BOULDER — Jennifer Leosz of Boulder likes that she can collaborate with and share decision-making with her co-CEO, Dixie Casford, at Mental Health Partners.
“Having the strength of two individuals being able to look at different sides of things and having different perspectives and experiences lends itself to solid decision-making,” Leosz said. “There’s a high level of accountability in a model like this, because everything is shared in terms of that accountability. You’re holding yourself to not wanting to let your co-CEO down.”
Leosz and Casford became co-CEOs in January 2020, following a long line of women in the leadership role and after serving as co-COOs since 2018.
“They have been a huge inspiration for me in this work. It really has been amazing to experience, learn and grow and be mentored by the past leaders,” Leosz said. “They’re very strong, compassionate, hard-working and huge advocates for those experiencing mental health issues and trying to pave a better way for services and opportunities.”
Leosz and Casford suggested the joint role when leadership changed at Mental Health Partners, a nonprofit serving Boulder and Broomfield counties with mental and behavioral health services through a crisis center and residential and outpatient programs. The two conducted research on co-CEO models and found the primary reason for their success to be the teamwork, collaboration and shared decision-making they encourage.
“I love working with Jen,” Casford said. “She is somebody who works hard who can push me in ways that really increase my strengths and abilities and is just a great team player. She enables me to be just a better leader in lots of different ways. … What makes Jen a great leader, I think, is her integrity and compassion. Even if people don’t agree with her, there’s a genuineness about her that’s about trust.”
Casford and Leosz believed they both could do the job well individually and that it wasn’t about filling their individual deficits but instead about combining their strengths. They started in the position right in the middle of the pandemic, followed by the Table Mesa shooting and the Marshall Fire.
“Having some of that shared decision-making helped us through a lot of crises and challenges for our community,” Leosz said.
The pandemic brought about an increase in mental health needs but also destigmatized getting the needed help, Leosz said. She and Casford took on the challenge of helping create better access and health equity in the community to address the rising need and to improve outcomes, she said.
This involves a focus on whole health considering the whole person, such as the social determinants of health being met like housing, food and transportation.
“If somebody is experiencing homelessness or is unhoused, it’s hard to focus on substance abuse or mental health needs,” Leosz said. “Every individual is complex based on genetics, history and experiences. As a whole person when they’re challenged with a period of being unhoused or unemployed, it can influence and impact their mental health, and their wellbeing is put at risk. That’s why we look at whole-person care.”
MHP is expanding delivery of services, such as by opening another service clinic in the mountain community of Nederland and offering a digital client portal. It’s also partnering with other organizations for developing and implementing programs and providing cross referrals, including with the Longmont Youth Center, the Broomfield FISH Food Bank & Family Resource Center and OUR Center in Longmont.
MHP focuses on reaching clients, but also on attracting and being supportive of the workforce so that employees can learn and grow and improve their performance, especially when their jobs are challenging and require a large number of administrative tasks.
“We’re working to create a culture of belonging,” Leosz said. “We’re revisiting policies, procedures and workflow and structures and looking at our hiring practices. Are our practices supporting belonging, exclusivity and equity?”
Leosz is in her 22nd year at MHP. Her undergraduate degree is in psychology, followed by earning a degree as a licensed clinical social worker in 1995 from Boston College. She immediately moved to Colorado, working for one year in an adult treatment program at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health and for five years as a team leader of an adolescent treatment program at Devereux Cleo Wallace in Westminster. She then joined MHP, serving as director of child and family intensive services from 2005 to 2009, then became director of outpatient and family intensive services until 2013, followed by deputy chief clinical officer until 2015. That year, she became vice president of clinical care, supporting clinical programs across the agency, a role she filled until she was named co-COO.
Through her various roles, Leosz was able to lead small teams in support of MHP’s overall vision, executing and operationalizing what needed to be done. She learned how to navigate and support different conversations and decisions to come to the best procedures, she said.
“It is around problem-solving, leading teams to drive toward strategy and developing programming for clients, and participating in developing and implementing programs with our partners,” Leosz said. “A big piece of that is relationships and really listening to teams and the staff, hearing what is going well and what isn’t. Our employees and teams are absolutely inspirational to me every day.”
Leosz’s initial inspiration was her parents, a mother who was a nurse and father, a child psychologist.
“That is a lot of what drove me, seeing what they did and the impact they had on people’s health,” Leosz said, adding that she, too, wanted to “be able to provide that hope for people.”