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Pioneering woman CEO learned confidence from upbringing

March 22, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Women’s History Month Spotlight: Helene Cross
Helene Cross

As the first female leader of the addiction treatment center Fairbanks in Indianapolis, Helene Cross stepped into the CEO position in 2001 and found herself looking a nonprofit organization that hadn’t had a CEO in three years, carried about $800K in debt, operated a facility that was showing its age, and had no community outreach or contracts.    

“I have to admit that I didn’t realize how serious the problems were when I started. I knew that there were financial problems — that we had debt that was close to $800,000 – but I don’t think I recognized the issues with the culture itself,” Cross, who retired from Fairbanks last year, says.  She explains that since there had been no CEO, operations had been characterized by a “culture of secrecy.” 

The former person in the management/administrative role did not have a great relationship with the board, and the board and staff had no idea what shape the organization was in. One of the first things she wanted to accomplish in her new role was moving toward an atmosphere of transparency. Although the chief financial officer pleaded with her not to share financial status information with the staff for fear that they would quit, Cross felt she needed to let employees know that “we are going to get out of this together by figuring out what we need to do.”

After realizing the financial woes the organization faced, Cross realized that Fairbanks had lost its presence in the community. She reached out to people in her network, brought in various funders, and was able to get some early grants that helped with “simple things.” For example, she says the chairs in the group areas had stuffing coming out of them, so she secured a grant to have them replaced. Although it was a minor improvement, she says this helped signal that more change was coming.

She was inspired in her early days as the CEO when she attended the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) conference in May 2001 and listened to nationally prominent leaders William White and Tom McClellan speak about addiction being a chronic disease.

“I knew about chronic [illnesses] from healthcare—I knew what hypertension was and what diabetes was. I realized we were treating this as an ‘acute disease.’ We were treating this as ‘diagnose, you’re here for treatment, and then I hope AA works.’ In those early months, I was influenced by the reality that this is a disease,” Cross recalls.

With this inspiration, she brought her ideas to the board, and together, they changed the mission statement of the organization to focus on recovery. To her, this was the most significant change that occurred in those early years because she says it motivated the entire staff to focus on what the organization needed to do to further clients’ long-term recovery. From this point, the idea for Hope Academy, Fairbanks’ recovery high school, was born.

Early influences

At a time when there weren’t many women CEOs leading treatment centers, Cross remained confident that she could make a difference. She attributes her attitude to her upbringing: attending a Catholic grade school and high school. The teachers, who were all women, always worked following a specific mission: “To educate first- and second- generation Americans in Milwaukee.” From that point on, Cross always worked for nonprofit organizations—organizations with a specific mission.

Her high school was an all-girls school, and although she was a shy young woman, there was ample opportunity to grow. Looking at the schools in the 1960s (she graduated from high school in 1965), she says many of the class presidents or student council leaders would be young men. However, at an all-girls school, “You’re it,” she says.

“So I didn’t grow up with the notion that I couldn’t—I grew up with the notion that I could. I could lead. I could do something significant,” she says.

Going through life, she says she never felt that if she was passed over for a job it could be because of gender.

Cross laughs as she recalls a time when she was asked to be a NAATP board member because she was a woman. It was shortly after she’d come into the field, she hardly knew anyone, and she was confused when they asked her to join. But she recalls thinking that this would offer a great opportunity to make connections and learn more about the field. There weren’t many women CEOs in the field at the time, and NAATP wanted to add more women to its board, to add diversity, she says. She accepted her spot and never had regrets.  She thereby had a national network of professionals she could reach out to if/when she needed advice.

Another significant piece of women’s history for Cross is the root of the organization’s name. Fairbanks is named after Cornelia “Nellie” Cole Fairbanks. Originally “The Indiana Home for Alcoholic Men,” it was renamed to “Fairbanks” in 1970 when this woman’s husband left money from a trust to the organization before he died. Cornelia Fairbanks was the wife of Charles Warren Fairbanks, vice president to Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Fairbanks held, at that time, the highest office for any woman in the country, which was the President General of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Because Cross was the first female head of the treatment center, she says it is very personally meaningful to her to realize that the organization was named after such a woman.

Women in the field

Cross, who retired in September, offers some words of wisdom to other women in the field:

·        “Women should never feel that because they’ve been given a job, that that is an indication that they must know everything about it and shouldn’t ask any questions. I think a lot of people in our world of business and healthcare are willing to help.  It’s important to realize that you’re always learning.”