Listen to Episode 4: Erhardt Preitauer – On Vulnerability and Maintaining High-Performing Teams
Welcome to On Board with Leadership, a podcast hosted by Kendra Davenport, President and CEO of Easterseals. Here, she speaks with leaders from some of the country’s top organizations, and together they explore how transparent leadership can impact communication, trust building and foster a culture of openness and accountability. We hope these conversations offer you practical insights and tools to positively impact your organization.
Today, Kendra is joined by Erhardt Preitauer. Erhardt joined CareSource in 2018, bringing two decades of transformational leadership in government-sponsored health planning expertise to the role. In June 2019, just one year later, Erhardt was named by Glassdoor as one of the highest rated CEOs in the country. His career includes leadership positions with a number of prominent healthcare organizations. He is currently a member of Easterseals National Board of Directors.
To begin, Erhardt shares what keeps him driven in the face of challenging career moments. He believes that the ways we navigate life’s challenges are the biggest determinant for success in the long run. We should be addressing challenges head-on with the knowledge that there will be more to come, but keep a positive attitude. Next, Erhardt shares his key methods for building and maintaining high performing, dedicated teams in a competitive work environment. He believes in treating colleagues with the same amount of respect as he would treat his family. Having been at CareSource for 5 years, the company has thrived under his leadership. Erhardt believes that this all comes down to the people, who are dedicated to doing amazing things. When he was first interviewing for the role, Erhardt was already committed to transforming CareSource and making sure the company would be well-positioned for the future. He recounts the value of having a consistent vision over a significant amount of time.
Erhardt shares how he makes an effort to take care of himself so that he can be the best version of himself for his family, the company and the people they serve. Some of the most valuable advice he was given pertaining to his leadership role is to be open and vulnerable in order to help others help you. What Erhardt finds most professionally fulfilling is to be part of an organization that is really making a difference and having fun along the way. He feels grateful to be part of CareSource, a company that is doing just that. Then, Erhardt discusses the importance of leadership and the lack of good leadership in the world. In closing, he shares about his own focus on self awareness and identifies his favorite leadership book.
Hi, I'm Kendra Davenport, President and CEO of Easterseals, and you're listening to On Board with Transparent Leadership, an Easterseals podcast where I speak with leaders from some of the country's top organizations. Together, we explore how transparent leadership can impact communication, trust building, and foster a culture of openness and accountability.
I hope that our conversations can offer you practical insights and tools to positively impact your organization.
In this episode, I'm joined by Erhardt Preitauer. Erhardt joined CareSource in May of 2018, bringing two decades of transformational leadership and government sponsored health plan expertise to the role.
And not to bury the lead, in June 2019, just one year later from joining CareSource, Erhardt was named by Glassdoor as one of the highest rated CEOs in the country. He has extensive experience in building and leading mission driven healthcare organizations and his career includes leadership positions with a number of prominent healthcare organizations including Aetna, WellCare, Health Plans, and UnitedHealth Group. And he is currently a member of Easterseals National Board of Directors. I'm so pleased that you're here today and I've been looking forward to our conversation, Erhardt. Thanks so much.
Thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here. And, uh, that intro can be cut down a little bit, way too much there.
You think it's too much? I don't. I don't. I think there's a lot that our listeners want to know about you, and I think that intro suffices. Erhardt, you have had a terrifically dynamic career and you've shared with me. that you've encountered your fair share of challenges along the way. Can you share with our listeners what keeps you going? How do you stay energized and focused even as you and your team encounter significant obstacles?
I look back and I think about all of the challenges that they've been through personally and professionally, and it's such a big part of how it defines you. I went to college at the University of Nevada, so you'll have to forgive some of the gambling analogies, but there was someone that talked – a poker player – that said that ultimately a successful poker player was really determined by how they played when the cards were not coming their way. When they were getting good cards, anyone could play well. And you know what? In life, it's the same thing. I think how you get through challenges ultimately determine more of your success than when everything's going really, really well. So, in a very weird way, challenges sometimes are just wonderful opportunities.
How do we come out of the other end stronger and better? It's not “woe is me” and “oh my gosh, this is terrible.” Got it. Bring it on. Let's go. Let's come out the other end stronger than we went in. And it changes people's mindset. And I think that's an important thing.
The final point I'll make is what keeps me going and energized… I am super grateful to get to do something that I think makes an impact. And on the rough days, and we all have them, knowing that, that I get the opportunity to lead a company that's serving folks that could use a little extra help, investing in communities, making the world a little bit of a better place – that's pretty exciting to me.
I love that. I have to share with our listeners…a few weeks ago, I was on the call with you, and you said something to me that I will hold with me for a long time, and it was about a little bit about adversity. You said, you know, Kendra, you've been here 17 months. How's everything going? And I started laughing and I said, well, it's going well, but the window of goodwill is officially closed and now I'm into the challenges and you said well, that's good. That's where I'd expect you to be right now. And if you weren't experiencing challenges, I'd be concerned. And I kind of think we have the same mindset in that respect. Address your challenges head on. Know that they're going to continually come but keep a positive attitude. So, I love that I've also had the opportunity to spend some time with your team, your leadership team, and they're an incredible group of people.
But can you talk a little bit about what your key is to building and maintaining high performing, dedicated teams in a work environment where competition is fierce, where people can often go and get more money or get a greater title? How do you maintain that team and how do you keep them all moving in the same direction? What's your key to that success?
I guess this has been a strong point for me in the last several companies. So, I think a lot about why and how, and at my core, I think for the most part, I'm just myself. But let me answer it this way. I saw an article recently, a business article, and that's kind of stuff I read. And it said you shouldn't be talking about your associates or the people you work with as your family and interestingly, I do.
I call them my CareSource family because I love the people that I work with. I love what we get to do. And so that article caught my interest. And so, I read the article and it said –
I think I actually read that. Because that caught my eye too. When I saw you shouldn't call your employees family, again, I think you and I share similar traits. But please continue. I’m curious.
Well, the core reason was because you don't fire your family. And I was like, well actually, you kind of do sometimes. It's called divorce. And if you do have to part ways with a family member, you do it the right way with love and respect and tact. And occasionally you do wind up in that type of situation. And that's probably the most challenging part of my job. But even in that type of situation, the commitment goes both ways. And the commitment goes to each other. People ultimately know I'm going to do the right thing for the organization and for them. But I want to work smart, I want to play hard, I want to think a lot. The reality is I think we work hard, play hard, and think hard. But that's how I sort of fashion the culture of the organization. And people do have a lot of fun. Life is way too short to not to have fun at work and be around people that they like. I think we're able to create that around an online mission.
People are trying to make a difference. It’s an amazing place to be and we've got, I think, the best team in the industry.
I would agree and a follow on question to that. So, you've been at CareSource for what, five years now, maybe a little more, yeah? And you've really turned things around. The company is absolutely thriving under your leadership. So can you talk a little bit about what your vision for CareSource is and you where you thought you'd be with the company now?
We're doing super well. And it does really come down to having amazing people doing great things. We have leadership classes at all different levels of our organization. I like to kick them off and then I like to come in at the end. And one of the classes asked me a very similar question. And I kind of thought, well, how am I going to answer this? And you know what I did was I went and I pulled the PowerPoint that I used to interview for this job.
And in that PowerPoint, I outlined what the vision was going to be for the organization and the very final page of that PowerPoint said something like —and I've been here about five and a half years — “In five to seven years, I will create a thriving organization that is going to be positioned well for the future” and “something something something,” I don't remember the exact words, but I was like, “Wow, that's amazing.”
So I actually showed the PowerPoint to the leadership team. And half of them were like, “that's amazing that you kind of knew what the vision was.” The other half was like, “so you've just been following this the entire time? What good are you?” But here's my takeaway and my learning.
The vision for CareSource has not changed since before I joined the organization. It takes a long time to align 5,000 people, right? But once you get them aligned, it kind of builds momentum over time. And I think that's a great value of having a consistent vision over a significant period of time. I wasn't necessarily looking for that, but it's something that I feel in the organization today. And it was kind of fun to go all the way back to that PowerPoint before I actually joined the company.
That's a great retrospective look at where you were. And my kids would say “that's manifesting,” right? You manifested what you wanted to do, and it actually took place. It happened. So, it's a lot, though. Your job is a lot. You travel a lot. You manage a huge company. How do you take care of you? So, without getting too personal, Erhardt, we don't know what you drink in the morning or before you go to bed. [chuckling]
Not alcohol, don't worry. [chuckling]
What's your self-care like? What do you do to stay healthy and stay focused and take care of yourself and keep bringing your A-Game every day?
Let me first say, this is something I could probably do a little better in.
[laughing] Being completely transparent.
I think this topic is a part of my continued growth and evolution, and I recognize its importance, and I had an opportunity, actually, last December, to go to a really cool event for two and a half days, that essentially was a two-and-a-half-day CEO therapy session. For me, right, [it] was all about this question about making sure I've got the right inputs and the right outputs and the right balance. And how do I be the best “me” for my family, for the company, most of all, for the members that we serve. And if I'm out of balance to me, I'm not bringing my best game forward, right?
Hmm. I think a lot of CEOs struggle with this because we try to make time for all the things we're supposed to be doing and that often leaves very little time for the things we probably need to do. So, love that honest response and sign me up. I'd love to go to a CEO therapy session. [laughing] I could probably benefit from that.
So I'm a huge – and I think I've talked about this with you before – I'm a huge reader. I read everything from nonfiction to self-help to business books and one of the things I love reading is biographies because I love the behind the scenes. I love to get to know people that are public personas.
So give give us a fun factoid about Erhardt that we can't Google.
Hmm. I grew up on the island of Kauai, right? I'm from Hawaii. And when I was really young, I think we had one stoplight and one McDonald's. And those were like our claim to fame – about 30,000 people on the island. And so, my wife's also an island kid and I think one of her favorite sayings is, “if people only knew.”
Because, honestly, I'm most comfortable in my tank top that my mom bought me at a garage sale, eating spam and rice and that's how I grew up. Very simple means. But that part of me is still very alive and I'm still most comfortable probably in that environment. Not that fancy places aren't nice, but I get to do that for work sometimes. And when I'm not doing work, it's a completely different sort of side of me.
Love that. Thanks for sharing that. Do you have any mentors? Is there anybody you tap into for advice on a regular basis, or maybe even just once in a while, or anybody whose advice you really take to heart?
I've had mentors that have had a foundational impact on me throughout my entire career and I can think of so many of them. And so, yeah, it's a really big deal. I think it's a really big part of who I am. And so, how do you tap into their wisdom?
I see a lot of other CEOs…and I hope I'm not like this. They stop being able to listen. I think you have good people around you. They want to help you. But if you don't allow them to do it because you can't listen anymore, that's an issue. I think the other piece that helps others help you is to be open and to be vulnerable. And sometimes I see other CEOs have a tough time with being vulnerable, and it takes a lot of security sometimes, right? To be vulnerable, you have to be able to not be driven purely by your ego, which sometimes I think CEOs can get caught up with.
Now my wife might tell you something completely different about me, but those are a couple of very important and key elements to, number one, have a mentor, but being able to get the right information out of them.
I couldn't agree more with you about vulnerability. I think most leaders that I know are very driven “Type A” type people who like to have all the answers, who like to be in the lead, who like to be the fixers and sometimes I think some of us type A's are controlling and so it's difficult to access advice. But there's great power in exercising vulnerability if you can get to that point.
I think it breeds trustworthiness. I think you come across as more authentic and honest. And I think, to one of our earlier topics about your teams following you, I think they follow humans. I don't think they follow infallible leaders. So, I think that vulnerability is really important.
Is there anything on your professional bucket list that you've yet to do, Erhardt? I mean, you're a young guy, there's still a lot of time in your game. So, is there anything on the horizon for you that you'd like to do, either with the company or just personally?
I've got unfinished business here at CareSource, and we're on the verge of really being able to make an impact on a national basis. And I'm excited about that and we're right at the precipice. But in terms of like pure raw ambition and like a bucket list of stuff that I want to do professionally, I'm probably a little bit different than a lot of other folks. I don't really have that. I think as long as I'm feeling like I'm a part of an organization that is making a difference or on its way to really making a difference, which I feel like we are, and we're having a little bit of fun along the way – I'm good.
And honestly, that's kind of the way that I have always managed my career and like how I've sort of engaged with the world around me. Looking back, I kind of made things kind of complicated. Some of it was me. Then you mature a little bit and you kind of realize, “Hey, you know what? Things don't have to be so complicated.” And you kind of make a full circle back to, “Hey, I think good people do the right thing for the right reason. Go make an impact and I'm all good.” That's kind of where I'm at and I've been here for a while. And that's part of why I'm super grateful, right? To have the opportunity to lead an organization that sort of fits that mold very, very well, in terms of what I like to be doing and what I want to be doing in the future. I'm good. Let's keep on going. Let's keep charging the hill.
It makes me think of the Michael J. Fox quote, “With gratitude, optimism is sustainable.” I think that's part of what you've now mentioned – being grateful, multiple times – and I think that's so important. Because, again, I think you've also mentioned some CEOs lose sight of the fact that they are fortunate to be in the role they are in, and I think sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of it because day to day can be so tricky.
I'm very fortunate. My wife is a wonderful partner for me, and we talk a lot about this kind of stuff and the whole gratitude thing. I also realize this doesn't – the job, the stuff that maybe one has – that's not what defines me, and I hope it doesn't. Life is fragile and I feel like the second that we lose being thankful for the opportunities that were given and what we have….the second that we start to think that we’re entitled, I think that's the second that it all changes. And I believe that.
I agree, I agree, I believe it as well. CareSource and Easterseals are partnered and it's a partnership where we talk about gratitude. We're very grateful for it. But I also think it's a partnership that just was fateful. We focus on the same target populations, people with disabilities, seniors, veterans, and I think those are the things that make this partnership so rich.
Can you talk about how partnering with an NGO, like an Easterseals, factors into your business plan?
Obviously all of our partnerships are important. But this is unique. And I love it, right? Between CareSource and Easterseals, and sort of the national scope of both sides. And I'm always looking for opportunities out there where…I know this sounds a little trite, but “1 plus 1 equals 3.” I'm always challenging folks: “Can you do one thing and check a whole bunch of boxes?” And I feel like our partnership, first of all, just makes sense. But because our respective missions, focus, scope – they're so aligned. I'm convinced, right, that there's magic there.
I'm convinced that we get that “1 plus 1 equals 5” approach between the organizations. And I think it's just begun, right, for us figuring out how to support each other in all the different realms that we touch within the ecosystem. So, I'm excited about that. And the other piece, and I've been very open with this as well, Kendra – I'm excited about your leadership because the other thing that I am reminded of every single day…I promise you, I don't think there's a day that goes by where, at least in my head, I say, “leadership matters, and it matters a lot.”
And I think, I guess, I'm sort of surprised, even at this stage in my life, with the people that I get to interact with, the organizations that I get to interact with…good leadership? It's not super common. I don't mean that in a negative way towards anyone else. That's not a criticism at all.
But leadership matters. So, I think you're a great leader. I think Easterseals…we’re great to partner. I think they're great to have – lucky to have you. But that's a part of getting that 1 plus 1 equaling 5 type of thing.
Thank you. Thank you for that. Really nice, and a nice segue to my, one of my last questions. I struggle a little bit because I think our public figures today have feet of clay.
It's hard to find someone in a public position of authority or maybe who is working for the government, or in a legislative position, or even in the military, that you look up to. But is there anybody that you hold in really high regard who is a public figure, maybe that you know, or you don't know. You just admire them.
I think like about people and their particular attributes, so I can't name like one person that I'm like, “well this is the person that I really look up to.” Rather, I like certain things about several people. I'll give you what's top of mind right now.
It's football season, so I'll start there. I love the leadership of Deion Sanders. Maybe there's stuff that he does or says I don't particularly agree with, but man, like the guy is a leader and you listen about how much he loves those kids. And what he's doing and how he really gets involved.
I love that. The audacity of Elon Musk to say, “I want to save the human race.” Again, stuff that maybe he says or does that I don't particularly [or] might not totally agree with. But for a guy to come out and go, “yeah, I'm going to go to space to save the human race and start a massive car company and put implants in brains and do it, right, and get it all done,” The guy's nuts, but I love it.
I love that he's got sort of the audacity is the word that I –
Yeah. Somebody else that I love is their storytelling ability. The perspective. And he's from Dayton, actually. He's Dave Chappelle. And I think communication today is so important, more than ever, with the fractured political world that we see, and perspective to me – it keeps coming back, to me, that perspective and telling the story, it's so important. I just think he does that really, really well, and so those are a couple things that kind of come to mind. Again, don't agree with everything that any of these three maybe have done or do, but I love certain parts of how people conduct themselves, or stuff that they're really good at that sort of stand out.
And some of that, quite frankly, is probably how I see myself wanting to develop or grow or evolve as well. So, yes, it's kind of fun to think about.
Okay final question, this is a tricky one. What is one thing you are working on personally? So, it doesn't have to do with self-care, we covered that. But one thing you're working on.
Something I'm always sort of working on is self-awareness. Lots of different names for this. It's interesting when we think about self-care, when we think about leadership, when we think about all these different big things that we sort of care about, a lot of the stuff that we've talked about today.
And if you dig down a couple of layers, a lot of times it gets down to something emotional, right? Some emotional awareness, self-awareness, lots of different names for it. And so, if there's a few core values and attributes that are foundational to all of that stuff and emotional awareness being one of them, well, that's something that I know that I can always get better at, something I'm hyper aware when I am talking to folks. I try very, very hard to get feedback from those that I trust. That helps me to continue to sharpen that self-awareness piece.
The other thing I'm working on is trying to golf. Not be a better golfer, just trying to golf. Because I have like this entire summer, I had an excuse to go golf and so I got me out to the driving range a couple of times and I was telling myself I love playing golf, I love getting out. I had some tournament thing that I had to do, so I [went to the] driving range and I played and now I'm going to be back into it.
…I literally haven't even touched a golf club since. So, I'm working on figuring out how to get the time to do that.
Well, I admire you for even trying. I do not have the attention span. I have tried at mini golf and that's been the prelude. I failed at that. So my husband all but given up on me ever becoming a golfer, although I really do like to drive the golf cart. [laughing]
Yeah, there you go, absolutely.
I might just be the driver.
I always enjoy talking with you, Erhardt. Thank you so much for spending time with us. We like to end these episodes with an Ask Us Anything segment. With our cohosts from the Easterseals podcast series Everything You Know About Disability Is Wrong. So stick around for that. But before we do, I want to ask our guest one final question.
I think you know this and most people who know me well know I am a voracious reader. I think I said that earlier in the segment. I read constantly, and I read all kinds of things. I read just about anything because I don't sleep a lot. I know you read. So, tell us, if you can, one book that you would recommend every leader should read. Is there something that comes to mind?
So first of all, I can't read long books. I wish I could, but I can't. So, the first piece has got to be a short book. I'm a big fan of Patrick Lencioni. And he's got a couple of books. I actually use some of his stuff. Whenever I transition jobs, I try to use it as an opportunity to read stuff and think about a framework and try to get better.
There’s one book, The Advantage. And there's a concept in it about Team 1, or the first team, in that book. That is something that's come to me recently that really changed the outlook of how I think about the team and how it functions in the organization. And it's something that I've used to get this team, and I've had the honor of leading some amazing teams in this industry over the last 20 years.
This team… better, stronger, and faster than anyone else I've ever been able to lead. This concept of the Team 1, or the first team, in that book, was a core part of how we built this. So, yeah, something to go check out. It's a short book, so don't worry about a long attention span. But anybody looking to build a good team… something to at least go check out.
Great. I will check it out and I know some of our listeners will as well. Thank you so much for your time. Thanks for your candor. Thanks for your honesty. We appreciate it. I really appreciate you doing this.
Thanks, Kendra. Excited to do it and glad we could find time.
Erin and Lily! I’m so glad that you can join me as leaders in your work and as cohosts of the Everything You Know About Disability Is Wrong podcast. What do we have for today?
Hi, Kendra. Thanks for having us back on. We love the Ask Us Anything segment. So today’s question is…can you talk about a time when you had to lead through a period of significant change or adversity? And, of course, what lessons did you learn from that?
Yes, definitely. Love the question. One time in particular comes to mind because it was an extended period of time. So I was working for an organization called AfriCare at the time. I was Chief of Staff, Chief Development, Chief Communications Officer. I felt like there was so much to that job. And after about 40 years of existence, AfriCare was going through a period of consolidation. We were just spread too thin. We were in 18 sub-Saharan African countries. Our priorities, government wise – the United States government was changing its priorities, giving to different things. They weren’t giving as much aid to Africa as they had in the past and that was sorely hampering our ability to do work in Africa. Whether it was maternal health or HIV remediation or malaria reduction, we were spread very thin doing a myriad of programs. And consolidating meant leaving certain countries behind. [It] meant letting go of big teams – just laying people off. And when you lay people off in developing countries, their opportunity to get another job is not like our opportunity here in the United States. Not even close. The chances of them being unemployed for years are very good. So it weighed on me, that change. And at the same time we were doing that, we were augmenting – the people that were left standing – augmenting their responsibilities. Giving them more responsibility. One person, in particular, was managing one country at that point. After the change up, they might have been managing three countries with very different portfolios.
And I think the thing that kept us going through all of it was maintaining a sense of humor, right? Not taking ourselves too seriously. We had a saying: “Just put one foot in front of the other.” And I would say that all the time. Whenever people would say, “Oh my gosh, we have this, this, and this. We have this problem and now we have this problem,” I would say, “Let’s just put one foot in front of the other.” Let’s just keep the wheels on the bus moving in the right direction and not beat ourselves up about what we’re not going to get to. And let’s ask for help, right? We can’t do it alone. Let’s look at other organizations.
We’re sort of at an inflection point in Easterseals’ history right now where we’re looking to collaborate – not necessarily because we need help but because we know that by serving as a catalyst for collaboration, Easterseals can do more. By partnering with other like-minded organizations, we can help more people – whether it’s people with disabilities, whether it’s older Americans, or whether it’s veterans. So, I think whenever you encounter adversity – and I’m not likening it to what we’re going through at National now at Easterseals, I’m just saying collaboration is a big and powerful tool in adversity as well as in times of prosperity, which is what I think we’re enduring right now – what we’re going through and experiencing at Easterseals. We’re in a really prosperous time. We’re at a great point in our organization’s history where opportunities are coming to us and where collaborations and the opportunity to collaborate with other organizations is presenting itself almost weekly, which is great.
But when you’re going through adversity, asking for help, looking for opportunities to partner, to unload some of the burden you’re experiencing, and always maintaining a sense of humor, not taking yourselves too seriously, and recognizing – as I think I’ve said in other podcasts – you know what? Failure is never final. Adversity is only something you’re going through to get to prosperity and good times. The mark of the individual or organization that’s super successful is their ability to weather the storm. It’s not the climb to the top of the heap. We all can do that. But to maintain that success, you need to be able to get through adversity and not lose sight of who you are. And bring everybody along with you. Utilizing optimism and in my case, that often manifests itself in a kind of cynical sense of humor or making fun of myself, self-deprecation, or teasing my team members, just to diffuse the tension. I think that’s part of dealing with adversity effectively.
Absolutely. I think that’s wonderful advice and [it] just keeps things more fun in the workplace. There’s always going to be storms and I think that’s important to remember. “One foot in front of the other” – that’s something even my dad used to tell me. That’s one of those tried-and-true [pieces of advice] where if you really need to, if you remind yourself that all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other, it does tend to work. So I do really appreciate that. Thanks for the great advice.
Kendra Davenport: (Commercial segment)
You may not know that Easterseals has been trusted by families nationwide for over 100 years. At Easterseals, we share a commitment to the people we serve, and each of our locations offers a variety of important services to meet their community's needs; services like early intervention to help young children achieve their developmental goals, adult day and in-home services, community mobility options, behavioral health and wellness programs, caregiver and veteran services, and much more, so that all people of all ages and at all stages of life can have all the access they need so all people with disabilities can feel empowered and included, and so all families continue to receive support they can trust. Learn more by visiting easterseals.com.