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Fairbanks’ retiring CEO reflects on an organizational turnaround

January 11, 2012
by Gary Enos, Editor
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Adoption of a recovery focus set the stage for change

Looking back on 11 years as president and CEO of the Fairbanks treatment organization in Indianapolis, Helene M. Cross observes that the seeds for dramatic change in the organization were planted in those first months back in 2001.

At her first National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) conference that spring, the then-outsider to the addiction field heard for the first time about a chronic disease approach to treatment, in impactful words shared by field giants William White and Tom McLellan.

A few months later, amid the tumult of the Sept. 11 attacks and the organization’s own financial crisis (it was $800,000 in debt when Cross arrived), the Fairbanks board of directors approved a major strategic shift toward becoming a recovery-focused organization.

At the time, Fairbanks had been considering the option of partnering with a local hospital in order to emerge from financial crisis. Today, Cross says most of the area programs that went that route no longer exist in their original form, while Fairbanks has parlayed its recovery focus into becoming a healthy $34 million organization with a strong continuum of care.

Cross has announced that she will retire as president and CEO of Fairbanks in September; she turns 65 this fall and says she is ready to enter a new phase of her professional life that will involve some volunteering and consulting.

A member of Addiction Professional’s editorial advisory board, Cross has been credited with being at the forefront of establishing creative programming with a clear recovery focus, in efforts such as Fairbanks’ heralded Hope Academy recovery high school program.

“Her influence and leadership will be missed at both the state and national level, where she has made an important mark on public policy and advocacy for addiction treatment quality, access and services,” says Philip W. Eaton, president and CEO of Rosecrance Health Network in Rockford, Ill.

The position of Fairbanks’ top administrator had remained vacant for three years prior to Cross’s hiring. She had previously served as chief operating officer of an Indianapolis disability services organization and also had worked at two of the community’s major hospitals.

There were numerous priorities in the early years, she recalls, from bringing on a wider range of expertise on the Fairbanks board to upgrading the physical plant. “Fairbanks’ reputation was strong clinically at the time; it never lost a beat on the clinical side,” Cross says. “But the building was worn out.”

In addition, managers in the organization had never been involved in formulating their own departmental budgets—the idea had been that it wasn’t productive to share bad news with them. “I said, ‘Of course you take the financials to the staff—they’re the ones who are going to help us get better,’” Cross says.

Partly because she was new to the addiction field, Cross says the changes that occurred in the organization had to happen fairly deliberately and with maximum team buy-in. “I didn’t have all the answers,” she says. Still, by 2002 Fairbanks had a capital budget in place for needed infrastructure improvements; it also became a United Way agency early on in Cross’s tenure.

Cross says she will not be heavily involved in the search for her successor, but quickly points out that “we’ll attract a vibrant leader, not a caretaker.” She adds that while an addiction field background might not be a strict requirement for the position, the organization needs “someone smart and curious enough to keep up with the research” in an ever-changing field.

Many of Fairbanks’ problems more than a decade ago stemmed from a long recovery process after managed care’s obliteration of traditional 28-day treatment models. Cross says the treatment field at the time was not ready to demonstrate its outcomes, and she believes it cannot leave itself in a similar position in the current health reform era.

She believes providers will need to embrace a full scope of evidence-based approaches that can work for clients, from 12-Step treatment to medications and everything in between. “We have to recognize the individuality of people,” Cross says.