lightbulbs Leading with innovation

Leaders bring innovation and strategic thinking to an organization. Explore how one CEO approaches leadership.

Successful leaders are reflective and intentional about how they prepare their organizations for the future. Great leadership provides inspiration to others on the team, and strong leaders develop others to step into a future leadership role.

Every leader brings a different perspective, and applies their own leadership style. I interviewed Melanie Barham, CEO of Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify, about what it means to be a leader.

Let's start with an introduction. Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm located in Canada, although my roles are international and national. I am the CEO of Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify (VSGD), a community based organization that supports veterinary careers. We provide career coaching, courses, events, conferences, and recruiting globally. Our audience is about 30,000 veterinary professionals.

I am also the acting CEO for Community Veterinary Outreach, a charity that provides pro-bono veterinary and human health care to homeless people and their pets.

What was your journey in leadership?

I have always enjoyed listening to issues, teaching, and designing solutions in a group - so while it doesn't always seem like my path makes sense, when you know this about me, it does!

I was an equine (horse) vet for high performance horses, and I loved figuring out their complex problems and getting to a sound, happy horse that could compete, and upholding horse welfare. After I had a child, I did a career pivot and joined the University of Guelph to work on an innovative surveillance program. While at the university, I got to take on a wide variety of roles like designing and teaching a course, doing an MBA and a project management designation (PMP), leading projects, leading national organizations, conference organization, and speaking.

I also started a blog that became a business, because I saw there was a disconnect between clinical practice, and all the amazing roles veterinary professionals could lead. During the pandemic, my blog became a business, and together with others, put on the first large scale conference online in the vet industry. We had over 1,300 vet professionals attending from over thirty countries, and our programming spanned five days and twenty hours of the day. 

In 2021, I was offered the position of Executive Director at Animal Health Canada, a national not-for-profit that partners government and industry together for animal health initiatives. During that time, I was quite busy - as you can imagine! My business ended up taking a bit of a back seat, and I looked for a collaborator. That led to a buyout, and I ended up going over to VSGD as the CEO. At the same time, I was offered a one-day-a-week role with Community Vet Outreach (CVO), which really fills my bucket on the charitable and giving side.

How do you define your role in leadership?

I think with both VSGD and CVO, because they are small but busy organizations that are scaling, I do quite a lot of the "doing." However, it is absolutely my responsibility to lead and ensure we are headed in the right direction strategically.

My role at both organizations is never to micromanage, but to provide our team with the tools, handrails, and details they need to succeed, and then let those smart people get on with their jobs. I am amazed at the incredible solutions my teams come up with that are far better than I could have dreamed of when I take this approach.

It's important also for me to be a cheerleader, and celebrate the wins we have, with a team of highly intelligent people who value detail and quality. Of course, feedback is in the mix, but zooming out to see the overall trend lines is key, and ensuring we are maintaining a positive culture.

I am continually learning and evolving, though, and I don't get it right every day. So for me, it's also about reflecting, listening to feedback, and modifying my approach.

Leadership also means coaching future leaders. What qualities do you look for in future leaders?

I look for innovators, people who are self-reflective, and willing to suggest new ideas. I think one quality that is critical in leadership is emotional intelligence, and it's something I work on actively - and often get wrong, to be able to try again.

What advice would you give to folks who want to step into a leadership role?

I would suggest to anyone interested in progressing in their career to follow their curiosity. Take on different and new projects wherever possible and stretch yourself. I am now over 40, so I'm probably a dinosaur in high tech land. However, I think one way I was able to leverage into different spaces easily is because of the breadth of experience I had in different arenas, leading different projects. I had led and experienced leading through adversity in a wide variety of experiences.

Doing different things also gives you a lot of data about what you enjoy and what you don't, what kinds of organizations you thrive with and which you'd rather avoid!

How do you balance your time between Hands-on, Interpersonal, Strategic, and Financial?

This is an interesting question, and I don't think that there's always a binary, strict answer on this day by day, or week by week. It's sort of like work/life balance - it's more like work/life integration.

For me, it has been helpful to have time blocks for deep work and tackling my day-to-day work, and also time to get creative and strategize. I get great ideas doing manual labor like mucking horse stalls on our farm, or walking my dog.

And for Financial, it's important to develop a regular business cycle - otherwise, things tend to fall off the radar. 

How do you see the landscape changing in your industry, and how do you address those challenges?

The veterinary industry has evolved in the past few years in a massive way, especially with COVID. We've seen expansion of telehealth, flexible working, flipping from an employer's market to an employee's market - the list goes on and on. I imagine (and hope) that vet med evolves rapidly and continues to change to meet the needs of a new pet and animal owning public, and the workers within it.

Equity and inclusion, and building an industry that works well for parents, women, and under-represented groups is critical. VSGD is always "horizon scanning" and it's part of our business model to do social listening.

We only develop products that our community asks for and wants. We also try to create products that push the needle forward. For example, all of our job ads require a salary bracket on them - we were the first globally in vet med to do this. It's important for equity, it's what our community asked for, and it also increases applicants to jobs - that's win-win-win.

I hope that we can continue to do our part to push forward with modernizing the vet industry.

Thanks to Melanie Barham for this insightful perspective on leadership skills. Learn more about Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify (VSGD) at or follow VSGD at @vetssgd