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Taking the LEAD in empowering staff to act locally

April 1, 2008
by Randy Stith, PhD
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A CMHC empowers staff to take interest in their agency and the larger community

Randy Stith, PhD, executive director of the Aurora Mental Health Center, is shown at the Colorado State Capitol with (l to r) state Rep. Nancy Todd; Heather Dolan-Jackson, executive director of Providers' Resource Clearinghouse; and Sarah Poffel, coordinator of child medical services at Aurora Mental Health Center. Photographer: Povy Kendal Atchison
Retaining staff is one of the greatest challenges for any community mental health center (CMHC). Stressful cases, emotional burnout, and an increasing number of cases per caregiver have led to an alarmingly high employee turnover rate. For the Aurora Mental Health Center in Aurora, Colorado, the attrition rate has been as high as 30% for one year (and many CMHCs have rates much higher than this). Add to this challenge the aging workforce, the large number of executives poised to retire in the near future, and a shortage of funds for expensive employee-training programs—it's hard to see how this situation can change anytime soon.

Yet overcoming this hurdle is critical to providing successful treatment for clients suffering from all types of mental illness. A lack of caregiver continuity can significantly impact outcomes, as it is difficult to establish the client/caregiver trust and respect necessary to achieve long-term results. Positive outcomes heavily rely on relationships that cannot be easily replaced or transferred to another practitioner, making the need to resolve staff attrition even more critical.

Our Response

To combat staff turnover, CMHCs have to be creative in providing aspiring opportunities for their staff. Much like we do with our clients, we have to instill hope, the realization of dreams, and a sense of achievement and self-worth or self-actualization among employees at all levels. This was Aurora Mental Health Center's mission when we developed the Leadership, Entrepreneurship, And Development (LEAD) program in 2001.

We created LEAD to improve employee satisfaction, enhance continuity of care, and provide opportunities for staff at all levels to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills. We intended to develop community mental healthcare leaders by helping employees develop their entrepreneurial spirit and thus take ownership of improving the Center, enhancing our care, and better serving our community.

LEAD was inspired partially by leadership programs developed by Quinco Behavioral Health Systems in Indiana and the Aurora, Colorado, Chamber of Commerce. LEAD gives people the opportunity to “stretch” and aims to:

  • empower and educate employees through experiential learning;

  • enhance retention of valued employees;

  • facilitate the promotion of qualified individuals committed to the organization's success;

  • train staff to be future leaders;

  • give employees a closer perspective of the Center's mission, values, and goals;

  • enable employees to better understand the Center's role in the community and how it shapes healthcare policy throughout Colorado; and

  • increase internal communication and collaboration.

How LEAD Works

For each LEAD class we have a long list of applicants from all areas of our business: psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, case managers, administrative support staff, insurance specialists, facility and maintenance employees, and so on. Participants are selected through an application and interviewing process conducted by LEAD graduates, and about 12 people are selected for each class.

The program starts with a three-day retreat at a hotel that focuses on team building. During the next five months the team learns to identify challenges, solve problems, and collaborate across service lines. The LEAD class meets twice a month to complete the various training modules, which include:

  • personality type and lead-ership skills assessments;

  • conflict negotiation;

  • change management;

  • project planning and management;

  • financial management;

  • building and maintaining good team morale;

  • supervisory skills;

  • negotiation skills; and

  • volunteerism.

Each session is run by a volunteer committee, which consists primarily of LEAD graduates. LEAD program participants complete a required reading assignment and attend statewide meetings of organizations that have a significant impact on mental healthcare and related issues. For example, Sarah Poffel, coordinator of child medical services, and other members of the 2008 LEAD class recently attended the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council's annual Day at the Capitol and met with Rep. Nancy Todd, who represents our area in the state legislature. They were joined by Heather Dolan-Jackson, executive director of Providers' Resource Clearinghouse and the original LEAD Development Committee chair. Each LEAD class also completes a capstone project (see sidebar for examples).

Because one of the program's goals is to develop community leaders from the Center as well as other organizations, much of our curriculum involves the community. For example, for our leadership training component we bring in community leaders (such as police officers, city council members, state senators and representatives, and successful business leaders) to share insights, techniques, and experiences.


So far 68 staff members have graduated from LEAD. The program's main expense is employee time, which is easily justified by the capstone projects' results.