The passion for disability services that has come to define Luanne Welch's professional career began when she was in first grade. The first two friends she made that year had disabilities. Now she advocates for those with disabilities as president and CEO of Easterseals UCP North Carolina & Virginia.
Her duties include leading a staff of 2,400 and the roughly 22,000 individuals with disabilities who are served by the nonprofit. Welch became CEO in the summer of 2014, when the organization was several million dollars in the red. But according to its 2018 annual report, the organization had revenue of $78.1 million and expenses of $77.9 milion.
She also leads its program portfolio that includes autism behavioral services, individual and community supports, assertive community treatment, early intervention, residential, employment services, outpatient therapy, and more.
"We are like a strong, invisible thread in the fabric of every community in which we operate," Welch says. "Sometimes you can't see us, but we are there, quietly helping our neighbors in need live their best possible lives."
How long have you been in your role? Five years as CEO. But this is my "third tour" of Easterseals UCP. I started my career with Easterseals NC and after 20 years I accepted a role with National Easterseals. Three years later I returned as chief operating officer of the newly merged Easterseals NC and United Cerebral Palsy NC. After three years here I was recruited to Miami and served seven years as CEO of Easterseals South Florida before coming back in late June 2014.
How did you first get involved in the organization? After graduating, I volunteered to help organize an Easterseals Walk-a-thon. I happened to meet the vice president of program services, Dave Cottengim, who later recruited me to work for him.
I never meant to stay with Easterseals more than two years. But 39 years later, I’m still learning. And in those 39 years, whatever may have happened on any given day; whether things went right or wrong; whether I drove home singing or cried all the way ... I have never regretted the “why” I spent my day the way I did.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? Our turnaround between 2014 and 2016. By late June 2014, after years of impressive growth, the organization’s financial position and culture could have been a case study in Jim Collin’s book “How the Mighty Fall.” Our broken revenue cycle, a cultural disconnect between headquarters and the field, legacy “entitlement” and “consultative” leadership – all came to light.
This was not my first turnaround, but it was the biggest challenge. We were a “hot mess.” As CEO, it was my hot mess, but I knew I didn’t have all the answers.
Key to our turnaround was being transparent with the field, the board and the bank. We asked the field to help articulate our “why” and help draft five core beliefs. Then we identified the most important things we needed to accomplish in the next 12 months. Over the next two years, we eliminated more than $2 million in administrative costs, and realigned the right talent in the right roles. We secured a lean process improvement consultant to help us identify the root cause of revenue cycle problems, and we improved our weekly collection rate from 72 percent to 98 percent. We figured out the right mix of affordable services for each market in which we operate. We made hard people decisions and hard market decisions.
What do you consider some of your greatest triumphs? Personally, I am so happy to have two humble, hungry and smart kids who married their respective “person,” found work they love and are living lives that matter.
Professionally, watching our people grow personally and professionally: Front-line supervisors learning to use their voice; managers leveraging the individual and collective strengths of their team to achieve phenomenal outcomes for their clients; future stars at all levels flourishing while accepting expanded responsibility; and executive team members building new skills that will advance our organization in complex environments for years to come.
What are your goals for Easterseals UCP? We’ve completed an impressive turnaround, we’ve stabilized, and we’re growing again. We are focused on smart growth. Our aspirational goal is to be the leading disability and mental health services provider with the most loyal clients and employees.
In the short term, we want to invest in our managers and the front line; attract, promote and leverage diversity in leadership roles; and build our infrastructure to support healthy organization growth – both organic growth and right-fit mergers.
And for the long term, in the ever-changing funding and delivery environment of disability and mental health services, we continue to build core competencies in change management, technology, and talent management to not only mitigate the impact of inevitable business disruptions, but to be a market disruptor ourselves.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? When I was 35 and a vice president of programs, advice from my CEO, Adele Foschia, had a profound formative influence on my career. I’ll never forget her telling me, “Remember, it’s not about you.” It was true then and it’s true today. If you can just get outside of your own head and ego, you can hear what others are saying and see through so many more lenses than your own.
If you had one wish, what would it be? I wish we could change the tone and focus of our national rhetoric. We must not become numb to injustice.
What books are currently on your nightstand? “It’s the Manager,” by Jim Clifton and Jim Harter.
Learn more about Easterseals UCP Leadership.