Five Question Friday with Brent Dillinger

In this Five Question Friday, we sat down with Brent Dillinger, CEO of Crossroads of Western Iowa. Brent has extensive leadership experience in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, enabling him to provide a unique perspective on the current state and future of human services organizations. Gain insight into how Brent has led Crossroads of Western Iowa to success and discover some new ways of thinking that you can bring to your organization.

1.You’ve been the CEO at Crossroads of Western Iowa since 2008. Since then, your organization has experienced impressive growth, from a 90-employee organization serving 250 clients in 2008 to more than 400 individuals serving close to 2000 clients currently. Can you tell us more about your organization as well as how you’ve enabled and managed this growth?

Thanks for your kind words. I’ve been blessed during my time thus far at CWI to be surrounded by some really talented people who align with me in our vision of growth and admirable service to our communities. Our organization exists to help people through life’s crossroads. Whether someone is seeking residential services, intensive outpatient treatment, or weekly counseling sessions, our holistic approach to services helps them reach their goals.

In our markets we currently serve in – Iowa and Idaho – it is not a secret we are known as a growth organization. Funding partners recognize the “can do” and courageous spirit in the strategic initiatives we endeavor. Our focus on driving growth in terms of geographies and communities served as well as diversification of funding streams all comes together to enable us to bring our mission of hope and empowerment to hundreds more clients each year. We are strategic and intentional about building organizational capacity to thrive in these dynamic times and to also be a beacon of hope in our communities and a trusted partner for smaller providers looking to sustain their mission in their more rural markets.

2. Before entering the human services industry, you had a strong background in retail management and worked for two Fortune 500 companies. Can you speak to how these experiences have informed and enabled your leadership at Crossroads of Western Iowa?

Almost 13 years ago when I took the helm of our organization, I must be honest and say I felt somewhat like a “fish out of water” realizing the technology, resources, and overall sense of urgency I used to have in the “for-profit” companies I worked for was missing in the small nonprofit (CWI) that I stepped into. I also realized very early, in the conversations I engaged in with my peers at State Association meetings and other industry roundtables and community discussions, that the leaders I experienced running nonprofit organizations were what I would characterize as strained and usurped of their creative energy, victims of the funding systems they exclusively relied on, and quite outspoken about the political winds that blow. (I mean no offense at all as these are all great humans who still come to work to lead people to do great acts of service for people that need help). Those were early learnings that shaped my formative years as a leader in the nonprofit world and my related leadership at CWI.

Those early learnings perplexed me and led to some internal questioning of my role and place in it all, honestly. Yet, I charted my own path – and learned to be informed by others, but to have the leadership courage to “think outside the box” and to make new waves. Having said that, I drew from my experiences in retail management and the lessons I learned during that time in my leadership career, and embraced the following approach:

  • People drive the mission (strategy, outcomes, etc)! Taking care of the internal customers (our staff) better than competitors in the market will motivate and result in excellent service delivery through increased employee engagement, reduced turnover, and more successful talent acquisition.
  • Growth takes care of a lot of things! People are attracted to a winning team, and success begets success. We’ve consistently held ourselves accountable to an operating plan and departmental/individual leader goals of revenue increases and client count growth annually. I am convinced this “for-profit” approach to year over year growth has helped our organization build capacity to serve today in ways one would have never imagined a few short years ago.
  • Strategic relationships and “partnerships” can get us further, faster! Many great ideas fall flat or are short-lived if we as leaders keep turning to the same sounding boards as before – especially when dynamic times call for bold innovation and some risk taking. I am grateful the Board of Directors we built over the past many years has welcomed and embraced our growth vision and strategy of seeking partnerships, including mergers and acquisitions, to really fuel our mission and its vital impacts.

3.We often talk about how the human services industry is very unique from other industries out there – both in how it operates and some of the specific challenges this industry faces. As someone with first-hand experience with both nonprofits and for-profit companies, what are some of the challenges/differences that are most notable to you within human services organizations?

This is a great question, and follows my line of thought in the previous question really well. I will share this—while conventional wisdom is that managing a nonprofit is vastly different than a for-profit counterpart, I would give it a different take. Here’s my take on a few differences:

NONPROFIT COMPANIES/ HUMAN SERVICES INDUSTRY

FOR-PROFIT COMPANIES/ OTHER INDUSTRIES

Resources are scarce and funder contracts/grants drive revenue

Resources regenerate and sales promotions drive revenue

People work for the heart, not the paycheck

People come to work to make a paycheck and get rewarded with bonus

Turnover is a drain with overall industry average turnover near 60%

Turnover can be a factor in all industries and pay is rarely the determining factor

Noting the above differences as just a few examples (and this list could be expanded easily), I contend that the basic factors management deals with in for-profit and nonprofit organizations, or other industries, can sometimes be used by leaders as a “crutch” or even long-held belief that it’s just the way things are. But, a well-intentioned strategic plan which is embedded in the meeting structure and performance management plan of its team can put a company on a path to running a successful and impactful organization no matter the challenges and headwinds.

4.You seem to really prioritize engagement and culture at your organization. Why do you think that company culture and workplace wellbeing fell so far on the CEO list of workforce management priorities this year?

I only have a hunch, but I believe the trauma and ambiguity brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted leaders to focus more so on basic needs and primary responsibilities of running the organization during this time. Unfortunately, some leaders see culture and wellbeing initiatives as “fluff” or “nice-to-haves” rather than essential focus areas of a company. This pulling away of company culture and workplace wellbeing initiatives can provide some short-term gains in business outcomes, but will ultimately have a negative impact over the long haul in terms of strategy and overall engagement of the team.

The mental health toll on our workforce cannot be overstated as our staff deal with the myriad of ups and downs of remote working and also their own family’s uncertainties in terms of job security, healthcare, home schooling, and disrupted routines. Employers, in my opinion, will need to double-down on workplace wellbeing and culture programs to ensure we’re best caring for our teams who serve our clients/customers.

5.Looking ahead, what do you believe will be the key to your organization’s continued success in the future? What strategies or steps are you taking to be prepared for the future of work?

In terms of the future of work, we are working diligently to ensure we have the technology platforms and more flexible/hybrid work policies to meet our staff where they’re at in life and to still enable them to serve and add value to our community. We are also exploring more innovative worker status approaches in terms of independent contractors, labor pools, apprenticeships, etc. We know the pandemic is challenging many norms, and we’re doing our best too to build the “new norm” and be an employer where talented people can do their best work and find great meaning in what they do.

In closing, I see a bright future. We envision significant growth and opportunity for our organization and the thousands of people we serve into to the future. In fact, our Vision 2025 calls for us to serve in a more holistic way, creating hope and enabling empowerment in communities for people who are looking for help but haven’t had their needs met by other providers. Building on a full rebrand (soon to be announced…) and all the energy that will bring us, we seek strategic partners who will help advance our mission to a national audience. I know that getting bigger as an organization will surely bring along benefits in terms of sustainability and capacity, and will bring some challenges and headaches too, but I’m most excited about how this growth will better position us to create hope, empower lives, and inspire communities!

Learn More

If you’d like to keep up with the latest changes and innovations at Brent Dillinger’s organization, check out the Crossroads of Western Iowa website. For more information on the technology platform that DATIS provides to empower human services organizations to achieve their workforce management goals, contact us today.

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