Kittleman Blog

Happy 5th Anniversary, Mark Ishaug – Thresholds CEO

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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Master Collaborator and Change Agent

Kittleman is pleased to recognize Mark Ishaug who this month marks his 5th year as President & CEO of Thresholds, Inc. in Chicago. Acclaimed as one of the leading mental health providers in the State of Illinois, if not the country, Thresholds serves people living with serious mental illnesses and substance use through a vast array of services that help clients live independently in their communities.

The extraordinary advances made at Thresholds under Mark’s leadership in the past five years are truly remarkable, even more so when you consider the difficult political, regulatory and governmental funding environment during this time. Against those odds, Thresholds’ growth has been astonishing:

• The number of clients served each year has more than doubled from 6,100 to 15,000
• The geographic reach has increased from three counties to nine counties in Illinois
• The number of employees has doubled from 700 to 1,400
• The operating budget has increased from $57 million to $88 million

Since 1959, Thresholds had been led by practicing clinicians with visionary ideas about mental health treatment and how people could be transformed by the provision of such services. It had long been recognized as a true innovator and a nationally-known leader in the treatment of serious mental illnesses. But in 2012, the Board broke with the long-standing tradition of hiring a clinician as its leader. They boldly sought to find the right combination of compassionate leadership and enlightened management that would enable Thresholds to champion the needs of their clients in ways that had never been attempted. They retained Kittleman to launch a national search to find that person. It turned out that that person was right here in Chicago.

“The board stuck its collective necks out when we selected Mark”, said Ron Grais, long-serving Board member who was on the search committee and who currently serves as chairman. “However, a few of us were convinced that the times and the medical reimbursement world would change rapidly, and we needed a great nonprofit leader more than a clinician. Keeping the whole operation afloat and responding to challenges would require a charismatic, flexible, and creative leader.”

Mark demonstrated those qualities as a nonprofit executive with a particular expertise in fighting for the healthcare and human rights of stigmatized populations. He was previously the President & CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago where he led new strategies for funding, recognition and political change around HIV/AIDS. It was there that he perfected the art of collaboration with other stakeholders, be they nonprofit, corporate, philanthropic or governmental entities. Successfully leveraging such resources depends on the ability of a leader to build trust and deliver on promises, something that Mark has demonstrated time and again.

“Thresholds was not regarded by the service provider community as a good partner”, said Grais. ”And we recognized the need for collaboration. Mark is a master collaborator. He developed and supports all of the partners and partnerships.”

One of these successful collaborations resulted in Thresholds now being the state’s largest provider of supportive housing. It serves more than 2,300 individuals in 1,300 units that are directly owned or managed by Thresholds. Approximately 95% of clients who enter housing directly from homelessness remain either in their housing or in another setting.

In addition, Thresholds convened a large coalition of behavioral health advocates to work on state-level issues of funding and care. They are now working on major legislative change with a committee of state legislators. Working with their trade association and partner agencies, Thresholds helped secure a rate add-on for Medicaid reimbursement for crucial mental health services and helped pass legislation to help children access care for serious mental illnesses without being separated from their families.

“During these very tumultuous times, with no state budget and tragic violence plaguing our city, Mark has succeeded in expanding the reach of services to more people of all ages”, said Alexa James, Executive Director of the Chicago Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “He is smart, strategic and leads from the heart. He leads by inspiring everyone to accomplish more and make a greater impact”.

Social service providers in Illinois like Thresholds face enormous financial constraints. For example, Medicaid rates have not been permanently increased in over a decade which has resulted in millions in lost revenue. Mark has led Thresholds through these very choppy waters by putting into place innovative business plans such as diversifying payment types and service lines and scaling programs and services to produce economies not otherwise available.

Faced with such dramatic change and uncertain times, staff morale might have been expected to be low and staff turnover high. Not so. Thresholds was named one of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For and one of the Chicago Tribune’s Top Workplaces for three consecutive years. These awards are based on employee surveys, showcasing employee satisfaction in the midst of demanding and emotionally taxing frontline work. Mark’s focus is on maintaining a compassionate and supportive work environment for all employees and cultivating a culture of positive change.

In a human services sector that is threatened by constant challenges at every level, it is heartening to see the success of organizations like Thresholds, who refuse to stand in place or perhaps even retreat in the face of adversity, but rather work courageously to grow in response to the increased need. Congratulations, Mark, and our best wishes to you and to the many dedicated Board members, staff, volunteers, donors and partners who with you are making a real difference in the lives of those you serve.

The Team at Kittlman

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