Sandra Cornelius Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007
When Sandra Cornelius became president of Elwyn in 1991, one of her first tasks was to restore the nonprofit’s financial stability. To do so, she worked to end deficit spending by redesigning, scaling down or eliminating programs that were not cost-effective. As a result, the 155-year-old, 3,500 employee organization has continued to provide services to those with special needs and has risen to the challenge of providing top-notch care with diminishing resources. Smart Business spoke with Cornelius about how challenges are opportunities to improve, and why a company is like raisin bread.

Plan for the future, but stay in touch with today’s issues. A leader needs to do two things. He or she needs to have their eyes way out there, as to not only what’s going to happen tomorrow but what’s going to happen in the next three to 10 years.

Read widely, and gather information broadly. You must envision how the agency will have to change, because change is the only thing that’s constant.

The second component of leadership is awareness of what is happening. It requires some diligence, and you need a fairly deft set of fingers on the pulse of business.

You need to not only know service deliveries but human resources, financial issues and the like. You need to do that for two reasons — No. 1 is keeping the customers happy. No. 2 is passion. You cannot talk with passion and conviction unless you have a pretty accurate read on what is happening.

One of the dilemmas is some workers might tell the boss what they want them to hear instead of what’s really going on. You need to go find out whether the corridors smell; find out whether the trash is getting picked up.

Not only do you gather information, but you celebrate accomplishments and recognize staff for their hard work. You’ve got to get out there. You make people feel valued if you celebrate even small accomplishments. You also are fed information that will give you an accurate picture.

[For example,] the person who took California Blue Cross public inherited a business that was pretty boggy, took a different course, and called for changes. But things weren’t going as planned, as he discovered walking through the corridors of the computing center one day. Although he had set expectations, the computers had never been changed.

One needs to set a course toward the future, but at same time have familiarity with what’s really going on.

Encourage employees to learn across department lines. I need people who have initiative, are self-motivated and care about what they are doing. I also need curious people.

One of the things I’m most proud about over (my) 15 years here is that the money people have learned about programs, and the program people have learned about money.

We encourage that a lot. The void that used to exist, and led to all kinds of disgruntlement — ‘He’s doing something, and he doesn’t even have the money for it’ — has largely disappeared.

It has allowed us to be able to respond quickly to new program initiatives that our customers want.

Keep your ego in check. I could probably give you 840 examples of how unmitigated arrogance has brought a company down. ‘I’m too important, I’m beyond that, I can’t, I won’t, I should, I’m the best,’ all of that. If you’re thinking those things, you’re headed down the road, and fast.

One of the most wonderful things about my job is I can walk out of the office and shake hands with one of the people we serve, all of whom have disabilities. It is a humbling experience and it is an inspiring experience.

I’m sure there are CEOs of manufacturing companies who can get just as excited about a computer or a valve. But I get excited looking at the client and seeing what they need and how I can help them.

That is the lifeblood of my experience at Elwyn. If I got separated from that, I would not be as good.

Look at challenges as opportunities to improve. We face the challenge of ever-increasing regulation, with diminishing resources.

We had a financial hiccup here, a fraud, a number of years ago. It allowed us to take stock, own up to the mistake and look at what deficiencies we had in our systems.

And we didn’t stop there. We decided we needed to develop an administrative system that was still ready five years from that point. It has served us well, and we now continue to look on a continuous basis for how to do things better.

We have a very thorough and multilayered incident management system. People have seizures, people fall, there are accidents that happen. We’re constantly trying to find the root cause of those as they occur and change our practices so the accidents are diminished.

Work to get better, and watch the attitudes improve. We had a tremendous number of accidents in the company-owned vehicles, [which were] driven by many employees. So we got the insurance company we have to provide elaborate driver training, and we tried to make it fun by having competitions annually, a driver rodeo. The administration always placed last, which really gave everybody a good laugh.

With a situation like that, you just declare you’re going to be the best and try to figure out what it’s going to take. Just keep doing it, and then people develop a different kind of attitude. ‘OK, we made a mistake, let’s own up to it. How do we avoid doing it again; how do we make it better?’

Any agency or company is like raisin bread. There’s dough, there are lumps and there are raisins. Find a way to find the raisins quickly. That’s where the value is.

HOW TO REACH: Elwyn, (610) 891-2000 or