CEO Perspective – The Power of Networking

Interview with Paul Bolino, CEO of Community Counseling Center, Ohio The role of your organization as a community partner has grown tremendously under your leadership; was this a priority that you established when you joined the organization? Yes, this was absolutely a priority for our organization. We needed to get the word out about what we do and how we do it. When I started at the agency, we faced multiple challenges in terms of our reputation. As a result, there were no external champions to help us make a greater impact in the community, we had to develop those through collaborative partnerships. When I joined the organization, I was starting from scratch in this community. First, we had to let others know that we wanted to work with them, and then take the time to earn their trust. Fortunately, I came to Community Counseling Center (CCC) from another provider organization where community engagement was one of my central responsibilities. It’s something that I continue to work at and really enjoy. Did you set specific targets or goals (e.g. the number of new contracts or the number of new partner agreements)? No specific numbers, it was a commitment to improving our image and brand. It was both an internal and external process. Making sure the entire internal team believed in our strategic goals was important before I went outside to community stakeholders. While I didn’t have specific targets, one of the top priorities was bringing stability and building trust inside the organization. Building from my prior experience as a line staff member, manager, and then executive, I focus on being clear, transparent, and consistent in everything I do. It was key to building the trust needed to help the organization internally and then externally. Once I felt comfortable, I started to attend everything I could. We joined the chamber of commerce, participated in community events and I met with other leaders from behavioral health organizations in the region. This was our first full blown effort to promote the organization; we had to get our name out there. If there was an event, I made every effort to attend. It was a massive effort with a lot of long days, travel, and chicken and green bean dinners. Even events that didn’t seem in our lane, we still went. And I wasn’t the only one stepping out in our community. Our entire leadership team has taken this on as an essential part of what we do. It took time, but now the agency is well-known throughout the community and is sought out as a respected community partner. What have been some of the outcomes from your attention to building the organization’s network within the community? Any surprises or nontraditional partners that have yielded surprising outcomes? We are now far more well-known within the community than we were. We used to hear direct feedback from stakeholders saying that they didn’t know what we did or even where we were located. Often, I would hear “I thought you were this” and “I didn’t know you did that” from people who had been active in the community for decades. Some people even thought we were a government agency. We’re a trusted partner in the community now. We are asked to participate in community endeavors and to serve on boards of local and regional organizations. We are called upon as experts to inform community planning efforts, invited to provide trainings, and serve as community leaders in areas of resiliency and trauma-informed care. It’s led to continued exposure in the community and new business opportunities. And it all stems from successfully developing relationships and building trust inside and outside the organization. We have been able to increase satisfaction with services, recruit new board members, and engage our state and local elected officials. We were once bystanders to important policy decisions and now we are influencers that help to inform decisions that impact access and quality of mental health and addiction treatment services. For example, in 2015 we started to provide supported employment services to our clients. We then became involved in the local economic development community. Before engaging with the community and deciding to fill a gap in employment services, we had no foothold in this sector. Now, we are an active voice in important efforts to build the region’s economy. We found our role by just showing up. It’s a big investment of time for you and your team. How do you keep it up among other priorities always needing your time and attention? It’s not easy. Fortunately, I work with a tireless leadership team that is fully committed and enjoys being an active part of the social services community. I do make sure to continually call attention to the connection between the community relationships and the goals of the organization, and to encourage their efforts and successes. It helps to keep us focused and it ultimately lends itself to supporting everything that we do. When you see some longer term rewards come to fruition, it is very reassuring and helps to support ongoing efforts. For example, a recent contract to provide telepsychiatry to another agency in our state resulted from a relationship that took months, if not years, to develop. How do you communicate the value it has it brought to your organization, with funders, board members, staff, patients, etc.? Explicitly and repetitively. We recognize community partners at events and in our communications, especially through social media. We constantly talk about how we value the relationships and what they bring to the organization, most importantly how they translate to quality services for the individuals and families we serve. I talk to our board of directors about specific outcomes of the relationships we’ve cultivated, and our interest in developing new relationships like we did with the economic development community. An additional benefit of our community outreach has been an infusion of new board members with broad ties in the community; that has been exciting to see. We noticed that it’s not just you interfacing with community stakeholders. Many of your senior leaders are actively engaged on behalf of CCC. What’s your philosophy for staff taking on this role? It’s imperative that the leadership team be fully immersed in the community. I can’t be everywhere at once, and if our philosophy is that we need to be in as many sectors as possible, I know that I must empower and trust the leadership team. It took time for them to see me interacting with the community, and doing the work of being authentic and honest about our strengths and where we’re struggling. As trust grew on the team and they understood my expectations, it became easier for them to step outside their comfort zone. It does take time and effort away from our “real jobs,” but we’ve found that it sustains and re-energizes us, encourages innovation, builds leadership skills, and adds welcomed variation to the day. During leadership team meetings, everyone is quick to share and we support an open discussion to ensure we’re balancing everything, focusing on priorities, addressing any gaps in our efforts, and making sure we’re not over-reaching outside of our wheelhouse or beyond our capacity. We host a recovery breakfast series once per quarter where we invite a cross section of the community to attend. While the focus of these events is on highlighting client success and honoring their efforts in recovery, the events are also a great way to get people into our doors and see that this is a positive place. Recently I had to miss one of the events to attend an important meeting. I was disappointed that I had to miss it but it was great for our community partners to see other faces in front of the room. For me it felt great to not worry about missing the event because I work with a leadership team I fully trust. Do you have any other advice for your colleagues in the behavioral health community who may be struggling with how to find the time to outreach and meet with community leaders and participating in different coalitions, etc.? I would encourage fellow behavioral health leaders who are struggling in this area to commit to attend a meeting or event that they have never participated in before; to get outside of their comfort zone. I dislike small talk and I’m shy, which people may be surprised by, so I have to constantly work at extending myself in that manner. Sometimes attending such events is inconvenient, as these events often occur in the evenings, but it’s worth the time and commitment. I would also say that it’s important to become vulnerable; to be yourself. It sounds basic but it’s a huge leap for many people like myself in leadership roles. The positive results have been so rewarding. Instead of having to put on a persona, sharing what you do with passion and exuberance while being honest about organizational strengths and challenges is liberating. When I became comfortable, it was a game changer for me. That was my experience. One of the most critical things I realized – being yourself – it isn’t always a natural process, particularly as you move up in an organization. The skills you have as a member of the line staff are different from when you’re a middle manager or executive. There’s so much to learn and so much you’re supposed to know, it can seem overwhelming. When I relaxed and started to focus on being present and genuine, that’s when I really started to see results. We’re all just trying our best and our community partners understand and respect us for it.

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