EP 40: A Lookback: 1.5 Years of Operationalizing a Strategic Plan with Greater Nashua Mental Health

January 25, 2024

Show Notes

The old method of strategic planning often feels like a rigid, top-down endeavor that stifles innovation and hinders genuine progress. The opposite of what it’s intended to do.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

What if strategic planning was an evolving process driven by co-creation and continuous learning?

A year and half later, Tucker and Sarah explore the powerful story of Greater Nashua Mental Health, where Dr. Cynthia Whitaker and Sheila Considine Sweeney have redefined strategic planning and used it to shift roles, power dynamics, and involve the community to bring their strategic plan to life. 

Key Moments:

01:11 The Longitudinal Study

08:33 Building Environments of Learning

15:23 The Living and Breathing Strategic Plan

22:17 The Importance of Relationships

31:45 Avoiding Compartmentalization

38:02 Co-Creation and Organizational Culture

43:20 Challenges of Co-Creation

49:50 Strategic Planning Done Right

Throughout their conversation, they discuss the transformative process of transitioning from traditional strategic planning to a more dynamic, inclusive approach. They share the importance of aligning the organization’s activities with its strategic vision, ensuring that every team member is an active participant in this journey.

The conversation also sheds light on the challenges and triumphs of this approach, offering valuable lessons for leaders looking to apply these principles in their own organizations.

For anyone involved in strategic planning or organizational development, this episode offers a candid look into the reality of implementing a strategic vision and the power of co-creation in driving successful outcomes.

Listener Links/Resources:

https://gnmhc.org/

Cynthia’s LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/cynthia-whitaker-psyd-2a851013/

Sheila’s LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/sheila-considine-57919a288/

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Transcript

Tucker:
Welcome to THRIVERS: Impact-driven leadership for the Next Normal. I am your host, Tucker Wannamaker, the CEO of Thrive Impact. And if you’re listening to this, you are probably someone who doesn’t just want to do nice things in the world, but you actually want to create positive change in people’s lives and not burnout while doing it. Well, how do you do that? Well, our mission is to redefine what normal is for workplace leadership, to be about co-creating impact from the inside out. Burnout is the enemy of creating positive change and we want to connect you with impact-driven leaders and ideas so that you can learn to thrive in today’s landscape.
And I’m joined today with a couple guests, but also my co-host, Sarah Fanslau. Sarah, our chief of impact. We’ve had a doozy of a week this week of fun and conflict and getting back into the year and all kinds of things. So it’s nice to be here with you and riffing on some important topics that we’re about to riff on. And Sarah, before we hop into the introduction of our guests, which I’m very excited about, I know we say that every time, but this is a really great one. Any reflections about what we’re about to talk about? Anything that’s coming up for you?

Sarah:
Well, like you, I’m just excited to chat with Cynthia and Sheila from Greater Nashua Mental Health and learn what they’ve been learning as they’ve been, what, it’s like year two of implementing the strategic plan is basically come to a close. So I’m just so excited. It’s like catching up with an old friend after about a year’s time. So just super excited to hear what they learned.

Tucker:
And to that point, Sarah, I’m really excited about whatever genuine lived experience learning has been happening because this is the first time we will have done a podcast with a guest that we’ve had a year and a half ago around their strategic plan. And now this is like a mini longitudinal study. I know I shouldn’t really say that, but just saying. I know for the impact evaluators like you, Sarah especially, you’re like, no, no, no. However, you know what I’m getting at, which is like, yeah, so we did all this work and now what? How did it go? How has it gone?
So that being said, let me introduce our guest, which we have Dr. Cynthia Whitaker. She is the president and CEO of Greater Nashua Mental Health in New Hampshire. And one thing I wanted to remember from our last podcast, Cynthia, that we had is that I wanted to re-congratulate you for you had won nonprofit of the year back in the day, and I think you’ve received some different awards since then, but I just wanted to congratulate you again for being a nonprofit of the year, particularly in your area of Greater Nashua, New Hampshire.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Well, thanks, Tucker. Yeah, it feels like forever ago and so many things have happened since, which we’ll get to tell you about.

Tucker:
I know, I can’t wait. And also who’s joining us who is not a guest on that first podcast but has been such an integral part of, I know, Cynthia, your journey is Sheila Considine Sweeney. Did I get that right, Sheila? I think I did.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
You sure did.

Tucker:
You are the senior director of strategic initiatives. And Sheila, I know in the work that we had historically done with you, I just remember how incredibly tenacious you were about learning and growing and getting at it and learning how to really bring the things together and so I’m so glad that the two of you are here today to be able to share your learnings from your different perspectives in your seats. So Sheila, I’m really grateful to have you here on the podcast, so thanks for coming on.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Thank you. Thank you for having me and I’m excited to be here.

Tucker:
Well, so from the last episode, just as a brief recap, Cynthia, I remember some of the things that we were talking about. You had been on as CEO for about a year and a half at that point. That was back in September. And you were charged with organizational culture, staff morale. We asked you questions around why strategic planning. You had a lot going on and strategic planning takes time and then takes resources and then takes money and it takes creative effort. And you said it’s time. We needed to pause, we needed to get alignment as an organization. COVID had changed the landscape of mental health and we need to get aligned on where we’re going as an organization.
And you shared a little bit about the approach that we took you through, and I’m not going to go through that part because we have it as a podcast and people can listen in. But just for the sake of context, last time we talked, we had just essentially ended that strategic planning part and started really kicking off into the organizational or the operational part of the strategic plan. And so I’m excited to dig in a little bit, especially around how have things been going? How has your operations around this and operationalizing of the strategic plan really been going? So that’s what we want to dig in with you all a little bit. Before we get into the questions, any reflections at all before we hop on in?

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Well, so our podcast was September of 2022-ish, somewhere in that timeframe. So that was even before Sheila moved into her official role as the senior director of strategic initiatives and really taking on fully the process driver of the strategic direction. So there’s been a huge shift since that podcast that I think really has helped us operationalize, keep the momentum and the movement going. So that’s kind of interesting to think about just how far we’ve really come because that feels like forever ago and yesterday at the same time. It really does. And I would still say that this process absolutely has been the foundation of creating alignment as an organization. I mean, I feel like we’re so more aligned around values, mission, but having the impact pyramid and the pillars, it just gives us such clarity and continuity of the language that we use that there’s no question about where we’re headed and what we’re up to. So interesting you pulled that piece from the podcast because that’s so true. So true.

Tucker:
Wow. And you’ve really seen the strategic part of the strategic planning process, that alignment has really been brought forward and it sounds like you’re noticing that, yeah, there’s no question, we all can collectively know where we’re going and we’re continuing to just align our strengths in order to get that, but there’s not a question around where we’re going. That’s fascinating.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah, definitely not. Yeah, it’s so interesting to be this far into the process now and say, yeah, that actually did happen. It wasn’t just like words, right? Well, we hope the strategic plan helps us align in our values as an organization. No, it actually really did. It really did.

Tucker:
Yeah. Wow, that’s cool. Sheila, any reflections at all before we hop into some of the other questions? Curious what’s coming up for you.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
I guess for me, the strategic direction, it’s like what I live and eat and breathe all day long every day. I forget that’s what I’m even talking about now. It’s just so inbred in my conversations with everyone and making connections to the work that they’re doing I’m like, yeah, that’s what we do. That’s what we’re doing. Where before it was more thoughtful. I had to think about what I was saying, and now it’s just like who I am now. I talk about our strategic direction, I talk about our pillar. This is year two, I’m wondering what year three’s going to feel like.

Tucker:
I know, we need to so create a impact pyramid t-shirts or something.

Sarah:
You and I [inaudible 00:08:17] send it.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
We did actually put some of the pillar pictures on the back of a t-shirt that we used in a NAMI Walk. No joke. The pictures, the icons that represent our pillars went on the back of a t-shirt. No joke.

Tucker:
Oh my gosh, that’s so good. I love that. Well, I’m curious, as we’re reflecting on from whence we came back in the day and to where we’re at now, I’m curious, just a simple question around one of the main pieces of our work at Thrive Impact is around impact-driven leadership, is around building environments of learning. And I’m particularly curious what are the things that have continued to come back and come up and have been sticking from the process that we all went through and the journey that you’ve been on around operationalizing, and also to the opposite of that? What was like, oh, that was nice, but it never really stuck? So again, just wanting to get an honest take. What have been the things that have continued to come back that you hear naturally in language that people share, whether it’s tools or principles or language that we co-created together, whatever it might be, what’s been sticking and maybe what hasn’t been sticking or never did stick?

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
I think the word you just used, the co-creation actually as a concept is what sticks. And so we co-created the strategic direction with the process that you all facilitated us through, but we’re also co-creating now how we operationalize it and the work that it happens. And I think this is a really important shift that we made between year one and year two, which I’ll let Sheila talk about, but the staff being part of our pillar work groups, and so they’re still co-creating. It wasn’t we co-created the plan and now the co-creation ended, we’re still co-creating. And so I think for me, just adopting that mindset or shifting that culture within our organization is huge. I mean, just huge.

Tucker:
How have you seen that play itself out? What does that look like in a meeting or in a pillar group connection? Like what are some of the nitty-gritties that you can think about of like what that tangibly means for the organization?

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
I mean, Sheila can give you some examples. I mean, I would just say just the fact that staff bring forward ideas. It’s not a top down, this is how we’re going to achieve this target, what do you think? Or even defining the targets. Sheila can give an example of one of the groups defining the target of what it would be. So I think that’s really it. So Sheila, what have you seen inside the pillar work groups that’s really shown that?

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
I think a great message that the pillar groups have heard in year two, you may all remember that our previous coaches were members of our senior leadership staff. And they took a step back into the mentor role and we brought in new champions with the message that our staff can create, can co-create, they don’t need to have information driven down to them from senior leadership as a directive. And it got early on in the second year, it was like, well, do we need to ask permission to do this? And it was no, we’re informing. We’re not seeking permission from Cynthia or from the senior leadership team, we’re informing them on the work that we’re doing because we’re working within the bounds and the expectations of the strategic direction.
So that was a little scary for staff, I guess, or anxiety provoking. They’re like, we don’t have to ask permission? I’m like, nope. I’m here, I have permission for us to be able to do these things. I’m process driving that. So that was exciting that we were just informing on the work. Also, I think what’s happening is I found as the process driver, there’s much more strength in our pillar groups when our pillar groups work together to collaborate, to enhance, to drive the work even further than what they could do in their individual pillar groups. So in particular, one of the things that we did with the impact pyramid is that we shifted where intentional development lives. Now it’s living directly underneath excellence of care and…

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Empowering community.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Empowering community. I almost blanked out for a second. I’m like, that’s not good.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
We’re really aligned. We’re really aligned.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Yes. But I almost see it as the oldest definition even of Atlas holding up the world, in a way. It’s supporting that work. So I remember with Sarah and you and I were talking about our year two project plans. I kept on saying cross pillar collaboration is so important to me. That word just kept coming back because I want them to work together. So for an example, excellence of care and intentional get and development are working together on the access issue. Intentional development is helping rolling out centralized scheduling in our substance use disorder and drug court department. They’re creating dashboards to assist with wait times, wait to first appointments, no-show rates. Intentional development is working with empowered community to help us have a broader reach in the community to gather information about our community needs assessments and our focus groups.
Their working together is making our work propel forward at a faster speed than what I expected. So Cynthia, earlier in the, I don’t even remember if it was June, she said to me, what is a target? What percentage of overall outcome indicators need to be completed by the end of year two? And we came up with the 25% mark needed to be completed. I’m already at 20%. We’re cruising and I think it’s because of the work of the pillar groups together.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Which I mean, that’s co-creation, right? And so even there, it’s not, oh pillar group, you do this. Pillar group, you do this. There’s co-creation across the pillar groups, across everybody and so it just creates such momentum.

Sarah:
I love that. Well, and I’m curious, as you think back before the strategic direction and how departments were working previous, are you seeing like, is this a shift in the way that departments within Greater Nashua Mental Health are working together in general? Curious about has that shifted the work or is it kind of just shifting the work at the strategic direction level? Curious what that looks like?

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
No, I mean my perception from a higher level is it’s shifting it all. I mean, it’s a journey. It’s not flip a switch and it’s there, but there’s certainly more collaboration, more connection across departments. And even when I think about our pillar groups, we put together pillar groups that are across departments. So then people are together across departments working on a project. So I do think there’s more recognition that a decision impacts multiple departments, that there’s more connection just across the agency. So yeah, that idea of co-creation, collaboration, it not only stuck, but I think it’s kind of becoming the core of our DNA really.

Tucker:
That’s so great. I want to dig into something, Sheila, you just said a second ago. And just for the sake of clarity for our listeners, there’s impact pillars, they had three of them. They had an impact foundation, which is around what needs to be true about our organization in order to achieve these three impact pillars. Of course, underneath those, there are a lot of measurements and things like that in order to see are we actually achieving those? And then the pillar groups are for you have a group literally for each one of the impact pillars specifically.
And one of the things you said a minute ago, and I know when we kicked off the journey of the implementation and the operationalizing, that the directors or sort of the executive team or I don’t know what the right language is, but were the champions for the pillar groups. And then there was that shift, and I think that’s really a big deal. You used the word mentor, that they became mentors and then other staff were now essentially the champions for the pillar groups. That’s a big deal. That’s like a really big deal. And I just wanted to dig into that a little bit of why was that so important to shift power and shift role in the way that your executive team was really working?

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Well, I’d love to share that, and I think part of it was, A, Cynthia was very gracious in listening to me one day when I had some thoughts going into year two. I shared that your senior leadership team has a big presence, big footprint, big personalities, and with all due respect, sometimes it gets in the way of other participants in the group from sharing their experience, strength, and hope for the pillar groups. And do you think in year two, maybe you can step out a little bit, step back into more of a coaching role, a mentor role, and Cynthia was very gracious and heard me.
And I talked about the situational leadership model that I felt like I was in a place where I could step to the next level of situational leadership and fully embrace the process driver role and that what I needed at this time from senior leadership were to be available and to be supportive and be mentors when I needed it or when I felt the groups needed it and they entrusted me with that. So now my senior leadership team are mentors and I have champions that are not just directors, some have other type of positions within the agency. I really wanted to focus on who has the passion, who has the drive to steer the ship with me, and it didn’t have to be designed by a title.

Tucker:
That is so fascinating to me. That you wanted to harness the energy of the room and we didn’t want to let any kind of roles or maybe hierarchy or position to get in the way of letting the energy in the room in the groups to be able to come out. That’s kind of what I’m hearing.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Absolutely. I wanted the groups to feel that their thoughts mattered, that it had just as amount of weight regardless of their position or role at Greater Nashua Mental Health because that’s what co-creation is about. It’s not about title, it’s just what does Jamie have to say? What does Donna have to say? That’s what’s important to me. And I honestly don’t even call the champions, “champions” really. They know who they are, but I don’t really use those terms. They’re just the person who’s kind of overseeing the process in the group for me. I don’t call myself the process driver really. I’m Sheila and I am kind of making sure all these pieces go together for the strategic direction. I really want it to be about all of us. It’s about Greater Nashua Mental Health. It’s not about the hierarchical structure. That is so important to me when I’m working with the strategic direction.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
So if I were you, I’d be asking what made that possible?

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Yeah, I love it.

Tucker:
Go ahead. This is great. I’m just like, this is amazing.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Because it wasn’t easy. I’ll tell you it wasn’t easy. A, Sheila has a lot of history with our organization, so though she shifted into this role as we were implementing the strategic direction, she’d done a knockout job of directing one of our other programs up until that point. So we have a lot of trust in her, so that certainly helped. And I would say that one of the things that we did to ease the angst that maybe some of the senior leadership team, even myself, have around that is we increased the amount of time Sheila was spending with us.
So my senior leadership team, we huddle daily, but we have kind of two weekly meetings. And so at first, Sheila was coming to one of those weekly meetings every now and then every month. Then it became then it’s every other week and now it’s like, okay, what’s on the agenda? Does Sheila need to be here today? And so at minimum it’s every other week, but some months it might be every week because there’s just a lot she’s juggling or that she needs our input on or that she wants to make sure she’s working in the right way, that she’s driving it in the right direction, make sure that she doesn’t get a big giant veto later on because that would be really negative to have happen. And so making sure that was part of our cadence in our meetings was this constant check-in just allows it to live outside of us, but to still have our fingerprints on it to know that it’s going in the way we want it to go.

Sarah:
I’m hearing you increase the rhythms around meeting, but also that it sounds like, and I know, Sheila, right before we ended our coaching relationship we talked about roles in the DARCI framework, right? Decision-maker consulted, informed, and I’m hearing that language as you all are talking about who needs to be informed versus maybe who the decision-makers are. And I’m curious if DARCI has been something that has lived on as you all have thought about who needs to do what across these different entities?

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Yes, I would say it definitely has lived on. For me, I reflect on it regularly. I’ve actually been known to pull out the framework and look at this, okay, this is what I’m challenging myself with. What boxes do I need to check? And it’s helped ground and center me and allow me to feel more confident in the things that I can make decisions on or allow me to say, okay, I need to touch base with another decision-maker or what do I just need to inform? It’s allowed me to troubleshoot on my own a bit and has allowed me to grow. I think, Sarah, since we stopped our coaching sessions back in, I don’t even remember when it was, May-ish maybe, I think I’ve grown to a place where I feel very confident when I go into senior leadership.
These are my asks, these are my needs, these are the things I’m informing you about. And I think I’ve become attuned or in tune with what I think the feedback’s going to be already. I’m already proactively anticipating that feedback from… I think I’ve formed relationships with each member of the senior leadership team, so I know what might be a worry or a concern. With our CIO, my pushing of staff too much with certain projects. And I know I need to go and say, I know, I hear you. You’ve got major projects and I’m being very respectful of that. These are my asks. So I think that relationship building has been so helpful with me coming to senior leadership. I have a relationship with each one of them individually now. That’s helped me move my work forward because it isn’t always like I need Cynthia. I really need Maureen Ryan, our COO, and I need this from her. So I’ve become more targeted in my asks [inaudible 00:26:13].

Tucker:
This is great. I’m particularly curious about one of the things we’ve noticed a lot lately, not even lately, just in general, is strategic plans are, again, this sort of this thing on the shelf and people work on it, but we have our other work and they’re kind of like in these separate little categories. I’m curious what that looks like for you all. We talked about alignment at the beginning and you mentioned, Cynthia, alignment with Sheila helping to drive the process of the strategic direction and your senior leadership team. How are you seeing it either come together or are there still any kind of like a compartmentalization of the strategic plan? I’m curious about that because compartmentalization is such an issue like oh, yeah, this, but then we have our real work over here. And I’m curious how you’ve come out of that and how you-

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
It’s funny because my brain goes in two very divergent directions and one is certainly a lot of strategic plans are very strategic, very in the clouds and you sort of hope by the end of the thing you go, oh yeah, we actually did it, right? Because you created these other plans off to the side. But the strategic plan that we had here before this one was actually a glorified operational plan. And the board was almost too into the weeds for us. I mean, it was really low. And so where we’re at is, to me, is like in that happy medium. We wax and wane a little bit here and there, but where we’ve got this great strategic direction, that clear identified outcome indicators of who we want to be, what we want to achieve with access, with penetration rates into our communities, those big things. But it ties right into, and here’s the tasks we need to do operationally to do it.
I mean, a perfect example of this is our senior leadership team has off sites every quarter and there is no way for our team to do that now in the doing part without Sheila there. Because we can’t have then, well what’s most important now? What’s our operational plan for this? We can’t have that conversation without the context of the strategic direction. And while we could pull out the paper and we could refer to it and we could pull out the project plan and all of this, it’s just easier to have her be part of the conversation. So to us, to me, they are one and the same.
It does identify for us what’s most important right now. And if it doesn’t, we’ve set the expectation with the board that we’re going to come back at them with a changed plan. We’re not going to wait for three years from now and say, oh, well the context changed, that’s actually not the direction we need to head. So we’ve already created a V2. At the end of year one, we presented a V2 of our plan and we plan to give them a V3 at the end of this year that will have some success targets identified, some outcome indicators removed and become a success target underneath a different outcome indicator. It’s just because we see it as a learning, growing, living… And I think that’s why there is a disconnect for a lot of people is because the plan is a plan. It’s not living and breathing. And operational plans are living and breathing. But if you see the strategic plan, or the strategic direction as we call it, as living and breathing, then the two can be merged.

Tucker:
Yeah, it’s almost like the more that we learn and have a static plan, the more that those converge.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Right.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Exactly.

Tucker:
Or diverge, not converge, but diverge into compartments because, I mean, we’ve seen this with quite a few organizations this year of the staff is learning into the strategic direction or the plan and the board is holding them to the letter of the plan when it was created and it creates rifts and it creates compartmentalization, actually creates rifts in relationship, too. And when it grows more and more irrelevant to the staff basically. So I hear what you’re saying is you have an annual process of updating the version of the strategic direction, so that’s like an existing rhythm that your board is expecting, you’re expecting, we’re all expecting so that way it can be updated to current learning and knowledge.

Sarah:
Sheila-

Tucker:
Oh, sorry Sarah. Well, and the last thing is I’m noticing with what you’re sharing is you have somebody who almost like I hear you saying that, Sheila, you own the voice of the strategic direction and how important that is.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
I co-own it.

Tucker:
There you go. Co-own the voice of the strategic direction so that way people can… Like you’re a mentor to others, including the senior leadership team, around wanting to make sure that we are in alignment. Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m hearing. That’s really fascinating.

Sarah:
Sheila, I was going to ask if you can give us an example and our listeners an example of something in the strategic plan that you all have updated. Just to give people a real kind of nitty-gritty example of something you’ve said we’ve learned into this and we’ve adjusted it this way.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
For our V2, I don’t think we did major changes to the strategic direction. It was more providing better context around definitions or words within the strategic direction to give them more meaning to our staff like person-centered planning. It was important for them, or prevention, have it first for our staff, for our board, everyone to have a better understanding. So it was smaller tweaks I think for V2 was what I would like to say. I think it was very important to look at the impact pyramid and make that change because it really wasn’t an appropriate visual to the work that was happening.

Sarah:
With intentional development underneath excellence of care and empowered communities.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
Yes. I think that was important. Today in my office we were talking about a V3. Like come June, we’re going to need to start working on a V3. And if you said that to me a year ago, I probably would’ve been like, Cynthia, what are you talking about? You know, you’re scaring me.

Sarah:
What? And you’re me more work?

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
I don’t know how. But now for me it’s like, yeah, that makes sense because everything I talk about when I talk to staff, and I talk all the time to staff, and they’re talking about their work, and I will sometimes hear some resistance about things and I’m like, you’re already doing the work of the strategic direction. I just need to connect the dots for staff. I think that’s when they have that aha moment. Like when I talk about excellence of care and I start sharing, well, that’s about consistently seeing your clients and wanting to see clients sooner rather than later and connecting the dots about the work that we’re doing, it starts to have those aha moments.
And it doesn’t seem like, I’m not going to minimize demands that we all have because we have multiple demands throughout the day, but if you can see how things are interrelated and how some of the work and the initiatives that I’m trying to do within the pillar groups can help another staff member do their job more effectively or be able to spend more client facing time, it’s been very helpful. A big part for me, I want buy-in. So I go around and I talk about ways to get someone’s buy-in. Am I positive? Am I authentic? When I think, I think about our values of our strategic direction and I try to encompass those values every single day. I wasn’t able to join a management council meeting today, but the chat was going when I was attending another meeting and Cynthia asked a question about what would you celebrate about you or your team over the last year?
And I thought, I’m like, you know what? I’m going to answer that question because it’s important. And it was about valuing my team’s ability and my ability to have a can-do attitude. To be authentic. To be positive. To flex when things get challenging and difficult instead of going, can’t do this. Too much work. Too much to this. You know, flex and pivot. And I try to embody the values of our strategic direction every single day in every single meeting. And I’m not talking about being Pollyanna, it’s just like when I come into Greater Nashua, these are our values and I’m going to put my best foot forward every day to embody those. Because if I don’t do that, how can I expect another person in my agency to do that? So I need to role model that. Even when the days it’s hard, you still do it.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah, you still do it. So true.

Tucker:
Oh my gosh, this is such a rich conversation, especially about the nuts and bolts. I think that’s where people get hung up on. I’m hearing rhythms, I’m hearing the role, Sheila, that you play and how important that is. And I’m hearing from that first question, which we really just riffed on that one, of what’s been sticking is co-creation is the way forward and it’s been sticking. And not only has it been sticking, but I’m hearing that it’s been really beneficial for, I mean, the things you were charged with, Cynthia. As you were talking about, you were charged now, what, three years ago or so? How long has it been?

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah, I’ve been in this role for three and a half years now.

Tucker:
And you were charged three and a half years ago with helping to support the morale. You were helping to improve the organizational culture, improve community connections. Those are all the things that, like you’re the new CEO so go fix it or go make it way better than it is now. And it sounds like co-creation is at the crux of that.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah, and I would say that it’s not even just internally. So our empowered community pillar, it’s in there that the community is part of what we do. So we have an advisory group made up of individuals from our community, people with lived experience with mental illness, either themselves or their family members, who Sheila’s constantly talking to who are also supporting some of these things. So an example, client satisfaction is one of our targets within our strategic direction.
Well, not only did the pillar group look at it, but the advisory group looked at it. If they were to get this survey, what reactions would they have to the questions? Do they understand the questions? So it was even externally to us. So the advisory group is kind of ours, if you will, but they’re external members of it, co-creating even with them and that constant loop of feedback and iteration and no one person or no one group has the answer and no one period of time had the answer. So that example you gave, Tucker, about a board holding them to some plan that was created three years ago, I mean, that assumes the people of three years ago could predict today and they can’t.
So of course there needs to be iteration and acceptance of the learning that’s happened along the way, but I think there’s always concern that somebody’s fluffing it to make it look better. Oh, you’re just making that change so it looks better. And so a big part of the buy-in with the board, which of course that’s been my responsibility rather than Sheila’s. Sheila’s really doing the buy-in from the staff and I’m really doing the buy-in from the board. Has been to help them see the rationale for the change, to see the numbers, like even when they’re not so great. We didn’t change this target by that pilot, so we tried this pilot. It’s shifted our numbers a little, so we want to change the whole direction because we want more of that. And so just being transparent about the why behind the change, I mean, it’s imperative, it’s crucial. And then it becomes co-creating it with the board. They can see my rationale and they can buy into it or not.

Sarah:
I’m curious, Cynthia, as you think about the board and the strategic plan and direction as it is right now, curious your reflection on how that’s going as you all are living into almost its third year? What have you learned? What has the board learned, do you think? Curious.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
I think we started probably a little too heavy on trying to quantify everything and missed a lot of that “so what?” impact message with the board. I think we assumed they journeyed with us to create the strategic direction, that they understood the “so what?” and the why, and that’s not the case. I mean, yes, they do because they were part of it, but they don’t do it every single day like we do. And so just saying, oh, here’s how we’re monitoring this one or we’re at this percent with this one hasn’t quite been enough. Yes, it makes a nice metric, but it doesn’t get them to continually engage in it the same way talking about the client satisfaction and showing it to them and like this is what we’ve done and this is how we’ve leaned into it or the why behind it that I think we’ve shifted to a little bit more in this second half year of year two. It’s just been really important.

Sarah:
Both that kind of qualitative storytelling side and combined with the here’s where we’re at, here’s progress toward the things.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah.

Sarah:
Well, I’m curious, Sheila, as you think about your top learnings over this period of being the process driver, what would you say your kind of core learnings are? And maybe for both of you, adding on a bonus question, what’s been the hardest thing? What’s been the hardest?

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
I’m going to start with the hardest.

Sarah:
Do it.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
I’m going to do that. As much as I love co-creation and believe in co-creation, I’m a teeny, teeny bit want to be in control sometimes.

Sarah:
I’m right there with you.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
You know, I love it. I’ll take empowered community. I was the former co-champion with Cynthia of empowered community and I feel bad for that group now after thinking about that.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Me too actually.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
And then when Cynthia stepped back, I also needed to step back. I put in a champion and I was going to truly be the process driver. And it was like driving a car with your teenager. You teach them to drive. You’re like doing one of these. Couple times [inaudible 00:43:10].

Tucker:
Watch out for that place. Watch out for that place!

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
And that was the hardest thing for me. And because I truly believe in my core my champions know exactly what they need to do and they’re going to get it done. And I had to sometimes I’m like, no, Sheila, you’re going to close it and you’re going to let them do what they need to do. And if it doesn’t work out, we’re going to course correct. Allowing that opportunity for-

Tucker:
For learning.

Sheila Considine Sweeney:
… Mistakes to happen. Because mistakes are bad. And that’s what I keep telling my pillar group workers. Like, we’re going to try this and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean we failed. It means we learned and we’re going to apply it somewhere different. So that was the hardest thing for me to do. My biggest learnings, it reinforced me. I think this is where I really needed to land professionally in some ways because I’m a really good project manager. And the bigger the project, the more passionate and exciting I get about the work. And being able to work across departments and within the community has allowed me to unleash another set of skills and professionally develop in a way that my previous position, it didn’t let me get there enough.
It was like when I went to Cynthia about a particular grant, I’m like, we really need to apply for this. Please, please, please, please. And we did and we got it, but I knew it was a huge undertaking. But I think the agency’s allowed me to grow professionally. And make mistakes and learn from it. Allow me grave… You know, mistakes aren’t bad. I can make a mistake and not feel like, oh my God, I’m going to be in trouble. It’s like, okay, this was your rationale for the decision you made. There’s a consequence and accountability and a learning process for it, but you move forward. And that to me has been an amazing learning and take away.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah. So good, Sheila, so good. I don’t know that there’s too much more to say because I’d say some of my hardest parts, very similar. Like the letting go, the outcome I have in mind is a good one, but letting the process outlay, it might be an even better one. And so just letting the process work. I mean, it works, right? It works. I think one of the other things for me is I think about how this model, having this direction, doing what we’re doing with pillar work groups, it really is an example of a lot of things that are just good leadership and how that can be hard. Sometimes leaders get in the role we get in because we’re really good at doing something by ourselves. I get shit done, pardon my French, so therefore people look at me as someone who should be promoted because I get shit done.
But if as a leader my only way of getting stuff done is by myself, that actually isn’t leading, it’s just checking the things off. And so I think another thing that’s hard is that constant, no, we’re a team. We’re a team. I have to ask for help and it’s okay to ask for help. And it’s actually not a bad reflection if I ask for help, it’s actually a positive one because it means I’ve embraced the team and the whole moving forward, not just me as an individual moving forward. So it’s just really reinforced the importance of that mind shift for me as the leader as a CEO.

Tucker:
Yeah, it’s like a whole other operating system to have, I guess for simplicity, top-down leadership versus co-creative leadership. And I think this has been such a wonderful gift for, I would say for me too, but also I think for people to hear the nitty-gritties of leaning into this new operating system, this next normal of leadership of you all are impact driven leaders and you are doing it because you’re measuring it and you’re co-creating those measures and you’re creating impact from the inside out. I’m hearing all these things that you all are doing that is so relevant to our day and age right now. That is healing for people, that is inviting them into, I mean, Sheila, when you were just talking about your own role and inviting you into a better and a brighter you even in your own professional space. These stories have been just bringing such a big smile to my heart in hearing them. So thank you both for being on this show. Thank you for coming back on, Cynthia, and sharing where you’ve come and where you’re going. And maybe we’ll do another one in a year and say like, hey, now what’s going on? How’s V3?

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
We’re on the calendar now, right? [inaudible 00:48:46]

Tucker:
Well, thank you so much though for just sharing your wisdom because I think a lot of nonprofit leaders especially and any impact driven leaders who are creating strategic plans and strategic directions, it is such a pain for most people. And then we spend all this time and all this effort and all this energy, all for what? All for it to sit on the shelf gathering dust, and in a worst case scenario, creating animosity and tension between a board and the staff. None of us want that. So why are we doing it in a way that leads to that? Let’s do it in a way that does it to what we want, which is what you’re doing. And so I just really applaud you for being reflective of yourselves and leaning into co-creation. That’s incredible. Awesome.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Yeah, thanks Tucker. And I think that’s the big thing, too, is the strategic plan is not a one and done check mark, right? I mean, there’s so much work to implementing it and thinking about that in the creation of it, what’s the op going to look like? How are we going to do this thing is as important as what are we going to do?

Sarah:
Yes.

Tucker:
So true. The what’s good and the how is just as important. Well, thank you for the time. And listeners, we’ll put a link to Greater Nashua Mental Health. You can take a look at them online at GNMH.org, if I’m not mistaken. Did I get that right? Yeah. And if you ever want to reach out to Cynthia or Sheila on LinkedIn, I’m sure they’d be happy to answer any questions or thoughts. What a great episode. I’m so happy and so grateful for you all and your leadership. Awesome. See you everybody.

Sarah:
Thanks y’all.

Dr. Cynthia Whitaker:
Thank you.

Sarah:
Bye.