Motivated to go the extra mile: a passion for improving the lives of people with disabilities
This interview marks the sixth installment in the Making an Impact series — a collection of profiles and articles introducing some of our best and brightest leaders. Throughout the year, we will spotlight individuals who are making tremendous impacts in the government sectors we serve.
Michelle L. Laisure, M.A., Project Manager, OPWDD Project
Ms. Laisure oversees a dedicated and highly trained team that provides assessments for persons with developmental disabilities for the state of New York Office of Persons with Development Disabilities (OPWDD). Since COVID 19, Ms. Laisure has been instrumental in helping quickly pivot the in-person assessment process to a Telehealth modality, with much success.
We sat down with her to learn more about her passion to work with persons with disabilities, overcoming project challenges, and her unique approach to leadership and mentorship.
What most excites you most about working in health and human services?
I find it deeply inspiring going to work every day knowing that our assessments have a huge impact on the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s inspiring – and it keeps you humble. There’s a tremendous obligation to get it right. I’m excited to support an innovative assessment process that encourages a person with disabilities to lead a conversation about their hopes and dreams -- many for the very first time.
How did you launch your career in health and human services?
Making a positive impact has always been my plan. I earned my Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Services and started my career as a counselor for persons with hearing impairment – and from the very start, I have always wanted to work with persons with disabilities and support their efforts to obtain gainful employment through higher education and job training. Later, my interest in public policy led me to work in Medicaid to manage the uninsured safety net program for the state of Colorado. I came to Maximus in 2011 to work on a project supporting the Social Security Administration on the Ticket to Work program, a program that offers free and voluntary career development for people who receive Social Security disability benefits.
Take the time to understand the details, expectations, numbers, community providers, and most of all the client’s needs. A good manager always tries to think of next steps before the client asks and stays prepared for the unexpected.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
I thrive on navigating the unexpected hurdles that always present themselves in project operations. Working through problems and resolving issues with technology, getting quantitative, meeting with staff, working across disparate departments, and engaging community providers – I enjoy doing whatever it takes to turn the corner to solve unanticipated issues that can arise at any moment.
Ultimately, I see most challenges as an opportunity for growth. When I consider a given project or process, I am always looking for ways to realize greater efficiencies and better outcomes. My team and I spend a lot of time at the white board to stay on top of risk, and look for ways to improve processes and workflows. Data and technology are only part of the story. Innovation can provide the framework for new and exciting ways to tackle hurdles – but only when you have clarity and perspective into the people and the processes. Moreover, with a strong holistic approach and a team that wants to exceed all expectations – great challenges lead to greater impact.
What people in your professional or personal life have inspired you and why?
I am truly fortunate to have worked alongside exceptional individuals. I worked at the Medicaid Office in Colorado when we first transitioned from fee-for-service to managed care. The Medicaid Director there was a real trailblazer. I especially admired his commitment to staying personally involved in the transition, and the way he listened and safeguarded the community’s concerns during that challenging time. Listening and inclusion were a huge part of the project’s success, and the lesson has really stuck with me.
What is your approach to leadership and mentoring?
You have to know your project backwards and forwards. However – performance data will never tell you the whole story. Take it on board, and certainly use it to provide support to outcomes and performance standards. BUT – never forget that the team will continue to grow. You want to empower them to strive to reach their goals and produce outstanding results.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
My strongest advice is to make sure that you thoroughly understand your program from all angles. Take the time to understand the details, expectations, numbers, community providers, and most of all the client’s needs. A good manager always tries to think of next steps before the client asks and stays prepared for the unexpected.
I’m reminded of the book Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters who states, “…be able to cope during uncertain times,” which is exactly what is happening now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay rational. Get clear about what matters and what needs to be done. Then you have to get things moving – so write it out, rehearse it, draw a picture and rewrite it until it becomes a plan worth sharing with the others.