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 Dan Clark.
Dan Clark is the Chief Executive Officer of IBH. He has over 25 years of progressive leadership experience managing fast-growing national and international businesses, including digital health, therapeutics, population health, wellness, behavioral health, disability, and employee assistance programs. He has led multi-billion dollar P&Ls, large health plans, started two healthcare companies of his own and run both start-up and PE-backed firms as a CEO. IBH is one of the nation’s largest digitally-enabled mental healthcare providers, and a leader in crisis support services and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Clark joined IBH as CEO in June 2019, where he leads IBH’s strategic direction and organization growth plan.
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 started out as a behavioral health clinician treating patients with complex conditions including those with dual diagnoses and head injuries about 25 years ago. I enjoyed the challenge of finding creative ways to help people with complex issues restore to health.
As my career matured and my roles broadened to run more complex systems of care, I realized I could apply my interest in data science and analysis to impacting entire populations and ultimately broadening the impact that I had across entire communities and populations. I really enjoy finding ways to improve access to and the quality of care through the use of data, technology and personalization and think we are at a unique moment in history where we can not only make care accessible but better for all and in the process, improve its cost. My career has essentially evolved from doing that at the micro-level to now doing it at a macro-level and leading organizations through transformation and challenging the status quo.
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?
Well…as many people did at the time, I carried a Blackberry that had my work email linked to it. I was working long hours and had developed the unfortunate habit at the time of grabbing a Caramel Macchiato on the way to work to help me wake up while running on limited sleep. The lid came off it and I spilled it on my pants and right on my Blackberry. The sticky residue stayed and would on occasion make some of the keys stick or not quite make contact.
I’m a person who likes to be responsive and at the time tended to work late hours in the day. After a long day, I was home and a bit bleary-eyed and I got an email from our largest customer’s two senior executives asking me to give some context to a concern they had raised. Ever the responsive person, I hammered out a response on my Blackberry and hit send…only about an hour later realizing that because my keys had stuck, I had not only misspelled these execs names but in doing so, my spell check “corrected” both of their names to medical words for certain body parts!
It was super embarrassing and after catching the error and sending apologies we all laughed it off, but the moral of the story is…it can wait. Take the time and be in the right mindset and give yourself permission to set boundaries between work and life, otherwise, work can become all-consuming.
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 get asked this question a lot and I always have the same answer. My grandmother has always been my role model. Sure there are people in my career who have certainly helped give me my starts and believed in me…the first President who at a young age gave me the opportunity to lead, own a P&L and so on, but ultimately whenever I think about a role model or wonder what the right thing to do is, I think of my late grandmother.
As a lady born in 1916, she lived to almost 100 years old was an exceptionally gifted intellect but such an authentic and genuinely nice and beautiful spirit. Even in her late 90’s she would still tutor college students, play Mahjong with her friends, dress in the latest fashions and dance. She was an unassuming, sweet lady with a remarkable intellect who would teach me and spend hours on the phone with me, when I needed it helping me with Physics or Advanced Multivariable Calculus and Trigonometry which always just blew me away how gifted but humble, she was. She lived with a very strong set of morals and a sense of purpose in her life and really saw the world and left a legacy and imprint on it by making a difference. I have a picture of her in my office even now of her leaning over and smelling the roses, with the biggest smile on her face.
Her father was a pharmacist and owned a small pharmacy during the Great Depression. She would tell me about how people couldn’t afford to pay for the medicines they needed, but he would just give it to them and just say “pay when you can.” He did it so much that he couldn’t afford to pay his own bills or feed his own family and had to trade the pharmacy for a farm so they could grow their own food and eat. That is the nature of the woman she was, and she came from complete poverty in rural Tennessee and got an advanced college education at a time when that was unheard of and never once did I hear her express anything but gratitude for her life. She’s always inspired me and reminded me that doing the right things are usually the hardest ones, but doing that and having a purpose to do good by others, no matter what type of job or where you are in life, is a life well spent.
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?
IBH was founded over 30 years ago with the vision of delivering high-quality, accessible and affordable mental healthcare across the US to make a real deliverable impact in people’s lives. We are driven to continually learn, improve how to make care more effective. We work in a unique business where we not only feel a great responsibility and humbleness about helping people through some of the most personal and challenging times of their lives but also recognize that the better we are at delivering care, the better our business performs. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to transform healthcare and ensure that the ¼ of human beings who will suffer from a mental health concern at some point in their lives have access to the most effective treatments available.
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?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today and I think as a society we will come out of this situation learning a lot about ourselves and our company, including our resilience and adaptability. Our work, how we deliver it and how the majority of people predominantly receive it has changed to overnight. Leading people through uncertainty and change has required us to not only be transparent about our plans and how we will adapt, but also empathizing with and supporting our own employees as they help our members manage through unprecedented times, when they themselves may be anxious as well. help people manage their way through difficult times. Uncertainty creates anxiety for all and it is important to be informed and have a plan so your team has someone to look to for stability and certainty. It’s okay to not have all of the answers, but we need to be clear with communication to our teams, ask the right questions, let them know we are on the path to get the right answers, how we are adapting and what steps we are taking.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, never…it’s not in my nature. I have always prided myself on being resilient and finding a path. One of the quotes I’ve always related to is one by Henry Kaiser who said that “problems are only opportunities in work clothes…and I believe that.
Do the work, listen, learn and I believe most problems are solvable. I have definitely faced challenges both in my career and personal life and what has helped me get through it was that resiliency. When we face difficult times, we cannot get overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation and instead break it down and think about the progress we can make and how we can solve complex problems within our control through building momentum and small incremental victories.
Staying active has always been a way for me to always find clarity, but also by challenging any negative thinking that might creep in and staying positive. I think doing so gives us a sense of empowerment and believe if you keep moving forward, you eventually will find yourself on through that challenge. My stepson and I recently got caught in a rip-current when we were surfing near our home and quickly found ourselves being washed out to sea. They say in those situations you just have to keep swimming across, not panic and eventually you’ll find your way through it if you keep your wits about you and that’s exactly what we did. I think it also applies to challenges we come across in life…just keep swimming.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To have a vision, to lead with honesty and authenticity and conviction. A leader needs to be visible, communicate and inspire those around you who are looking to you for guidance and stability. A leader needs to understand that people are the most valuable asset to any organization and not just myopically focus on the financial and operational tactics, but listen, communicate and inspire. When you do so, teams will rally behind you and carry you through the challenges.”
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?
Stay very connected and engaged with your team. Be relatable, be decisive, make a plan, and then deliver. People feel a lot of anxiety when facing uncertainty and as a leader it’s important to be present, be visible and cultivate a culture where you listen and employees feel heard, respected and empowered. I think it’s also important to continue to celebrate the victories and invest in the company culture and not let uncertainty distract attention from your goals and investing in people.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be transparent. The same approach applies to teams and customers, you can’t always worry about managing the optics you just have to be real and authentic. Explain what’s happened, why, how you as an organization have learned from it, will adapt to it and improve. Own it and invite questions.
During these uncertain times with our internal teams, I hold town-hall meetings with all of our employees where I relay information to our teams and then open up the floor for questions and answers. We also have an employee social media network where we stay connected regularly, have a company-wide culture “club” and newsletter where we share what’s going on with the company in between our Town Halls. Being accessible to any employee who has a concern, or a great idea is important to all of our leaders.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
No matter how uncertain times are, there is always something we can do. We can learn, listen, run through many different potential scenarios and build response plans for those and pressure test them. Most plans aren’t perfect. We have a 3-year plan that is thematic and goal-oriented that is ultimately translated into an operating plan with KPIs and milestone targets. Having said that, we also know that it’s unlikely any plan will stay the same and you just have to be nimble enough, reflective enough and open enough to make course corrections when they are required, which is almost inevitable. Plan for what you know and model different scenarios and think about how you would deal with those contingencies as well so that you’re not caught flat-footed.
While I believe in building an organization that is flexible and adaptable. Have metrics that will help you gauge how you’re doing against those plans so you can make informed course corrections in the event circumstances change. Look at different scenarios and what could happen and think through multiple different plans on a monthly basis and up to 3-years that are continually changing as you gather new information. Gather input from your team and listen as you create those plans and always be willing to adapt the plans you create. Look at things within your control and things you can do to actually make an impact and then break them down into smaller improvements and more attainable steps until you are working the complete plan.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be resilient and be adaptable during difficult times. As leaders, we always need to be open to changing our course as the environment changes and that requires a certain amount of humility, self-reflection, internalization, and requires you be adaptable and embrace change.
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?
Sometimes companies just hope the difficult times go away and do not start planning for the future or address issues soon enough. Then it brings the companies into crisis mode and they are forced to take more extreme measures. If they take that moment when they start seeing and hearing the problem and making course corrections early then it becomes easier to make needed changes before they become a crisis.
I’d also say I’ve seen some businesses only be short term focused and reactive. It’s hard to be strategic when you’re in firefighting mode and I don’t believe businesses can build sustainable growth by just cutting costs when times get tough. Companies sometimes make the mistake of focusing on the economics and not their people and the brand when in survival mode. I think doing that can lead to a downward spiral not only in morale, but also in the faith and trust consumers have in your brand which can undermine the entire business. So, companies need to think long term and be strategic even when the temptation is to get into reactive mode.
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?
Continuously adapt your company to fit the current landscape. Our organization has always led with an emphasis on innovation and adaptability. Technology isn’t the end-all and be-all of everything, but it is a great tool that can help us work smarter and more efficiently and maintain service levels and quality while also being financially efficient.
Building exceptional, trusted, strategic relationships with your customers is also incredibly important. If you are suffering as a company, they probably are too. If they only view you as a vendor or a point solution seller, they aren’t likely to turn to you to help them solve complex problems, which you may well be able to help with. Each of those challenges present opportunities to grow your business with a customer and become an indispensable strategic-ally, but to do that, you need to know them, anticipate their needs and show how you can help.
As for new customers or prospects, finding more ways to evangelize how you can help solve systemic problems is always a good way to increase interest and sales. More recently with COVID, it’s become more challenging to do that via traditional face to face venues, so we’ve taken to using virtual ways of engaging, using social media platforms, electronic marketing and good old-fashioned selling techniques but using technology to help enable that at a distance more. Additionally, we’ve always believed it’s important to have a diverse set of revenue streams and products that will allow you to flex-up or grow a different area when another is under pressure.
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.
1. Be transparent. Uncertainty creates anxiety, so share what you know, what you don’t, what the plan is, and how your company is progressing against it.
2. Have a plan and have the information you need and be willing to course-correct early. The further ahead you can see an obstacle, the more time you’ll have to avoid a collision that could hurt the company.
3. Be authentic and clearly relay expectations. It’s okay to not have all of the answers, but share your plan with your team on how you will get those answers. It would be disingenuine in times of extreme uncertainty and unpredictability to assume or pretend you know it all. Share what’s known, what’s not, what the plan is, how we’ll adapt if things happen we don’t expect, and share how the company is doing against those plans. Invite questions, be open to ideas and be confident, but real.
4. Communicate. Let your team know what you know, what you are doing, and what you expect the impact of any situation to be and how you plan to adapt and recover. Most importantly, talk to your team as the people they are and listen to their concerns. Use their feedback to inform your plans. People are a company’s greatest asset.
5. Be adaptable and resilient. Understand that there will always be roadblocks along the way and realize you will probably have to change course. Listen to your team, talk to people you trust, and put plans into action by taking small steps to create larger impacts and lasting change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be the Change you wish to see in the world” by Mahatma Gandhi has always spoken to me. This quote for me not only resonates with the responsibility we have as a business to be a vehicle for change and improve the quality healthcare we are entrusted to deliver, but also it also applies to each aspect in our daily lives. If there is a problem, we have a responsibility to be that change we want to see and help drive that transformation. It’s important we put action behind our words and not only talk about the problems, but do something to change them.
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