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 Tibi Guzmán, who has served as Executive Director and CEO of The Arc Westchester since June, 2018. Prior to her appointment, she was the Associate Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer at the organization. She is part of the leadership team for the last 14 years overseeing different aspects of the nonprofit, starting with Wellness Center for Diagnostic and Therapeutic Services followed by programs to enhance life skills and Career Supports services. In this capacity, Ms. Guzmán was integral in redesigning prevocational services to better prepare individuals for employment in the community and introduced UNC TEACCH framework to enhance performance.
As COO, she oversaw an operating budget of 56 million with services ranging from Early Intervention/Preschool, programs for students transitioning from High School to supports for adults residing in the organization’s 44 homes. While her professional background is in Health Care Administration, Ms. Guzmán has personal experience with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) as a parent of a son with Autism. Ms. Guzmán came from the Healthcare field as an Executive Vice President of Riverside Health Care Inc., a multi-healthcare system in Yonkers, NY. Additionally, Ms, Guzmán was recently a board member of the New York State APSE chapter and participated in local I/DD, mental health, behavioral services, education and fund-raising boards. Ms, Guzmán sat on the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, Community Service Board for more than 12 years, and certified as a Fellow of the American College of Health Care Executives. Her community participations include serving on the Board of Education for Bronxville Schools for six years and the board of Heartsong Inc., an art and music therapy program for children with developmental disabilities, for more than 12 years as Treasurer and Program Chair.
She has two sons and a B.S. from Fordham University, M.P.S. from The New School for Health Service Administration and a M.A. in Economics from Fordham University.
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 always like to say that my professional story starts with a personal story: my son brought me to The Arc Westchester. Because my son has autism, I was thinking about his future and looking for an organization that would help support him for his entire life. That’s what brought me here.
I have a background in the Health Care Administration, including holding executive positions. I made the decision to retire to focus on my son when he was an adolescent; I needed to find the right supports for him. My involvement in my previous career introduced me to the organization: I met Tom Hughes, who has been involved with The Arc Westchester in several capacities for many years, on the board of another organization. When I retired, Tom told me I should come meet with The Arc, and I was subsequently offered the opportunity to join the board or step into an internal position, which I ended up choosing to do. Joining the organization was the perfect way for me to learn more about it and how it could support my son.
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?
It’s hard to pick a particular person who has helped get me where I am within The Arc Westchester, especially after the events of the past year. It has always been a team approach…it truly does take a village. I will say that the Emergency Management Team, which we created at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, has been integral in our organization’s success in 2020. The team has members from all of the key areas of our organization — nursing staff, programs, marketing, etc. We meet regularly (every day in the early weeks of the pandemic), and they continue to be responsive and agile when it comes to helping keep the individuals we support and our staff safe. The Arc Westchester supports 2,000 individuals with developmental disabilities every day, and were tasked with continuing to do so during this turbulent time.
The synergy that has been created by that team has been very helpful in ensuring a timely response and overall communication to our individuals, their families and staff.
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 Arc Westchester was founded more than 70 years ago by families, for families, for life. When I became Chief Executive Officer, we updated our Strategic Plan to include core values such as health and wellness, safety, independence, happiness and relationships. These values are integrated into everything we do and drive all of the decisions we make. 2020 really challenged us to make sure that our values were up front and at the center of how we handled the crisis. It was important to us that we communicated these values regularly and that the way we responded to the pandemic was always focused on our values.
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?
While I always knew that are staff were dedicated to the individuals we support, I really was in awe of their level of commitment during the crisis. The Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) who work in our 44 residences put themselves and their families at risk in order to shelter in place with our individuals, who were highly at-risk for the virus. These staff members recognized how vulnerable our population is and knew they needed them during this scary time. These team members kept our individuals safe, and continually surprised us with their dedication.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My motivation every day is the 2,000 individuals that we support, they are always on my mind. The fact that I am a parent of a son with autism drives that home even more. The importance of ensuring their safety, health and continuity of services motivated me to continue moving forward during the hardest days of the pandemic. And not just to respond to this situation in a safe way, but to also ensure that we remained creative in our programming, continued to progress in our mission and stayed innovative during this hard time.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To ensure optimism. We have to know we can recover from this situation, and that optimism starts at that top. Our organization has been around for more than 70 years. We have to focus on all of the positive things we’ve accomplished during those years and know that we will accomplish even greater things in the next 70 years.
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?
I’ve found that recognizing the hard work of our staff is a key way to motivate and engage the team. Throughout the health crisis, we continually recognized the hard work of our DSPs as true healthcare heroes and frontline workers. We created care packages twice this year for our 850 team members, honored them in our newsletters, social media channels and website, placed Heroes Work Here signs at all of our locations, and did smaller virtual events to honor our staff. We recognized their years of service, gave raises, and are ending the year with excellence services awards.
I also thought it was important to be present and show the team personally how grateful we are for their hard work and dedication. I made several socially-distanced visits to our group homes and connected with the staff virtually. I want them to know that we see how hard they’re working and thank them for all that they do.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is to be transparent. This is key to building trust with our entire workforce, with the people we support and their families. We’ve been providing timely information on COVID updates, information about how it was impacting our population and staff, and the steps we were taking to keep everyone safe.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
For our organization, when government funding cuts happen, they are retroactive — we can plan for the following year and then we’re hit with the cut. Being used to these kinds of crisis cuts, the key is to ensure that the organization is in a stable state and always has reserves. What I do, personally, is make sure that we don’t spend what we don’t have to when times are good, we set asides funds so we have those resources to get us through the hard times. You can’t predict what is going to happen, whether it’s budget cuts, a natural disaster or a situation like COVID-19. All you can do is keep enough reserves to get you through the turbulence. We have a Foundation that is critical in helping us replenish the funds needed by building on our existing relationships and fostering new ones so we do have that support when times get hard.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I think it’s knowing what your values are and knowing that they are the basis of everything you do. Our values help me with guiding our organization through all the ups and downs. We’re focused on the safety and health of our individuals and ensuring that we are building their independence, relationships and happiness. All of us in the organization keep these values at the center of all we do.
We are a not-for-profit organization that provides services for individuals, so there are differences from a typical for-profit company. However, from my perspective, I think the same principle applies. Know your purpose, who you’re serving or who is your customer and know what your customer values is important. I believe in putting a value into a product or service that you offer. Companies that don’t understand that value and what matters most to those on the receiving end of their product or service, are going to get lost in the turbulence.
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?
For us, it’s developing additional resources land having The Arc Westchester Foundation to help support the organization long-term goals. Because many of our most innovative services receive little or no public funding, and government budgets are subject to change, the Foundation attends to the long-term fiscal health of The Arc Westchester.
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.
In my opinion, the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain times are:
- Optimism: Your staff is going to look to you when times are hard and your attitude and outlook can have a tremendous impact on how they feel about the situation. I recently had a board member approach me and ask how we are going to make it when the situation is so dire. I told him that we have to believe we can survive with a measured and realistic plan and know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. By the end of the conversation, he was feeling much better. Your optimism can make a huge difference.
- Consistency: After many years of experience, I’ve found that being consistent helps your team believe in you. You gain trust from your team and your constituents through your actions. If they know they can count on you when times are good, and you have proven to be consistent in how you lead, you will garner that trust when times are hard.
- Transparency: We never shied away from telling the truth to our staff, individuals or their families. We didn’t sugarcoat anything — we shared the facts, were clear in our strategies and kept an open line of communication. We sent dozens of COVID related e-mails to our staff and families, hosted webinars, and placed up-to-date information on our website and social media channels.
- Remain mission-focused: As I’ve previously mentioned, our mission is at the center of every decision we make. While our primary concern was ensuring the health and safety of our individuals during the health crisis, we also were committed to providing a continuity of programming that would help them foster independence, cultivate relationships and bring happiness.
- Recognize your staff, especially when times are hard: Show them that you acknowledge their triumphs and how they give back to the organization. Let them know that you see how hard they are working and celebrate the impact that it has. We created care packages, placed Heroes Work Here signs at all of our homes and Program locations and shared stories of our amazing staff members on our website, social media channels and in our Annual Report.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes, which I actually have on a magnet in my office, is from Albert Einstein: “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficult lies opportunity.”
It reminds me to not get caught up in the little things but think about the opportunities that will make larger changes and have a larger impact. That is something that I always try to work on — being more visionary in every decision I make for our organization and in my life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can learn more about The Arc Westchester and the work we do supporting individuals with developmental disabilities at ArcWestchester.org. We can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.