Friday, June 30, 2006

Keeping the Faythe

Last October 2005, I posted an article entitled Morning in the Garden of Promise & Opportunity. It was the story about an agency in Savannah, Georgia that was working hard to transform its services from a center-based service model to integrated, customized employment in the workforce. My association with Coastal Center for Developmental Services (CCDS) as a mentor was arranged by the national Training and Technical Assistance Program or T-TAP.
T-TAP is sponsored by the Department of Labor, Office on Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and managed jointly by the University of Massachusetts’ Institute on Community Inclusion and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Workplace Supports. T-TAP offers a broad range of training activities and targeted technical assistance support for community rehabilitation programs who are interested in taking significant steps in progressive organizational change and offering customized employment.
At the request of CCDS’s retiring Executive Director, Faythe Merkert, I had the opportunity to return to Savannah last week to meet with newly hired Executive Director, Duane Ramer and the organization’s Community Employment Services (CES) Team. The purpose of my visit was to get acquainted with the incoming Executive Director, explain the purpose of the T-TAP program, review the evolving mentoring partnership between Rise and CCDS to date, discuss CCDS’ progress in expanding and refining its customized employment services, and coordinate a transition plan to carry forward systems change objectives established in a five-year plan as approved by CCDS’ Board of Directors.
So how is CCDS doing? Despite a transition in leadership, CCDS is doing extremely well and poised to sustain its ambitious organizational change objectives. CCDS’ staff has placed 40 individuals into the workforce this past year alone! And the organization continues its rapid pace in executing a plan to expand customized employment for the 275 participants it serves.
Dr. John Butterworth, one of T-TAP’s Directors from UMASS, views CCDS as one of its high performing demonstration sites. Butterworth and CCDS’ CES Supervisor, Lauri Dworzak, recently shared information about the organization’s success in transforming its services in a national webcast. According to Butterworth, CCDS has touched on virtually all of the key elements that T-TAP has identified as key strategic elements to successful organizational change:
  • setting a clear and uncompromising goal
  • rethinking staff resources and roles
  • building expectations with key stakeholder groups including board members, staff, family, individuals, funders, and service providers through effective communications
  • developing new partnerships and resources
  • considering the whole person and his or her need for connecting relationships after job entry
  • just doing it (moving ahead with career planning and customized job development strategies).

I agree wholeheartedly with Butterworth’s observations. The staff of CCDS has had a phenomenal year and performed at a very high level both individually as well as a team. I give Lauri Dworzak and her talented staff high marks for keeping sights on their goals and working collectively to achieve them. As a mentor, I observed this organization from close up and they certainly have worked with creativity and energy to achieve person-centered job outcomes for their participants.

Also, CCDS’ organizational transformation provides T-TAP with valuable lessons in leadership. In this regard, Faythe Merkert has done an outstanding job preparing her agency for the impending changes it would encounter. In addition to CCDS' systems change goals, Merkert also knew she would be leaving the organization after 30 years of service as its Executive Director.

Merkert worked with the agency’s board of directors and management team to galvanize a new vision and launch a five-year strategic workplan to better prepare CCDS for the future. Also, she reorganized the CES Team and demanded high job performance expectations to increase the job placement of participants into the workforce. Finally, Merkert nurtured a broad base of staff support for the organization’s systems change goals by engaging all employees in these objectives regardless of the department they worked for. She has been highly successful in achieving staff buy-in at all levels of the organization and this is quite evident by the high energy CCDS employees are investing in support of the new direction.

As Faythe Merkert moves forward, she is very proud of the changes that have taken place. Also, she is rightfully proud of the CCDS staff who have been instrumental in making the desired changes a reality. There is no question that a large part of Merkert’s strategy was preparing the CES Team for its future. This long-term strategy was to equip the CCDS staff with the confidence, supports, and strategies they will need to sustain their efforts well into the future. In my view, she has succeeded. The CES Team has grown considerably in a short period of time. As a group, they are advanced in their understanding of customized employment and navigating systems change challenges despite their relative inexperience in managing them.

Change in leadership is a challenging time for any organization and it is no different for CCDS. Faythe Merkert has been leading this organization for 30 years and her retirement has created expected uncertainty and anxiety among some CCDS staff. With that said, newly-hired Executive Director Duane Ramer is an experienced manager of community rehabilitation services and has served in an executive capacity for more than 20 years. Mr. Ramer has interests and strengths in building a new business and technology infrastructure to modernize CCDS’ communications, business, and case management capacities. Also, he has a strong background in the area of marketing and employment services and will continue to develop the organization’s strengths in these areas.

Faythe Merkert has worked hard to lay a strong foundation for the organization’s future, yet there is much room for Duane Ramer to bring his own management style and skill sets to help carry CCDS' vision forward. He will be well-served by the five-year blueprint developed by its board of directors and management team as he settles into his new job.

John Butterworth likes to joke with the CCDS staff about their BHAG. That is, their Big Hairy Audacious Goal set by the organization and promoted by Merkert. CCDS' original goal was to find jobs for 60 people in 2006! Although they may fall a bit short in achieving this annual goal, the CES Team has made 40 customized job placements and they have taken significant steps in transforming the agency's services and outcomes. Kudos to all CCDS staff for such an outstanding year!

As I left Savannah, Merkert was in her final days and moving forward into retirement. She leaves CCDS in capable hands and did an incredible job preparing the agency’s board, management team, and staff for the organizational challenges that lie ahead. You really can’t ask for much more from an executive who is passing the torch. The success of CCDS now lies in the hands of her colleagues and they must seize the opportunity to carry this progressive vision forward into the future.

To say its simply, I had the opportunity last week to witness an amazing story. I saw a progressive organization lose its Faythe and renew its faith--all at the same time.

For more information about Coastal Center for Development Services and its outstanding programs, visit their web site at http://www.ccds-sav.org/index.html. To learn more about T-TAP and its training opportunities for customized employment providers, visit their web site at http://www.t-tap.org/

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