Leader to Leader: Joe DeGenova

Joe DeGenova, CEO and president of the Center for Urban Community Services.

Joe DeGenova, CEO and president of the Center for Urban Community Services. Submitted

Joe DeGenova became the CEO and President of the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS) a few months ago, but he is hardly a newcomer to the organization. Indeed, Joe has spent the past 30 years in various positions at CUCS. During those years, CUCS has grown to become one of the largest providers of mental health and other services for homeless and formerly homeless individuals in New York City. Among other things, CUCS performs street outreach, provides supportive housing and offers employment services to thousands of New Yorkers each year.

In assuming the reins at CUCS, Joe is following in the footsteps of Tony Hannigan, who founded the organization 37 years ago. Succeeding a charismatic founder and long-serving CEO is no simple matter, particularly if you have been working alongside that CEO for more than a generation. I recently reached out to Joe to talk about the transition at CUCS. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed his approach to leadership, the kind of institutional culture he has tried to create and the tensions that sometimes exist between serving clients and taking care of staff. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Berman: You achieved something pretty rare when you were in college – you played a central role in creating a new organization. Community Impact continues to exist to this day, helping to connect Columbia students to community service opportunities. How did that happen? 

DeGenova: When I was an undergrad, I was a big brother to a kid in Harlem. One day, I went in to talk to my little brother's teacher because he was having trouble with reading. Halfway through the conversation she said, "You have to meet this guy, Timmy (Swartz). He works on the streets with people." So she gives me his phone number. I call this number, and I said to the guy, "You want to get lunch sometime? Miss So and So said we should meet." He gruffly says, "I don't do lunch, but if you want to help me, you can come down to this church basement." 

I go to this church basement and knock on the door. A guy opens the door. All of his hair is gray, and he's got this man bun. He looked kind of eccentric. He's this guy who had a religious experience and started a street ministry. He said, "Help me make this soup.” Then we went out on the streets with a shopping cart with a big pot of soup and a bag of bread and cups and spoons. As we're walking down the street people come running up to him. We're walking all over and we're going in people's houses, and he's helping them with problems, everything from a school problem to a benefits problem. I started working with this guy a couple days a week. It was all volunteer. 

After doing it for five months, I went to the Catholic chaplain at the university to ask for some help. He gave me $500 and a little office space. That's how we started. Eventually, our office was in the Earl Hall Center, which is where all the chaplaincies were. The rabbi at the center approached me and said that he’d like to make the program a university-wide thing. At the time, we still had the Catholic imprimatur. It was a good move. It made it more accessible to more people. Then I graduated. A clinic at the law school helped us to incorporate. We set up a pretty sturdy structure, and it's still going on.

Berman: You continued with the organization after you graduated?

DeGenova: Yeah. I graduated in '82 and I stayed there until '89 when I came to CUCS. 

Berman: How did you know that it was time to leave? What was it like to go from running an organization to being at an organization where you wouldn’t be in charge?

DeGenova: To be really honest, I'd become a bit of a workaholic. I was so identified with Community Impact that I was working a lot of hours. I was that old story – the first person in my family that decided to go to college. One side of my family's really poor, with lots of problems. So I was exposed to a lot as a kid, and I had some sense of how unfair the world could be to people. Some people catch breaks, and some people don't, and it ends up putting them back on their heels in ways that they need some help. Once I got immersed in the work at Community Impact, I was driven by what I was seeing, which was the injustice of poverty, and it was clearly along racial lines. For a young person, it was very eye opening because it wasn't what we were being taught in class. The American myth wasn't playing out in the lives of the people that we were working with on the streets. That was extremely motivating to me.

Berman: So part of the move to CUCS was essentially about self-care? 

DeGenova: Yes, that would be accurate. When I went to CUCS, it was very small. It only had one program and had just started a second. They initially offered me the position of being the director of their shelter for mentally-ill women. I said no because I was worried that I'd just end up burning myself out. I told them, "If you have an assistant director position, I would take that." Which is kind of odd, but it was where I was at the time. It was a good move for me. I ended up being assistant director for two years. Then the director moved on, and I moved up. I was ready at that point. I had my head together and was able to manage my time and my sense of responsibility. 

I had to learn over time to set limits on the hours I spent at work, to turn off my thinking about the job when I left for the day, and to approach my job as a profession. I had recently gotten an MSW from the Hunter College School of Social Work, and that helped too. I had been caught up in what used to be called the Catholic social justice movement. The operational paradigm for that movement tended to be a little less structured, with fewer professional boundaries. That was not working for me. I had to move to something different. I became very committed to the notion of doing good work in a sustainable way. That is one of my core concerns in the way I've been a leader at CUCS.

Berman: You initially came across my radar because we shared the same program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation, Steve Lee. One of the things that Steve told me was that you and Tony Hannigan had formed a remarkable partnership over the course of something like 30 years. How did the two of you make your relationship work over the long haul?

DeGenova: We were really simpatico in terms of putting the clients' needs first. I'll give you a story. I had been at CUCS for about four weeks, and we were going to have an all-staff meeting in a brownstone near Columbia University that was the site of our drop-in center. I get to the brownstone and everybody's milling about in front. I see Tony and he looks upset. I say, "Hey, what's wrong?" He says, "We're supposed to meet in the drop-in center space, but the drop-in center director asked everybody to wait while they clean up the space." Tony said to me, "If it's not good enough for us, why is it good enough for our clients?" It really bothered him. That really resonated with me. We want our services to be as good as the quality that we would want for ourselves or for a member of our families. That's what we shoot for. 

So Tony and I both come from similar places. We shared a lot of values. Tony gave me a lot of autonomy and support. We did a lot of working through things together. We learned and grew over the years. We were a good combo. There was never any competitiveness between us. I became his number two. Over the years, other opportunities came along, but I stayed at CUCS because I liked working with him. I was at a place where I thought I could make the most difference in the world. Also, there were other people sticking around for a long time. I like stability in relationships, and I like an organization that has a lot of trust in it. I think you can get a lot done quickly when you've got senior people who have long histories with one another. So the whole environment worked for me. 

Berman: How you would characterize the institutional culture at CUCS?

DeGenova: I actually asked a relatively recent hire about how she saw the culture. She said, "Humane, thoughtful, just, respectful of people." What I've always said is that we put the clients first. The staff are second, a very close second, but our North Star is what's best for the client. Early on I became convinced that what was best for the clients was longevity in the staff. So I started to consciously try to create an environment that would support staff longevity. One of the big challenges with that is salary, of course. The other thing that we've tried to do is we try to create a place that's collaborative, where people are co-creators of what we're becoming, not a place where they're just told what to do. 

Berman: In a perfect world, I think it works as you describe, where you're serving the clients’ interests by taking care of staff. But I also think there can be a tension between these two impulses. I talk to a lot of nonprofit managers these days who are spending more time on internal management than they are on achieving their institutional missions out in the world. Nonprofits are supposed to be mission-driven organizations, not staff-serving organizations. Do you ever feel like those things are in tension?

DeGenova: Yes, they're in tension. The way we deal with that at CUCS is that we have people in leadership positions who are good at managing those tensions. For about 12 years, we've been doing in-depth staff surveys and using those to understand where the staff is at on different issues. We also have a pretty robust management structure where stuff will get pushed up the pyramid if it needs attention.

It is a balancing act. I think at the beginning I leaned too hard on empathy for staff members. The way I say it now is that we want to be empathic toward our staff members, but we also expect, promote and support resilience. That's a nice countervailing concept when it comes to taking care of your staff and being supportive of them. We're all about doing the best we can for the clients. We want to take care of the staff and support the staff and make it a good place to work, but we're there to do a job for the clients.

Berman: I always resisted using the vocabulary of “family” at work. I wanted to create a supportive environment for staff, but I never wanted people to think of the agency as a family. 

DeGenova: I'm completely with you on that. Any time I heard somebody use that metaphor, I would try to help them understand why that's fraught with issues.

Berman: You became the CEO of CUCS only a few months ago, but you have been part of the leadership of the organization for decades. How do you put your own stamp on the organization given this reality? 

DeGenova: Well, in a sense my stamp is already on the organization. I mean I was in the number two position for a long time. Tony and I had a really good working relationship, so I participated in a lot of the decisions that set the direction for the organization. To me, the organization was on a steady progression of growing and improving its quality, and that's what I want to keep doing. I don't have a slogan or a razzmatazz sort of title or vision for things. I do want to leave the organization stronger than when I found it, but it's strong already. I don't think I have to fix the organization. We're going to engage in a visioning process, but it's not like it's going to be about any kind of radical change.

There are a couple of places where I think we could do better. One of them is that we don't have a very big operating reserve. We've grown a lot, and the operating reserve hasn't, and that can present us with challenges when it comes to taking on new projects. We're putting together a pretty good strategy for how to address that. We want to continue to develop our philanthropic revenue. We also want to start playing a little more of a pronounced role in helping to influence policy. 

Berman: Like you, I became an executive director after having been a deputy at the same organization. Even though I had a clear understanding of how to do the job, I found moving into the executive director role to be challenging psychologically. How has it been for you? 

DeGenova: I think the move to the CEO role forces upon you a not insubstantial change in your experience of who you are within the organization because ultimately the buck's going to stop with you. But I feel very well positioned to take it on. I'm going to do better at this than I would have done 20 years ago or 10 years ago or five years ago even. 

In some ways the most challenging part is the psychological aspect of it, but I like the challenge. I don't know if you went through this, but the longer I've been doing this, the more I realize it's often not about having the answers. It's about having good questions and helping a group of people get to the answers. I don't have to have the answers myself. Sometimes the best thing I can do is be the person asking the questions and helping the process along. Once you think that way and you trust the people you're working with, it takes some pressure off you. I have a really strong senior team. CUCS also has a very good board. Tony had earned their trust, and I think they’ve started with me by giving me the benefit of the doubt, which I really appreciate. They were very supportive of Tony and they are that way with me too. 

My daughter got me Apple AirPods for Christmas, and I've been listening to a lot of podcasts when I'm working out or walking. I was listening to this guy, Terrence Real. I don't know if you've ever heard of him. He wrote “I Don't Want to Talk About It: The Secret Legacy of Male Depression.” He talks a lot about patriarchy as the culture we swim in and how men are taught to be rugged individuals and not to ever show their vulnerability. I think that's one way of being a leader, but man, that looks counterproductive from my perspective. The collaborative thing tends to work a lot better. I'm also a big fan of Jim Collins' writing. I don't know if you've ever read anything by him.

Berman: The “Good to Great” guy?

DeGenova: Yeah, “Good to Great,” “Built to Last,” “How the Mighty Fall.” I love his stuff. 

Berman: What strikes a cord with you about Collins’ work?

DeGenova: What Collins said was that a lot of the people who were in charge of the really good companies, they weren't making it on to the front of the business magazines. They weren’t the Jack Welch types. He called that model “the hero with a thousand helpers.” In that model, the CEO knows best. The CEO is always right. You don’t want to bring him bad news, blah, blah, blah. Whereas at the really good companies, they listen to one another. They argue over things. Over the years, Tony and I moved CUCS more and more in that direction. It's a different way of leading an organization that emphasizes creating a strong team. 

Berman: You recently wrote an op-ed that extolled the virtues of telehealth for homeless individuals. I'm curious about how that works. I'm assuming that the typical person suffering from homelessness doesn't necessarily have access to a high-speed internet connection and the latest gadgets from Apple. I would also imagine it's tricky for caregivers to create rapport when they can't pick up on nonverbal cues the way you can when you’re in person. 

DeGenova: I think the future is a hybrid model. We still have psychiatrists who go out on the street with outreach teams. They're not doing telehealth with people on the street. They've got to be face-to-face on the park bench. Ideally, you get a rapport started face-to-face. But in our shelters, we do have the equipment that clients need to connect with the dozens of psychiatrists that we employ. Some people even prefer it. They don't have to walk through a suite of offices in front of other people. They can just use their phone and talk to the doctor in the privacy of their own room. Some people feel safer that way. There are also efficiencies for clinicians. Instead of having to get on the subway and travel an hour and a half to see someone, you can get more visits in if you don't have to travel to the site to do the visit. 

Berman: CUCS has been involved in the development of a number of shelters and affordable housing projects. What lessons have you learned about overcoming NIMBY resistance? 

DeGenova: Oh boy, we've learned a lot of lessons. One of them is to hang in there and listen to all the people's concerns and do your best to address every one of them. I like the challenge of helping people see the humanity of our clients. It's like a marathon sometimes. Your reputation matters, so you’ve got to pay attention to your reputation. We try really hard to be a good neighbor. That's probably the most important thing: Be a good neighbor, wherever you are. For example, we won't do a project without some outdoor space where our clients can smoke, talk and chat without having to be in front of the building on the sidewalk. We just won't do it if we come upon a property that doesn’t allow us to do that. We also want the people we're working with to be good neighbors because that's what we're trying to help them do overall in some way -- to reconnect with the rest of the human community in a mutually beneficial way. And they're capable of it. They’ve often been ostracized and banged around a lot. Part of our work is to try to help people overcome that.