Interview with Cheryl Marks-Young
Interviewer: Andrew Zezas, SIOR
Following is the transcript of a CFO Studio interview with CFO of Easter Seals NJ, Cheryl Marks-Young.
Visit www.CFOstudio.com to read about this interview and to watch the entire on-camera interview.
Navigating the Non-Profit Fiscal Storm – A Survival Guide for Senior Leaders
Host: Hello, welcome to CFO Studio, I am your host. Today we are joined by Cheryl Marks-Young, the CFO for Easter Seals NJ. Cheryl has a bachelor’s degree from the Leonard’s Stern School of Business in New York City at NYU. She is also the co-chair for the CFO Committee of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addictions Agencies. On October 11, that same agency recognized Cheryl with an award for outstanding leadership and advocacy on fiscal issues. Previous roles include positions at Sesame Workshop and Viacom. Today we will be talking about navigating the non-profit fiscal storm survival guide for senior leaders. Cheryl, it’s great to meet you. That’s quite a mouthful of an introduction.
Marks-Young: David, it’s great to be here.
Host: Like I said, let’s dive right into it. Tell me for those viewers who don’t know, what is Easter Seals, what it does, and what the organization is all about.
Marks-Young: Easter Seals is a disability services provider. What we do in a nutshell is we enable families with disabilities and individuals with disabilities to live learn work and play in their communities with dignity equality and independence. And we believe in that in community if that’s what they want to be working in their communities. We define disabilities very, very broadly, and we define them across economic disability, physical disability, and emotional disability. Homelessness is a disability as we recognize it that we want to really wipe that out. We don’t want to have homelessness be out there if we can help it. And we also have health and wellness programs. We have about 104 sites around the state, we work in all 21 counties, anything from residential services to workshops, to sheltered homeless centers and we bring programs for seniors with disabilities, I should say that differently, we bring programs for seniors who want to go back into the work force. They reached that poverty level and they need that little extra help to get retrained to go back into the work force.
Host: I know you, over the course of the year, have a few events that you throw, a walk-a-thon or some type of event like that. Could you tell us about that a little bit.
Marks-Young: We are very proud of our walk with me events, and that’s a place where we celebrate all of the lives that we touch and all the things we’ve been able to accomplish with them. We touch over 7,000 people with disabilities on a daily basis and when we talk about their families that we also assist with training programs and helping their loved ones were touching about 12, 500 people across the state on a daily basis. So our walk with me program is a place that we can all celebrate every bodies achievements and accomplishments. This year we are happy to have MetLife Stadium as our place for our walk. Last year we had the same venue, we had a thousand people last year, we are hoping to have a lot more this year. It’s one big party, the five k run and a walk through the stadium and the best part of the day is that everybody gets a chance to walk that floor of the stadium that normally we’re just not allowed to touch.
Host: They actually go down on the field?
Marks-Young: We walk on the field
Marks-Young: And I personally stood on the 50 yard line last year, and that was the biggest thrill for a lot of people.
Host: Fantastic. How has the New Jersey economic landscape impacted Easter Seals ability to help people with disabilities?
Marks-Young: It’s been actually pretty challenging in the last few years, the state has cut back on a lot of funding, and the economic environment with all of the unemployment has really impacted our ability to fundraise and get those donation dollars in and that’s been really challenging and the states move currently to a different funding model for non for profits has been with approval of the Medicaid waiver at the federal level to move from a cost reimbursement which is the typical business model to a fee for service model, so really forcing agencies to operate more like a business.
Host: What about the future, what does that hold? Future challenges for Easter Seals.
Marks-Young: Future challenges along those same lines are really getting people to understand that we need to change business models and operate more like a business but still stay in that not for profit mind set. And one thing is huge for all senior leaders across Easter Seals and any agency of our type is really getting involved in advocacy and really partnering with the state and working through all those issues as we all transition into the future. And it’s something that the state has been very gracious about allowing agencies like ours to come to the table and give our feedback and work hand in hand to help them do a better job on the disability community. That also helps us do a better job. And one of the biggest challenges is that senior leaders, not just CFOs, but all senior leaders, really forget, they think that advocacy is someone else’s job. And the reality is we all bring that data and information to the table. We all have the information from the consumers and the peoples whose lives we touch. That is really critical and important in making sure we cover the finances for those services that we can provide.
Host: Yeah, that’s great that the state of New Jersey recognizes that and has sort of accepted you in a partnership role, so you can achieve what you need to achieve.
Marks-Young: Yeah, it’s been a terrific ride so far.
Host: That’s great, that’s great. What key tools do you use to access fiscal stability for Easter Seals? Do you know any special tools that you use, any ideas/concepts?
Marks-Young: One of my favorites, which it will sound a little bit strange, because I use an interesting title for it, but I call it physiological forecasting and what’s different from forensic forecasting or other forecasting ideas is that this takes into play the leadership styles involved. And so I’ve used this my entire career and coming in the door new to Easter Seals it literary was a key to unlocking the door to information that normally might take you 6 months, 2 years to achieve and attain and make a difference. And what it is is looking back at all the financial for 2 years back but really taking a deep dive and looking one week at a time, so two years back 52 weeks at a time and then looking around to see what leaders are in play, who has influence over financial decisions, spending decisions. Taking that information, which is really psychology of spending habits. And projecting forward for two years, one week at a time and what that really does is it helps you build bridges to new solutions, it helps you understand how your organization is going to work moving forward and what’s different again is that in most organizations a CEO or a senior leader would say “Build me a model, tell me what I need to do, forecast into the future.” Or perhaps they are going to say, “We need to cut spending by ten percent. Show me your new forecast.” They are going to receive a pristine budget and forecast and in most cases that’s not what will really happen in the end. This tool will allow you to really project what really will happen and allows you to course correct along the way.
Host: So you’ve used this tool throughout your career and at Easter Seals and it’s just a way to help the organizations complete that mission.
Marks-Young: Absolutely, and it helps you not miss any important information. So I’ll give you an example when I first walked into Easter Seals, they had already laid off about 50 percent of their administrative staff and ten percent of their overall staff because it was a fiscal crisis the state was shutting down the budget was still not approved at the state level. It was one big challenge and one big change for the organization and the state as well. I walked in, did this analysis and came out of it, with exactly the day that we will run out of money if we didn’t change course.
Marks-Young: It was a little scary, I will tell you, to try to explain that this is psychological forecasting to people and we were able to identify those leaders that needed a little bit of redirecting. And we were also able to identify which businesses needed to shift and or be shut down. And it was very , very, successful as a tool.
Host: That’s a tough thing to do first day on the job. What basic skill sets will help CFOs and other leaders succeed in the new economic environment in New Jersey? Obviously things are changing weekly, monthly. So what do you see?
Marks-Young: I think similar to what I said earlier about advocacy, the CFO’s role is really different than it used to be in the world. The CFO is no longer just that numbers person. The CFO needs to be that strategic partner to the CEO and any other senior leader whose willing to partner in that realm. And that CFO needs to be more of an advocate for the agency. Within the agency and external to the agency and business and I think that’s really one of the biggest skill set areas and biggest challenges for CFOs overall. So networking becomes important, advocacy becomes important, understanding what business are doing, understanding the purpose for the business and the end result and who you are helping. You need to be able to put that all together in one package. So, CFOs honestly need to get out of the office, not sit behind the desk.
Host: So do you spend, do you find yourself spending a lot of time outside the office?
Marks-Young: I do, in the last two years, I was able to do a succession plan in our area and so I have people that are well trained that can do the psychological forecasting so it is a transferable skill set, thankfully and be able to get out there in the public, talk to other CFO’s, talk to other senior leaders.
Host: Oh, that’s fantastic, that’s unusual but great. It’s great to be able to spread the word and share some of your philosophy with the rest of the community. So, I think we have time for one more question and it’s a little off our topic, but I know that when we spoke prior you have an interesting travel history, you set foot on, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I will let you…
Marks-Young: All seven continents, and I spent a month in Antarctica and Patagonia.
Host: Oh wow.
Marks-Young: I would say when people ask me what’s the advice to give to new CFOs starting out, spend a month in Antarctica. What it taught me, I am an adventure traveler still am at heart and did science expeditions, and what it taught me was dealing with change every day. It is waking up every day appreciating the landscape that I have, but understanding that everything is different. And really just loving life and loving what’s coming. And being prepared for the moments when you may or may not have emergency at hand. It’s just an exciting way to be, always being open to new things and learning new things.
Host: Fantastic, fantastic. Cheryl it’s been very enlightening, I love your different take on the role of CFO, thank you so much for coming by today. I really appreciate it. And it’s great to see.
Marks-Young: Thank you, it’s been great to be here.
Host: This is your host with Cheryl Marks Young, thanks for watching and we’ll see you again soon.
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