Carl E. Clark II | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Carl E. Clark II


Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit behavioral-health organizations. Founded in 1912 in Devon, Pa., the organization operates a comprehensive national network of clinical, therapeutic, educational and employment programs and services for children and adults. Carl E. Clark II was named president and chief executive officer in November 2017, after spending three years as the organization’s chief operating officer. For more than 20 years, he served in a variety of leadership roles at NHS Human Services. Clark’s early professional years were spent in the direct care of children with special needs and those with juvenile-justice involvement.

The Mistake

My mistake was waiting too long before taking decisive action.

Early in my career, more than 20 years ago, I was transitioning from a role in the state government into the private-provider world with a large behavioral-health company. I was charged with [finding a site for] a juvenile-justice residential program. It took two years to site this facility on a 247-acre piece of land, and it was located coincidentally in the community where I grew up. After developing and building it, I was asked to move into a different role.

About 12 years later, after a series of significant events at that campus, I was asked to come back and take over the juvenile-justice wing of the organization. I did that for a time, and it was successful for several years.

Some big, systemic changes were happening in juvenile-justice services around that time. The “kids for cash” scandal was unfolding, where several high-profile judges were convicted of accepting bribes to put kids in residential care. Because of that, the state regulating body of services for children and families was taking a different look at juvenile justice services, and there was a narrowing of the labor force because of it. There were also seven different state and federal correctional institutions within a 30-minute drive, and it was difficult for us to compete with the government’s wage and salary structure.

We had a lot of difficulty recruiting and retaining staff, and these things all converged at the same time, creating a perfect storm that inhibited our juvenile-justice program from remaining viable. Because of the stresses of what the program was going through, I don’t think the quality of the program or the quality of the treatment the kids got was as good, especially because it was difficult to attract and obtain the best-quality staff. It was a challenge to keep things running at a high level.

Thinking back on this, I recognize that my ego prevented me from taking decisive action. I had long-term relationships with a lot of people operating the program and with the employees; these were people I grew up with. I had a feeling that I could fix this. I had a gruff boss who used to say, “You’re a smart guy—figure it out.” I felt such pressure to keep this thing going, and it went on for too long before the decision to close the program.

I was mired in that problem too long. It’s never a pleasant thing to transition. But sometimes for the health of the organization, you have to make those difficult decisions.

Make sure you’re aware of your own personal involvement and ego, and put that aside. 

The Lesson

The lesson is to make sure you’re aware of your own personal involvement and ego, and put that aside. Try to make decisions from a point of clarity.

Since that time, I have made a conscious effort to stay present in the moment I’m in. I ask a lot more questions now than I did then.

Lead by asking questions and challenging the status quo, and encourage pushback from the other [side]. It’s important that you have a healthy organization that can sometimes resist authority and [allows people to] suggest an alternative so you don’t make large mistakes by just following the CEO.

I’m a believer in the use of servant leadership as a management principle. It turns the organization upside down and tries to put the people on the front line first [instead of following] a traditional hierarchy pyramid. There’s an active effort to make sure that within management settings and meetings, you embed practices with mindfulness. That helps people put ego to the side. People can then focus on the issue and put the most objective thoughts into the organizational issues, moving forward.

Asking questions like “Is this the best thing for the organization?” versus “Is it the best thing for you or me?” allows you to make sure you’re bringing everything into focus and staying true to the mission of the organization. 

Carl Clark is on Twitter: @DevereuxCEO.

Photo courtesy of Carl Clark