He Had Me at Stigma: An Interview with Gary Mendell

I heard Gary Mendell, the Founder and CEO of Shatterproof, speak a few weeks back at Liberation, Medecision’s annual healthcare summit. Gary spoke just after I facilitated a panel about BOLD leadership, the kind required for the transformative change facing the healthcare industry. But I didn’t have a chance to meet him. Probably a good thing; I’m not sure I could have said a word in that moment! Like every other person in that room, I was moved to tears, speechless, emotions tinged with some personal guilt. Guilt about the stigma that persists in our society today in the way we speak of and act on (or not!) addictions of any kind. The stigma that persists because we individually shy away from addressing these challenges like any other treatable disease. Even when it touches our own families and friends, and in some cases, like the current opioid epidemic, threatens entire communities.

Gary’s main point is that addiction is a disease that should be – and CAN be – treated and solved as such. It deserves the same collective effort that we see making major advancements in so many other areas: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and more.

But Gary is not just about emotion. He has a vision. He has a plan. He is adaptive and willing to learn his way and adjust his plan to make progress. Gary has the courage, personal mission, will and perseverance to drive toward large-scale success in curbing, and one day eliminating, addiction. Not just the stigma surrounding it but the whole system that fails people when they need help the most.

In other words, Gary is a BOLD leader. As I listened to him tell his story and share his approach, I knew that – when I found my voice again 😉 – I wanted to speak to him. We had the opportunity to connect just a few days ago.

Before Shatterproof, Gary was a very successful business entrepreneur and brings his expertise from that world to this enterprise. According to his bio, Gary “spent decades as an entrepreneur. He founded HEI Hotels & Resorts, a multi-billion-dollar company that oversees a portfolio of approximately 80 first class hotels. He raised and managed $1.2 billion in discretionary capital from some of the most prestigious universities in the United States and managed more than $2 billion in assets. He is also a former trustee and president of Starwood Lodging Trust. That business-world experience gives him a unique perspective in running a nonprofit organization like Shatterproof.”  

When we connected, I told Gary that while he totally won me over to the cause, I was really interested in talking about his approach. What he has built and continues to build through Shatterproof is a perfect case example of BOLD leadership in action. BOLD stands for Believe, Open, Learn, Do and is also a definition:

A BOLD leader is someone who thinks and acts beyond the existing organizational limits, is imaginative, and is willing to take risks to get rewarding results.

Let me take you on a walk through our conversation, and I’ll show you what I mean:

BELIEVE: Gary’s son Brian committed suicide after years of struggling with drug addiction and the associated stigma that surrounds anyone with an addiction. (You can and should read his story here or watch a video here.)  When this happened, Gary started to search for answers and came to several key conclusions that drove his belief that something not only must be done but could be done to change the way we deal with drug addiction today. Through his research and conversations with leaders in healthcare, academia, government, and other non-profit organizations, Gary came to believe, and wrote on his office wall, three things:

  • BIG: This is too big to ignore; 25 million Americans are currently affected
  • CHILDREN: 80% are children, addicted before their 18th birthday
  • TRAGIC: Literally tens of billions of dollars have been spent developing excellent research – but we were not using what we know

Looking at a picture of Brian, Gary felt his son reaching out to him – ‘Dad, let’s do this”. He crossed out TRAGIC and replaced it with HOPE!

What Gary knew from his extensive research was that addiction lacked a leading national organization – like the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association – and without it, all good efforts are underfunded and somewhat scattered.

With this belief reinforced at every turn, he also knew he had the business skills to do something for addiction that hadn’t been done before.

OPEN: Now the question was how. Fortunately, because of his business success, Gary had the financial foundation and organization in place to step away from his business operations. As an aside, he noted that he had established and built a successful hotel franchise having never spent a day working in a hotel! Surely, he could apply his same skills to solving this challenge in a field he was just coming to understand.

So, he did the logical thing – he spent the next 18 months building a business plan, reaching out to people for input, and figuring out how to launch the equivalent of the “American Cancer Society for drug addiction.”

And then he said, “My first plan was wrong!” His plan was about stopping people from becoming addicted with a goal to cut the population of addicted in half. However, once the website launched, they were overwhelmed with parents reaching out to them urging them to help with their child’s issue – not prevention, but treatment. Treatment for those already suffering was the urgent need.

This is when the openness of a BOLD leader is important. Think about it. You’ve put your whole personal life on the line, stepped away from your business, built a solid and funded business plan – and had to admit that it was wrong. Too often, (sadly) you see leaders locked into their position, refusing to listen, learn and open themselves up to a new idea. Not Gary. The clear signal from the marketplace was that treatment equally important to prevention, and so he broadened his plan to include both.  Shatterproof has been a lead advocate in policy changes related to the safer prescribing of opioids, and is now leading a six-point plan to transform the treatment system.

LEARN: Through their first six years in operation, Shatterproof now has learned how to excel and impact four key areas of focus. They know they need progress in each of these areas to solve the addiction crisis:

  • POLICY: The approach here is to “learn from the best and do advocacy right,” which is exactly what they have done and continue to do.
  • EVIDENCE: Gary and team discovered that there is tons and tons of excellent research, but little of it was being effectively used. They knew the Surgeon General’s November 2016 report would be a big deal – bringing all the research together. Shatterproof could use it as a catalyst and, “one chapter at a time,” execute what was recommended.
  • MEASUREMENT: Like any successful business, having a crisp set of goals along with progress and outcome measures to evaluate success is essential. The Shatterproof Annual Report measures progress in four areas: “changing laws, helping families, transforming treatment, and saving lives.” And, finally, importantly:
  • STIGMA: During his talk at Liberation, Gary explained, as effective as their accomplishments have been, all along we’ve known that the true key to our mission, the ultimate change that must occur, is to change the way that people think about this disease. To address and eliminate the stigma unjustly associated with those addicted that causes so much shame, so much loneliness, and ultimately, so much tragedy. That it is why he had enlisted the help of one of the world’s leading strategic consulting firms and studied the issue of stigma and developed an evidence informed plan to significantly reduce it,  and one day eliminate it. Launch of a comprehensive, national initiative is planned for early 2020.

DO: Not much needs to be said here, I would guess, to convince you that Gary is a doer. He gets things done. His comments here were simple and perfect, “Get the 45 things down to 10 things that really matter – and execute!”

As we were ending our conversation, he told me he was on a train, on his way home from another keynote presentation. There is no doubt in my mind that addiction has met its match in Gary Mendell.

For our families, friends and communities – thank you, Gary, for turning “tragic into hope.”

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.