Case Study: Don't Judge a Human Service Agency by its Cover


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The sparkle of Clearbrook, a nonprofit human service agency whose mission is to “create opportunities for children and adults with disabilities, ” is not immediately apparent in looking at the exterior of the 52-year-old organization’s headquarters. The retail space in Arlington Heights, IL, that houses Clearbrook’s administrative offices and two business tenants that rent a portion of the space from the agency was formerly a grocery store before Clearbrook took it over in 2001.

In fact, stepping inside reveals a workplace that has clearly not been visited by Martha, or The Donald. Not that Clearbrook’s interior is substandard – its high ceilings, white walls and heavily trafficked blue carpeting are classic service industry. But Clearbrook’s sparkle doesn’t lie there, either. It starts to become apparent as you step toward a wall that’s dotted with President Carl La Mell and his VPs’ offices – a wall that showcases large, full-color photos of the agency’s 22 group homes and other care and program sites in elegant black frames. That is where the magic happens, as anyone who crosses your path in these administrative offices will tell you.

As La Mell leads you into his office (he is known by both staff and visitors for his open door policy and approachability), he is proud of the fact that the number of group homes has grown by more than a dozen since he came to Clearbrook in 1996. He’s also proud that he’s guided the agency to triple its revenues during his tenure – with inconsistent aid from the state government, even though he spends much time meeting with legislators in Springfield. However, La Mell is perhaps most proud of the commitment and development of his 650 employees.

La Mell calls into his office Hollis Gorrie, the director of the agency’s LIFE (Living and Learning in Family Environments) program, which provides services to families who choose to keep their child or adult family member with developmental disabilities in the family home rather than seek placement elsewhere. La Mell handpicked Gorrie to head the then-financially stagnant program a few years ago after he observed her leadership skills up close at a Christmas tree fundraiser. Although his vice presidents had concerns that La Mell might be “rushing her development, ” he decided to promote her from her role at the time, helping Clearbrook’s clients find jobs in their communities.

Gorrie has exceeded expectations first as coordinator of the LIFE Program and within the last year as its director. “What was a small program with 35 to 40 clients is now the organization’s fastest-growing program, which currently serves 225 families in eight counties and generates $3 million in revenue, ” La Mell says. That kind of performance is even more amazing given that Gorrie has only been with Clearbrook for six years (four of them associated with the LIFE Program), and that she found time, with La Mell’s blessing, to earn a master’s degree in psychology.

Gorrie’s personal and professional development would not have been possible if Clearbrook didn’t endorse flexible scheduling. The leadership’s position on the practice has particularly benefited the agency’s case managers, who are out of the office a good portion of the time meeting directly with client families and their developmentally disabled constituents to ensure they’re satisfied. “The flexibility we have is so nice, ” says Penny Lush, a program manager who has been with Clearbrook for 25 years. “If something comes up in our personal life and we can’t get to the office, or if we’re too sick to come in, we can hook up to the network from our home computer and still get things done. ”

Along with flexibility comes a willingness on the leadership’s part to be transparent with employees, with everything from the financials to assessing roles and goals. In fact, La Mell takes a two-prong approach to strategic planning: He follows the traditional route of scheduling priorities for the coming year at a senior staff retreat, and he also takes front-line staff out for dinner and talks with them honestly and frankly about priorities and ideas that can trickle up to agency initiatives.

The overwhelming sense of appreciation that comes from Clearbrook’s front-line staff on being so involved and having the potential to make a difference in the organization and in this field (the direct service area of the health care industry is traditionally plagued by high turnover) is one of the reasons Winning Workplaces named La Mell a Best Boss in 2006. “Our mission is huge, ” says VP of Information Technology Don Frick, “but more than anything, the camaraderie we have allows us to provide great service to people with disabilities. ”

Among the many awards and photos that you’ll find in La Mell’s office – testaments from families and communities of the good work Clearbrook is doing for a demographic that rises and falls from the public sector’s radar screen – prominent is this slogan printed out and taped to the chief executive’s inbox: “Businesses remain vibrant by meeting changing needs. ” It is clear that La Mell’s people remain just as vibrant and committed to the organization’s mission because it has shown it can change to meet their needs.

Winning Workplaces’ goal is to provide small and midsize employers with proven, practical, and affordable people practices. Too often, the information and resources needed to create a high-performance workplace are out of reach for all but the largest organizations. Winning Workplaces is changing that by offering employers affordable consulting, training and information. We help employers assess needs and develop strategies to improve their workplace practices.

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