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 Glen Casel.
Glen Casel has been an advocate for children for 30 years. As President/CEO of Embrace Families, he leads the region’s largest non-profit organization serving children and families, which provides foster care and related child services in Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties.
Casel was tapped to lead the agency now known as Embrace Families in 2004. Under his leadership, Embrace Families has grown into a state and national leader in the realm of child welfare services. He is recognized throughout Florida as an architect of the community-based care model; and across America as an advocate for change in Foster Care and for driving social entrepreneurship into the non-profit sector.
But what Glen is most proud of is the impact that his work has had on Florida’s children. Today in Central Florida, under the community based care model he helped initiate, more children are reunified with their families, more children are adopted into forever families, more children receive regular medical and dental care, fewer young people turn 18 while in foster care, and more young people graduate with degrees, among a host of other positive indicators. This success has not gone unnoticed. His advice is frequently sought as other states and communities work to duplicate these measures of success.
Before coming to Embrace Families, Casel served as Vice President at the Children’s Home Society of Florida (CHS). He started his career at the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Casel is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Health Services Administration. He and his wife make their home in Central Florida where they raised three children.
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’ve been working in foster care since I was out of college. Early on, that meant I was in public service with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). I can’t say there was a personal connection that led me to pursue a career in social work. But that all changed 22 years ago, shortly after I left DCF.
I was standing in a particular agency’s service center, when a young mom came in holding the hand of a little boy. She let go of his hand and walked away.
For a moment, I couldn’t process it. One of my coworkers scooped up the boy and handed him to me, then went running after the mom. The boy started to cry — almost like he knew what was happening — and all I could think was, “I have a daughter his age. What if something like this had happened to her? What if she didn’t have me?”
That moment was the bolt of lightning that would galvanize me for the rest of my life. My job turned into a passion, not just a career path. I knew in that moment, it was all I would ever do — until the day every kid has a loving family, the care and opportunities they deserve. I still keep a photo of my daughter at two years old on my desk, to remind me of that day — and how our work touches lives.
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 in many of my colleagues, but there are two that stand out. The first was my first “real” boss, Ray Berry. In all my life, I’d never really been pushed to overachieve. But Ray wasn’t one to let things slide. He wanted to see the potential in me, and he was going to push me until I capitalized on it.
Second is Dick Batchelor, former member of the Florida House of Representatives. His advocacy for children transformed foster care and mental health services for kids — and his personal support, collaboration and drive has been a source of constant inspiration.
Back when I was still working with DCF, there was a class-action lawsuit raised against the state because not enough was being done to help children in need. I attended a brainstorming session with Dick, trying to find ways DCF could improve. I was twenty-something years old and barely qualified, and — to be perfectly frank — I felt like I didn’t belong in the same room as Dick. But he treated me like any other person, like I was an equal who deserved to have a voice in that conversation.
It was a simple gesture, but it gave me the confidence boost I needed to speak up and not be afraid to challenge the status quo. Close to 30 years later, Dick is still a close friend and mentor. He taught me early on that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, only the passion you have for positive change.
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?
Back when Embrace Families was still a small agency — with just 24 staff members — we made the decision to expand from Seminole County to the entire tri-county area of Seminole, Orange and Osceola. It was like David taking on Goliath. Our only shot was if every person in our agency came up to bat — and then hit a home run. And we did.
Of those 24 staff members, probably 18 are still working with us today. That’s a testament to the power of culture and mission. When everyone can listen, get involved, and have an equal voice, you can accomplish amazing things. When you stay humble — everybody matters. Didn’t matter what you did. We’re all equal.
During the pandemic, everything was stripped down to brass tacks. At Embrace Families, we have a highly-engaged staff and a potent management team — as well as a decentralized and egalitarian leadership structure. All of those things worked to our advantage in March, when COVID-19 triggered shutdowns across the nation. It was an environment that could have created chaos, but that didn’t happen. We adapted and kept moving.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In foster care, you see the worst of the worst humanity has to offer, and that takes an emotional toll. Either you want to leave, or you get callous — and it’s an effort to make sure you don’t do either. You learn to separate, recharge, refocus, and then come back with your full passion and drive.
My family is a source of solace. After terrible days, when I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, I’d get home and see my kids waiting for me, happy, healthy and full of love. It’s a comfort and a reminder of why I can’t quit — because there are kids who don’t have that.
In hospitals and the military, teams have bonds that help them cope and support each other. We work to create the same connection. When you can talk about what’s hard and endure it together, you can stay motivated even when things are tough.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When the world is unstable, a leader has to be stable. My team looks to me to see what’s happening. If I’m wavering, if I’m shaken or unsure, they lose faith in our strategy. By staying stable, a leader can give a sense of predictability and comfort that keeps the team on track.
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?
First, reassure your team. Make sure everyone knows that it’s okay. Even if you can’t predict what’s going to happen, let them know you’re going to do everything you can to soften the impact.
Second, fall back on your team culture. If you’ve built a motivated and connected team, it’s easier to keep that going. But if you were already fragile and disengaged, a crisis will only fracture you further.
Third, find the opportunity. No matter the challenge, there’s always a silver lining. Sometimes it means you have to adapt your strategy, change course, start anew. People like to make progress, and in tough times, it’s also a source of comfort.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Unpredictable isn’t synonymous with “bad.” It just means you have to figure it out as you go and adapt to the situation. When the economy is booming, there are challenges. When the economy is slow, there are different challenges. You have to find the opportunity wherever you are.
For example, during the recession, Embrace Families grew faster than we ever have. We were adding team members and needed to find space. Given the economic climate, we found a great deal that did two things: provided us with new offices and filled a void for a local commercial landlord.
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?
You have to be nimble. Don’t get locked into something just because it’s worked in the past — change up your tactics and rethink the reasons behind your strategy. People and enterprises get in trouble because they find one tool that works, and don’t change it when the situation shifts. But change in a crisis is how industries reinvent themselves.
At Embrace Families, we host an annual fundraiser event called “Dance, Dream and Inspire.” It’s a charity dance competition with high-profile community members and public figures — and, as you can imagine, it’ll be tough to host during a pandemic. So we’re already thinking ahead about how we can reinvent ourselves for the new situation. But we have to do that, because the alternative is to quit — and that’s not something we can do.
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.
I’ll offer four. First, keep your team steady. When you’re a leader, you’re in charge of making decisions that affect so many other people. Many times there isn’t a right or wrong answer … but you have to keep moving.
Second, be confident. When people feel uncertain and scared, they look to their leaders for reassurance. Even if you’re not 100% confident, project that decisiveness and that authority when you take action.
Third, lead by serving others. Comradery matters when things are rough. In a tough financial situation, we’d asked all our team members to conserve money. As I was making a pot of coffee in the office, I saw the office manager unloading supplies — including a refill of coffee grounds. It wasn’t our usual brand, so I asked why she’d changed it.
She told me she was trying to save money, and this brand was $2 cheaper than the usual. I laughed and said, “We need people to drink the coffee — and we won’t balance the budget on coffee grounds.” It was a moment to be real, to meet people where they are. You have to show your team that you care about them.
Four, never compromise your values. Especially as a nonprofit, you have to follow your mission — not just the money. If you get off track, you’ll find yourself in places and enterprises you don’t want to be in. And you need the commitment and willingness to say, “We’re never going to sacrifice the right thing — not for money, not for convenience, not for growth.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was in college, a friend told me that “life is 10% what happens, and 90% how you react.” Kids in foster care have suffered things that most people can’t even imagine. They’ve been dealt a terrible hand. And historically, that’s been what people talk about: all the horrible things that have happened to our kids. But that’s only 10% of the story — what about the other 90%? We shouldn’t identify our kids with their worst traumas. We should celebrate what they’ve overcome, and what they’ve become in spite of it.
Working in foster care, that quote takes on a special significance. It’s not just saying “bad things happen.” It’s challenging you to ask, “So what? What am I going to do about it?” It’s a quote that demands action. And that’s the mindset that led me to where I am today.
How can our readers further follow your work?