Dr. Andrew Sapp is founder and CEO of Cherry Gulch, a therapeutic boarding school for middle school age boys. In 2010, Cherry Gulch received the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award for Idaho.
This American Psychological Association award recognizes businesses demonstrating a commitment to employee health and well-being, while enhancing organizational performance. Businesses receiving this award have a distinct advantage in their ability to attract and retain exceptional employees, even under difficult circumstances.
Cherry Gulch is a high-level therapeutic boarding school. They have a maximum of about 47 students and very close to 70 employees, making Cherry Gulch the largest private employer in their county. Cherry Gulch is located in Emmett, Idaho, which is about 40 minutes from the town of Eagle (population 21,000), and about 60 minutes to Boise.
Q&A with Dr. Sapp
Sabrina: Andy, can you share some of your leadership insights with us?
Andy: When I started Cherry Gulch, I wanted to help these boys who were struggling and get them on the right track, and in turn help their families. But I hadn't really thought about the employees. Although we're certainly here for kids with challenges, and not employees with challenges, it's been really wonderful to be able to create jobs and just be able to help our community in that way. Not only do we have the families who have entrusted us with their sons that are depending on us, but we also have the employees’ families who are entrusting us with their income and financial stability through the work that they do at Cherry Gulch.
One thing I think that's important to realize is that although we're passionate about helping the kids, it is stressful, especially for our direct care staff who are in the trenches. The burnout rate is about 2 years for people working this field.
As you can imagine, not every boy is happy to be here when they arrive. They've all got different challenges. Some of the boys have 8 different diagnoses. They have a variety of emotional and behavioral problems. The staff take the brunt of that.
So I think we've done an especially good job in retention. The first teacher we hired before we ever had any students at all, is still with us. The first direct care staff we hired also is still with us. He's our program coordinator now. One of our night staff has been with us since the very beginning, and he moved from Michigan to take the job.
A lot of the employees stay with us. We're unique in what we have to offer. It's a beautiful location. We've got views of the river and a reservoir. There are hills around the school. It's a really peaceful, beautiful setting.
We've also invested a lot to make it a high-quality school. We've earned an Excellence in Education award the last 6 years in a row for being outstanding within our field. So not only are we outstanding within our state, we really are outstanding in our field. We've had students seeking us out from Oman, the Middle East, Paris, Malaysia, Guatemala, Canada and Germany and various countries.
Our employees take pride in being a part of that. They are proud to be working in a school providing excellent quality of care. We really care about the people we serve. The staff can see the results that we're having. So that feels good. There's a lot of internal rewards that they get from just knowing that they're doing good.
Sabrina: Take us back to the beginning when you started the school.
Andy: I started the school when there was nothing here but dirt and sage brush. We started out of a double-wide trailer and slowly built from there. I was actually living in a 100 year old homesteader's cabin with just the things that I could haul in my car. There was no kitchen. There was no bathroom, no insulation, no phone, no TV, and no internet. I ate cans of green beans and cooked on a little barbecue grill.
Literally, I had to dig a hole behind a little tree for the bathroom. I'd shower under a hose. So that was hard. I joined the gym just because it was getting colder and I wanted a warm place to take a shower, not necessarily because I wanted to work out.
What I learned, beyond how to start something on a shoestring, is how much I need other people. I can't do it alone. And I can't get too full of myself and think that I know it all because I don't. There's a ton I don't know. Listening to other people, helping them feel important and a part of the process, giving them credit—it helps them be more motivated, more willing to share and more invested in the vision.
The vision was mine. The staff are a part of that vision and the building process. The school is better than I expected it to be because of all the great people who work here. I recruit people with strengths I don't have and they put their fingerprints on the school, making it even better than it could have been otherwise.
I realize I can't do it alone. Although it's not a big school, there's a lot of moving parts. We do a lot of different things here that are innovative and cutting edge and comprehensive. It's challenging to manage all of that. We allow the employees to have some say and to put in their two cents on things that they think would improve the school.
Sabrina: As a successful entrepreneur growing one business from the start up phase to maturity, and then going on to your next venture, what is one key life lesson that you've learned?
Andy: I want the people here to feel like they are owners. They’ve helped build it. Even though this is a small school, there are too many moving parts. There's no way to do it alone. I need the team. They complement me. And they've helped greatly. Although they all deserve probably more than I'm able to pay them, there's other ways that I can show appreciation and help them feel inspired to keep doing what they're doing even when it's difficult.
And that goes right down to hiring a mentor. I had no business experience whatsoever. I don't have a business degree. But I've gotten an MBA through real life experience, and through the one-on-one coaching that I’ve received from my mentor as employee or budgeting problems pop up. I have a particular weakness for numbers. Having my mentor’s help with our budgets, the cash flow, the capital expenditures, the employee raises–all of those things have been a great value to me.
Ultimately, I want us to be able to build something that's going to outlast my own life. I want to be able to leave that legacy behind of spending my time and energy on something that's bigger than me and that matters to more than just me.
And I want the staff to feel that same way. Whether you're here for a year or 10 years, we want you to leave the school better than you found it. We want you to know that you've had a part of not only helping the boys that are here now, but the boys that will be here 50 years from now when none of the current people are still with us.
It’s about building a team by honoring them and not micro-managing them, providing a structure for growth, and having that succession plan so that nobody is irreplaceable, yet everybody is valued.
Sabrina: What have you learned about growing a strong team?
Andy: By picking the right people to be involved, it's been wonderful because we're on the same page. They share the vision. They let me do what I do and to carry out that vision because there's a level of trust there.
Although I want to do as much as I can for the staff, I'm not here for sick staff. If there are staff who are just not pulling their weight and don't catch the vision, they're a liability to me. They decrease the quality of care and the overall good that we can do. So I need to get rid of those people. And I'll do it with a heart of peace and do it as pleasantly as possible.
If they're not catching the vision and aren't teachable, they've got to go. Some of the early partners that I had hired, the first executive director and the first program director, didn’t work out.
I had one person tell me she had contributed more than anybody else had to the school. She questioned why I was giving her a performance improvement plan when she's so great. And she did do a lot. But we had grown to the place where she was doing too much micromanaging and squashing the growth of the people under her.. Because she felt she was so important, she was no longer willing to listen to my guidance. It was starting to work against the vision.
The same thing happened with another guy that was with us right from the beginning. He contributed in a lot of ways, but he felt that he should have more of the company and that he was more important than I was, that he had worked harder than I did and that we were successful because of him. He started to actually sabotage me and say things to the other owners to try to decrease my credibility, trying to recruit people to work against me.
Another example was this particular individual who wanted us to spend an extra $3.6M on more property. We already have 220 acres. We're in the process of building these buildings, so we had a significant amount of debt. But he wanted us to buy more property. And I politely said, “You know, you and the other owners, you can go ahead and do that. I'm not going to stop you. But I don't want to be a part of that. I don't want Cherry Gulch's money going toward that, because I don't think it's the right time for that. I don't think we need more. And I think it's going to be too expensive and make us less stable.”
He got mad at me and started yelling and turning red and saying, “I should just slap you. You're sitting there in your chair and you think you know what you're doing…”. Clearly he was bullying me. We would have gone bankrupt if I had chosen to make that decision.
There's a point where those people are truly tearing at the fabric of the school and the business. No matter how difficult it is at that point, there's a time when you need to part ways with those people that can become a cancer in the organization. These are not bad people that I'm talking about. But they began doing more harm than good. And they needed to go at that point.
Yet at the same time, I put up with some of that because I also needed them. So there is that point of having the confidence to say, “I can find somebody else to do this and somebody who's going to have a better attitude.” That better attitude is going to invade the rest of the staff.
Sabrina: One of the things that really stands out is that you were making those healthy decisions to let those people go at a time when you were growing and in a really vulnerable position as a newer business. But to make that decision back then, took a lot of courage.
Andy: It was difficult. And also I know there were times when my partners were confused as to what was really going on. They wondered, “Is Andy the problem? Because it seems like Andy's the problem.” And yet I had majority control of the company, so there wasn't much they could do at that point. I didn't want to alienate my partners. It's been important to me all along to not exercise that majority, to be able to be more diplomatic about letting them all be heard, because they do have something to offer, and I do value them, and I am grateful to them for helping me make it happen.
But ultimately I think that they gained more and more confidence as they saw how I handled those situations and managed that. Part of what was so difficult is that the people I'm talking about, some of them were 20 years older than I was. Now that I'm a little bit older and it's more established and that's less of an issue.
I think that lots of other small growing businesses will experience that, too. When you're trying to honor everybody and value everybody, sometimes you get people who let that go to their head and think that it's them that's doing everything. And then they get envious and greedy and want more and more, more than a small business owner can give.
At that point it's important to be able to move beyond that and get somebody new that will have some gratitude for the position they've been given and have more energy to move the ball forward.
Sabrina: I really appreciate you sharing that, because many business leaders go through similar experiences. If you start questioning yourself, you can have a crisis of confidence and undermine the business by keeping people around who are sabotaging the business. I hear you speaking to this fine balance between doing your own self-reflection to see what is your responsibility in a situation and also recognizing when the other person really needs to go.
Andy: Yeah. Remaining strong and confident, yet humble. That was difficult. It was scary for me. I did fear that things would fall apart. But it had gotten to a place where things would have fallen apart anyways because it just wasn't working anymore.
More to Come…
Cherry Gulch has implemented a variety of best practices to motivate and retain their employees, as well as attract top talent. Watch for the Part 2 to learn more.