Virus Diaries: Chenal Family Therapy Founder Encourages Execs to Get Vulnerable

Virus Diaries: Chenal Family Therapy Founder Encourages Execs to Get Vulnerable
Ken Clark, founder and practice director of Chenal Family Therapy, says executives need to be able to talk honestly in times of crisis. (Michael Pirnique)
Editor's Note: This is the 12th in a series of short features on small businesses responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Ken Clark's business has already taken a relatively mild hit, and it will get worse when unemployment begins to cost people their insurance coverage.

But unlike too many other business executives, Clark already knows techniques for navigating the psychological stress of making business decisions during a crisis. That's because he's the founder and practice director of Chenal Family Therapy, which operates 15 counseling clinics from Jonesboro to Texarkana.

"No. 1," he said Tuesday, "recognize that you are not alone."

Business executives don't have the luxury of venting their fears and frustrations in front of employees, Clark said. Even with peers, they generally feel compelled to "pretend that everything is OK." 

But executives need to be able to talk honestly. And the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented crisis impacting every business at the same time, "may be one of the best times I've ever seen when the vulnerability may come without too much prodding," he said.

Business stress is generally cumulative, building up until it is unmanageable. Executives start to feel that "nobody gets this, I'm all alone, I give up — that's when people implode," Clark said. 

"A lot of leaders don't process with somebody until it's too late … It's why we see mental health is a substantial issue [in the C-suite]. It's not an immune class."

And in relatively normal times, Clark recommends talk therapy and peer-to-peer programs like Vistage, of which he is a member. 

"I use the dentist analogy," he said, although dentist friends object. "I tell people you are going to the dentist either way. You can go for checkups or for a root canal…. I think that's true with leaders and vulnerability. The wrong time to learn whether I can open up is when I can't make payroll."

But right now, this is what he wants every business executive to hear: "I need you to realize that if your business fails in this environment, it's not on you. Everybody's dying to hear that if this thing goes south, I'm not the only one."

Chenal Family Therapy, which Clark founded in 2010, has 110 employees, most of them therapists. The clinics saw an average of 1,350 clients per week before the coronavirus pandemic, which initially slashed that number to about 900.

His administrative team of between 15 and 20 already worked from home — "They didn't skip a beat, other than having kids underfoot." — but the therapists and their patients had to adopt new techniques. 

"Then we did a full-court press. We gave everyone the option to work from home and every client the option of telemedicine," which he said insurance carriers have done "a monumentally good job" of embracing.

Now the caseload has popped back to 1,225-1,250 a week, Clark said, but he doesn't expect that to last. "As people lose their jobs and clamp down [on expenses] they'll stop coming to their appointments," he said. 

And that will lead to consolidation in the industry, he predicted. "I think you'll see group practices form and group practices be absorbed."

What won't change, he said, is the need for therapy. "People from CEOs to parking lot attendants need someone to talk to," Clark said.