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7 Questions with Michael Gathje
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7 Questions with Michael Gathje
Name: Michael Gathje
Current title: Chief Program Officer
Current organisation: Lifesteps Inc.
I am the Chief Program Officer for Lifesteps where I provide leadership to ensure effective human services in support of adults with Intellectual Disabilities, Early Care and Education Programs and family services including seminar and case management. Prior to coming to Lifesteps, I participated in the organizational leadership of educational and workforce development institutions that provided human services to adults and youth living in poverty. In both for profit and nonprofit organizations, I have improved organizational performance. I have participated in grant writing, consulting and training for diverse audiences including the National Association of Service and Conservation Corp, the Annual Conference of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Mathematica Policy Research, and Goodwill. I have a Master's Degree in Philosophy from Villanova University, and a second Master's from St. John's College in Liberal Education.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Since March 2020, the greatest challenge has been navigating human services in the midst of COVID-19. Providing 24 hour, residential support to adults with intellectual disabilities poses a series of challenges under normal times as does Early Care and Education and case management services. The agency provides person-centered services for people who struggle with mental, behavioral and physical health issues, while balancing concerns of family members and meeting the requirements of state and federal licensing. With COVID, the agency had to respond to keep staff and individuals safe in an evolving environment where every decision was precedent setting and procedures were drafted and implemented in days instead of weeks. Throughout the changing circumstances, the human element for both our participants, whether adults, children or families, and our staff remained the most important challenge. In all of the changes that COVID imposed, the challenge of meeting stakeholder needs, the needs of staff, participants and families, did not change.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
Over thirty years ago, I hopped on a bus headed east with nothing more than a keen eye for getting things done and vision to fulfill my desire to become a lifelong learner starting with graduate school in Annapolis Maryland.
I believe my career path derives from these two qualities: a desire to learn and a willingness to take risks. Reflecting on my career in human services, none of the positions I have obtained reflected in-field expertise. Rather, through networking, understanding transferrable skills and a willingness to listen to and learn from the expertise of participants, of coworkers and staff, I have taken positions that did not fall within my "wheel house." Instead I took positions that I thought would be interesting and a challenge. In each step along my ladder, I then lead my teams by acknowledging and balancing subject matter expertise with my innate willingness to learn, understand and take risks to get things done.
This strategy was true when I started as a case manager and asked the first woman on my caseload how could I help her solve her issues with the Philadelphia County Assistance Office, a system I knew nothing about; and it remains true today, as I drew upon the expertise of direct support staff, nursing staff and public health officials to navigate the local implications of a global pandemic.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I start every day with care of the self. I wake up earlier than I need to in order to exercise and to have enough time to sit down and enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
Typically I start my work day, with calls to touch base with my leadership team or the CEO to evaluate progress with ongoing projects, challenges, opportunities and threats. From there, my work days are balanced between planning meetings, counseling and guidance conversations, and seeing projects through.
My days typically end with a debriefing on the day's events and thumbnail plans for the coming day(s). When work is done, I again work out with a short run. My family and I have our meal together and wind our day down. I end my day, typically with reading a book in a subject I have a current interest in, whether philosophy, science, economics, history or religion.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
All office politics are local. Twenty years ago, one of my mentors reminded me that no one starts their job wanting to fail. The people an agency hires succeed or fail based upon what the agency invests in them. People reflect their perception of the value in this investment through office politics, which ultimately always comes down to how can I best do my job or achieve a personal end not relevant to my job. Having the right policies and procedures in place so people feel a sense of having accomplishments in their work mitigates against the politics that arise when everyone is not focused on the mission.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
In human services, leadership always operates in a constant state of gray because each person's experience is unique to them. Whether it is a young mother struggling with addiction, a family trying to make ends meet or trying to meet the needs of an adult with an intellectual disability, the challenge for a human service professional is to navigate the gray areas of a person's life where ethical and moral decisions are made. For this, the most recent book that has helped has been The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Thinking through probability and human agency has helped me think through how to predict and evaluate the most likely outcomes of decisions I and my team make.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
My principle of leadership is coach up or coach out. People need to grow and develop accomplishments that enable them to be strong employees. In doing so, I help prepare people for leadership roles either within my agency or in another.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
In May of 2000, I started as a case manager in a workforce development program designed to assist participants leave welfare for work. One of the first people on my caseload was a young homeless woman who was suffering from depression. I failed her utterly. Within days she had been swallowed up in a shelter system and I lost track of her. A year later, as I was transitioning to a management position one of the last women on my caseload was also homeless. Instead of helplessly standing by as she went into the shelter system, I worked with her, with her employer and with the shelter to ensure she could continue working while she received services to get her back into stable and affordable housing. We are all human, subject to failures and setbacks. But that doesn't mean we have to be defined by what we failed to accomplish.