As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John McGeehan, Founder and CEO of The Dorm, a young adult mental health treatment community committed to helping young people build independent lives. With locations in New York City and Washington, D.C., John knows a thing or two about leading and growing a purpose and mission-driven business during turbulent times.
John began his career supporting expatriates in Japan as a treatment placement specialist and interventionist, supporting adolescents and their families as they sought the mental health care they needed in the United States. In 2009, he founded The Dorm with the goal of setting a new standard in the world of young adult treatment. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from New York University with a specialty certification in substance abuse, intervention and related co-occurring disorders.
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?
The start of my leadership career began in an unexpected place, and on a very personal level.
When I was 13 years old, my family was relocated from Connecticut to Japan for my father’s work. Prior to the move I had never been further away from home than Florida. It was a radical shift, not just in terms of geography but also in terms of language and culture. I immediately felt like a fish out of water; isolated and ill-equipped to manage the experience of adolescence in a new country.
Ultimately, I was able to seek and receive treatment in the U.S., during this tough time in my life, for which I am so grateful. What I didn’t know then but I know now was that my darkest days would become my greatest asset.
Through recovery, I quickly gained an education in the very layered and emotional journey of treatment, not just for the person who seeks help, but for the entire family system. I saw firsthand the experience of shame and stigma that comes with substance use, mental illness and recovery. The legal risks and ramifications. The challenge of finding good treatment. Most of all, I felt that things could be done differently, and better. I felt called to support other young adults who were navigating their own challenges; I wanted to help them find the support I had been lucky enough to find.
Within a few years I began working with other adolescent expatriates in Japan who were struggling with substance use and mental illness supporting them and their families with intervention, and connecting them to the treatment opportunities they needed.
It was during this transformational time that the earliest seeds of The Dorm were planted for me. I saw the necessity of truly meeting an adolescent and their family where they were, both figuratively and literally as I worked with young people cross-culturally, often from over six thousand miles away.
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?
One of my greatest cheerleaders and advocates during my early years was my former principal at a school I had attended in Tokyo. He connected me with countless families and adolescents who needed help, and charged me with leading substance use prevention efforts at several international schools in Tokyo.
Most importantly what this relationship represents is the paradox that by facing our greatest fears and confronting the wreckage of our past we become open to new and exciting opportunities that are beyond our wildest dreams.
Today, this individual is not only a mentor but a friend. And he continues to remind me that it is often the most surprising connections and relationships that can propel you forward in ways you never thought possible.
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?
The vision and the purpose of The Dorm is and has always been to provide a new standard of mental health care for young adults.
When I was starting out in this industry I was exposed to many different ways of delivering care to young people who were overcoming substance use, an eating disorder or a mood disorder. The most common approach to treatment was to send someone away to receive care — to take them out of their current environment to treat their mental illness.
While this might be an important part of someone’s experience (and there is no doubt that it can be necessary for some individuals, depending on the circumstances), what I saw with time and experience was that many individuals were struggling once they were discharged from treatment and had to return to “life” without the supports they had at a facility or hospital. There was a high risk of regression and relapse.
What these young people needed were the structures and supports right in the places where they were building their lives. They needed a high standard of care that supported them as they continued to go to class to get their degree, start that first job or move into their first apartment.
When I founded The Dorm in 2009, providing a new, unique model of care became my driving purpose and mission. I decided I wanted to build a community integration treatment experience where young people could live and be an active member in their community while receiving best-in-class care. Today, I am so lucky to share that vision with an incredible team.
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?
Last year was a time that challenged all of us.
Right as COVID-19 cases surged in New York City in March 2020, we made the decision to transition our 900 weekly individual and group clinical sessions for our clients online (in five days). And while we now provide care in a hybrid format (3 days a week in-person and 2 days a week virtually), it is that time in March 2020 that really stands out to me as one of the most challenging I have ever faced as a mental health leader. No one knew what the next week (or even day!) would look like.
What I did know was that my attitude, my approach and the choices I made would set the tone for the entire company. Four things became immediately important. One, that the team be extremely transparent, communicative and responsive, two that we have a plan (even if that plan was for that day or for that week), three, that we needed back-up contingency plans and to remain as flexible and nimble as possible and four, that we needed to do everything in our power to make sure that our clients, their families and our team members knew that their health and safety was at the forefront of our decision making.
In the weeks that followed we communicated daily (at first) and then weekly with all of our community on essential updates, CDC guidelines and new state mandates.
We could see the intensity of this time on our team, so adapted PTO policy to reflect additional personal time off to rest and recharge.
We started weekly community meetings so that our young adult clients could feel more connected virtually despite physical distances, and when we made the decision to return to partial in-person treatment we decided to not just follow basic CDC guidelines (social distancing, masks, handwashing) but to make available on-site COVID-19 testing twice weekly to all staff and clients.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never felt like giving up was an option. We had hundreds of clients and team members to think about. If we didn’t provide our services, we knew there was a good chance some of them would end up hospitalized or worse. This is our calling. And like so many others, we were essential workers; we were and continue to be sustained by the important work that we do and the people we serve.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Honest communication and true presence.
I feel so lucky that so many in our industry feel a calling to this profession; they will provide for our clients and be there for them through thick and thin. But it is important that they know that their leadership is looking out for them, is available and ready to weather any storm together right alongside them. In order to convey this, the role of a leader is to be communicative and truly present. That means not just being “visible” or sending a cursory email once a week, but being actively present and engaged; checking in, reaching out, proactively gathering feedback. It means asking questions like, “What’s working, what’s not?” and most of all: “How can I support you?”.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As best as you can, plan for the unpredictable. Make a plan A but also a plan B, C and D. Explore as many contingencies as possible. And be as flexible and open-minded as you can.
In the midst of this pandemic I saw many business leaders become stuck in a state of fear; unable to pivot, or to try something new, or to make necessary changes quickly. Crises, for better or worse, forces change. If you are able to lean into that, there is also a chance for growth, for opportunity and for innovation.
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?
- Be guided by your purpose and your why. With every decision you make, the underlying mission and purpose of your business should be your guiding force. For us, this is to provide the best care possible for our young adult clients, and to make sure that our team members feel supported.
- Remember the big picture. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds and details, especially if you are an entrepreneur who is used to spinning all the plates all the time. But when you zoom out, you can gain a tremendous amount of perspective.
- Foster transparency and open communication. Lean into having consistent, honest conversations. Be open to feedback and lead by example when it comes to creating a work environment that makes addressing the difficult or uncomfortable topics not just okay but expected, healthy and a necessary part of team growth.
- Be flexible and open-minded. If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s the importance of being nimble and having the ability to adapt to change. 2020 was a crash course in practicing this mindset, but I consider it an essential skill as a leader in business.
5. Cultivate your professional community. The connections, network and friendships you make are always necessary, but never more so than during difficult times. I saw many businesses during the pandemic become insular. But it was the ones that shared and were collaborative that often succeeded most. What you begin to realize is that there is tremendous strength in the community. I’ve always found that what you give, always gives back in surprising and meaningful ways.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have held on to this quote throughout the years as I have approached young people and their families and supported them through some of the most difficult days of their lives. I find that it can offer them hope for what’s ahead and help them embrace all truths:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.