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Tony Cancelosi
Profile of a Change Leader: Tony Cancelosi

As the CEO of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB) in Washington, DC, Tony Cancelosi brings more than 30 years leadership experience from the computer and software industry to his efforts to serve the blind and visually impaired.

CLB enables people of all ages who are blind or visually impaired to remain independent, active and productive in our society. Under Cancelosi's leadership they are introducing innovative programs and building the partnerships required to serve millions more across the nation. In the years to come the current population of 13 million blind and visually impaired in the US will more than double as people live longer and disabling diseases such as diabetes take their toll. Cancelosi is applying his business acumen to provide solutions.

If you have ever used a live chat while ordering from a catalog company, you have used technology Cancelosi developed as the CEO of eStara. Cancelosi also served as COO of Kee Systems, which you may recognize as Sylvan Learning, now a public company.

CLB logo Under Cancelosi Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind is expanding the number of people it serves in the DC metro area and broadening its impact with innovative programs that include Bridge to Work - ensuring veterans who are blind or visually impaired have the skills, resources and training they need to succeed in the workplace, Digital Data Scan - a competitively priced document conversion and indexing service operated by blind and visually impaired, and Rehabilitation Services - helping people who are blind or visually impaired reassert control and independence, living independently at home, school, work and in the community.

I met with Cancelosi to better understand his success and methods. Here is a piece of our conversation.

Cancelosi: There is a great opportunity here. As a businessman it's hard to miss. In this country we still don't understand the opportunity to hire the disabled. When leaders put together their strategic plans, they don't even consider it. They are worried about how it will work, what is required to change the workplace, and the impact on culture. What they need is an education. We have tools today that make hiring the blind and visually impaired a cost effective solution, providing value that adds to business growth.

In the coming years we are going to see incidents of visual impairment rise significantly - more than 25 million people in this country will have some form of visual impairment in what I call the Silver Tsunami, the great wave of increase in our aging population. We will be ready to help.  Just the psychological impact of losing your vision is debilitating. This can be minimized with all kinds of new technology available today and through retooling the life skills that make people comfortable so they can enjoy their lives. 

Kahan: How are you applying what you have learned in the world of business to help the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind succeed?

Cancelosi: I use a two-sided approach that relies on (a) business basics and (b) fund-raising and partnerships. As soon as I arrived I made sure that the organization was operating like a business. By that I mean we have the infrastructure and metrics in place to measure our performance, we are all on the same page understanding our goals, core competencies, strengths, and weaknesses.  We all need to know the same story. Storytelling is a very effective way to get the message across. 

With operations running like a business, I turn my attention to fund-raising and partnerships. Did you know more than 85% of nonprofit CEOs don't like to fundraise? Yet, this is essential to strong leadership.  I participate in the community, go out and speak, and always look out for partners who can profit by joining forces with me. 

At CLB, we are creating a national model - I have 89 other agencies like myself that are going to help with creating the low vision clinics and services. Every 7 seconds someone loses his or her sight in the US.  We need to raise awareness and link people to serve this need. People who are visually impaired or blind can reconstitute into a job and train because of all the technology available today. Of the 3 million visually impaired or blind in the US who are working age, 1.5 million are unemployed. We will bring those people into the marketplace, making our country stronger and giving them meaningful jobs.

Kahan: How do you fund raise?

Cancelosi: I look for partnerships where there is a takeaway for each person. We are both going to get something we want.  There must be complementarity, where we help each other achieve our goals... a perfect marriage. There has to be a scorecard in every potential partnership: you do this and I do that. Identify the benefit and track that scorecard. This gives us a set of metrics so we can be sure each of us is getting what we want out of the relationship.

Kahan: How did you assemble a Board of Directors to support the change work you are doing?

Cancelosi: I study the bylaws and covenants and use them to serve our mission. Many nonprofits are lax in this area. I build a matrix of core competencies that we need to succeed in our change agenda and I recruit other CEOs because they know what it takes to lead transformation. They are doing this in their own organizations. 

I pick leaders who understand how to operationalize the future. They are the best in their field. My board members are brilliant. These people understand what I am trying to do, the opportunity that is here to be realized. They understand our vision for the future and they know what it takes for us to get there. They are helping us create a new world.

Cancelosi is a change leader, applying his skill and experience to serving society, improving the world, making a difference in the lives of the blind and visually impaired. He is doing it using business smarts, helping a nonprofit to become a profit center, in more ways than one.

- Seth Kahan,

Seth Kahan is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, Project Management Institute, and NASA. He is the founder of Seth Kahan’s CEO Leaders Forum, a community of CEOs working together to innovate through the current economy. His next book, Getting Change Right: Creating Rapid, Widespread Engagement will be published in spring 2010.