For Purna Rodman Conare, President and CEO of Cerebral Palsy of North Jersey (CPNJ), creativity and intelligence are among the key ingredients for effective leadership, but when coupled with humor, these qualities can help leaders navigate challenges, and make the world a better place for the most vulnerable populations.
“It’s like going to the DMV and waiting in line,” explains Rodman Conare when asked about the importance of maintaining a positive attitude to address obstacles and growing changes in the human services sector. “You can either be really angry that you’re waiting in line or you can just say, ‘You know what? This is a part of how the system works. I’m going to have to work through the system, and still remain joyful.’”
As CPNJ moves from grant funding to a fee-for-service model, Rodman Conare is tasked with leading these payer-implemented changes so that CPNJ— a $36 million organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with disabilities and other special needs— is prepared to move forward.
Rodman Conare previously served as President and CEO of the Kennedy-Donovan Center, a Massachusetts-based human service organization dedicated to supporting individuals with developmental disabilities.
“I make sure that we’re creating a positive, equal playing field for everybody in our community. I think that’s the thing that is always a driving force. It’s the reason I seek to work at places like CPNJ.”
Additionally, his role as President and CEO of CPNJ finds him providing top-level support to marginalized populations. He leads more than 800 CPNJ staff members at 19 program sites, which serve more than 1,500 infants, children and adults with disabilities.
“My job is to provide an environment that allows staff to get their work done,” said Rodman Conare, who has also served as Executive Director at ActionAIDS in Philadelphia and Director of Finance and Controller at Daniel Freeman Hospitals in Los Angeles. “A lot of that involves me making sure that CPNJ is an inspiring place to work, people feel engaged, and that we’re filling gaps that may not be filled by other agencies in the region.”
In this interview, Rodman Conare discusses what inspired his leadership style, what it means to be an accessible leader, and how he is working with CPNJ’s board to give the organization a competitive edge.
How did your background and experiences shape your outlook as a leader?
I’ve never been hierarchical by nature. When I was a manager back in the ‘80s, I had to learn how to see my success in the people who work for me, and with me. When you change your attitude about that and you see that your staff’s success is your success then I think it gives you the right kind of leadership style— at least for this type of work. When I look at my being half-Indian or half-American, studying comparative religion, working in inner-city hospitals to working in AIDS and doing this kind of work, I think that the connecting link is that I am an unabashed, unembarrassed progressive. I make sure that we’re creating a positive, equal playing field for everybody in our community. I think that’s the thing that is always a driving force. It’s the reason I seek to work at places like CPNJ.
When you became the new CEO of the organization, what did you do first?
When I got here, I saw that my predecessor office was in the back corner of CPNJ’s space. I moved my office to what used to be the front conference room so I’m right there at the entrance. Everybody who comes in— guests, visitors, clients, staff— walk by my office. It’s about making myself accessible, which makes a difference.
Why do you think it’s important to make yourself accessible and engage staff in strategic planning?
People appreciate being able to tell their CEOs directly what they want to say instead of having to say it through someone else. It’s very empowering when I say, “Ok, tell me all of the things that you think are very good at the organization. Now, tell me all the things that you think we need to improve.’” When you say that to them, you give them permission to say what they need to say without it being rebellious or being negative. This is a part of the process. You create an environment where people can say what they need to say constructively.
How are you working with the board to develop initiatives that will give CPNJ a competitive edge amid the changing human service climate and regulations?
We recently had a board retreat to really go over how we’re going to move forward. Regardless of whether services become managed care, or fee for service or contract-based, we’ll have the strength to do what we need to do in any of those models. We need to fill in gaps that the system needs and wants and provide services that we’re good at and are confident in. If you find that match, you will have a competitive edge. We have a lot of people in our schools, group homes, and day programs that other people won’t accept, and it’s not because they’re difficult people, but because they are so fragile medically, that some of the agencies shy away from taking them. Because of how we developed this organization, we are able to work with the most fragile and challenging cases. That’s one of our strengths.