When Toni Pergolin came to Bancroft Neurohealth in 2004, the then-120-year-old organization was on the verge of closing its doors. Pergolin, the newly-hired chief financial officer, took a number of financial and operational steps to stave off bankruptcy. But what about the people? Clients and staff must have been anxious to the max.
"There was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anxiety that was valid," Pergolin said in our recent Leadership Agenda interview, published in Monday's Inquirer. "What I really made a point to do was be visible. I’d be out in the programs. I’d be talking to staff. We had family meetings."
There was a lot to do. The Haddonfield-based organization serves adults and children with autism, developmental disabilities and brain injuries. About a third of their clients live on campus. Some have lived there for 70 years, nearly their whole lives. Closing the doors would hurt these people, no doubt about it.
She thinks that staff, clients and their families really just wanted to see her. They wanted to hear what was going on, and they wanted to get the sense of her as a person. "I think there’s value in that. It was time consuming. There was a lot of value to that."
I felt almost stupid, then, about asking her philosophy about "power suits." Remember the days that female executives were criticized for looking like men? On the day I interviewed her, Pergolin was wearing a bright red suit, accented with brightly-polished gold jewelry and high heels. Great makeup, great hair -- a little bit of a Lady Di look. It may have been a stupid question, but Pergolin gave it a great answer, and it related to the importance of her physical presence in a time of crisis.
"I like red. I wear red a lot," Pergolin said. "I wear a suit every single day. I think it’s important that a CEO look like a CEO. That may be different for every company, but in my company, I wear a suit every day.
"Why is that important?," I asked.
"I think I have to look the part," she said. "People want a leader that looks like a leader. People want a leader. They feel better with a leader. I can be very personal with people. I know a lot of people’s names. I know their kids. They know my kids. I’m nice. But, I’m always the leader in everybody’s eyes. I think that’s important."