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Stephen Ebbett of American Addiction Centers: “Show compassion for individual circumstances”

Show compassion for individual circumstances — Trying to understand each individual’s circumstances and pressures around isolation, childcare, spousal loss of income etc., and providing a caring and flexible approach to each person is a necessity during these unprecedented times. It’s also important to treat everyone with great respect and empathy as we all have different and unique […]

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Show compassion for individual circumstances — Trying to understand each individual’s circumstances and pressures around isolation, childcare, spousal loss of income etc., and providing a caring and flexible approach to each person is a necessity during these unprecedented times. It’s also important to treat everyone with great respect and empathy as we all have different and unique circumstances and challenges.


As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Ebbett, chief digital and marketing officer, American Addiction Centers

Stephen Ebbett has over 18 years of experience in leading digital marketing initiatives across a number of verticals. As chief digital and marketing officer of American Addiction Centers, he oversees the company’s traditional and digital marketing efforts to drive census and help solidify AAC’s position as a leader in the industry. Previously, Ebbett was the chief digital officer of Assurant Inc., where he was responsible for the company’s digital strategy and execution across all business lines and geographies. Link to full bio.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started in marketing as an intern back in 2001. I have been fortunate to grow my career and have always been passionate about marketing communications and data. My passion evolved with the digital revolution to a focus on digital channels and products. I am now fortunate to be the chief digital and marketing officer for American Addiction Centers, a leading provider of addiction treatment services for those struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction. I’m driven every day by the opportunity I have through AAC to do good in the world and to truly save lives.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

While I don’t have a funny lesson, I would say I learned a valuable lesson early on about not asking for help. I was often too proud. I thought people would believe that I was stupid or lazy.

But if you don’t ask for help, one thing is sure: You will never get it. Almost everything in life is a team effort. Sometimes you need to reach out and ask for help because the volume of work is too much, you don’t have the knowledge to complete the task or you lack the experience to be confident in knowing you are heading down the right path. Whenever you’re spreading too thin, reach out to others. Reach out to colleagues, partners, friends and family. People want to help and do not think less of you for asking. Ask for help.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Yes, I had a mentor who spotted something in me. He really helped shape my career and acted as a sponsor for finding me opportunities. We would meet every month for breakfast and I was the sponge learning from his wisdom and guidance.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our purpose and passion is to inspire wellness and long-term recovery to those suffering from addiction by empowering them through the highest quality, individualized and effective treatment founded on clinical excellence within a safe and supportive community. We are committed to transforming lives.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

The COVID-19 pandemic hit drug and alcohol treatment centers particularly hard. Some have even been forced to close or limit operations. I adopted the internal motto for my team of “accelerate in adversity,” which has established a rallying call for moving forward and faster than ever before despite the headwinds.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I never consider giving up. I remember our patients and their families who are facing difficult situations and dealing with active addiction and co-occurring mental health issues. Addiction is so destructive to lives and can ultimately be fatal. Even our worst days are better than what many with addiction and families experience everyday in terms of stress, depression, anguish and pain. Sometimes society ostracizes those struggling with addiction and no one fights for them. So, I put everything into perspective and that gives me the resolve to fight everyday for the wellbeing of our patients and to help them achieve a healthier and brighter future.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

The most critical role is to be focused, calm and communicate frequently. I would also add to “listen.” Listen to your teams and understand their challenges so that they know their voice is heard.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

It’s important to control the controllables and not try to control the uncontrollable. What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team? Be present for your team. Communicate with authenticity, transparency and compassion. Issue a vision and rallying cry that everyone can be motivated by and rally behind. For us, it was “accelerate in adversity.”

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Whatever the medium, communicate honestly. Treat staff and customers with respect and be transparent and honest with them. This will be appreciated and respected even if the news is difficult to hear.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Plan in shorter windows. It’s also important to be adaptable and flexible to changes from the external environment. Although COVID-19 has changed much, the core principles of business remain constant.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

My best advice is to be adaptable and then execute your adaptations quickly.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

The three most common mistakes are panicking, making rash decisions that are not grounded by data, and failing to adapt to the new environment because you assume it will not affect your business and that you are somehow different. To avoid those mistakes, stay calm and make sure that data guides your decisions.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Some of our strategies have included:

  • Ramping up our digital channels
  • Reducing non-essential spending to ensure we have a lean expense base
  • Becoming efficient in virtual working as an organization
  • Introducing very thorough COVID-19 safety standards to ensure our patients and staff feel we are doing everything possible to keep them safe and healthy.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

As I mentioned previously, addiction treatment centers were hit hard by the pandemic. To keep our team focused in spite of the headwinds, I established a rallying call, “accelerate in adversity.” This has kept the team moving forward and faster than ever before despite all of the challenges. During this time, I have centered my leadership philosophy around several key elements:

#1 — Show compassion for individual circumstances — Trying to understand each individual’s circumstances and pressures around isolation, childcare, spousal loss of income etc., and providing a caring and flexible approach to each person is a necessity during these unprecedented times. It’s also important to treat everyone with great respect and empathy as we all have different and unique circumstances and challenges.

#2 — Demonstrate strong communication skills — When the team is working remotely, it is essential to take a very proactive approach to frequent and robust communication, including varying the medium — newsletters, bulletins, staff emails, town halls, small group meetings, videos from leadership and one-on-one meetings.

#3 — Keep the team focused on the controllables — There are things we can control and things we cannot. When you focus on the things you can control, you increase your chances for success.

4 — Empower the team — When faced with an overwhelming volume of critical decisions, leaders may feel the urge to limit authority and tighten control. Empowering team members with the right temperament and character — those who stay curious and flexible and are willing to make the tough, even unpopular calls — is vital for thoughtful and swift decision making.

#5 — Act authentically — I want to emphasize the importance of authentic leadership: do your job without compromising your values, beliefs or personality. Be yourself and lead authentically as yourself.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is “carpe diem,” which translated in English means “seize the day.” Life is short and we must make the most of every day. This is not a dress rehearsal. After the loss of my mother, I realized that life is fragile. My mother made the most of her life and I strive to do the same every day.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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