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Building a Culture of Excellence

Anatomy of an agency that works

By Bob Bertolino

In 1989, after years of taking every course offered at a community college without deciding what I wanted to do when I grew up, I began a four-year program in social work at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Needing a job to make ends meet (other than playing gigs with my band at local clubs), I managed to get hired as a residential counselor at the Youth in Need (YIN) agency. Begun on a small scale in 1974 as an emergency shelter for displaced, runaway, and homeless youth, by the time I got there, YIN was seeing more than 400 kids a year at three sites, but still had a staff of fewer than 30 full- and part-time employees.

The job of a residential counselor or “RC” at the shelter was based on a 58-hour work week, which sounds terrible, but the agency allowed me to work a schedule that accommodated my schooling and even my music gigs. It was a tough grind, particularly the 24-hour shifts from Sunday at 7 a.m. to Monday at 7 a.m., but I was grateful for the $12,500 salary (not bad at the time). Besides, to my surprise, I found I was growing to enjoy the job and the milieu more and more.

The shelter was the hub of the agency. There were regular schedules to follow, but because the program was for youth and families in crisis, much of what happened on a daily basis was unpredictable. We’d be preparing dinner when the 24-hour crisis line would ring with a call from a suicidal kid. I’d spend time calming that kid, and then immediately after have to intervene between two arguing residents on the verge of coming to blows, then go back to getting dinner ready while my coworker did an emergency intake assessment.

At that time, YIN was small enough for everyone to know one another, which helped foster a sense of community and common purpose among staff and administrators. We had to rely on each other, especially in the shelter. But between 1989 and 1998, YIN grew tenfold—to more than 30 programs, operating at 25 sites. We served six counties and had a total staff of nearly 300. More than 10,000 families a year received services that included out-client counseling, emergency and crisis-placement services, long-term residential care, transitional living for teens and young adults, and Head Start and Early Head Start programs, to name a few.

Not surprisingly, with all this rapid growth, organizational problems began to emerge. Like all community-based agencies, ours was largely dependent on external funding, which waxed and waned (mostly waned) according to the state of the economy. Funding cuts meant cuts in programs and staff, and increased workloads for others, often including new assignments to unfamiliar roles and programs. Mostly the staff understood that this uncertainty came with the territory. What kept us engaged and committed was the fact that most of us truly loved the kids we worked with, each other, and our work, and would, therefore, to the best of our ability, put up with what couldn’t be controlled.

But it’s usually not external pressures, like budget shortfalls, that threaten the well-being of an agency most—it’s what happens inside, between and among the people who work there. The strength of YIN, or any agency for that matter, was its sense of community: the feeling we all had of mutual respect and support, and that we were working toward a common goal. When YIN was small, it wasn’t difficult to maintain a well-articulated mission, a sense of staff support, and mutually respectful communication between administrators and program staffers. But as YIN expanded in physical size, something else was growing as well: the agency was developing a “staff infection.” Agencies with robust immune systems—based on a clear mission, staff support, open communication—are better equipped to identify problem areas, scan and monitor for trouble spots, so that small complaints and misunderstandings don’t metastasize and infect the entire organization. Staff infections are sneaky and can do great damage if not detected early, and they’re hard to identify when people are stretched thin and stressed.

Growth and greater program diversity also meant increased administration and oversight. Soon conflicts at the administrative level came into the picture. Two program directors, both smart, committed people, got into an ongoing conflict that brought out the worst in each and also created turbulence for any staff people who fell afoul of either one. Over time, the atmosphere at the agency became increasingly toxic and staff began showing their discontent by leaving, and many of those left behind were mostly just waiting for the opportunity to leave. Frustrated at work and discouraged by the sight of so many good people exiting, I wasn’t sleeping, put on weight, and felt my own motivation waning. It appeared to me—and to most of my colleagues—that the agency was in the middle of a crisis of management and morale.

Then one day, my supervisor announced to me, without warning or discussion, that I was being reassigned to another county—a shocking and devastating blow. Just married and with a new baby, I had purchased a home near my current office. More than this, I’d been a devoted, productive employee for 10 years, and was now being summarily ordered to accept reassignment or leave. I decided it was time to move on.

A few weeks later, I began a good job with a school district where the hours, vacation, and pay were, in fact, much better than at YIN. I settled in and began my new career as a school crisis-intervention counselor. It wasn’t the path I’d hoped for, but it was an opportunity for which I was grateful. Barely eight months into my new job, however, I ran into one of the administrators of the Early Childhood Programs at YIN, who’d hired me for my first job there. She wasted no time with chit-chat. “You need to come back—we need you,” she said bluntly, saying she wanted me to start up a mental health component in the Early Childhood Programs. At first, I said no, but she wouldn’t take that for an answer. She said, “You’re the only person to do this. I know you’ll do a knockout job.”

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