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Transforming agency culture through values-driven leadership.

"I feel so fortunate to work here. Of course, these days anyone is lucky to have a job, but working here is more than a job, it's a career."

A sense of purpose and future opportunities permeates the Merced County Human Services Agency (HSA). A shared sense of mission and the firm belief that every person matters did not come about by accident. Purposeful, carefully thought out leadership strategies grounded in values have nurtured an organizational culture of excellence and achievement. The results rebound in the spirits and actions of employees, clients, and the community. This culture did not suddenly blossom overnight as a result of jumping on the latest transformational bandwagon. It has been nurtured over years of slow, patient, but persistent, introduction of multiple interventions all designed to do one thing--release the creative energy and enthusiasm of every employee and direct it toward organizational excellence and service to the clients and the community.

Merced County is not the likeliest spot to find a top performing human services agency. A predominantly rural, agricultural community, Merced County ranks among California's lowest in several key socioeconomic indicators including a 20 percent unemployment rate and more than 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. More than 40 percent of the population of the county receives some form of service from HSA each month.

Focus on the agency's values begins on day one for every employee with a New Employee Orientation (NEO). The orientation covers the usual ground of introducing new staff to the agency's programs and policies, but beyond that, NEO lays the foundation for the emphasis on the agency value of "every person matters." NEO Trainer Julieanne Brantley says, "Our new staff comes away from the orientation amazed at how much we do, how we do it, and the many ways in which they might begin to contribute to the effort. They understand our vision, mission, and values and realize they've joined a community that will support and embrace them in their new job."

NEO is the first taste new employees have of the agency's abiding embrace of the value of education and training. After the orientation new staff head off to the induction training for their new position which can last, depending on the position, up to a year with classroom training, followed by a period of transition for practical application lead by the transition team and the unit supervisors. Other educational and training opportunities exist for staff including formal education such as a Master's in Social Work or certificate programs in graphics and design or participation in an tit in-house leadership program and employee development series. The multiple opportunities for personal and professional growth make it clear to employees that "every person matters" is not just a slogan. Agency leadership values the potential in every person and is willing to invest time and resources in supporting each employee's development. At present, 11 graduates of the leadership program have gone on to director-level positions either at HSA, other Merced County agencies, or other counties.

Tapping into the creativity and passions of employees involves more than just formal education and training. Activities that provide ways for employees to interact, develop, and use their special skills and talents, and form bonds with one another include:

* Provocateurs Book Club

* Agency choir

* Animal rescue

* Holiday communitywide gift drives

* Secret pals

* Trick-or-treating by children from the on-campus pre-school

* Clifford, the agency's in-house assistance dog

* Video productions

* Morale committees that sponsor ice-cream sundae days and cooking competitions

At HSA, no one is pigeon-holed. An office assistant may be the perfect person to star in an agency-made training film. A deputy director may be a great group leader for the fatherhood program. The premium is on talent, willingness, and dedication. The end result for employees is the personal satisfaction of being appreciated and having confidence that their hard work and dedication will result in positive outcomes for others. The end result for the organization is the ability to attract energetic and interested employees. Although there is no count, many employees first encounter the agency as a client or, for some, the children of clients, and their experience leads them to want to work at the agency.

The agency environment also promotes this transformation in culture, with posters picturing agency staff and testimonial statements on how they exemplify the agency vision, mission, and values located throughout HSA.

HSA is responsible for the efficient administration of more than 50 federal and state programs, but the opportunities do not stop with the mandated programming. Countless numbers of creative programs have been developed to meet the needs of clients and the community. One such example recognizes that human services programs have historically served primarily women and children, leaders at HSA developed All Dads Matter (ADM), a cluster of programs for fathers and other men who have a primary role in children's lives. ADM started with Boot Camp for New Dads in which new dads mix with "veteran" dads who bring their babies to teach the ropes to first-time dads. Boot Camp for New Dads, originally modeled on the evidence-based program from the National Fatherhood Initiative was adapted to fit Merced's culture. ADM has expanded to include three weekly men-only support groups, and a drop-in resource center. Recently ADM added a new program, Leadership for Life, which is original to Merced County. Peer trainers and mentors use hands-on-activities, practice, and coaching to give men the skills and confidence they need to advocate for their family's needs in the areas of health and wellness, education, and financial security. Creativity plays a key role in developing the therapy dog program, the Yosemite Camping program for foster youth, foster care for the pets of children who are placed in care, and a research project in cooperation with the University of California--Merced to measure the impact of interaction with animals on children's emotional well-being.

Leadership at HSA has long recognized that a single agency cannot accomplish community-wide change alone. To reach out to the wider community, HSA sponsors several events each year that bring together leaders and representatives of disparate groups to identify mutual goals and develop partnerships. The Community Roundtable holds open, facilitated discussions of issues and solutions, bringing together school districts, transportation, nonprofits, public housing, Child Support, the faith-based community, public health, adult and juvenile probation, Head Start, First 5, and other community-based-organizations. Outcomes from the roundtable have included new contractual relationships between organizations, teaming for grant applications, and new referral relationships.

Celebrations of fatherhood and motherhood, each taking place close to Father's Day or Mother's Day, bring families together for a day in the local city park for family games, food, and entertainment. Families enjoy each other, while having access to information on a variety of services and programs in a fair-like atmosphere. An annual Fatherhood Conference imports fresh ideas and the latest innovations in the fatherhood movement from national-level experts. These events are not limited to HSA clients; they are open to the entire community, to promote the value "every person matters."

A key factor that keeps HSA in a positive relationship with other agencies and organizations in the community is allowing upcoming leaders from outside the agency to participate in supervisory and leadership programs. Attending classes with HSA staff builds relationships among participants across organizational lines. "Transparency is important," says HSA Director Ana Pagan. "I want people to know who we are and how we operate. We are always open to work with other agencies. We serve the same people."

The question for any management style, approach, or theory is "How do I know it is working?" While positive feedback from employees, clients, and community are good indicators, a broader perspective is useful. Over the years HSA has received awards for quality service and accuracy in its eligibility programs. The California State Association of Counties has given HSA its Challenge Award three times in the last five years, and in 2012 Pagan was chosen from more than 7,500 entries as a winner of the Hines Award, presented by the National Child Labor Committee for outstanding contributions to children's welfare.

Although terms and names change, skillful leadership that nurtures, expects, and demands the best from others will always be the key to successful innovation, adaptation to changing attitudes, creative responses to resource limitations, and escalating public expectations. Infrastructure such as automation, accurate metrics, and strategic budgeting are important, but transformative leadership in a chaotic world requires the hearts and minds of employees, clients, and communities engaged in working together for mutual benefit. Values are the center that binds people together and creates the energy for transformation.

"I needed help on making a better life for my family. I have gone from sitting behind the desk to having my county employee badge. At HSA, the possibilities are endless. I came in as a client and now lam an employee with a smile on my face. I am proud of myself. My job coaches were inspirational and encouraging, they helped me every step of the way."

--Claudia, HSA employee and recent NEO graduate

"I was a client for 15 years and only gut off CalWorks when I was hired here. I know the struggles that families have first hand. I promised myself that I would never forget what its like to be on the other side of the desk and to treat every case for what it is. To me it's an opportunity to help a family through what can be a very stressful period in their lives."

--Ruben, HSA employee

"I've been on the other side of the desk. a know now much difference a competent and engaged Family Services Representative can make in a family's life. Years ago my worker neglected to inform me about education benefits that would have been very valuable to me. I am determined that the new employees we train will have complete knowledge of all the services and opportunities available to our clients. Policy knowledge and processing skill is important, of course, but it is equally important that our staff look at the client's needs holistically. In training, I stress kindness, consideration, and patience. It's all a part of our agency culture. After all, that's not just an appointment sitting across the desk, that's me!"

--Louise, training supervisor in the Family Services Branch

What has brought you success as a transformational leader? Send your story to Jon Rubin, an organizational effectiveness consultant at APHSA at We look forward to learning from your experiences.


Because the County of San Diego operates more than 465 core services, the best way to test new methodologies is to focus on a small target population. In the case of the Knowledge Integration Program, it is vital to explore the implications and test the realities of working across the operational lines within the county. In 2012, under AB109, California transferred responsibility for non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual criminals from the state to counties, so that these offenders now serve their sentences locally under the jurisdiction of county government. This new population provided an ideal pilot group for the Knowledge Integration Program, as most of these individuals qualify for and use multiple county services. To pilot this model, the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) established a formal agreement with the Public Safety Group and began an active partnership with the Probation Office. A revealing data analysis provided a point-in-time snapshot of the many HHSA services the offenders used, and were not yet accessing. KIP's technical capabilities will make this type of analysis quick and routine, enabling the county to link eligible individuals with services sooner, thereby reducing costs while increasing quality of life.

Nora Gerber is a project coordinator at the Merced County Human Services Agency.

Kathy Jones Kelley is a program administrator at the Merced County Human Services Agency.

Jane Norwood is a management specialist at the Merced County Human Services Agency.

Mary Urzi is a management specialist at the Merced County Human Services Agency.
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Title Annotation:DRIVING TRANSFORMATION; Merced County Human Services Agency
Author:Gerber, Nora; Kelley, Kathy Jones; Norwood, Jane; Urzi, Mary
Publication:Policy & Practice
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
Previous Article:Toward the next frontier: trends driving the future of human services.
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