And, at an enterprise based on innovation, flexibility and ambiguity are constant. Cynthia and her team constantly seek out new challenges, new solutions, and new perspectives.

“Curiosity is a big one, really asking questions,” Cynthia said. “How do we link all the different parts of the world? [The ones that] may not even seem like they’re related. Like the fire department, or what’s happening in a tech company, or what’s happening in oil and gas. [These factors] are what create the conditions that we get to work in.”

Vivo, a bustling 195,000 square foot facility, is a far cry from a startup social enterprise. But, despite her organization’s size, Cynthia has advice for social entrepreneurs at every stage and scale.

“I think knowing your ‘why’ is always the important one,” Cynthia said. “That’s really what took us to the next level. We were operating a facility and that was our why for the longest time. But when we shifted into this bigger cause of, ‘what does it mean to raise healthier generations?’ that really elevates. And that makes all of the other decisions so much easier.”

Take Action:

  • Check out how Customer Journey Mapping helped Cynthia improve customer experiences at Vivo.
  • Click here to check out the Social Entrepreneur’s Toolkit for more tools, tips and tricks developed by and for social entrepreneurs.