Dave Burnett

Dave Burnett of Reliance House at its Norwich headquarters. (Rick Hartford / Hartford Courant / August 9, 2013)

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.