As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andre Basso.
Andre Basso is the Chief Executive Officer at Mountainside treatment center. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration as well as an MBA in Management. With over two decades of experience designing and implementing customer service programs, his background as a business consultant brought Mountainside a fresh perspective regarding processes, client services, human resources, and team building. Andre first joined Mountainside as Chief Operating Officer, working with various teams to seek efficiencies in the delivery of client care and services while further improving quality. In his current role as CEO, Andre continues to dedicate himself to providing clients with Best in Class service.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am originally from Brazil. There, I gained experience in different business functions in a range of companies, but I spent the bulk of my career as a consultant at Sebrae, which is the largest small business support system in the world. I started out as a junior consultant and later became the state manager for customer service, entrepreneurship, and client experience. My responsibilities were to provide the necessary information and infrastructure so that people who wanted to start a business could. I was also responsible for implementing an expansion plan for Sebrae, and we were able to expand from 49 to 216 different locations throughout the State, so it was a very successful initiative. We were pioneers in providing digital services to small businesses as well.
Mountainside alcohol and drug addiction treatment center was the next step in my career. I was invited to join the organization because its founders thought that my experiences expanding businesses in Brazil would be applicable to Mountainside as well. At that time, the company had an inpatient program in Canaan, Connecticut consisting of detoxification and residential services, and had just opened its first outpatient center in Wilton, Connecticut. The team wanted to be able to continue reaching more communities in need using what we call a “Best in Class” approach, ensuring that our clients receive an unsurpassed treatment experience.
I moved to the United States in January of 2017. I had never worked in the addiction treatment industry prior to joining Mountainside, but my previous consulting experience taught me how to quickly acclimate to the needs of companies from a variety of industries, so I was able to smoothly manage adjusting to work in a different field and different culture. I started as the treatment center’s Chief Operating Officer and soon broadened my responsibilities to my current role as Chief Executive Officer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I know it’s not funny, but I think that a very common mistake and the one that I definitely made is being too focused on technicalities. Many leaders often come from a very technical background and they continue to dive deeper into those technicalities. They tend to think that the more specialized expertise they have, the more they’re going to grow in that department or that management position. But that can be an illusion.
Often, it can be better for leaders to have a broader perspective. It’s really more about knowing how to guide people. Leaders need to have the people skills to uplift others and help them develop their own capabilities. One person can’t know everything, but managers often think that they need to have deep knowledge of a particular discipline in order to oversee that area more effectively. In the beginning of the leadership process especially, we need to be open to new perspectives. So, if I look back earlier to the beginning of my career, I should have focused more on sharpening my people skills in addition to my technical knowledge.
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?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of help along the way, so it would be unfair to single out one person. I think the most important source of help can be a challenging and supportive boss. That’s the best combination we can ask for, because we’re going to have a mentor who believes in our competencies yet pushes us to expand our knowledge and skills by helping us uncover if the approach we’re using is the best, or if there is a different method that would be more beneficial for that situation. I flourished the most when I had this type of mentor, and was lucky to have multiple such people. I really value supervisors who can be honest and truthful about what I’m doing right or wrong as well as my abilities and strengths. The mentors and the people that have helped me most were the ones who were able to point out my strengths to me and capitalize on them, instead of focusing too much in trying to correct or fix weaknesses. Having that level of input was very important for me throughout my career.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Mountainside was created over two decades ago to provide individualized counseling and holistic care to those struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse. At the time, treatment programs tended to be more uniform, focusing heavily on just AA and the 12 Steps. Mountainside’s philosophy was to provide a unique combination of holistic and clinical therapies to help our clients heal in mind, body, and spirit. But even more important than the services we provide is our attitude, our behavior, and the culture that we built. We said that we were not just going to fulfill our mission, but we were going to do it really well. We want to take care of our clients in the same way we would want our loved ones to be treated. We’re always asking ourselves, “Is this really the best we can provide for our own loved one?” Our culture was built around this compassion and drive. The rise of the opioid crisis has created a stronger sense of urgency for us and has renewed our passion for helping individuals heal from addiction and achieve their life goals.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Yes; first I’d like to mention that for me, the concept of certainty is misleading. We reserve the expression “uncertain times” for situations where we feel insecure. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re totally uncertain; it means we feel uncertain because something isn’t under our control. But the phrase “uncertain times” also describes the day-to-day operations of a company. If we have the perspective in business that, “This is certain,” then we’re doing something wrong. There’s something that we have not taken into consideration because unknowns are everywhere. If we don’t know the answers, then we should be aware that we don’t know.
As business leaders, we should be designing programs that help people to deal with uncertainty and deliver the best possible services to our clients in the process. Plans can change at any time, like with COVID-19, for example. The brainstorming process was complex because there were multiple factors we had to consider in our response to the pandemic. We have a Residential facility and many clients feared that the virus would spread on campus because every day we have visitors and new clients entering our buildings. In response, we quickly implemented a single point of entry to our facility, a COVID-19 super screen, and daily temperature and health checks. We also created a buffer Residential area for clients who were new admits to our program in order to ensure the safety of our existing clientele.
Another factor in our response to the pandemic was ensuring our employees’ health and wellness, which we value just as highly as our clients’. We encouraged those who were able to work from home to do so starting in March. But because we are a 24/7 care provider, many of our staff still needed to be on campus. We mobilized to conduct daily employee health assessments, limit the number of employees on our campus, and provide personal protective equipment to those who were coming into the office.
Our plans can change again if there is another spike in cases, so nothing is set in stone. We cannot predict the future, so it is important to get comfortable with and prepare for uncertainty through strategic planning. The real benefit of planning is that it forces us to think about what’s going on rather than find definite answers. It is critical for leaders to be flexible and adjust their expectations accordingly.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t tend to think about giving up because I don’t like to leave jobs unfinished. I think what would drive me to change course would be the realization that I completed my mission and now I can move on to the next chapter. That’s exactly what drove my move to the US. I completed a stage in Brazil and my deliverables were completed and I could move into a new phase with my family without jeopardizing my old company’s ability to continue. I don’t like quitting. I don’t think that that’s because I’m superhuman; it’s just that I don’t like letting people down. That would not be fair to the people who work with me. I want to be a reliable person.
Sometimes, however, what happens is that we change our perspective. There are instances when the company decides to go a certain route and then we see that it is not leading us to where we need to be. So, we have to be able to find a different path. I think that’s different from quitting; it’s a new level of awareness that allows us to adjust our plans.
With the pandemic, at Mountainside, we had to adjust our priorities and expectations rather than quit altogether. We not only had to provide a pleasant treatment and work environment but also a safe one, first and foremost. We had to continue being nimble, agile, and focused on what’s going on because a mistake could derail our results, which would have not only disappointed me but more importantly, failed our clients, our employees, our partners, and our community.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think that the most critical role of a leader is to make people feel emotionally safe. Someone who can reassure them that the team can regroup or pivot in the event of a mistake. At Mountainside, even before the pandemic, we strived to create a culture where employees are not only given the space but also encouraged to propose and try new things. I tell my team that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn and grow from them. By giving employees the freedom to explore without fear of career consequences, we foster innovation because good ideas can and do come from anyone. It’s essential that team members feel safe trying a new approach and adjusting their performance as needed without feeling a sense of dread if something doesn’t go as planned.
Pandemic or not, a leader needs to always provide clear communication about what the company expects and a collective understanding of the mission and vision for the company. This is especially critical during challenging times.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
We can acknowledge challenging situations, design the best possible plan, and transparently say to our teams, “We are concerned. I know this is difficult, but we have a plan.” I know some managers don’t do that, and prefer to say that nothing is wrong, but this can be misleading and can be perceived as deceptive. So the best way to boost morale and to inspire, motivate, and engage people is to tell the truth first. When I say tell the truth, I mean letting our teams know that we have to act fast, while communicating everyone’s roles and responsibilities. It means letting people know that you support them and you want to work as a team, which can help to alleviate any tensions that may arise. That’s going to give people a platform to perform, and raise concerns to their leaders if necessary, because we don’t always know the full picture.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First, it’s important to be compassionate and understand that different people have different reactions, perspectives, and realities. Knowing and acknowledging that is going to make a leader more compassionate in their approach when talking with a particular person or team. I also believe that we should do our homework and understand what’s going on in terms of challenging situations that someone might be facing, which can help us become more attuned to why a person is feeling a certain way. And then I think a leader should be genuine, sympathetic, and truthful when they deliver a message.
Some people get frustrated or angered by the truth, some people understand and some don’t, but I think that the most important thing is to be honest. If you have multiple interactions with people and they know you are there and that they can rely on you, difficult situations become easier. Telling the truth is the best way to deliver a message and people will know that we’re trying our best to keep them informed about the issues that matter.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
If the future was predictable, there would be no need to make any plans. We make plans because we don’t know what’s going to happen. So keeping that in perspective as a leader while developing strategic plans can be humbling and reassuring at the same time. There is no “right” way to plan — as long as you’ve started the process of thinking critically, you can build on your learnings and create more impactful plans from there.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I think that the number one principle for a company to follow is to constantly reassess the realities it is facing. Then, the company should try to forecast and understand the potential implications of these realities, create related action items that can be carried out immediately, and then repeat the process. The company needs to be attentive and flexible. It needs to be proactive instead of waiting to see what will happen. I think Mountainside’s success thus far can be attributed to our ability to analyze what’s happening and anticipate the impact of those events down the line. The team has a collective understanding of the company’s next move and how different staff members are contributing to that plan.
Sometimes, having a massive plan in the beginning can look like an overreaction. In the context of the pandemic, team members may ask, “Why are we doing this? Why are we sending people home? Why are we making people use masks? Why are we testing people?” In the beginning, the plan may seem like an overreaction, but in two weeks, it makes perfect sense. We often encounter challenges that are not stable — that’s why they’re so challenging. The number one principle for any organization is to avoid being static.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first basic mistake is that people wait to see what’s going to happen. They are more reactive than proactive. The other basic mistake is people often underestimate the severity of a situation. Another common error is that people do not have clear action items. They may understand the severity of what’s happening, but then they don’t respond or follow up. They simply hope for the best. The fourth biggest mistake is people don’t regroup or reevaluate situations. They respond to the initial scenario and leave it at that. The scenario may already be changing, but they are still focused on that picture from the beginning.
To avoid these common pitfalls, companies need to be attentive and focus on cause and effect. They have to examine how each decision will impact their business and their staff. Businesses also need to consider what they need to do to make their goals a reality while protecting themselves, or what they need to do to at least minimize the risks, if those risks cannot be avoided entirely.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Our team tries not to fall into the trap of the four different mistakes I mentioned above. An important strategy we abide by is to constantly reassess our business model, so we are always regrouping and looking for hidden opportunities. Having the perspective that difficult times can also bring opportunities is very important. Otherwise, we only focus on the negative, which isn’t a productive way of thinking. We should always be wondering, “Is there another service that we need to put into action that we are not thinking about right now? Do we have any old plans that we can revive that would add value to our current situation? Are these troubled times providing an opportunity to address any inefficiencies we may not have noticed before?” If we leave no stone unturned, we are more likely to find gold.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be adaptable. When the pandemic started, we faced several challenges. How were we going to continue to engage people in the company if they worked from home? How would we still make people feel like they are connected to Mountainside? How would we create a culture of participation, engagement, and compassion if we have people who were hired but who work from home and haven’t stepped foot on our campus? We had to adapt to the current climate by making the most of an uncertain situation and fully utilize virtual meetings, activities, and events to help both our staff and clients maintain a sense of belonging in the community.
- Be available. Leaders have to make themselves visible and invite communication from those around them. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, our clients had lots of concerns. I went to talk with them, introduced myself, and invited them to talk about their worries. This helped to break down barriers between the client and the organization, and people felt they were being heard. This same principle applies to the dynamic between managers and the employees they supervise. If managers invite open communication, employees will be more collaborative and comfortable in their work environment.
- Be creative. Business leaders can draw inspiration from others who have had success, but they should constantly evolve their own ideas. They should ask, can we engage people in a different way, like using virtual services we may not have previously considered to provide additional support to clients remotely? Can we provide some other kinds of guidance to the clients? By switching our events and support groups to a virtual format, for example, our team has been innovative in the way that we approach how knowledge is transferred.
- Be honest. Leaders who are genuine and truthful are the most well-respected. For this reason, when our clients asked me questions that we didn’t have the answers to at that time, I responded, “I don’t know.” I let them know that we were designing a response as the situation evolved. I shared what we planned to do, but cautioned them that these plans could change tomorrow. In fact, some plans changed day-to-day or week-to-week, and I kept the community informed about those updates because they deserve to be in the loop.
- Be the best you can be. As I mentioned previously, leaders do not have all the answers. Those who hold themselves to a standard of perfection may find themselves feeling disappointed when they cannot achieve the results they’re looking for. We can only do our best and respect the contributions of other staff who can help fill these knowledge gaps.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once observed that, “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.” I want to be a good person. “Good” is a very broad, general term, but I think it says a lot about someone’s character. Being respected for being a good person drives most of my behavior — professionally, personally, and in my family life. It can be difficult for us as humans to adapt and to constantly improve ourselves, but I am committed to becoming a better person every day. I want to be seen as a person who treats others with respect.
Being a good person can help us achieve the results we’re looking for, even if they don’t happen overnight. In the long-term, we’re staying truthful to our values. When we moved to the US, I discussed it with my family, and it was a collective decision. I wanted that to be our decision and I think that made a difference.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If you’d like to follow my work, visit Mountainside’s Facebook page for updates and to better understand the level of services we provide.