Carla Tardif: “No shutting off”

Being a CEO is 24/7: No shutting off. Ever. This can be a blessing and a curse. I know I’m not the only CEO who sleeps with a notebook and pen by the bedside in preparation for those middle-of-the-night ideas that stir you awake. When you think about it … that means even when you’re sleeping, […]

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Being a CEO is 24/7: No shutting off. Ever. This can be a blessing and a curse. I know I’m not the only CEO who sleeps with a notebook and pen by the bedside in preparation for those middle-of-the-night ideas that stir you awake. When you think about it … that means even when you’re sleeping, you’re working!

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Tardif.

Running enthusiast, patient advocate, and CEO of Family Reach, Carla Tardif is a spirited leader who isn’t afraid to go the distance. She’s been leading the charge against the financial burdens of cancer for over 10 years, making tangible impacts for cancer patients and their families through innovative solutions and collaboration.

Tardif led Family Reach from a family-founded organization to a national nonprofit with the mission of preventing and reducing the financial burden of cancer for families today, while developing collaborative solutions to enable systemic change tomorrow.

Her knowledge about the financial burdens of cancer has made her a sought-after speaker across the U.S. Under her leadership, Family Reach increased its hospital network from 5 east coast sites to more than 400 top-tier hospitals and cancer centers nationwide, expanding from 200,000 dollars annually to over 10 million dollars annually. Such tremendous growth means Family Reach can impact more than 40,000 people affected by cancer each year.

Expanding her reach throughout the cancer space, Tardif is also on the board of the SHEPHERD Foundation, a nonprofit focused on transforming healthcare policy and funding treatment for rare cancers.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A deathbed promise. Believe me, I had no idea what I was agreeing to, but looking straight into my friend’s eyes and knowing he chose to make this plea to me, my only option was to hold his stare and accept.

Pat Kelly was only 36 years old when he was diagnosed with brain cancer and he died two years later. He was married to the love of his life and had a 3-year-old son who shared his name. He was treated at a major cancer center in NYC for an aggressive form of brain cancer and would visit the pediatric oncology floor between treatments to cheer up kids who were going through the same thing.

He was just that kind of guy. After most visits he’d call me to share that the parents of these kids weren’t talking about cancer, they were talking about the fact that they were financially broken because of the diagnosis. They were leaving their jobs to stay by their child’s side and facing an ever-growing list of out-of-pocket expenses, like travel costs to get to and from the hospital for months (if not years) or childcare for their other children. One day he told me about the mom of a child in treatment who was in a total panic because her neighbor called to say there was a repossession truck in her driveway waiting for her to come home so they could take her car.

Patients and caregivers can’t plan for these expenses, and insurance doesn’t cover them either, so they quickly find themselves on the brink of eviction or foreclosure, unable to put food on the table or even gas in the car to get to treatment. After what he saw, Pat was desperate to remove this harsh side effect of cancer because cancer is enough to worry about on its own.

I’m grateful Pat made me promise him I’d do something about this heartbreaking side of cancer that he witnessed over and over again. He drove me to a career path that offers the reward of profound impact, utilizes my deep compassion for others, and has given me purpose. That look in Pat Kelly’s eyes changed my life, and so many others, forever.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

I had to build it before I could lead it. Starting from (almost) scratch, I had to be a jack-of-all-trades and quickly learned where my strengths and weaknesses were.

I say “almost” because the groundwork was laid before I started. Family Reach was founded by two amazing families out of New Jersey, the Morellos and Colangelos. They both lost a child to cancer and saw the same harsh financial reality that my friend Pat did. They started Family Reach to financially support cancer patients and their families with non-medical costs like housing, transportation, food, and utilities. Their model was to connect with oncology social workers at the hospital to identify families in deep financial trouble — and I knew I could scale it. Plus, their approach was perfectly aligned with the daunting but heartfelt promise I made to Pat just two weeks before he passed.

Among the first of many major challenges was that people had no idea what I was talking about when I shared the financial crisis of cancer. It was destroying families, interrupting their ability to access life-saving care and literally uprooting them from their homes — but no one knew about this side of a diagnosis. Why would people help me solve a problem they didn’t even know existed? I learned that I needed to take a very complicated issue that was hiding in plain sight and bring it to life. I found that the most effective way to do that was through real patient stories, and in many cases through the powerful experience of hearing it straight from the patient or caregiver themselves.

I learned that I’m a big thinker, which is great when you’re solving a big problem, but not when “the devil is in the details” and you don’t have enough patience. I can visualize the roadmap to solve major issues, I know what assets I need to get there, and I’m courageous enough to plow through to make it happen. It became clear that I have a gift of refusing to hear the word “no.” Instead I hear, “try again another way,” “ask someone else,” or “rephrase the question.” I guess that’s why my parents still joke to this day that I’m a free spirit who was very difficult to parent!

My greatest lesson as a leader stemmed from these realizations about my personal abilities: Surround myself with people who have attention to detail AND the same can-do, will-do, no-is-not-an-option attitude. My team is made up of people with many different skillsets, but we all have the same common denominator — vision and determination.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

A clear understanding of the cancer patient journey fueled by passion and heartache to do something about it. You know those stories about a parent having the super strength to lift a car off their child if they had to? That’s what happened to me — I couldn’t unsee this issue.

It’s amazing the courage you find in yourself when you know you aren’t wrong. After 13 years of doing this work, there hasn’t been one second when I’ve stopped to wonder about what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. The families I meet every day and the stories I hear from our social workers about what people are enduring on top of cancer only fuel me to do more.

This passion and determination allowed me to attract like-minded people who helped me realize the vision. The ground swell continues because we have a lot of work to do and we’re just getting started.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Self-awareness: It’s critical to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses so you can surround yourself with people who make up for your deficits. Invest in your people, they ARE your company. Without them, you have nothing but a vision.

When I first started at Family Reach, it was just me, sitting at my kitchen table calling hospital social workers, families with cancer, and potential funders. When talking to families with cancer and learning that they were living in a homeless shelter because they were evicted, or had no food in their cabinets to feed their children, it was often more than I could bare. I wasn’t trained on how to separate my emotions from their harsh realities. I ended up grocery shopping for families and going to their homes to put food in their cabinets or offering to take care of their other children while they were in the hospital with their child facing cancer. One time I even gave away my living room couch because a family just sold all their furniture to pay for heat during the winter! It was my husband who sat me down and asked me to get another job because this one was destroying me and affecting our family. At that moment I knew I needed to hire a social worker at Family Reach who was trained in helping families with cancer, so I could focus on raising money and awareness. This decision saved my job and my sanity!

2. The importance of core values: When you’re a CEO, there are so many decisions to be made every minute of the day. Whether it’s building a long-term strategy, putting out fires, or handling day-to-day personnel issues, there are millions of big and small decisions that demand your attention. And when you are working as part of a team, you have to know how to make those decisions together. A set of core values for the entire company to adopt sets the tone for decision-making and guides you through the process so you can avoid countless pitfalls.

I’m not talking about the core values that some companies have because they know they need to have a list of positive words buried somewhere on their website. I’m talking about sitting down with your leadership team, digging into who you really are as an organization, what you believe in, what makes you different, and how you would describe the type of person you want working for the organization.

I also think it’s important to have your own personal core values because as a CEO leading an organization, you are building off of your own foundation. Mine are:

  • Trust my gut
  • Stay grounded in gratitude
  • Be kind to myself and others
  • Go for it (my heart always whispers this to me)

My friend Darius Mirshahzadeh said “every problem we encounter begins and ends with core values” — and it really spoke to me! He wrote a book called “The Core Value Equation” that I highly recommend to any CEO who wants to dig in and gain insight about fully incorporating and utilizing core values in your corporate culture.

3. Being a CEO is 24/7: No shutting off. Ever. This can be a blessing and a curse. I know I’m not the only CEO who sleeps with a notebook and pen by the bedside in preparation for those middle-of-the-night ideas that stir you awake. When you think about it … that means even when you’re sleeping, you’re working!

I struggle to refrain from talking about work all the time in social situations — but I will say that there have been countless times that when I do, something really good comes out of it. Years ago when I first moved to town I met a neighbor while walking my dog. It’s normal to ask someone you just meet what they do for work, though as a nonprofit leader, I often have to discipline myself to get through a few niceties before I do. We had only made it past a few houses when I subtly broached the subject of what he did for a living. It was in that instant that I learned he worked for a pharmaceutical company in the healthcare space which meant I had the perfect audience. By the time we had finished our short walk, he had made an introduction to someone at his company. Fast forward a few years and this company is the largest corporate partner in the history of our organization because of a 5 million dollars grant they made and a member of their executive team is now on my Board of Directors.

4. Enjoy the journey: I know you’re trying to reach a lofty goal, but know that by the time you get there you will have already set a higher goal for yourself. In reality, there is no “there” so enjoy the process! It’s important to make the time to pause and look back at what you’ve accomplished. It’s then that you realize how far ahead you are from where you started. Don’t forget to celebrate the successes and learn from the failures and mistakes because they are what make you stronger, wiser, and ready to go down a better path. Remind yourself that those aren’t roadblocks, they are road signs.

When I became the CEO of Family Reach, I set out to be a 1 million dollars nonprofit organization helping a few thousand cancer patients. As soon as I started to approach that goal, I bumped it to 10 million dollars so I could help tens of thousands of families. Then I wanted to think about how to solve the problem by introducing systemic changes early on in the cancer journey, so now we offer financial wrap-around services — such as financial planning, financial education, and credit and debt consolidation — so cancer patients can avoid reaching those debilitating financial roadblocks in the first place. Now my goal is to be a 100 million dollars organization that partners with every single cancer care facility in the country to make sure all of their patients have a medical care team to treat their cancer and a financial care team to take care of their families.

5. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top: Join CEO groups, collaborate with other organizations, and join their Board of Directors to help others learn from your success and mistakes, while you learn from theirs. Being around like-minded people who share your vision and challenges gives you CEO coaching, camaraderie, and therapy!

I used to turn down offers to be on boards or collaborate because my immediate thought was that I didn’t have enough time to advance my own organization — how could I carve out time to help others advance theirs? Then I became aware of an initiative that President Obama and Vice President Biden were working on at the White House called the Cancer Moonshot. I knew I had to be part of it. I believed so strongly in their goal of advancing cancer research from where we were projected to be in 10 years and reach it in 5 years instead. And I also saw a gaping hole in their plan: It didn’t include the patient’s non-medical journey, specifically their financial situation. My perspective changed and I saw how getting involved with others in this space would advance what I was trying to accomplish at Family Reach, and I also had valuable information to share. I joined the Cancer Moonshot, which then became the Biden Cancer Initiative once he and President Obama left office. I could write a book about how the experience expanded my network, knowledge, awareness, and my mission. It was game-changing. Today, I not only serve on other nonprofit boards, but I also challenge my entire leadership team to do the same so they can also experience the countless professional benefits that come from engaging in like-minded networks.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

DEFINE your North Star so you can stay focused on where you are going. Burn out often happens when we get pulled in too many directions and lose our way. Stay focused, be kind to yourself, and celebrate your successes. Collaboration is also key to sharing the burden, having fun, and achieving more, and will keep you motivated and engaged instead of alone and exhausted.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I could not agree more! There are so many individuals that believed in me and my vision who enabled me to get this far, but I’ll call out one person who has been a steady and powerful influence on me over the past 10 years: Chef Ming Tsai.

I live in Boston and Ming Tsai is an icon here. He’s a celebrity chef, author, TV host, restauranteur, and philanthropist. When there’s a big fundraiser in town, you know Ming is going to be part of it. Always giving back, always looking to leave his mark. When we met at a cancer charity golf tournament in 2010, I told him about Family Reach and how we help families with cancer meet their basic needs so they can access care and adhere to treatment. I could see the reality hit him like a ton of bricks. He got it instantly. A few weeks later I introduced him to a family I was working with whose beautiful daughter Darlene was in her early 20s and was terminally ill with osteosarcoma. Once he met them, heard their story, and learned how Family Reach was supporting them, he vowed to help me.

I had no idea what a profound impact his promise was going to have on me and Family Reach’s mission. Fast forward to today and Chef Ming Tsai has helped put Family Reach on the map, raised over 8,000,000 dollars for us through celebrity chef events, corporate partnerships and major gifts, serves on my Board of Directors, and chairs my National Advisory Board. He embroidered Family Reach on every single one of his chef coats and talks about the mission and our families in all of his public appearances.

His passion and sincerity for Family Reach is still palpable after all these years. He’s tireless in his pursuit to ease suffering of cancer patients, he makes me laugh, he always teaches me a thing or two about food and wine, and he’s now one of my closest friends. I’m excited to see what we will accomplish together over the next 10 years.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Personally: balance. I have interests outside of work that I’d like to spend more time on like running, pottery, and traveling with the family. My husband is an entrepreneur and business owner and has the same drive that I do, so my goal is for us to help each other take time off to enjoy the things we like to do together.

Professionally: I see the roadmap and know that I need to build an army to fix a broken healthcare system that often leaves cancer patients behind. I’m focused on building my Boards, adding talent to my strong team, and putting together coalitions and task forces to tackle specific issues to ensure our success. Family Reach has a strong understanding of the cancer patient’s non-medical journey and we will lead the charge in leveling the playing field so every patient has a fair shot at getting to the other side of cancer.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

I want the healthcare system to see people, not just their illness. To understand that you can’t just treat the disease. You have to consider the whole person, find out what’s important to them, and then administer a treatment plan to achieve physical, mental, and financial health. Split between science and business, healthcare is so two-dimensional that the patient is missing from the formula. I want my legacy to be that I saw cancer patients and their families, and worked with their talented healthcare professionals to treat the disease and its financial side effects, getting them to the other side of cancer. What excites me most about this is that it’s possible.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

Pay it Forward Movement. What if everyone did one kind thing for a stranger every day? I honestly don’t know who would benefit more — the giver or the receiver. All I know is that it feels so good to make someone smile and feel seen. I also know it’s not difficult or expensive to do. Have you ever had someone give you the penny you needed for exact change at the cash register? Or offer you the parking spot in a crowded lot when you both approached it at the same time? And remember when there were toll booths on the highway and the car in front of you would pay your .50 cent toll as you rolled up behind them in line? Those are beautiful moments of humanity and I think the world could use a little more of that these days.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn — Carla Tardif
Twitter — @FamilyReachCEO

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