Q & A

Oaklawn CEO Reflects on Work, Leadership and Gender

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Laurie Neumann Nafziger is the president and CEO of Oaklawn, an organization that provides mental health and addiction services to individuals of all ages.

What did you study in college to get to where you are now?

At Goshen College, I got a bachelor in social work. You know you wonder sometimes why you make the decisions you do. Back then I would say there wasn’t much talk, at home or at school, about different career possibilities.

Somehow I landed on social work. I wonder today why I even chose that. The picture in my brain of me working was Laurie as a professional. This got clearer when I got to graduate school, but I think I always saw myself in an administrative position.

Where was grad school for you?

I went to Western Michigan. I really, really liked grad school because it was focused in a way that my undergrad wasn’t. So by the time I went to grad school, the MSW made sense; that’s a master’s in social work. I had the choice here either to take a clinical track or an administrative track.

What, if anything, would you change in terms of the path you took?

If I could do it all over I might have gotten an MBA.

How would that improve or influence the rest of your career?

In running Oaklawn, I’m aware that my understanding of financial areas is limited. I’ve got good people around me and I can always get it and follow along when financial information is presented, and I know a lot more than I used to, but I couldn’t get there without more capable people around me. So, I’d have an MBA instead of an MSW.

You’ve spent nearly 20 years in various other jobs at Oaklawn. What did those include?

It was kind of interesting; I had done one of my graduate placements at Oaklawn so I met some people there. Later Oaklawn called me and said, “We have a two-week job for you to write a grant. Do you want to do that?” And I was like, “Sure, I can do that.” So I wrote the grant and then we were successful and got the grant. It was a planning grant for a student health center. Then when it was time to implement the grant, they said, “Do you want to do the planning for this student health center?”

So that was a part-time job for a year. And then actually from there Oaklawn said, “Do you want to work part time indefinitely?” Along the way they said, “We need somebody to supervise the social workers.” Then I was VP of child and adolescent services for a while; then I was chief operating officer, COO, and then executive VP. Near the end I was starting to be positioned as having a shot for the CEO position but it took a while. I didn’t start at Oaklawn imagining to be the CEO; that emerged slowly.

Talk a little bit about role models and mentors. Or would you say you were more self-motivated?

That’s a good question. I’ll talk about both because on the one hand I am driven and focused and disciplined, and I’m a hard worker, just naturally. I mean the big joke here is my mantra that “Work is good!”

“Saving is good. Work is good!” (Smiles).

I really do believe that because I find work so satisfying. Often the people who succeed are the ones who are willing to work harder than the others. It’s that simple. I would also say I had some good mentors along the way.

What’s an ordinary day for you?

I usually leave at 7 and then I’m home by 6. I work through lunch or it’s a working lunch. And that feels about right. And the other thing, and this is so much better than the old days, with my computer I can be here at home with the TV on but be in my email and in my world. That doesn’t feel like work to me. I’m also at that point in my life where the kids are gone – huge, huge difference!

A really important thing I do every evening is to prepare myself for the next day, organize myself. I keep a running to-do list and I know exactly which of them are for today and which are for tomorrow. It is amazing what you can get done and just be really focused the next day. And that doesn’t feel like work to me. Organization is fun!

So you don’t feel the need to separate work and home?

No. In fact, I can do a little speech about that. That whole thing about a balanced life — of course, you have to have a balanced life; however, people get militant about that and then that just feels like a turnoff to me, partly because I’ve been so happy and willing to work hard. Friday night I come home and I put it away and then I tend to pick it up again Sunday night. Running is important; I do that early in the morning. I feel like I live a balanced life but it isn’t like I have to be militant or draw lines.

You mentioned running. What other activities do you do to unwind and relieve stress?

So, I like to run. I really do like to eat and entertain and dine with good friends. Whether that’s eating out or cooking and entertaining here, too. There’s a real release in that.

What factors, either personal or in the workplace, fuel your career?

I was probably lucky in that Oaklawn was such a good size for me. It was big enough that there were different opportunities, and I think I would have gotten bored if it weren’t. There was about a seven-year stretch where I began to think I wanted to be the CEO and had set different goals along the way. So it’s been big enough that it allowed me to do that and yet small enough that it’s felt very comfortable and homey and I know many, many people: really bright people, committed people, fun people; so it’s been fun for me.

Do you feel sexism is an issue?

It’s there. It’s real. I very intentionally am not militant about it out there because men don’t want to hear about it and it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a matter of being competent and able and willing, and then you’ll rise to the top or be able to do it in spite of it.

Let’s talk Rotary.  It was my worst nightmare when I first thought about having to join that club. On the introverted/extroverted scale, I am not a wild extrovert at all. I can do all right, but I’m kind of there in the middle and so to go into this club with all these guys, that just felt really hard.  For a long time, I’ve been treasurer and that gives me a certain status in the club, but there are certainly some tables where it doesn’t feel comfortable to sit. If I envision instead a room full of women — oh my– walking into a room full of women, that would be so easy compared to a room full of men you don’t know.

How do you handle that?

You show up and you offer to do things. I have a place in Rotary because I have a formal role as treasurer. It gives me a bigger reason to stand up and to joke around or do whatever.

Often with leadership, if you’re willing to be on boards, to step up, to offer to do things, that makes a difference.

Offer to do things. That’s really huge. You’ll get noticed by a boss; you’ll get noticed by a group; you’ll be allowed to do things, assuming you’re remotely competent and you know you can do it.

Are there underlying differences between male and female leadership styles?

I will say I’m aware I’m not just female, but a Mennonite female. And that’s different too.

You read in the leadership books how you should have a certain amount of conflict and disagreement expressed to come to good decisions. It isn’t like on my managing team we always agree, but we never yell. I’m a Mennonite woman and that’s a different style, too. I value cooperation. I’m aware that I will start at “yes.” I’ll go to “no” if I have to, but I start at “yes” … and right alongside that is my mantra that “you pick your fights.”

What advice would you have for women who are looking to further their careers?

Step up and volunteer for assignments. Be positive. I mean you can’t be mind-numbingly a “yes” person but for the most part you can generally be positive and helpful. Obviously stay in school, get your degrees. Work harder than the others around you; it does make a difference. You have to be able to speak publicly. Leadership jobs require such a mix of things: you have to be able to write; you have to be able to speak; you have to be able to negotiate; you have to be able to do numbers. You certainly have to be willing and able to work with others.

What has been the toughest personal challenge you’ve experienced since taking on the role of president and CEO?

It was certainly tough when the kids were little. I’m not sure I could have done it without the dumb luck of Roger being who he is. From the get-go, he never had any of that ego stuff about me having a bigger job than he does or making more money; he always just thought it was kind of neat. I worked really hard and you have to be incredibly organized to make it happen, and I am aware now how it is really easier when the kids are gone. And I suppose I was lucky too in the three kids I raised. I was able to enjoy their successes. So I always felt like I was present enough and that they had reasons to be proud of me. But certainly a good husband was darn lucky. If he would have been a macho, stereotypical type, or if I would have had to expend energy fighting that, that would have made my life harder.

What has been your proudest moment as CEO?

I feel really proud of how my management team and I got us through the worst financial times where we implemented across-the-board pay cuts and managed that. We just did that exceedingly well. We worked together really well to come up with the cuts in a way that felt really fair, and we just communicated it so well, and people responded so reasonably and hung in with us — and so I’m proud of that. I’m really proud how we were able to expand into St. Joe County.


This interview has been condensed and edited.

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