Mark Wickham has been a leader of human service non-profit organizations for more than a decade, but he maintains the mindset of the group-home worker he was at the start of his career.
The new head of the Catholic Family Center of the Diocese of Rochester served as the leader of Lakeview Mental Health Services Inc. for nearly 10 years. As he did at Lakeview, Wickham confronts the difficulties facing the human service sector with a collaborative approach.
He constantly travels to program sites, meets one-on-one with employees to get their perspective and involves supervisors and department heads in long-term planning.
The work paid off at Lakeview, where he helped double revenue during his tenure while modernizing the organization technologically. At Catholic Family Center, his challenges are twofold: leading the organization when resources have gotten scarcer and following the long-tenured and beloved former CEO, Carolyn Portanova.
Since being named CEO in October, Wickham has undertaken a thorough evaluation of the programs Catholic Family Center offers. He plans to sharpen the focus of the nearly $27 million organization, which in the 2010 fiscal year had 455 employees.
"Mark is very forward-thinking, aware of trends and where we need to be headed," says Maryanne Townsend, Catholic Family Center chairwoman. "As he evaluates our programs and guides us into the future, we have a pretty good feeling about where we stand."
Recognizing the difficulties ahead as funding from the state and other sources drops, Wickham has taken a collaborative approach to his assessment of the organization. His first few months have included meeting with department leaders and employees, getting their opinions on the programs, what functions are most important and which could be improved.
In the end, Wickham says, the organization’s future will be tied closely to the needs of the community and what other groups are providing. Redundant services may be scaled back, while those services unique to Catholic Family Center may be strengthened.
Changes at Lakeview
Wickham gained a reputation as something of a turnaround specialist at Lakeview. When he joined the organization in 2002, coming from Finger Lakes Health, Lakeview was having difficulties and needed a new business plan, he says.
With operations spread out across seven counties of the Finger Lakes, Lakeview was primarily an occupancy-based organization but struggled with occupancy rates at its residences, Wickham recalls.
"We were doing OK, but with occupancy rates at around 70 percent, it made us look closely at the operations," he says.
Though the low occupancy rates put pressure on the organization, it was struggling more with its lack of identity, Wickham says.
"We were trying to find who we were and what it was we should be focusing on," he says. "We spent a long time that first year understanding what our core businesses were."
From that point, Wickham and the board began work on a new long-term plan for Lakeview, creating its first strategic business plan. The organization focused on raising its occupancy rates and bolstering alternative revenue streams, Wickham recalls.
A key decision was to purchase the properties where the organization provided services, he says.
"That was turning the organization around," Wickham says. "Now we were owning these assets and facilities."
Today 95 percent of Lakeview’s properties are owned, Wickham says. Revenue at the organization grew from close to $5 million when he began to $10 million.
Wickham also led Lakeview on some major construction projects, including a home in Ithaca and another in Seneca Falls.
"He really was the driving force behind those projects and involved in every aspect from beginning to end," said Jules Ravo, Lakeview chairman. "All this growth happened during his tenure and really was pursuant to his plans and efforts."
Lakeview also made other changes, such as moving its headquarters from Canandaigua to Geneva, which was more central to the area it served. Since the organization has a total service area of nearly 3,000 square miles, the ability to stay connected to all services and facilities was essential, Wickham says. But this connection was strained by the distance between the service centers and the lack of a central administrative location, and also by technological deficits, he says.
When he first joined in 2002, the organization had three computers, working at less than maximum speed. After a 10-year upgrading process, Lakeview now has computerized medical records, instant communication and an online training process, Wickham says.
Bringing technology up to speed was important, but not as much as maintaining a personal connection across the organization.
"The technology we had didn’t take away from the person-to-person connections we needed," Wickham says. "I was making sure I was always out there, meeting with staff and seeing programs. They have to feel like they can connect with leadership and talk with us."
Wickham estimates he covered 35,000 miles each year in his car, traveling to different residences and meeting with employees. Having begun his career working directly in community residences, Wickham says he knew these employees were central to the success of a human service organization.
"The people who are the most important are those who are delivering services to our clients every day," Wickham says. "They’re seeing people at their most vulnerable, and those workers have to listen to them and understand their stories. It’s so important as a CEO to make sure they have everything they need to do their job."
Wickham also understands the strain on these employees. He recalls times when he worked in community residences from Sunday straight through to Wednesday night.
Catholic Family Center
When Wickham came across the opening for a CEO at Catholic Family Center, he saw it as a chance to continue in the same line of work as at Lakeview while bringing over some of the lessons he had learned there.
Catholic Family Center was also attractive because it gave him a chance to connect to the organization’s Catholic values of charity and service to the needy without discriminating on the basis of clients’ religious views.
For Catholic Family Center, finding a replacement for its longtime leader was a careful process, but Wickham stood out among the candidates.
"The board worked for quite a long time in looking for our next leader, and in fact started even before her (Portanova’s) retirement was announced," Townsend says. "We met with community leaders and asked what kind of person we should be looking for, then did some meetings with employees of Catholic Family Center to get their thoughts, too."
Those meetings, combined with online polling of employees, helped the search committee develop a job description. The posting yielded many resumes, and through the first two rounds of interviews, Wickham stood out to committee members for his optimism, even in a difficult landscape, Townsend says.
"We were facing some tough times, a time of budget cuts and when programs really have to prove themselves, but Mark was one of the few people who was really optimistic," Townsend says. "He said we need to put it out to the public that we’re very good at what we do and we should be awarded funds because we’re so good at it."
Wickham also had the financial know-how to back up his claims, Townsend says. Not longer after being named CEO, he demonstrated his deep understanding of human service functions and his hands-on style.
Wickham quickly started a program-by-program evaluation, an initiative to find the organization’s core strengths much like the one he led at Lakeview. He is working with the board to look closely at the organization’s existing business plans and create a three-page list of priorities.
"We plan to merge that priority list with the business plan and rewrite a new plan," Wickham says.
Those changes are important because of shifting needs in the community, he adds. As funding becomes more difficult to secure, Catholic Family Center must be able to shift its funding to where it will have the greatest impact.
That task, too, is more difficult because of the growing and changing needs of the organization’s clients, Wickham adds. Poverty has crept out of the usual urban and rural areas into the suburbs, and suburban residents are the fastest-growing segment of clients, he says.
Wickham’s evaluation of the organization has been sensitive to these changing needs, Townsend says. In assessing each service and department, Wickham has met with key leaders as well as lower-level employees. He also meets regularly with Bishop Matthew Clark, who provides the guidelines and structure for Catholic Family Center’s work.
"He’s been a great leader because he doesn’t do anything unilaterally," Townsend says. "He always looks for consensus, and he’s huge on communication."
Wickham is going to great lengths to ensure that the lines of communication from employees to upper management remain clear.
"I need to make sure I stay connected with the programs, because that’s where it’s all happening," he says. "I’ve been meeting with a lot of community and political leaders, too."
The communication takes on more importance because of the person he follows, Wickham says. During Portanova’s tenure she became the face of the organization, and part of his transition to CEO will be allowing his style to take over.
"Carolyn Portanova brought this organization to what it is today, and it was under her leadership that it became the largest provider in the area," says Wickham, who still meets with Portanova to discuss the organization and where it is headed. "I feel I inherited a great place from her, but I’m not her. I don’t have her personality, and while I recognize that what she’s done has been great, I need to grow into this job myself."
Wickham already has made his physical transition to the area, closing on a house in Perinton with his wife, Susan. He has spent his free time running, golfing and refereeing lacrosse games, something of a family specialty.
His son, Ryan, was a goalkeeper at the U.S. Naval Academy and was named to the All-Patriot League first team for the last season, and daughter Brooke plays lacrosse at Marist College.
Through his assessment of Catholic Family Center and his knowledge of the changing needs of the community, Wickham sees some areas where the organization will need to expand.
The first is in affordable housing, an area Wickham also led at Lakeview. During his tenure there, the organization built 120 affordable housing units across six counties, and Wickham foresees the need continuing to grow in coming years.
He will look to the city of Rochester and Monroe County as partners in increasing this housing.
"We need to find a way to improve the amount of safe, affordable housing we can provide," he says. "There is a growing refugee population that needs to have this housing, as well as people getting out of prisons."
The area’s aging population also presents new challenges for Catholic Family Center, Wickham says.
As poverty grows, the organization will continue to focus on helping families and helping individuals re-enter the workforce.
But, mindful of funding constraints, Wickham is determined to grow Catholic Family Center in a way that is sustainable for the entire community, Townsend notes. Wickham has taken an approach that looks beyond the organization itself to consider what services other groups are offering.
For example, Catholic Family Center’s mental health services have been running in the red, but because few other local groups provide these services, Wickham has made sure to maintain them through cost-cutting measures, Townsend says.
This restructuring includes making service delivery more efficient, says John Pennell, chief financial officer at Catholic Family Center.
"I think we’re now on the cusp of turning the corner and not making that as much of a drain on the organization," Pennell says. "There aren’t a lot of people providing services the way we do, and it’s important that we find a way to do that creatively so we can continue to deliver those services."
His assessment of all programs will be through this same prism, Wickham says. In areas where the organization provides services already being addressed by other groups, there could be some pulling back as the non-profit looks to narrow its focus, he says.
"We want to make sure we maintain our focus," Wickham says. "We’re not looking to be an organization that can do it all, but in partnership with the rest of the community, we all can do it."
Position: CEO, Catholic Family Center
Education: B.S. in psychology and education, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, 1983; MBA with emphasis in health care administration, College of St. Rose, Albany, 1996
Family: Wife Susan; son Ryan; daughter Brooke
Activities: Running, golf, officiating lacrosse games
Quote: "We want to make sure we maintain our focus. We’re not looking to be an organization that can do it all, but in partnership with the rest of the community, we all can do it."
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