Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS) has been serving people in Colorado for 26 years! Explain what the organization does.
RMHS is a nonprofit that provides case management, health, and human services to about 6,000 people in the state. We primarily serve children with developmental delays and disabilities, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and veterans who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes.
It’s work that’s very dear to my heart, and has been since I was a teenager. My mother—a special education teacher—prompted me to work in a group home right out of high school. Ultimately, I earned a master’s degree in counseling and worked in an acute psychiatric setting.
I absolutely loved my work, but my career took a different path, away from direct clinical work to leadership and management roles. Still, I naturally listen to and connect with people, build relationships, and coach them through difficult times. It’s what counselors do, and it’s what I bring to the table as a leader.
That leadership has been crucial at RHMS in recent years; walk us through the journey you’ve taken.
I was brought in as Chief Strategy Officer about 5 years ago. It was a period of growth, new energy, and revisioning. At that time, the organization was broadening our approach and footprint, and my job was to map out a strategy for this new vision.
Three years later, there was a shift. There was a sudden and steep decline in the organization’s finances. We were facing a budget crisis and quickly running out of cash. The community was angry after the local newspaper raised concerns.
Internally, we went from that period of growth and energy to the close-knit group of about 350 employees feeling shocked, anxious, and uninformed. Frankly, it wasn’t clear if RHMS would survive the year.
It was in this environment that there was a change in leadership and I was asked to step in as Interim Executive Director. There was no time to hesitate or grapple with the severity of the situation. I organized the leadership team of about 10 and each morning, we would meet—limiting ourselves to an hour—and organize our priorities for the following 24 hours.
This time period was all about triage: sorting and prioritizing each operational challenge, and managing relations with employees, funders, stakeholders, and the community. We also had to figure out where we were bleeding financially with very little information available to us. Simply to stabilize the organization, we had to implement drastic cuts, including an overall reduction of about 25% of our workforce.
Throughout all this, we certainly couldn’t pause operations. It was very much like changing the tires on a speeding car. Our priority had to be to continue home visits and deliver quality services to the individuals and families relying on us. I in turn had to rely on the experts and leaders around the table to transition us out of that crisis period.
What came after that immediate crisis period?
The second part of the year was this deliberate space between the old and the new. Some of our staff were waiting for “normal” to return, but for us to survive, we couldn’t go back to the status quo. Instead, we had to do things differently.
We had to be very deliberate in articulating the processes we were using, and that this transition would take some time. Part of the strategy was to almost think out loud to employees—bring them along in the rebuilding process. Communication was more crucial than ever.
We also had to work to settle anger and frustration in the external environment. There was concern about the impacts of our financial situation. We simply opened our doors and had listening sessions to let the community be angry at us, and to say what they needed to say.
This period of communication, openness, and transparency was exactly what was needed to put a measure of calmness back into our work.
In the second year, we began working on new processes and operational changes that would be more cost effective while still serving our customers well.
In that second year, you went from the interim to permanent Executive Director, a sign in itself of stability and longevity. How are you approaching this time period?
We still have a lot of work to do that’s left over from those first two years. But now the clouds are beginning to part and we’re starting to see the possibilities that lay ahead. This will be a period of visioning and organizing in a way that sets us up for long term success.
One example: last year, we had to go through a process of renegotiating leases and downsizing our brick-and-mortar footprint to reduce our liability. This provided an opportunity to take staff out of their cubicles and offices, put tablets in their hands, and strengthen the connection with customers in the community because we know that’s where our future is.
So we’re looking to go beyond simply getting back to a positive balance sheet, at changes that will advance us into the next few years.
You have a leadership style that diverges from what history, popular culture, and our current zeitgeist define as a leader. What are your thoughts on this dichotomy?
I tend to be a very steady and deliberate leader, but I’m also inclusive and collaborative. I don’t have to be the one making all the decisions. Rather, I prefer we arrive at the best course of action collectively as a team. I don’t have to be the loudest voice in the meeting. Instead I try to make sure everyone has a voice.
This differs from the common perception that says to be a leader, you have to be dominant—the only one calling the shots. Anything less is seen as a weakness—you can’t be humble and strong at the same time. But this is an illusion.
Real strength is encouraging others to step up and use their unique expertise to take on challenges.
My role then is to guide and support. In this way, you empower your organization to be strong as a team, and collectively you can achieve immeasurable success.
This approach can be a challenge because it requires full transparency and robust communication. On my very first day as Interim Executive Director, I made a commitment to the employees to keep them informed of every decision when it is made, and the thought process behind that decision. We would directly address rumors and distribute FAQs. I still have open sessions with employees and encourage people to step into my office and have open conversations. There very rarely is a question that I won’t answer (mostly if it has to do with specific personnel issues), and if I didn’t know the answer, I would explain why.
Again, this is not in line with traditional leadership. Critics may think transparency leads to allowing stakeholders to dictate key decisions. This isn’t the case. I’m simply being clear about the decisions we make, and the thought process behind them.
As a result, we’ve begun rebuilding trust within the organization, with our funders, within the community, and among stakeholders. There is still more work to do on this front, but we’ve definitely turned a corner.
How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?
Here in Colorado, we have a very strong advocate and activist culture. This is especially true in our field, where we work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Recently, in the last decade or so, it’s resulted in an increasingly fervent call for transparency, but our organization hadn’t yet made adjustments. In fact, in response to the acute and emotional response of stakeholders to our financial situation, legislation was passed last year that lays out minimum expectations for being transparent.
We’ve certainly moved quickly to respond to the transparency movement and have gone above and beyond in this respect, and we are still working on improving our transparency.
Another way volatility affects us is when it comes to politics. A change in the party balance in the state legislature, the governor’s race, the balance of congress, and the election of a President can set the structure and tone for services funded through Medicaid, our primary revenue.
In today’s political environment, the distance between perspectives is much greater, so a change in only one of those areas has a stronger effect than it did years ago. The result can be a substantial swing in the amount of funding, the dependence on public assistance, the type of support (community versus institution), or the structure of the delivery system (e.g. switching from a fee-for-service model to a managed care model, where we’d get one block grant to cover a number of individuals for the whole year).
To prepare, we have to study these perspectives and predict where we might land on that political continuum.
Our system has about five different ways it could evolve. It’s uncertain whether in the future we will be able to deliver the same services we do today because of changes to Medicaid. We don’t know if services will be reduced for individuals or if our competitor landscape is going to change.
For example, the pervasive philosophy in Colorado is to rely on local, home-grown service organizations instead of large national companies that are opening various branches around the country. Some of the changes we’re seeing could reverse this in Colorado in favor of large asset-based managed care organizations.
So all these potential shifts in service delivery requirements and the competitor landscape amount to great uncertainty for us. For example, could we expand geographically or will we be limited to a specific region?
I think the experience navigating the complexity of that financial crisis two years ago primes us to deal with the complexity that lies ahead. Where we may have been very linear and concrete, often seeing situations as either-or, now we have a much more flexible approach to challenges.
Looking into the future, there is a lot of complexity that lies ahead. Not only is there a whole host of external factors that will impact us, but internally, there are various courses of action that we could take. The interplay of those external influences and internal factors is by definition complex.
We deal with it by prioritizing our strengths and channeling energy into what creates the greatest momentum.
Our organization has experienced great ambiguity in the last couple of years. Today, we no longer accept the excuse that “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
We seek out information (from other states, similar industries, state and federal budget information, etc.) to try to gain clarity about what we should know, but haven’t learned yet.
It is possible that we won’t learn everything, but the important thing is our attitude has changed. We now see the value in embarking on the fact-finding missions that help identify the path forward and how we’ll navigate future ambiguity.
When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?
I’m pretty low-key and I don’t panic. I tend to hunker down, prioritize, and sort through the mess one small piece at a time.
Part of my role is to help with various emotions that would bubble up among employees or various stakeholders. If as the leader, I remain calm, it helps everyone else work through their own reactions in a more productive way.
Moreover, relying on the other leaders and experts on my team helps with the burden of the various issues and concerns. For example, I have a CFO who joined us shortly after the financial crisis. He’s capable and level-headed. We talk about our finances several times a day and he will tell me when I need to worry.
So, as a team, we solve VUCA problems in a deliberate and measured way that sets us up for success in the future.
How do you react to VUCA?
At The Futures School, we applaud Shari’s cool, calm, and collected approach to navigating our VUCA environment.
It comes naturally to her, and it also comes naturally to those who have a futurist mindset. They’re able to be more adaptive, resilient, and transformative.
Do you have these attributes? Take our quiz to find out.