As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ari D. Kalechstein. Dr. Kalechstein, president and CEO of Executive Mental Health, whose mission is to provide mental health services for patients from a wide variety of backgrounds who experience an array of mental health difficulties. Over the past 25 years as a licensed psychologist in California and Nevada, Dr. Kalechstein has spearheaded the development of a comprehensive suite of services at EMH offered by a team of 40+ clinicians, which include neuropsychological evaluations, clinical psychological interventions, and forensic mental health evaluations. A charismatic and driven mental health practitioner, Dr. Kalechstein has employed his deep understanding of psychology and entrepreneurship to lead in turbulent times.
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?
Thank you for the invite. I am a Ph.D.-level clinical neuropsychologist, spent a fair amount of time in academia, and then decided that I was better suited to working as an entrepreneur. While I enjoyed my time as a researcher, I have no doubt that making the decision to create and build Executive Mental Health (EMH) was the right one for me.
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 can’t remember any funny mistakes from that time, and mostly because so much has happened between now and then. What I can tell you is this — — I am very self-deprecating with my colleagues, and if I say or do something silly, then I usually will be the first person to point it out. It’s my way of letting my team know that everybody screws up, that they’re usually not a big deal, and that we need to laugh and learn from those mistakes.
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 am forever grateful to my family and friends. They reiterated their belief in my capacity to create and build EMH, particularly in the beginning, when there were some times that it was a really tough slog.
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?
Executive Mental Health was founded 25 years ago with the aim of helping people understand why those who depend on them think, feel, and behave the way that they do, and to provide solutions for the problems that they experience. Through our work with over 250 skilled nursing facilities in California and Nevada, we have a deeper understanding of the mental health needs of our elderly community and the best way to support them.
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?
Just 15 months ago, our projections said that it was going to be a strong year. We have a great team of psychologists and neuropsychologists, our management team is strong and effective, our suite of clinical best practice offerings was expanding, we were in the midst revamped billing system, and were beginning to see the results of new business and employee retention and hiring initiatives.
Then, COVID-19 hit. Our model of care, which relied wholly on face-to-face interactions with patients, evaporated. However, in a matter of weeks, we transformed the model to provide care via telehealth. That pivot, which encompassed many steps, resulted in two excellent outcomes. First, it enabled our team to provide care to patients who were isolated, depressed, and scared. Additionally, that pivot kept the EMH doctors employed.
Given that 25th anniversary of EMH was approaching, it was most assuredly a test of my leadership skills and the resilience and ingenuity of the EMH team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
It never occurred to me that I should give up. In my life, I’ve participated in the kinds of sports that require a certain degree of mental toughness, stamina, and persistence, e.g., wrestling, triathlons, Cross-Fit. I’ve always been drawn to these kinds of challenges, which are tests of my capacity to stay strong during tough times.
From my perspective, being an entrepreneur means that challenges are everywhere and, to be successful, you have to be ready to face them down. Throughout my 25 years as a business owner, I’ve generally done well in terms of handling challenges. Moreover, and unlike when I started as a solo practitioner, I have an amazing team. They believe in the mission of EMH and they believe in me, and that gives me great confidence that we can manage most any issue that we face.
Additionally, and also on a personal level, I am a parent of twins who are 17 years old. Like me, they are facing a series of challenges as a consequence of the pandemic. Because I see myself as a role model for them and how to be in the world during tough times, there’s no way I quit. My kids know that their dad loves them as much as there is and that he’s tough as nails.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To me, there are many factors that serve as the cornerstone for strong and effective leadership during challenging times, among them compassion, communication, honesty, humility, innovation, and teamwork. If I had to pick the one that galvanizes a team during time of a crisis, it’s compassion. If your team believes that you understand and feel what they’re going through, then there’s a better chance that they will buy in to your solution to that crisis.
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?
Along with demonstrating compassion, a leader needs to create a plan and to communicate that plan openly and often. Moreover, and to the extent that it is necessary, be open to innovation! At EMH, we transformed our practice model, created a new position to adjust to the changed practice model, and discovered new ways to keep the team connected. For example, we turned our monthly birthday party into a virtual celebration and sent cakes to everyone’s homes. We also used that time to recognize the excellent work of various team members.
To me, it’s important for the team to have some moments to gather (even virtually) and celebrate our progress and success. Based on the feedback that I’ve received so far, the EMH team feels good about the future, the pandemic notwithstanding.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Personally and honestly. In my experience as a leader, it’s necessary to step up, tell it the way that it is, be prepared to take some heat, and, if possible, have a solution.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning for an unpredictable future can be…well, unpredictable. It seems to me that it is necessary to be flexible and open to change, to engage your team as it becomes necessary to change, and to stay true to the mission of your company. It’s also smart to play it safe financially, which means don’t count on any financial aid or loans. Of course, if any opportunities present themselves, then go after them with vigor.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
While I don’t know that there is a “number one principle,” I would suggest that good leaders maintain their composure, consider all the options before making a decision, make a good determination as to speed at which they need to decide and act, and integrate their management team in the decision-making process. Moreover, in a time of crisis, it is important to consider consultation with an outside source. Specifically, I have found that other very smart people may have successfully managed my current crisis; hence, their guidance can enable me to act more efficiently and effectively in terms of creating and implementing a solution.
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 issue is the failure to recognize the impending crisis. The second issue is to recognize the crisis and to become paralyzed by the anxiety. The third is to act quickly and fail to recognize that you had time to formulate a plan. Then, there is the inability to demonstrate compassion, communicate, innovate, etc. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
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?
A smart politician once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That message can be interpreted in different ways, and I believe that the take-home message is to ensure that, as a leader, you’re considering the possibility that a crisis may create new opportunities for growth. For example, and prior to the pandemic, we offered face-to-face care because none of our clients were particularly interested in telehealth; however, after the onset of the pandemic, our clients became more open to this mode of care. Hence, the goal was to seize this opportunity, and to identify the most cost effective and efficient way to provide telemedicine interventions to our clients.
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.
Here are five things I’ve learned can be helpful to be a highly effective leader during turbulent times.
At any time, and particularly during turbulent times, clear, concise communication is a cornerstone of effective leadership. Great leaders tend to be great orators and writers, and provide simple, informative statements. Think about this statement:
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” — Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR offered this statement during his inaugural address in 1932 to a citizenry that was suffering through the Great Depression. They were tired, afraid, and felt alone. These words offered Americans hope by telling them that, with determination and courage, they can overcome that fear. Moreover, and during his presidency, FDR offered weekly “Fireside Chats,” which enabled him to address the fears and concerns of his constituency, demonstrate compassion, transform the American worldview from one of despair to one of hope, and to tell Americans how government would make their lives better in specific, concrete ways.
We took FDR’s inspiration to heart and started communicating more than ever and in new ways with our team and partners. We started weekly Fireside Chats to create and maintain a sense of close community. We also did twice-daily leadership Zoom calls, started writing team blogs, opened up on our social media channels, and wrote regularly and with tailored messages of progress to our partners. In a time of crisis, it pays to hone your messages and work hard to keep the conversation open and flowing.
In March, it was common to hear business leaders refer to the pandemic as an “unprecedented time,” but perhaps not as many were open to saying how they felt about it. Were they anxious about the future? Did they worry at night about their team’s livelihood?
Well, I was concerned, and I told my team about these thoughts and feelings. Not surprisingly, they felt the same way, appreciated that I was honest about my emotions, and that I validated their feelings of distress. This gave the team greater confidence that I was telling them the truth about the situation and about our ability to create a pathway to success.
By definition, turbulent times connote feelings and thoughts of instability, violence, and/or confusion. If anyone should doubt this statement, then they need only review statistics regarding the effects of the pandemic on mental health. Many people are depressed, anxious, and fearful about their physical safety and whether they will have a job and/or the resources to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves and their families. Here are some examples of points to consider communicating:
- I understand why you are scared. What can we do to help you feel safe?
- We have got your back.
- We will aim to keep things stable.
- We will solve this problem.
- This is our plan.
- We will keep at the issue until we overcome it.
During times of crisis, previously implemented and successful strategies may no longer be effective. While a crisis creates a sense of danger, it also may create an opportunity to forge/test a new strategy for solving problems. It is at these times in which effective leaders maintain a flexible problem-solving approach, adapt to changing circumstances, and fear notwithstanding, work persistently to “solve the problem.”
Here’s an example: Prior to the pandemic, our team offered only face-to-face treatments for mental healthcare because, quite frankly, our partners facilities were not interested in that approach; however, with the onset of the pandemic, we made choice to transition rapidly to a telemedicine model of mental healthcare. Within three weeks, we sourced the appropriate hardware and software and created a plan to deploy the new tools to our partner facilities. After two months, EMH was carrying out 70% of consults via telemedicine.
We also encountered another critical issue — many of our partner facilities were understaffed. Thus, we needed to formulate a plan that would enable the hardware to be transported from patient to patient without taxing the personnel who work at our partner facilities. With that in mind, EMH created a new position — the Device Technician (DT). The DTs were trained to transport the hardware from patient to patient, create a warm handoff to the treating doctor, and interface with facility staff. We viewed them in the same way that one might view a maître d’ at restaurant, i.e., the person who works around and behind the scenes to ensure that operations run smoothly and that all parties are satisfied. The outcome — it worked.
An ancient philosopher once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” No matter how good the leader’s vision of the future may be, that vision only can be enacted if the whole team understands it, believes in it, and commits to executing it in a successful manner.
As the President/CEO of EMH, I have always empowered my team so they can work independently, engage in conversation with me when it was helpful, and encourage them to act decisively when necessary. Moreover, I quickly and frequently credit them for positive outcomes and take responsibility for matters that required improvement. This approach set the stage for our response during the pandemic. Specifically, in the years preceding the pandemic, my team internalized my confidence in them. Thus, when EMH had to adapt quickly to circumstances that had changed dramatically, we were able to do so. My team knows that I believe in them, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
To paraphrase Dr. King, one of the great orators of the 20th century, it is during difficult times that we obtain clarity about the character of our leaders. My hope is that, when my team reflects upon my attributes and performance as a leader, they would say that my actions in the previous years matched the words in this article.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You’ll find my regular musings on mental health industry challenges — and even some pandemic playlists — on my personal LinkedIn as well as on EMH’s blog.