OCCUPATION: Commissioner, Clinton County Department of Social Services
EDUCATION: B.A. in Business Administration from the Citadel, M.A. in Business Management from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri.
FAMILY: Two adult children
The Clinton County Department of Social Services is fortunate to be able to boast almost three decades of solid leadership under the direction and supervision of a dynamic local duo. Current Commissioner John Redden took the reins when his long-time mentor, Jay LePage, retired six years ago. Redden was born and raised in Plattsburgh and is a product of the Campus School, an experimental grade school offered by SUNY Plattsburgh in the 1960s and 1970s. After graduating from high school at the former Mount Assumption Institute, Redden followed the lead of his older brothers and attended college at the Citadel in South Carolina. Redden opted for the military school at the insistence of his father. He confided, “I was a bit of an unmotivated kid and my father felt it would be good for me.”
Following his college graduation, Redden joined the Air Force, where he served as a personnel officer and later a war plan officer for nine years. His military service took him to Alaska and Illinois, and gave him the opportunity to earn a Master’s degree in Business Management.
The early 1990s brought Redden back to Clinton County where he eventually became a case worker at the Department of Social Services. In 1993 Jay LePage became Commissioner of Social Services and six months later, he appointed Redden as the Deputy Commissioner. Fondly recalling his early years with LePage as a time of learning and struggling together, Redden said, “It was a fun time. I had only four years’ experience working in human services at the time; Jay had several years working at the Social Security Administration, and there we were, in leadership positions.”
Today, Redden runs the department which provides social services to nearly 25% of the population of Clinton County. The operation has 165 full time staff, including a core management team of five and a leadership team of eleven.
Following are excerpts from Strictly Business’ interview with John Redden.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
JR: I learned that my job is to make my bosses look good, and not have them get blindsided. Today, that means that if there is something I think a legislator might get a call about, I always try to call them first, to give them a heads’ up.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
JR: It would be Jay LePage. He taught me to slow down, not get too excited, to listen, and to ask the appropriate questions. People make mistakes and we can fix most of them. In day to day work, we just try to figure out how to make it right. He taught me patience, understanding, listening, and how to communicate better.
SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
JR: A quote that retired colleague, Fran Wright, had on her wall has always stuck with me. “Don’t judge an individual until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” In this business, we are working with people who are down and out. It is especially important that we don’t judge them. We don’t know why they are there or why they are behaving the way they are, or why they make the decisions they do. We just try to get them back on the right path and not judge them.
SB: Tell me about your approach to management and leadership?
JR: I am a firm believer in an open-door policy. It is open all the time. I try to take time out to answer questions from staff. I am very approachable and I look for staff input. Especially if we are looking at a change, we will form teams with front line staff, give them the boundaries and let them figure it out. We try to tell them where we want to be and ask them to figure out how to get us there. You get more staff buy-in that way. I also believe that it is important for organizations to allow for appropriate humor in the workplace to keep things in perspective and reduce some of the stress associated with the work.
SB: What are you most proud of?
JR: I am proud of the culture we have built in this agency. We are trying to build an organization where we focus on shared leadership and getting staff input. We practice servant leadership and appreciative inquiry – meaning you look for the good in people and don’t focus on the negative. It is human nature to tell people what they did wrong but we very seldom tell them what they did great. We try to run our agency focused on that.
I am extremely proud of the staff. There are 57 Social Service com- missioners in New York State and I am the luckiest one of all of them. I will put my staff up against anybody’s. I am also fortunate that our legislators understand what we do here. We try to control costs, and they pretty much trust us and let us do what needs to be done.
SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer?
JR: Be patient and listen more. When I was younger, I thought I knew it all but now I see that I actually didn’t know anything. Take it slow and steady, listen and remember that you don’t know it all, even though you think you do.
SB: What habits do you have that contribute to your success?
JR: I try to walk about three miles every day before work. I put my headset on and try to get my head on straight. I think about what I did well yesterday, and what I could have done better. I also think about what I will do in the day ahead. That puts me in a good frame of mind.
SB: Do you have any advice for people starting out in their career?
JR: My advice would be, ‘It takes all kinds.’ Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Everybody is different. Try to look for the strength in individuals and not focus on how they are different. Everybody carries strengths and nobody has the right to ruin somebody else’s day.
SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
JR: I will try anything once. I really like musicals. I have seen four Broadway musicals and loved every one of them. I am mesmerized by them. My favorite was Mamma Mia.
SB: If you could spend an evening and have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
JR: I never got to meet my grandfather, so I would pick him. He was a second-generation Irish immigrant, raised outside of the Keeseville Harkness area. He owned a store and had a funeral home in Plattsburgh. I would like the opportunity to hear what it was like back then in this area.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
JR: I like to garden. In the winter I hibernate. In the summertime, I like to do pretty much anything connected with the lake — swimming, sailing, boating, kayaking, jet skiing, snorkeling.
SB: What inspires you?
JR: Trying to help people succeed. We deal with people who have a lot of unaddressed trauma, so we try to put the supports in place to help families move forward. I always say that I would love to put us out of business. Then we would not have homelessness, hunger, child abuse, or neglect. That will never happen but we come in every day and we make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what keeps me going.
SB: Who is a local person you admire and why?
JR: Mike Carpenter, because of what he has done and what his visions are with both MHAB, a new life skills campus in the community, and with The Northeast Group. He has given struggling employees opportunities and support. He has a long-term vision for the MHAB facility that will do a lot for individuals in the area who need a helping hand. His vision is a good example of not giving up on people, which is what we do here in social services. I admire that. And, he puts his money where his mouth is.
SB: What should the North Country do today to ensure that we have a prosperous future?
JR: We need more safe, affordable housing and we need it now. Even a lot of the housing that has been started is not affordable. For a lot of low-income people, sub-standard housing is all they can afford. A lot of it is not safe housing — some places are almost uninhabitable but that is all there is for them.
It is easy to say that we need more jobs that provide a livable wage. That is a fine line, though. For employers it is difficult. In many cases if they give an employee a raise of even as little $1.50 per hour, they may lose their eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits. A raise can actually put an employee in a worse position.
SB: Where do you see an opportunity to break that cycle of a person’s reliance on benefits that are put at risk by a pay raise? JR: More funding from the state and federal governments for workforce development would increase the skill set of individuals. That way they can get higher paying jobs. We have a lot of factory work around here. Some of these jobs pay well and some don’t. We have groups like the Workforce Development Board addressing these issues but every year they lose more and more funding, so they cannot help as many people. Employers want more training for their staff.
SB: Do you have any parting words of wisdom to share?
JR: I think in society, the workplace and everywhere else, we don’t do a good enough job as far as treating people right. It is import- ant to focus on the positives that individuals bring to the table. We all have a purpose here, and we need to be able to follow that purpose.