Q&A with Laurie Nafziger ’78: Oaklawn CEO reflects on work, leadership and gender

By Twila Albrecht for Goshen Commons


An interview with Laurie Neumann Nafziger ’78, president and CEO of Oaklawn, an organization that provides mental health and addiction services to individuals of all ages.

What did you study in college to get to where you are now?

At Goshen College, I got a bachelor in social work. You know you wonder sometimes why you make the decisions you do. Back then I would say there wasn’t much talk, at home or at school, about different career possibilities.

Somehow I landed on social work. I wonder today why I even chose that. The picture in my brain of me working was Laurie as a professional. This got clearer when I got to graduate school, but I think I always saw myself in an administrative position.

Where was grad school for you?

I went to Western Michigan. I really, really liked grad school because it was focused in a way that my undergrad wasn’t. So by the time I went to grad school, the MSW made sense; that’s a master’s in social work. I had the choice here either to take a clinical track or an administrative track.

What, if anything, would you change in terms of the path you took?

If I could do it all over I might have gotten an MBA.

How would that improve or influence the rest of your career?

In running Oaklawn, I’m aware that my understanding of financial areas is limited. I’ve got good people around me and I can always get it and follow along when financial information is presented, and I know a lot more than I used to, but I couldn’t get there without more capable people around me. So, I’d have an MBA instead of an MSW.

You’ve spent nearly 20 years in various other jobs at Oaklawn. What did those include?

It was kind of interesting; I had done one of my graduate placements at Oaklawn so I met some people there. Later Oaklawn called me and said, “We have a two-week job for you to write a grant. Do you want to do that?” And I was like, “Sure, I can do that.” So I wrote the grant and then we were successful and got the grant. It was a planning grant for a student health center. Then when it was time to implement the grant, they said, “Do you want to do the planning for this student health center?”

So that was a part-time job for a year. And then actually from there Oaklawn said, “Do you want to work part time indefinitely?” Along the way they said, “We need somebody to supervise the social workers.” Then I was VP of child and adolescent services for a while; then I was chief operating officer, COO, and then executive VP. Near the end I was starting to be positioned as having a shot for the CEO position but it took a while. I didn’t start at Oaklawn imagining to be the CEO; that emerged slowly.

Talk a little bit about role models and mentors. Or would you say you were more self-motivated?

That’s a good question. I’ll talk about both because on the one hand I am driven and focused and disciplined, and I’m a hard worker, just naturally. I mean the big joke here is my mantra that “Work is good!”

“Saving is good. Work is good!” (Smiles).

I really do believe that because I find work so satisfying. Often the people who succeed are the ones who are willing to work harder than the others. It’s that simple. I would also say I had some good mentors along the way.

What’s an ordinary day for you?

I usually leave at 7 and then I’m home by 6. I work through lunch or it’s a working lunch. And that feels about right. And the other thing, and this is so much better than the old days, with my computer I can be here at home with the TV on but be in my email and in my world. That doesn’t feel like work to me. I’m also at that point in my life where the kids are gone – huge, huge difference!

A really important thing I do every evening is to prepare myself for the next day, organize myself. I keep a running to-do list and I know exactly which of them are for today and which are for tomorrow. It is amazing what you can get done and just be really focused the next day. And that doesn’t feel like work to me. Organization is fun!

>> Read the rest of this article on the Goshen Commons website.