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May 03, 2009
When John Rafferty looks out the window of his modest third-floor corner office at CNIB's Bayview Ave. headquarters, he can see the trees of a wooded ravine.
This is why an advocacy group calls his hiring "a step backward."
This is why he speaks of "my unique challenges" and "taking time to understand" and being "extra careful." This is why the leader of another charity says a genial man with a sterling resumé who left a lucrative private-sector job to occupy this corner office would, "in a perfect world," be somewhere else.
This is John Rafferty's burden. He can see. Rafferty's predecessor, Jim Sanders, was blind. So was his predecessor, so was his predecessor, and so was every top executive in the 91-year history of CNIB, formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Rafferty, 43, is its first "sighted" president and CEO.
His selection for the post has engendered a complicated debate about identity and employment equity within Canada's diverse blind and visually impaired community.
Some, like Sharlyn Ayotte, the blind CEO of Ottawa's T-Base Communications, argue the CNIB CEO should be selected "on merit alone."
Others, she says, argue "it's despicable they hired him."
There are many nuanced positions in between.
"I don't know," says Neil Graham, a blind computer company manager who supports the hiring, "if there is a right answer."
WEARING A BLUE DRESS shirt and a tie, Rafferty sits at a table in front of his tidy desk. He has blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. He speaks with the accent of his native England. He projects the low-key affability of a salesman you would introduce to your wife after you wrote him a cheque.
Rafferty moved to Canada in 1986. He co-founded Canpages, the directory company, in 2005. As chief operating officer, he oversaw its growth to $100 million in annual revenue. When he told CEO Olivier Vincent he was leaving, Vincent, upset, offered him a raise and the title of president.
"I tried everything, including bribing him," Vincent says. "But no, he had to go. It took me about a week to realize he really had a calling."
Rafferty, who has held senior positions with Verizon in China and Poland, British Telecom and Dun and Bradstreet, had planned to seek a non-profit job, in the spirit of public service, when the younger of his two daughters graduated high school. She is still in Grade 11. He accelerated his schedule, he says, "only because it was the CNIB." His late grandmother was blind for the last 20 years of her life.
Upon assuming the position in March, Rafferty embarked on a national tour, meeting the blind and visually impaired in every province.
CNIB is frequently criticized for failing to listen to the people it serves, he says. Part of his job is to convince 100,000 clients asighted man is the empathizer many of them seek.
To prove his commitment to their cause, he says, he will likely have to try harder than would a blind man.
"I think it is true I can't fully understand," he says. "I can understand it intellectually, can understand it empathetically. I can't understand it 100 per cent. But I don't think there's anything I can't do in the job because I'm sighted."
The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians agrees. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians is also his fiercest critic.
"YOU MUST UNDERSTAND," says John Rae, the AEBC's first vice-president. "This is not personal."
CNIB is an 800-plus-employee behemoth, its $60-plus-million in annual expenditures dwarfing those of other domestic blind groups. It provides the most services - training, counselling, camps, a national library - and has the highest profile. Its CEO is the de facto leader of blind Canada.
In 2006, CNIB removed the word "blind" from its name, in part to convey its increasing focus on people experiencing vision loss. To the AEBC, says Rae, a retired civil servant, the hiring of a sighted man as CEO is yet another example of CNIB "turning its back on the people it was set up to serve."
Rafferty can certainly do the job, Rae says. By selecting him, however, CNIB has implied that blind Canadians qualified to lead a major organization do not exist.
How can CNIB lobby corporations to hire the blind when it will not do so itself?
Accustomed to discrimination, minority groups of all types - ethnic, religious, disability - can be exacting about the identities of the people who lead prominent community institutions. The intensity of intramural leadership debates can surprise outsiders.
"This community is very complex," says Susan Wolak, a Halton police officer whose son is blind. "Everybody doesn't play nicely in the sandbox."
The CNIB board knew the selection of a sighted chief executive would prompt criticism. They chose Rafferty anyway, says chair Al Jameson, "because most important to us were our 100,000 clients and the future of the organization."
When, in 2008, Sanders announced his intention to retire as CEO, the organization was running another budget deficit a year after bleeding $11.9 million. During a recession, CNIB needed a proven executive who could quickly improve its financial situation.
A bylaw, however, reserved the top CNIB post for a blind or visually impaired person.
Uncertain they could recruit a suitable candidate from a limited pool, board members, and then general CNIB members, voted last year to eliminate the restriction.
The board still asked its search firm to seek out blind or visually impaired candidates. "If it had come down to two people, one guy who was blind and John Rafferty, with exactly the same credentials, the blind guy would've gotten it," says board member Terry Kelly, a blind singer and motivational speaker. "But that didn't happen."
Few qualified blind people applied, Jameson and Kelly say. Rafferty was the unanimous choice of the eight-person search committee, which had four blind members including Kelly.
"If you have a 747 to fly, you don't put a guy who flies a Cessna in the front seat," Kelly says. "There are blind people or people with vision loss out there who could absolutely do that job. However, they're off doing their own thing."
Kelly's intricate position illustrates the complexity of the debate. He praises Rafferty's listening skills and business acumen. He calls him "the absolute best choice." Yet he says better succession planning will ensure "we won't have this problem in the future."
Like Kelly, Harold Schnellert, national president of the Canadian Council of the Blind, criticizes the AEBC's criticism of Rafferty. CNIB, Schnellert says, had to do what was best for its future.
"In a perfect world," however, qualified blind people would always apply for and obtain leadership positions at the organizations that serve them, he says.
But perhaps some of them have better things to do, says blind lawyer Robert Fenton.
If the Rafferty hiring was a product of the unwillingness of blind professionals to apply, Fenton says, it may symbolize the community's progress, not its failings.
Fenton is counsel to the chief of the Calgary police. He may seek the CNIB leadership in the future. Happy with his current position and busy with two young children, he declined entreaties from CNIB's search firm this time.
"Most of us are pretty successful where we are. We can pursue opportunities in mainstream industry or government that may be more attractive to us than going to CNIB. CNIB is a competitor. They have to compete for qualified people like everybody else does. They don't have a monopoly on employing blind people."
He supports the selection of Rafferty. He does not envy Rafferty's responsibilities.
Among other daunting short-term challenges, applicants for the job were asked to balance the CNIB budget in 2009-2010 despite the recession.
"The way this thing is framed," says Fenton, "you basically have to be God, Jesus, Muhammad, Allah, Vishnu, and any other religious figure you can think of rolled into one to be able to do this job."
THE CHOSEN ONE walks quickly, chatting amiably, through the deserted halls of CNIB's building after the end of the workday.As Rafferty passes a set of tables, he tucks in a chair that is slightly askew without breaking stride. It is not clear if he notices he has done so.
He will run CNIB, he says, with an eye on the little things. To balance the budget, CNIB will reduce capital expenditures and limit travel and hiring; under Sanders, it announced the closure of a money-losing catering business. But there are no imminent service cuts, he insists, and he plans no radical changes.
He will attempt to "re-engage and re-inspire" volunteers, vigorously communicate CNIB's value to potential donors, correct the enduring misperception that the organization is solely for the fully blind.
And, like any businessman worth his charity paycheque, he will attempt to better serve his client base - hopefully winning over his vociferous critics in the process.
"We have to make sure clients have a voice at the table in every decision we make," he says. "It's about understanding client needs and delivering what's important to them most effectively. Fundamentally, it's not different than other organizations, in some ways."
In others, he knows, there is no organization like it.
Reproduced from http://www.thestar.com/article/628183