When new executives join an organization, or current executives “move up the ladder,” they have to figure out the culture of their organization (or team) and determine where they fit inside this new environment. What is expected from one organization to another – or in some cases, one industry to another – is never the same. This becomes even more apparent for leadership positions.
To get a view of those challenges and how top executives can overcome them, this month we reached out to Robert Kreider, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health President and CEO, with three questions:
- What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as leader?
- How did you overcome that challenge?
- Looking back at that experience, what would you do differently?
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health is a non-profit behavioral health care organization headquartered in Villanova, Pennsylvania and operating 15 centers in 13 states. The organization employs more than 7,000 staff and offers a national network of clinical, therapeutic, educational, and employment programs and services that include: evidence-based treatment and special education; transition and independent life services; and family education and professional training. Total revenue in 2016 was $422 million (see 2016 Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Annual Report).
Mr. Kreider highlighted the importance of getting involved in the organizational culture, focusing on budget process, and listening to employees at all levels of the organization. He explained:
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as leader (either a market challenge or an internal obstacle)?
Prior to Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, I had been a bond lawyer, a health care investment banker, and a financial advisor. When I joined Devereux as senior vice president and chief financial officer in 1994 – to execute a turnaround plan I developed as an outside consultant – my challenge was two-fold. I needed to:
- Establish credibility among employees by fully understanding our organization’s mission and services
- Be seen more broadly than just the “numbers guy”
As an example, during one of my first leadership meetings at Devereux, I provided input on a particular issue involving benefit costs. Almost immediately, I was told I didn’t understand all the factors involved. Without knowing me, our centers viewed me as the “bad cop” when it came to budgets and expenses. That discussion – which revealed a lack of trust between the corporate office and our 15 centers across the country – made a lasting impact, and I knew I needed to do something about it.
How did you overcome that challenge?
All leaders may face similar challenges; they are perceived as coming from a particular place or perspective. For instance, if you are a human resources professional, it might be assumed that you see everything through an HR “lens.”
As a leader of one of the largest non-profit behavioral health care organizations in the country, I needed to get outside of my financial lens to obtain a deeper understanding of the operation. So I decided to:
Get involved – One of the first actions I took when I became chief operating officer and a candidate to eventually become chief executive officer was to create a committee to develop our first “Philosophy of Care.” This cross-functional group – including executive directors, clinicians, and other team members from all parts of the organization – set out on a one-year journey to formalize what it meant to provide compassionate, evidence-based care at our centers and in the community. I was an active and interested committee co-lead, which positioned me to better comprehend the broad and complex services we provide to the most vulnerable members of our society in the areas of autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, specialty mental health, and child welfare. As a result, I believe our center leaders started seeing me in a different light.
Improve processes – When I joined Devereux, I felt the budget process was a bit one-sided, so I decided to radically change our approach. Over a two-week period during budget season, the chief operating officer (at the time) and I started traveling to our centers to learn about their key issues and initiatives, overall strategic direction, and how they needed our help. As a result, we have an extremely cooperative and productive budget process that allows for two-way input; this has created widespread engagement from both corporate and center staff.
Listen to and empower employees – Our employees, who live our mission every day, have critical insights into how the theories of behavioral health care play out in practice. Since becoming CEO, I have been keenly focused on strategic planning. As part of my strategic-planning process, one of my primary goals is to visit all Devereux centers on an annual basis. At each center, I meet with the leadership team and also hold Town Hall meetings with a broader range of employees to help them understand where we are headed, and how they are all an important part of the bigger Devereux picture.
I also see these visits as an opportunity to learn from my team – to continue achieving that broader view of our organization. The work we do is extremely challenging and I am continually inspired by our staff who positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of children, adults – and their families – every year. Being able to meet with employees gives me the opportunity to hear, first-hand, about our centers’ successes, milestones, challenges, and suggestions to make Devereux an even better place to work. Our employees are very active during these discussions, and I am proud to say several of their ideas have helped shape our strategic plan over the last 15 years.
Looking back at that experience, what would you do differently?
One area I was unable to figure out myself was that I also needed to adjust my demeanor. Fortunately, a colleague pulled me aside one day and told me my serious demeanor was difficult to read, and that made people uncomfortable. I was encouraged to smile more and engage in small talk. In my former career as a lawyer and as an investment banker, it was a benefit that people could not read me, but in a human services organization – not so much. Turns out smiling and conversation go a long way in this business, and I should have tried it sooner in my career.
For more from Mr. Kreider check out Need Capital? A Non-Profit’s Guide To Financing New Services and Need Financing For Your Next Big Service?