As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Denstman.
After having been a part of Ashley in many different roles since 2009, Alex now serves as the Co-CEO and President of Ashley Addiction Treatment together with Dr. Greg Hobelmann. Alex started working at Ashley in 2009 as a patient care coordinator and continuously progressed into new positions, including director of Alumni Services and Clinical Outreach, vice president of Business Development, and until recently, senior vice president and chief growth officer. In his new role as joint CEO, Alex will combine his talents with those of Greg’s by overseeing Intake, Clinical Outreach, Patient Care Coordination, Communications, Alumni and Development, as well as Human Resources, IT, Finance, Maintenance, Safety and Security, Grounds, and Maintenance. Alex received his undergraduate degree from the University of Baltimore in Health Systems Management with honors and his Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland Global College. His association with Ashley started in 2003 when, at age 20, he became a patient at Ashley. Alex has remained in recovery and is an active member of the local recovery community. He is passionate about using his personal experiences and 15+ years of background in the industry to help ensure that Ashley creates the best possible care environment for our recovering patients and their families.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Greenville, Delaware in an upper-middle class family. I had a fantastic upbringing with wonderful parents and access to a great education. All of my needs, and most of my wants, were met. I wasn’t the most confident kid, and often, I felt unsure of myself. There was something about alcohol and drugs and the lifestyle that it seemed to represent that was very appealing to me. At age 13, I smoked pot and drank alcohol for the first time, and in that moment, something clicked; I felt relieved from all of the fears and insecurities that usually followed me. I got a sense of ease and comfort from alcohol and drugs that I hadn’t found in anything else. My life didn’t go off the rails right away, but experimentation turned into occasional use, and very shortly thereafter, turned into regular use. By age 18, I crossed the line into full-blown addiction and, within two years, I was an IV heroin user.
After years of excessive use, I sought treatment at Ashley Addiction Treatment in Havre de Grace, Maryland in 2003, and I’ve been sober ever since. I didn’t set out to work in the treatment field, but a variety of entry-level roles in other treatment programs led me to a position at Ashley in 2009. Initially, I wanted to work in direct care as a clinician but found great joy in doing more outward-facing work and supporting patients and families in their ongoing recovery.
I found it particularly rewarding to support people in the process of accessing care and reengaging in treatment. That experience led to a role in outreach and referral relations, working with providers to refer people to Ashley. In 2020, my predecessor and our Board of Directors devised a co-leadership succession plan. I was invited to oversee the business development and operations of the organization, and my wonderful Co-CEO, Dr. Greg Hobelmann, now oversees all the direct-care services. We share the same vision and values, and in the short time serving in our roles, have worked together incredibly well.
Being a person in long-term recovery really defines who I am. It has, in many ways, created this career path for me, but on a more personal level, it’s made so many things in my life possible. I’m a husband, father, son, brother, friend and productive member of my community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I moved into my role of Co-CEO and President in March 2021. So, considering what’s been happening in the world with COVID-19, social and political unrest, and, more recently, international conflicts, I’d say it’s been interesting. I was already working in a very senior role when COVID-19 emerged in winter/spring 2020 and was very involved in developing our organization’s response. The 12-month succession planning process coincided with the first year of our COVID-19 response, and that “live fire” (so to speak) actually helped. I developed the mindset that if I can help lead our organization during some of the most difficult times, I can more confidently lead during less uncertain times. I don’t think anyone anticipated that this pandemic would continue to have such a big impact for such a long time, but it more or less defined my first year in this role. Now, more than two years after our COVID-19 response started, we are seeing some degree of normalcy restored, and we are eager to shift from a more reactive mindset to one that’s more creative and forward-looking.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One funny encounter that comes to mind was with someone who backfilled an important portion of my previous role in business development. I was asking more of that person, but failing to see how my inability to remove myself from discussions, problem-solving, etc. was preventing that person from filling their role fully and learning to lead in that area without me. I need to give that person credit because when I asked what was needed from me, I was kindly asked to “back off and let me run this — I got it.” It took courage from them to ask for space, and I learned through that experience that it does more harm than good if I don’t trust the very talented and smart people on my team. I need to match that courage and stretch myself to fully experience different parts of my new role.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I feel very fortunate to have had fantastic mentors in my life — personally and professionally. My predecessor, Dave Nassef, was particularly instrumental. The co-leadership model was his idea, and his vision is a big reason as to why I’m in my current role. The person who helped me immensely in the year prior to assuming this role, and who has helped guide me to this point, is my executive coach, John Frisch. He possesses so much career experience, life experience, and general wisdom. It’s hard to pinpoint one story as the greatest example of his help because the entire experience of working with John has been career and life-changing.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Our executive team is responsible for a great deal. This group develops the strategic plan and charts the course for our growth, supports the Co-CEOs in creating the right company culture, and continually considers ways to improve how our staff and those who we serve experience Ashley. I firmly believe that for the team to do those things well, diversity among its members is a must. Having a diverse team means we can leverage a diverse set of life experiences and world views, which is critical. We want the executive team to resemble the staff and our patients to create an environment and experience that meets their needs. Fostering the development of a more diverse workforce and showing them that they are well represented in our leadership is an important part of this. It’s just as important as having a group with diverse skill sets at the table.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I’ve heard a lot that you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that’s the foundation for much of this. It’s hard to achieve greater inclusion, representation, and equity until you understand how, where, and to what extent those things lack. Working in health care, the disparities are very evident. As an organization, we’ve invested a great deal, and it hasn’t been easy, in large, because this issue is so politicized and so divisive. Some people have applauded our efforts, and some have said, “stay in your lane,” or don’t be so overt in expressing your opinions around racial equity and inclusion. As a business leader, and as someone whose personal values align very well with our organization’s values, that’s where my decision-making is anchored. The best advice that I’ve received is “go slow to go far.” As driven as I may be, I don’t need to change the world overnight. Be smart, be strategic, and slowly enact changes that will help us achieve the ideal environment for our staff and patients long-term. As far as society as a whole, I don’t have all the answers, but I do happen to have some sphere of influence, and I can try to model the right behaviors for other people. My lived experience in recovery and my profession really demand that I be as kind, compassionate, and tolerant of others as possible. I have two kids — seven and five years old — and the most important thing that I’m tasked with in my life is raising them to treat people well and recognize the humanity in all, so that they too can model the behaviors for people in their lives.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Shape the culture. Communicating with our board, thinking long-term, anticipating future opportunities and challenges, and ensuring we meet all of our performance goals. All that is important, but I think culture is king. Ultimately, culture sets the bar for performance and is the key ingredient in ensuring we uphold our legacy, fulfill our mission, and elevate our field.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The big myth I’ve found is something that I experienced in my first year as CEO — that busy doesn’t necessarily mean productive. Use a typical workday as an example. I could go from meeting to meeting, have very little time before or after meetings to prepare for whatever is upcoming or process whatever I just participated in, and feel exhausted by the end of the day. It’s very easy to mistake — that feeling of exhaustion for a feeling of achievement, like I must have accomplished a great deal today. But effective leaders need to function differently, not get stuck in operations, set aside ample time to prepare for and process things throughout the day, and set aside time to reflect, plan and strategize. Not to mention, if you surround yourself with the right, qualified people, trust them to respond to whatever real-time operational challenges exist and save space to do what you’re most needed to do, which is lead.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think the mindset for most young professionals who want to work at the executive level is, “I need to outwork and outlearn everyone.” I think that’s largely true, but talent, intelligence, or charm can only take you so far. It’s natural to think that once you reach the pinnacle of your profession you must maintain the same approach to stay in that role. But, again, busy doesn’t necessarily mean productive. Leading is the job, and I need to remind myself of that often. If I get stuck in the weeds, fail to delegate to people on my team, and don’t put my energy into strategy and growing the business, I’m not delivering on my obligations as a leader. I absolutely work hard and my commitment to work grows daily, but if different things are needed from me, my approach to work must change, as well.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
No, I don’t think everyone is cut out to be an executive. Although I’m new to my role as CEO and very much a work in progress, time can only tell if someone can do this job well. In terms of the traits that will increase my likelihood, and that of others in my role, to achieve success, integrity, humility, courage, and gratitude really stand out. Integrity is honesty, having and living by principles, and being morally upright. Humility isn’t thinking less of myself, it’s thinking of myself less. That selflessness is critical in leadership. Leadership is hard, and I’ve found that even in the short time that I’ve been in this role. You’re not always presented with a clear, right choice. It takes courage to choose a course of action that may not be well-received by some people. Also, every leader I admire possesses some level of boldness and risk-taking. That’s why courage is something I hope to develop more of over time. Lastly, gratitude is the trait to rule them all. Our Co-founder, Father Joseph C. Martin said in describing recovery from alcoholism, “Gratitude is the hinge on which the sober door swings.” Forget my work performance for a moment, my output as a person is entirely dependent on my ability to remain grateful for all the gifts in my life. No quality is more important in my mind.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
My advice would be to use a mirror. Ask yourself if you are living by your organization’s values. Every interaction you have with an employee, stakeholder, patient or consumer should reflect your personal and professional values. If you model the right mindset, behaviors, and decision-making, I think people will follow suit, and the right culture will emerge.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I think the work we do — transforming lives — makes the world a better place. We are giving people the toolkit for how to live happy, whole, productive lives in recovery. So much is said about the enormous toll that substance use disorder takes on our society, and not enough is said about how much is gained from the recovery community. While the negative impact of substance use disorder on people, families, and communities is vast, the positive impact of recovery far outweighs it. Personally, I do my part by committing myself fully to my work in positioning Ashley to make the greatest possible contribution to the world. Also, I speak very openly about my own bout with addiction and the joys of my recovery in hopes of inspiring others.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You create the weather. When you’re in a leadership role, all eyes are on you. If there’s a style of decision-making or problem-solving you think is necessary to unlock the right level of individual and organizational performance, you need to model it.
- This is temporary. This applies to good times and bad. Pandemics, discord, whatever is happening internally or externally is temporary. It will pass, so remind yourself that this week, month, or even year is a small part of the career you hope to have.
- Ask more questions. The importance of listening and learning only increases when you’re in a leadership role. You can develop such great insight into a person or situation by just asking, “What’s behind that?” or “What are the next steps?” or “What can I expect from you and when?” It creates more open dialogue and better communication.
- It’s supposed to be hard. If it’s hard, that doesn’t mean that I’m failing at my job. It means that I’m leaning into the work and finding ways to challenge myself for the betterment of the organization.
- Work doesn’t define you. It’s easy to think that your greatest professional achievement defines who you are. While my role is an important part of who I am, it’s not the most important thing. My roles outside of work, like being a husband, father, and person in long-term recovery, matter much more and make my work possible. Having a balanced view of myself keeps me grounded.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think everyone has heard of this Golden Rule — treat others the way you want to be treated. But I prefer the Platinum Rule — treat others the way THEY want to be treated. It’s a seemingly subtle difference but an important one. I love the emphasis on thoughtfulness for others. If everyone could live their lives less focused on what interests or benefits them, and focus more on the well-being of others, I think we would all be much happier and feel much more fulfilled.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That’s easy. Someone told me, “The highest role you can achieve in life is that of a servant.” As proud as I am of my role and whatever I’ve achieved personally and professionally, I try to live a life of service. Greg and I often say and try to impart this mindset on our leaders, “If we take care of the staff, they will take care of the patients.” At the end of the day, my job as CEO just means that I have more people to serve. The people who really unlock their full potential carry that service-oriented mindset throughout their entire lives and let it guide every relationship they encounter.
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