Uniting Stakeholders around an Organization’s Mission


July 29, 2008

by M Goldsmith

Erv Brinker is CEO of a mental-health organization established in 1967 in Battle Creek, Mich. Summit Pointe provides inpatient care, outpatient care, housing, and employment opportunities to people who need mental health services. For the first two decades the organization was in chaos, with a revolving door of top leadership that saw 12 chief executives come and go. The changing leadership was a symptom of a dysfunctional board and organization. I recently spoke with Brinker about his leadership approach and the changes he has made. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

MG: You took over as CEO in 1990 and turned the organization around. You had an unusual mix of stakeholders. How did you manage the widely varying agendas?

EB: Due to our government/nonprofit nature, our 12-member board – appointed by the county commissioners – had 5 politicians, 2 educators, 2 parents of adult children who were receiving services, 1 homemaker, and 2 business owners. Each stakeholder had different expectations of the organization and very different levels of experience.

First, we agreed on a common mission: Summit Pointe is a provider of accessible and affordable mental health care services, which promote self-sufficiency for our customers and our organization. After a few years the mission was revised to: “Making Life Work.”

Once we had the mission, we used it to align board members around what was best for the community. Board members could no longer bring up issues unrelated to the mission.

Next, we established mission-based metrics for the staff. The mission and metrics were shared with staff, parents, people who were receiving services, local politicians, county department heads, and other organizations so everyone could work in the same direction. This constant and consistent reinforcement made the mission the driving force in the organization.

MG: I love your focus on mission. Peter Drucker never lost sight of this in his writings. How do you change an entrenched staff that has been motivated mainly by politics?

EB: When I arrived, people spent their time working to avoid work or trying to gather power and control over others. Clients were treated as an obstacle to “more important things.” Many staff members knew the labor contract by heart but couldn’t tell you the purpose of the organization.

We shared the mission and metrics with everyone, making our expectations clear. We began using “customers” to describe our service users, rather than “clients.” Staff needed to realize customers are the essential ingredient of the services. They had to be served, not dictated to, or ordered around. Most staff members had worked in retail, restaurants, or other customer-service venues. We asked them to remember those jobs and the central importance of the customer. We reminded staff that our business is providing quality health care services. Again, the mission became the focus of everyone’s tasks.

MG: How did you get people aligned with the mission?

EB: A big part of this shift was building trust. In the past, our organization had treated staff as adversaries and pawns. The old message was that they weren’t capable of doing their job without close supervision and micro-management. So we started treating staff as adults and building bridges between them and management.

All employees were trusted to perform their job tasks and contribute to the success of the organization. We flattened the organization [dramatically]. With the mission and clear expectations, workers didn’t need someone closely monitoring their work. Most employees rose to the challenge. Those who were unable or unwilling were let go.

MG: Summit Pointe is a union shop. Some people believe that unions are obstructionists. Yet you found a way to work effectively with the union so you all win. How did you do that?

EB: Previously, we saw ourselves as adversaries. Then we started meeting monthly to develop a common definition of success. If the organization was to succeed, the employees also had to do well. We agreed on performance deliverables, worked together to meet them, and shared new revenue with the workforce. The challenge was having labor and management understand we were both in the same boat.

Fortunately, our union president understood and appreciated this. We would succeed together, or we would sink. We used the Ken Blanchard High-Performing-Team model to train staff how to work in teams. This helped foster the we-are-in-it-together concept and helped employees feel ownership of their performance.

MG: Ken is an old friend of mine. I am sure that he is proud of helping you make the world a little better place. What unusual ways have you found to accomplish Summit Pointe’s mission of Making Life Work?

EB: The mission means something different to each customer. One person may need time with a therapist, while another needs housing, a job, or more intensive support. We address root causes and combine our mission with revenue-generating activities.

We start businesses staffed by Summit Pointe customers. For instance, we employ 50 customers operating a Veterans Administration hospital laundry, cleaning over four million pounds of laundry a year. We also operate the VA hospital’s 9-hole golf course, with our customers maintaining the course and working behind the counter to greet golfers. Our landscaping home-improvement team cuts grass, rakes leaves, cleans yards, cleans out buildings, and takes on small construction projects, with customers providing the labor.

Together with their parents, gang members striving to leave their gang behavior behind participate in the High-Performing-Team training. They learn to work with others to increase opportunities in the community for themselves and their families. Ongoing support and assistance help them break the habits of gang activity they have learned over the years.

MG: How is it possible to maintain the changes that have occurred in the organization?

EB: Having experienced pride and success working together to complete projects, employees maintain the changes. Our culture expects every employee to contribute to our overall success. Employees own their goals, initiatives, and projects. They even set the goals for their incentive pay! It’s ownership that maintains the direction and vitality of Summit Pointe.

MG: Thank you, Erv. While most of my columns focus on business, I love to use examples about how change can be successfully achieved using innovative approaches to meeting customers’ needs from other types of organizations. How can our readers reach you?

EB: I can be contacted at erv@summitpointe.org