An Interview with Carl La Mell, CEO
Carl La Mell has spent the last 21 years as the CEO of Clearbrook in Arlington Heights, IL. Based in Northern Illinois, Clearbrook was founded in 1955 and has since evolved into a recognized leader in the field of intellectual/developmental disabilities. Today, Clearbrook creates innovative opportunities for those with disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy – as well as their families. Clearbrook provides personalized children’s, adult day, employment, residential, and clinical services at more than 50 locations in 14 counties throughout the Chicagoland-area. In addition, Clearbrook is the largest provider of home-based services in the state of Illinois and proudly reports that 92 percent of every dollar raised goes directly into programs and services.
Carl La Mell has spent the last 37 years expanding services, influencing policy, and improving the lives of thousands of people. Born December 30, 1945, Carl has spent his entire life living in and supporting the people of Chicago. Graduating from DePaul University in 1968, his path to a career serving the intellectually and developmentally disabled was not direct.
“The winters of 1977-1979 in Chicago were the most brutal we’d had. I’d been in the restaurant business, but following those winters the restaurant closed and I had a child to support. I saw an ad in the paper for a non-profit in Logan Square. I went to the interview, and the interviewer and I were both hippies, so we hit it off. I was brought on to be the bookkeeper for an agency, the Victor C. Neumann Association. At the time, they had 17 staff and a $700,000 budget. I didn’t know a thing about developmental disabilities.
A year and a half later, I was promoted even though we didn’t have any money. To give you an idea of how poor we were, the day after I started, the IRS walked in saying we owed $28,000. I told them to go away, because I couldn’t write them a check for $0.28. I paid off the tax bill within five years; one of the board members took out a second mortgage on their house to help pay it off.
I became the CEO in 1981 and helped create the group home movement in Illinois. The agency grew to 300 staff and a budget of $10 million. I was also on the state’s Rate Committee, trying to make it an individual rate, not a generalized rate.
Other agencies started seeking me out, and I was attracted to Clearbrook. I was shocked when they eventually hired me. At the time, they had a 92 bed facility and during the interview they asked me what I would do with it. I told them I’d shut it down. I also told them I didn’t like workshops, and would shut that down as well. When the headhunter called to tell me they wanted to speak to me again, I said, “I think you have the wrong number.”
I started at Clearbrook on January 1, 1996. They had an $11.5 million operating budget, 6 CILAs and some ICFs. Now our operating budget is $45 million and we have 50 CILAs, ICFs, and the largest in-home program in the state. We’re also essentially the 1-800 number for families who want therapy for a client and we serve over 8,000 families a year.
Over the years, I’ve served on every committee there is. I served on Obama’s Presidential Committee for People with Disabilities for three years. Since it was a national committee, I enjoyed meeting and participating with people from all over the US.
When the CEO left Victor C. Neumann 2 years ago, I subbed in and ran both agencies for 10 months. Even though I hadn’t worked there in over 20 years, they came to me.”
Carl is currently in the process of transitioning the agency to its new CEO.
“My successor has been at Clearbrook since August. The process has been a model for successful transitions. I believe non-profits should look outside the organization to fill positions for two main reasons. First, someone from within is really just moving a desk. They have preconceived notions and baggage. New people are more thoughtful and critical. Bringing in someone new also brings the board in a little closer because the board has to develop trust with the new hire. It invigorates the organization from top to bottom. My motto is “change, just the way things are.” Changing keeps people motivated.
Like all agencies. Clearbrook has been impacted by a multitude of changes over the years. From government mandates to changing culture, Carl has overseen growth and adaptation during his tenure.
“Two years ago, I realized something that hasn’t changed in my entire career. I keep getting older, but the people coming to work for the organization have stayed the same age. The majority are in their early to mid-20s, just out of school, and looking to start their careers.
Of course, I’ve seen a lot of changes within the organization. When I got here it was a very rigid and closed environment. Mistakes were not tolerated or allowed without repercussions.
I work the opposite way. I encourage people to try new things. If it doesn’t work, people should think about it and improve going forward. I’d rather have someone be free about trying to change. I don’t believe in a strategic plan; I believe in annually developing new and reviewing prior year initiatives.
I would always have mini planning sessions. I was criticized for not holding people accountable, but I think that if people have rigid goals, they will low-ball their assessment of what can be achieved to their supervisor to make it more easily attainable. Setting absolute goals creates pressure and negatively changes company culture. Goals aren’t sensitive or reactive to internal or external factors if they’re rigid over a fixed timeframe. If you hire the right people, they set their own goals and strive to meet them. That’s good leadership. I say meet regularly as needed instead of having set meetings. Open culture is key and will be maintained at Clearbrook.
My daughter called me once to ask my opinion about something, and I told her I thought it was a bad idea. She responded by saying she and her mother had already decided it was a good idea, and I was outvoted. I told her, “If you’ve already made a decision about something, don’t call me for an opinion.” That applies at home and at work. It’s about relationships. It’s about compatibility.
When I moved from the city to the suburbs, over the first year-and-a-half, 15 people came out to work with me. The culture I created made people come out. With the exception of one recently retiring, they are all still at Clearbrook.
I don’t subscribe to “best practices.” I think it sends the wrong message and implies that there is nothing left to learn.
I had a residential group that wanted to make a change in infrastructure. I thought their idea absolutely sucked, but I said ok because I didn’t want to stifle them. I told them I had one condition: we had to meet about it again in a year and grade the outcome. If it was a good idea we would keep it, but if not we would change it. I am not suggesting that I am always right, but we changed it.
Some schools of management would say that was a mistake. That I was paid to make decisions and prevent bad ideas. I view my role as embracing change as a means toward personal improvement, and teaching people that if things don’t work out you have to be honest about it and make changes. The point is you want people to have ownership and be able to understand that having an idea is not wrong or deserving of punishment. If you ask to hear the issues, don’t be defensive when you’re told. Always be ready.”
Effective communication is often mentioned as a key to successful management, however Carl has found that communication issues are often overstated or misidentified.
“If I walked out of my office and said to 10 people, “I just fired the VP of Programs,” I think within 5 minutes everyone at the organization would know. If I said we were changing a minor system, no one would find out. Communication doesn’t matter if no one wants to hear you, if they don’t value the information. We decide what to hear and pass on. Communication is a lot of subjectivity. People communicate what they want to. Listening is 75% of communicating.
I was working at an agency that served both the mental health and developmental disabilities populations,, and was told the two groups couldn’t get along or communicate. One night, I decided to drive around and check all the residential sites. At the first DD home, they had no idea I was coming. At the second, I think the staff was prepared. At the third, they definitely knew. Then I went to the mental health sites, and wouldn’t you know, they were prepared too. I was told they couldn’t coordinate a phone tree, but when I started driving around they managed to get a hold of each other, and these were the days before cell phones.”
Carl makes an effort with every employee, keeping Clearbrook staff motivated and ensuring the culture permeates throughout the agency.
“We have our own issues: we’re large, have 1,000 staff, and turnover is bad at direct service levels. I try to keep it open. I have two parties a year for all the staff. They’re both buffets and I stand at the end of the buffet dishing out food. As we’ve grown, the lines at the buffets have gotten very long. One year, my associate suggested we have two lines to make it more efficient. I refused, because if I’m hosting the party I’m going to talk to everyone.
I think the title CEO has different expectations and impacts people’s willingness to talk to you. I meet all full-time non-union staff one-on-one, and I still have friends that I first met at these meetings. People who come from other agencies are surprised by this. I find people have three reactions to this practice: they couldn’t give a damn, they can’t wait to get out, or they enjoy it.”
Compared to 10 years ago, many changes have occurred at Clearbook and in the Agency World as a whole.
“We’re much larger and serve more people. We are better run. Our turnover level at the top 2-3 levels is down to almost nothing. We have tried continuously to meet consumer demands as consumers and their needs change. There is a greater individuality of services today.
We’ve also gotten better at employing people. Going back 6 years at a department meeting, I wasn’t happy with supported employment. I told them they had one year to get it running, and they told me they wanted to salvage the program. We went from 30-40 people served to 100.
In this field, what you want to do is really governed by government movement. We don’t control income in our field. There is a limit to the number of cuts we can make. For-profit corporations can raise prices, we can’t. If funding is cut, our services are diluted, fewer people are working, quality goes down, incidents go up, and we don’t have options because we can’t operate a home without someone in it. We have to get by with the resources we’re given, we don’t have a choice.”
In Carl’s view, the non-profit industry has struggled to effectively communicate their challenges and the impact of various policy changes.
“We’ve taken the wrong approach in non-profits. I think we should be saying that people are getting fewer services or getting cut rather than talking about the agency getting cut. We emphasize the agency, which will exist whether it serves 7,000 or 8,000 people, instead of the 1,000 people who will lose services.
We also don’t recognize our own influence. In many places, we’re big employers. I went to meet with a department store manager to ask for a charitable donation. He didn’t care what we did and what I was saying fell on deaf ears until I said we had 600 staff at the time. He started asking questions because he realized that we employed a large community with a lot of people involved.
Agencies could be more efficient if they allowed themselves to change. They have to think proactively. We have to be ready for change rather than fighting it. I think the natural first reaction to change is, “oh shit” but the second needs to be “what do we do about it.”
The field is becoming more about the individuals controlling the funding and what they want (the families). Families are determining their own schedule and what they’re willing to spend. I find the resistance to change to be the most troubling thing when talking to other agencies.”
As for agencies undergoing a leadership change, Carl has recommendations for incoming executives.
“Spend a year getting to know your organization before deciding on any changes. Just having the title doesn’t give you knowledge of the agency. The title is just recognition of experience.
One of the most successful restaurant groups in Chicago always does 2-3 week soft openings because every culture is different. Everyone should do things the way they see best fit, but not until after they understand where they are.”
Now on the brink of retirement, Carl has spent time reflecting on what he has achieved and what comes next.
“My biggest accomplishments have been staff development, helping families when they needed it most (especially those with adult children), and the working relationships I have maintained. All in all, it’s been a career well spent. I have hours and hours of little stories, but it’s really about families walking in and saying, “I need help”, and me being able to get help for them. Helping people in general has been the biggest thing.
Now, I’m going away for a few months to travel: Israel, Vegas, Hawaii, and Australia. I’m going to return in March and start fundraising. Clearbrook is starting a fund in my name. What’s in front of me? I don’t know and I feel good about that. I’m going out on my terms. I’m a 24/7 worker, but now I’ll get to have meals and raise money without the pressure.
I’m a very energetic 70-year-old. I’m open to what comes next.”