‘They took a leap of faith on me’

Longtime leader of mental health organization helps build startup from scratch.

Finnerty’s remarks were edited for length and style.


Each week, Business Assignment Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation with a local leader as part of our commitment to bring you insightful coverage of metro Atlanta’s business scene.

Nobody gets where they are without help. And nobody knows that better than Beth Finnerty.

For the past 24 years, Finnerty has led Skyland Trail, a mental health organization that offers a wide range of treatment services to adults, from around-the-clock residential care to daytime and vocational programs. Now CEO, Finnerty became the Atlanta nonprofit's first executive director when it had three employees and annual revenue under $100,000. Today, there are about 100 employees and annual revenue of $10.5 million.

Finnerty, 53, wouldn’t have been successful in building Skyland Trail without the valuable insight provided by a mentor in her first job at Gwinnett Health System. She talks about how her experience there helped her at Skyland Trail, the only other place she’s worked since completing a dual master’s degree program in business administration and healthcare administration in 1987.

Q: You worked closely with the CEO of Gwinnett Health System, where you started out in an internship program before getting a permanent job there. What did you learn?

A: The head of the hospital system, Frank Rinker, took me everywhere with him. I learned the importance of getting all of your constituents — your board members, senior leadership team and your employees — to march down the road together.

He obviously used different tactics for different groups. For board members, there was a lot of one-on-one to get their votes on his side. With the senior staff, it was in a little larger groups. With employees, it was all-staff meetings. He was willing to listen to everyone.

He made all the senior staff and me go up on the floor, knock on doors, meet patients and ask them how their stay was. As a 26-year-old, I was terrified of this. He taught us the importance of connecting with all your constituent groups in a compassionate and authentic way.

Q: What else did you learn from him?

A: The importance of authenticity in leadership. What you saw from Frank is what you got.

He had an eye for detail. Perception is very important when someone walks into the front door of your hospital. If the facility is in disarray, if the floors are dirty, people are going to get the impression that it’s not a high-quality facility.

He would walk around the hospital with a little piece of paper in his breast pocket and see little things that needed to be fixed. He would write them down, and when he got back to his office he would immediately call a department head and say, “there’s an issue that needs to get fixed right away.”

He understood the importance of managing by walking around.

And he told me when I was leaving the hospital at age 29 to lead Skyland Trail: “Learn all you can learn, do all you can do, and put your handprints and footprints all over whatever you do.”

Q: You did not have a background in mental health. How did you get hired? How did you overcome that lack of knowledge?

A: They took a leap of faith on me, seeing my passion and believing I could do the job. I took a leap of faith on a startup organization because I wanted to spread my wings.

I did what Frank taught me to do — to learn all I could. I learned about mental health from a board member who became my teacher, so I could talk the talk and walk the walk.

To be successful in a startup organization, you have to be willing to jump in and do whatever it takes. I was chief cook and bottle washer. The board and the three other staff members all pitched in. We would transport clients. We would cut the grass on weekends because we did not have the money to hire landscapers. We planted a big garden, which was our first endeavor in horticultural therapy, which today is a big part of our treatment program.

I also would market the facility to psychiatrists and hospitals, and give tours to families.

I was the financial person. I remember the heartaches of watching our expenses like a hawk. There were some Friday afternoons when the promised insurance check didn’t come in for me to make payroll. I had to be resourceful. I called a board member and we sold our receivables to a friend of his. You had to have nerves of steel.

Over the years, I hired people who were smarter in finance than I am. Always make sure you have people on board who are smarter than you are.

Q: How did you put the initial building blocks in place so you could grow?

A: All of my work with Frank on strategic planning came to bear fruit here. The board members at the time were self-made businessmen. These were men who had worked really, really hard throughout their lives and set the direction of their companies on their own.

But when you have 15 board members, all with good ideas, you have to be on the same page. Our first strategic planning process took two years, which is a very, very long time. During that time, we visited other programs around the country and came up with a five-year plan. That plan and subsequent strategic plans have always guided our growth.

To execute a plan, it was important to get the right staff on the bus with me. In the beginning, I wanted to be everyone’s friend. But what you learn as a good leader is that you can’t be everyone’s friend. You sometimes have to make the tough decision to let go of a person in a compassionate way, so you can get the right people on the bus.

I made mistakes in holding on to people too long. I learned that you should hire slow and fire fast.

Also, as a leader, you’re alone at the top and have to find your support elsewhere. Networking and connecting with leaders of other organizations is a great resource. It breaks down the isolation.

Q: How are you dealing with an important issue that you’re facing?

A: One of our biggest demographics right now is young adults between 18 and 25. Fifty to 60 percent of our new admissions are in that age range, which is a change.

There are several reasons. There is a greater awareness of mental illness and people are more willing to get treatment. I don’t think there is as much of a stigma with mental illness as there was. That is not to say it’s gone, because it’s still there.

Also, drugs are rampant today. And some things that mom and dad thought were ADD in high school might today be depression or bipolar disorder. There are stories about many high school students managing their way through manic episodes. But when they get away from mom and dad and go to college, they crash and burn. That’s a huge issue on college campuses today. Suicide is a growing concern among our young.

We’re getting ready to launch an $18 million capital campaign to raise money for a new campus, specifically for young adults. Mental health is not an easy field to raise money for. You’ve got to be fearless when you ask for money. Before I came here, I never asked for a penny in my life. The first time I made a big ask, I was shaking in my boots. What you learn over time is people are not going to give money unless you ask, and all they can do is say no.