Susanne Cole helps Pressley Ridge become healthier and more diverse


Susanne Cole, president and CEO of Pressley Ridge, is a 2017 Pittsburgh Smart 50 honoree and Sustainability award winner

Susanne Cole has worked at Pressley Ridge her entire career, all 28 years. When she became president and CEO in 2011, she knew the nonprofit needed to diversify its funding and that some programs couldn’t cover their costs.

“We had to make some really difficult decisions about could we find supplemental funding for them or did we have to stop providing that service to actually strengthen the other parts of the organization,” she says.

Pressley Ridge, which offers mental health services, foster care, residential treatment and specialized education for children, started shifting away from residential care and toward community-based services and foster care.

It began teaching clinical and leadership training and supplying back office support as a fee for service. Its curriculum that prepares foster families to parent children with emotional and behavioral problems is used in 30 states.

Today, Pressley Ridge’s annual revenues are up nearly $10 million. It serves about 4,500 more children and families a year, and the employee count has risen slightly to 1,100.

Managing change

Cole has led organizational change in every role she’s had, but it has greater impact now.

“People look to me at the top of the organization to gauge how well am I managing this change. Am I managing it at a pace that people can tolerate?” she says.

Cole had the vision, but she relied on her team for input and to lead the initiative.

Management — 50 leaders across six states — already understood you cannot provide services at a loss. Plus, the 186-year-old organization had seen change before. The harder sell was to employees afraid of losing their jobs.

“I had to educate people on what was happening in the field of social services across the United States and what the trends were,” Cole says. “And then I had to convince them that the skills that they had working in residential would translate into community services.”

Shifting roles

Although some were laid off as programs downsized, people understood why. But the shift also generated excitement with new programs. Pressley Ridge has always encouraged staff to move to a new state or different program.

As for Cole’s own development, as CEO, she realized she doesn’t have the same capacity.

“What I pride myself in is hiring the best people that I find for these positions, letting them use their talents, and then just walking alongside them, partnering with them, supporting them as we do this,” she says.