David Burnett hates the phrase "case management." For one, he works with people, not cases. And two, he doesn't manage. What he tries to do is support people to make their own decisions — whether that's his staff or the people his agency serves.
Burnett is the CEO of Reliance House, a nonprofit group founded in 1976 as a daytime drop-in center for mental health patients. As its first full-time employee when he joined in 1978, he's seen the agency transform. And he's transformed right along with it, dramatically, when it comes to his style of leadership.
Founded by John Moroski, a master's degree candidate in social welfare at the time, Reliance House now employs 200 people at its 15 locations, serving about 800 adults annually in eastern Connecticut — predominantly in New London County — with supportive housing, employment services, education and social rehabilitation services, among other programs, for people with mental health, addiction and developmental disabilities.
"If there's anything I've been successful at, its finding and keeping good people," said Burnett, 68.
Burnett is the winner of the leadership award for mid-size employers in the Courant/FOX CT Top Workplaces awards for 2013 — a distinction he might not have envisioned in 1978. Back then, the Reliance House site was a "nasty, single-room-occupancy hotel" where patients would drop in, drink coffee and eat doughnuts. It was a grim job, dealing with released patients, many from the old Norwich Hospital, who didn't know how to manage their symptoms or medicine on their own.
But he was drawn to the work.
The Mystic native started on his bachelor's degree at Springfield College, but after flunking out in his freshman year, he moved to California to race motorcycles. He spent eight years racing, during which time he obtained a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from San Diego State University in 1970.
After an unhappy stint working for a gas company in Norwich, Burnett went back for his master's degree in psychology from Springfield College.
Following graduation, he got a job for $50 a week teaching high school dropouts. It was his first experience in the social services field — and he loved it.
"I followed my heart. I did not follow money," he said. "And I say to my kids, follow your heart and money will take care of itself."
At its inception, the organization complemented services from the old Norwich Hospital. As hospitals downsized and closed, Reliance House's functions grew. In 1978, its operating budget was $15,500 — including Burnett's salary and all the expenses. Now, its annual budget — funded primarily by federal grants and state contracts — is about $13 million.
Burnett has found that appreciating and respecting his employees makes them work "like crazy."
"It's just amazing how much more a person will strive on behalf of an agency if they're appreciated and respected as opposed to driven and pushed," he said.
But that's a lesson he's learned over time. He recalls that his leadership style was once one of micromanaging and monitoring hours.
"I have changed 180 degrees. It took ages, and in the initial part of it, that period, I felt like I wasn't doing my job," he said.
Instead of breathing down the necks of his employees, he began to loosen the reins — which to him felt a whole lot like slacking off until he realized that it was more effective.
"You get so much more by trusting people than you get by restricting and limiting and sending that other message, whatever it is," he said. "People like to be trusted and respected, and they will work. Oh my God, people in this agency work. Hard. And happily. And creatively."
Reliance House operates on the community model, helping people live independently rather than be hospitalized — a model hailed by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which provides grants to the nonprofit group.
"The community model is one of the few times in social work where both the service recipient and the taxpayers win," Burnett said. "Institutional care breeds more institutional care because individuals are not challenged."
Reliance House runs the programs for an 18-apartment residence for veterans, established in 2011 by the Jewett City American Legion and the American Legion Veteran Housing Initiative.
The agency also takes part in the town of Norwich's Friday arts program, using its office as a gallery space to exhibit works from the community, staff and patients — allowing interaction with the community as a way to battle the stigma of mental illnesses.
Reliance House employees say that Burnett understands that the best way for the nonprofit to care for the people it serves is to treat its workers well.
"Finding people is just the luck of the draw," Burnett said. "Keeping people has to do with treating people with respect, getting as much money as you possibly can to folks, treating people's family lives as the primary focus of one's life and respecting that. Work comes second and sometimes people need time for family."
The company has a "very flat" pay scale, in which the highest salary in the agency is less than three times the lowest salary.
Salary increases are based on tenure, he adds. "If there's a person with more years, they'll get paid more. That's part of my belief that all functions are tough and hard work and should be equally respected."
Burnett has been married for 35 years to Nancy, a retired social worker. They have two daughters and a son, as well as one granddaughter and a grandson on the way.
"One of things about this agency is we don't pretend work is the be all, end all. We're very much interested in supporting people and their outside interests, and mine happens to be racing bicycles."
Last June, Burnett took part in the 3,000-mile Race Across America bicycling event from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., with a relay team of three other men. Their average age was 70. Logging in at six days, 13 hours and 13 minutes, their trip time beat the record for the 70-to-79 age group by 27 hours.
Respecting employee personal time is just one way that Reliance House puts its principles into action.
"We at Reliance House are all about dignity and respect, which can be boiled down to love for another human being," Burnett said. "We recognize that it if we don't live those values amongst ourselves as staff, that those values will never get transmitted to the folks we serve."
He added, "It's funny, when I go to statewide meetings, I love to watch all the executives in the room squirm when I talk about love."