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Advice for new leaders

October 1, 2006
by root
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Recipients of the National Council's 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award share their perspectives

The behavioral health industry is facing unprecedented challenges now and will in the future, from changes in payer and care delivery structures to revolutionary advances in how technology impacts services and operations. To gain insight into the skills and abilities the next generation of leaders will need, Lea Ann Browning-McNee of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare talked with some of the industry's celebrated leaders:

  • Marilyn LaCelle, retiring CEO of Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation in Auburn, Washington

  • Kelly (Helen M.) Dylag, CEO of the Far West Center in Westlake, Ohio

  • Peter Zevenbergen, Jr., executive director of the Wyandot Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare in Kansas City, Kansas

Each was recognized this year with the National Council's Lifetime Achievement Award. With nearly 80 years of combined experience, here's what they had to say.

What do you see as the industry's greatest challenge in cultivating new leaders?

LaCelle: I don't think we are experiencing a gradual transition in leadership, at least when you look nationally. There's a large group of leaders that is nearing retirement, but I see a sort of gap in people willing to step up and take on the leadership of our industry. I'm sure we have wonderful leaders to follow, but the timing and readiness factors concern me.

Dylag: I agree. Succession planning isn't necessarily going swimmingly. I think there's great potential, but don't yet see many who are ready to move into senior leadership.

Zevenbergen: In some ways we are faced with the same issues as public education. We have trouble keeping the great people beyond the first four or five years. Unless you have a passion for our work, you most likely won't end up in our field, but they're having to work second jobs in order to work in our industry. Otherwise, they can't pay off their student loans. It's a matter of retaining people long enough for them to reach their potential.

LaCelle: I also see fewer people of diverse backgrounds interested in moving into the industry or into leadership roles. That discourages me, because we need more diversity in the field, but particularly in the leadership positions.

So we're largely looking at our workforce issues as barriers to developing solid industry leaders.

Dylag: Exactly. It's the economics of leadership. If our industry can't offer solid, competitive compensation packages with performance incentives, we're in trouble. The emerging generation of leaders is still motivated by mission, but the economic package needs to fit for them. We can't put people in the position of “Well, if my spouse has a good income, then I can afford to lead a mental health organization.” Our boards and funders need to understand that it's a mutual investment with short- and long-term payoffs.

LaCelle: There was a time in the ’60s when making the world a better place was a broader motivator than it is today. It's still what draws most people to our profession, but they have to be able to afford to live. It's our responsibility to groom, encourage, and support future leaders. People won't just flock into the field and stay. We have to help them, and incentivize them, to stay and grow and, ultimately, to lead.

What other challenges do you see for the next generation of leaders?

Dylag: A much more pressured pace of decision making—and, of course, technology pressures. The emerging generation of leaders needs to have the leadership qualities we've come to expect, but in the context of a technologically advanced world of care and management. I think that's a great challenge.

Do you think we need more leaders with MBAs or with clinical backgrounds? We seem to be trending to recruiting more business leaders right now.

LaCelle: I'm old enough that this is the second time I've seen this. About 20 years ago, it was pretty much a royal failure because the MBAs didn't have the vision and would bail out when things got tough.

Zevenbergen: When I first got into the industry, I heard that the next wave would be those with hospital administration backgrounds. It's more of an evolution for clinicians. You come into this field because you have a passion for the people, not because you want to be an administrator.

When I started I wanted to be the best child therapist I could be. When my board asked me to lead, I had to immerse myself in learning how. It may be tougher, though, for those with a business background. When you're in business, you do what makes money or makes sense for the bottom line. In behavioral health, you often have to do what's right. I make a lot of decisions that lose us money. A good businessman probably wouldn't do that.

Dylag: I don't think clinical or business/administration paths are mutually exclusive. I do think our field benefits from nontraditional inclusion. I draw every day on my nursing/hospital administration background. It's a matter of balance. If you have that savvy, that business expertise, and it translates to your mission and to what consumers experience in your organization, then that's a winning combination. But I do remember that wave of “If you're not an MBA, you won't make it.” That's misleading.

Let's talk about the skills and experience you think the next generation of industry leaders will need.

LaCelle: Tomorrow's leaders need a lot of the same skills as today, but maybe even more so. Leaders need to be “where the buck stops” and be comfortable in that role. They have to truly keep a broad perspective and not get bogged down in the details. Most importantly, they need to earn and maintain trust if they want to inspire those around them.