Leadership in Practice: Kevin Drollinger of Epworth Children and Family Center

A Conversation with Kevin Drollinger, Executive Director of Epworth Children and Family Center

Q:  Can you give me a 2 minute synopsis on how you got where you are now?

A: This year is my 30th year in child welfare.  Early on, I was asked to lead a small social service department in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin working for a treatment center for kids with developmental disabilities and emotional disturbance. I did that for a number of years and got several promotions. Then, I headed a small rehab company, speech/occupational/physical therapy services that was a related company to the treatment center.  I decided I better get my MBA because people started talking about accounts receivable. After that, I went to Columbus, Ohio for my first exec job, a $4 million agency.  I was there for 4 years, and then I have been here for over 14.

Q: How have you seen your leadership style change over the years?  What are the things that you have learned along the way?

A: I am big on scorecards, accountability, and objectives. But, over the more recent years, I have learned that relationship skills and leadership skills can be used to leverage different kinds of things. I used to think that a social worker couldn’t be a fundraiser.  Well, I think social workers make great fundraisers.  If you are a good listener and you are passionate about what you do, you can get some good things done.

I have also decided to try to be a more direct communicator. In one of the seminars you gave us, we were talking about speaking in code. I got busted by my staff about saying “well I am puzzled about something.” When Kevin says he’s puzzled, that is actually his code for “you’re an idiot” but he’s too polite to say it. Sometimes talking in code is useful, but there is nothing wrong with speaking more straight to folks and not letting people have the opportunity to misinterpret you.

Q:  Has there been any critical experiences that have shaped your approach to leadership?

A:  A lot of the way that I am a leader is because of some of the things I saw people do that I didn’t like. One of my very early bosses was into power and intimidation, and took great delight in keeping us all on tenterhooks. He had this hench person secretary who would walk through on a Friday afternoon with a locksmith. When she showed up with a locksmith, you knew somebody was fired. She would go from room to room, and if she issued you the new key you knew that you were not the person who was getting canned. I vowed to myself that I would never be that kind of leader because I saw what it did to people, how demeaning it was, and what a poor leadership sort of style it was.

Q: Who have the mentors been for you along the way? 

A: I had a gentleman, Rev. Gary Stubenvoll, who used to work for Lutheran Social Services in Wisconsin who was a great mentor and leader, and took me under his wing. He gave me feedback about how to deal with funders, and just polished me up. One of my other mentors was my high school band teacher. He was an absolute diehard stickler for perfection and practice, following through, and being accountable and owning your responsibility for what you do, including your mistakes, and working with the team and making a team strive to do better than they could be otherwise.  He influenced my life in a whole different way than just playing a saxophone.  I would definitely point to him as one of my key folks along the way.

Q:  Do you feel like mentoring plays a role in your leadership style?

A: One of the things I try to do is have growth objectives for every one of the folks that I work most directly with, and even some who are more peripheral in the organization and to urge people to continue to grow.

Q: How would you describe the leadership culture of Epworth?

A: I would say loose-tight, in the sense that we have a lot of individual freedom and autonomy. A lot not only in terms of sort of the rudiments of the job but also the path to get to an objective.  The tight is around clarity around objectives and passion about the mission and the organization, and a willingness to work whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Q:  How do you feel that loose-tight leadership affects the Epworth business overall?

A: My retention is really good, especially at the senior leadership level. In these days at non-profits when the average tenure is 17 months for the Chief Development Officer, I had a 5 year person who left to become a Chief Executive Officer of another agency. And my current Chief Development Officer has been with us since 1999. We have got some longevity in some positions that typically don’t show them.

Q:  What other things do you do to build and maintain the culture of leadership?

A: One of my very strong beliefs is that part of the way that you have energy and passion for the job is that you also have balance in your life. Each one of my directs has a very strong family life and other passions outside the organization. We will, within reason, try to accommodate those things. One of my early bosses thought nothing of calling at any time of the day or night, and I was expected to drop everything and jump to.  It is as much because I think it is the right thing to do to respect people.

Q: What are you doing or what have you done that has been successful to help develop your next generation of leaders?

A:  Lots of interaction with the Board.  I think that has been really good for all of them. Also, even though we have a Chief Development Officer, everyone of them has been involved in various levels of fundraising. Being involved in advocacy.  For example, two of my direct repots have been very active in rewriting a state contract for residential treatment, dealing with the Department of Social Service and impacting at a much larger level than one might expect from their respective roles of getting things done.  It is a great growth experience for them and makes them better employees, too, because they understand the big picture better.

Q: Do you have anything else you would say about leadership in general?

A: I believe I need to be an upbeat leader, and 90% of the time that is really easy for me. But, there are days when I am just grumpy and I work hard to be upbeat on those days because I set the psychological tone for this place. People want to be inspired and feel that work is a friendly and uplifting place.  Not that I am fake.  I don’t make statements about things that are false, but I sure try not to carry my garbage into work and let that cloud other people’s ability to serve kids.