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The Rungs of Learning with Patrick Evans, CEO of Sound, A Behavioral Healthcare Organization

Last year, I had the honor of joining the board of directors for Sound, a nonprofit that is one of King county's largest behavioral health organizations, supporting the area's most vulnerable population.

In my short time on the board, I've become even more inspired by their mission to strengthen the community and serve everyone that comes through their doors. This is in part due to the passion of their CEO, Patrick Evans, who is my guest in this month's blog.

As a former mental health counselor and therapist, Patrick brings a unique perspective to his role as CEO and graciously shares his learning journey with the rest of us.


What led you into a career in mental health and counseling?

I initially went to college on a scholarship as a journalism major and the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I got job at a summer camp. I learned about it through a campus job fair and it was close to where I lived and I figured it would be a fun way to spend the summer, swimming and hanging out.

I had no idea what I was getting into and this camp ended up literally changing my life. Little did I know that the camp was for children who had been physically or sexually abused and/or neglected.

The experience made such an impact on me that I went back my sophomore year at college and changed my major from journalism to psychology with the intention of becoming a therapist or counselor. I ended up working at that camp every summer until I graduated and that’s how my path toward a career in mental health started.

When I graduated from college, my first job was at a county children’s services organization that served children who had been abused. It was my responsibility to go out and do intake and to investigate some pretty horrible things. Sometimes I even had to remove kids from their home. It was a struggle, but I learned a lot from that experience.

Interestingly, my family history reveals some things that make my eventual career choice kind of ironic. My older sister had a lot of mental health and drug and alcohol issues. As a kid, I didn’t understand it but I lived it. She started using when she was 13 and moved out of the house when she was 17. We didn’t talk about it back then but what we know now is that she had serious mental health issues at a very young age, and she was using alcohol and pot to self-medicate. She just got worse and worse, became homeless, was a victim of abuse and eventually lost custody of her kids. She passed away from her diseases twenty years ago.

Looking back now, that had to have an impact on me and I’m certain was a factor in my path ending up as it did. And, by way of this, I’ve learned that mental health issues and addiction impact not just that person but a lot of different folks and family members.

Up until the last couple of years, there's been a stigma associated with behavioral health. People have been hesitant to talk about it and employers, health insurers and politicians kept it at an arm's length. What do you think has led to more acceptance of this as a real health care issue in recent times?

A lot of the progress over the years has been an outcome of the work of a lot of different providers like Sound as well the state and national trade associations who have been pushing the message persistently.

If you think back to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the war on drugs in the seventies, that was one of the first campaigns where people at least talked about substance use issues. That was followed on by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Granted, those initiatives were focused on bad behaviors, not necessarily acceptance of mental health issues, but they pushed us to start talking about it.

To destigmatize it, I’ve found it useful to frame mental health as a health care issue along the lines of a medical health care issue. For example, if you are walking downtown and someone is having an overdose on the street, many of us would walk by disgusted or cast judgment and then the police would be called before an ambulance. Conversely, if someone was on the street and suddenly collapsed due to a heart attack, people would ask if they were alright and immediately call an ambulance and then they’d be taken to the best hospital in the area. A mental illness or an addiction is no different than if you have a heart issue, are diabetic or have cancer and they should be treated as such.

While not a lot of good has come out of COVID, it has helped mainstream mental health concerns. Many people or their families have experienced some sort of anxiety, depression, or other mental healthcare issue which has turned it into something very real. This has shifted perception in a lot of us because more people have a lived experience which has contributed to an increase in acceptance. More often now, if someone has a panic attack or a psychotic break, we understand that they don’t have a choice in that.

When you transitioned from practitioner to leader, what were some of your biggest learnings?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that doing therapy was not my thing. That said, I recognized that I had a skill set in helping people see what the challenges were and what strengths they had to meet those challenges and then put together a plan to address them.

I got promoted early in my career to a team leader role and found that I could use the therapeutic skills I had as a counselor with team members. And I loved it. I was drawing off the same skill set but felt like I could have an impact on a broader group of people this way versus one on one treatment and care.

It took me awhile to learn the basics of management, but the biggest challenge I had as a leader was figuring out how to scale. For example, delegation is essential as the organization gets bigger. You need to trust and have the right talent, make the expectations clear and give them the platform to share their expertise. With a bigger team, you just can’t operate as you did in a smaller organization where maybe you did it all. Instead, your job becomes making sure the leadership team is all coordinated and aligned.

As the CEO of a nonprofit, your direct accountability is to the board of directors. How has this relationship contributed to your own growth and development as a leader?

I’ve worked for a board of directors for most of my professional career and I currently sit on several boards, so I get both sides of it.

There’s so much opportunity to learn from so many different people. Take our current board at Sound - we have eighteen people that offer eighteen different perspectives who are passionate about our mission. I need to figure out a way to tap into all this expertise to move our organization forward and I love that. There aren’t a lot of jobs where you get that opportunity.

If someone wants to pivot their career to a nonprofit, what are some of the essential skills that are required to be successful in this sector?

I was just having conversation with a colleague recently who’s making the shift from for profit to nonprofit. He noted that the words we use might be different, but the concepts are the same. There needs to be margin, revenue, and productivity, like in any business but we might call them different things. We have to see patients and we need to bill for those visits before we collect revenue. We are not a social service provider where the money is flowing.

The only potential difference is that what drives people to this kind of work is the mission. At the core of that, there might be more of a connection for staff that you can rally around even when there are days where things might not be going great at work. They can set that aside because they are here to help people and fulfill our mission.

What are you focusing your learnings on these days (personally and/or professionally)?

I’m a big reader and I have two books I’m reading right now. One is John Kotter’s newest book, Change, which is all about leading culture in tough times and the other is Better, Simpler Strategy by Felix Olberholzer-Gee. It's about keeping strategy very simple, nimble and focused and I think that will be helpful to what’s going on at Sound right now.

I also love implementing the lean concepts into healthcare so I’m continuing to learn about that. Seattle was on the forefront of implementing lean in healthcare and I’m even applying some of the concepts into my personal life.

Note: if you'd like to donate to Sound or support the organization in some way, click HERE. If you or a family member is navigating through a mental healthcare issues and need help, contact your local crisis line or check out the resources available on the National Alliance on Mental Health website.

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