Member Profile: Carol J. Clark, APHL
Member Profile: Carol J. Clark, APHL
Our Member Profile blog series features InsideNGO members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature Chief Operating Officer Carol J. Clark of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), who talks about her organization’s work, how she fosters growth and development among her team, and what’s kept her engaged at APHL during her two decades in service there.
Q. Tell us a little bit about the work of APHL.
The Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) works to strengthen laboratory systems serving the public’s health in the United States and globally. Its members are state and local governmental health laboratories in the United States responsible for monitoring and detecting health threats. Founded over 60 years ago, APHL brings together laboratory professionals from public health, environmental, agricultural, and food safety laboratories.
APHL works internationally to build effective national laboratory systems and expand access to quality diagnostic testing services. With over 20 years' experience in 31 countries on five continents, the association is recognized internationally as a leader in laboratory systems, science and practice.
APHL has broad and deep knowledge and experience with laboratory systems in low- and middle-income countries, and the ability and skill to work effectively with Ministries of Health. We work with national laboratory leaders to strengthen and sustain capabilities and capacities across the spectrum of essential laboratory systems including development of policy and strategic and implementation plans; improvement of quality management systems; design and implementation of efficient electronic laboratory information systems; development and delivery of management and technical training at all levels of the laboratory organization; and development and implementation of databases for a range of uses including equipment maintenance and electronic test result reporting.
What are some of the specific operational challenges you face in your role?
I think the biggest challenge I face is balance. Our efforts to standardize our international operations really started in earnest about four years ago. Until that time, we managed our international work on an ad hoc basis. My experience is very strongly in domestic non-profit management and accounting/grants management. So I had to very quickly come up to speed on all of the aspects of international NGO management—while still meeting the challenges of my day job.
What strategies do you use to address these challenges?
Fortunately, I have a very good staff, so one strategy I used was to give them more responsibility to allow me some additional time to focus on our international operations. I also had to reprioritize other projects that I was working on—including putting some projects on hold. That is always challenging because most of my projects are organizational initiatives, so I really have to weigh the consequences to the organization before putting something on hold. Finally, I had to work even more closely with our programs that are doing work internationally. I truly believe that the program areas must view operations as a partner, and when that happens, the organization benefits. Through these enhanced relationships, I was able to obtain agreement that strengthening our international operations program made sense for our programs. This resulted in support for the new policies and procedures I was implementing and financial support so that we had the necessary resources for our growing program.
How do you foster professional growth and development among your staff?
I really love it when staff want to take initiative and try something new or expand their role somehow. When people interview at APHL, they frequently ask about career path. I tell them that while there isn’t a lot of upward mobility in many areas, there is always the opportunity to grow and take on more responsibility. For better or worse, when I take on a new project, my team will end up having to pick up work that I am no longer able to do.
I think it is very important to provide training opportunities that support staff members’ growth as well. APHL’s roots are in training and professional development. As such, we very much support staff members’ professional development.
Finally, I look for ways to provide the operations staff opportunities to experience the programmatic aspect of our work. In operations, it is easy to get caught up in the rules and regulations and lose sight of the mission of the organization. While it is harder to do on the international side of our business, I am usually able to send a number of operations staff to our Annual Meeting where they can learn about both our domestic and international programs.
How do you define operational excellence at APHL?
I want operations to be viewed as a strategic partner with programs. Since much of operations is also compliance, that is a really hard line to walk. An unyielding focus on compliance may result in the program suffering and conversely, if we yield too much to program needs without an eye towards compliance, our funding can suffer.
So at APHL, we really try to have programs understand the compliance constraints that we operate under and to have operations understand the programmatic pressures. When we have that understanding and respect, we are able to work together to find solutions that will work for both groups—and that I think is operational excellence.
You’ve had a long career at APHL. Tell us more about what’s kept you engaged there for two full decades.
APHL is a vibrant, constantly changing organization. When I started at APHL we had about $4 million in revenue and about 25 staff. Now, we are $40+million, and close to 150 employees when you factor in our international field offices. In my tenure, I have helped with an initiative to change our name, we have changed our membership structure at least three times, I have been involved in countless lease negotiations and buildouts, and now I am building our international operations capacity. I was hired as the controller with a staff of 1 person. I now oversee 10 different areas of the organization with 10 direct reports and a total staff of almost 30.
APHL and its members have been on the front lines of most of the major public health events in recent memory: the Anthrax letters, H1N1, Ebola, Zika, and too many foodborne outbreaks to name. We are on the cutting edge of public health genomics and public health informatics and bioinformatics. And we are taking this expertise and applying it in resource-constrained settings. Honestly, just when I think I’ve mastered everything there is to know in my role, I find something new to learn. So for me it really boils down to the fact that I work with great people, doing rewarding work in a constantly challenging environment.
What do you perceive as the value of InsideNGO membership for your organization?
Our international program is very small by NGO standards; we have around 30 HQ and field staff. So for us, the willingness of other organizations to share experiences and stories is invaluable. APHL’s “home” is the governmental public health space—and we are viewed as a leader in that space. However, we still have a lot to learn in the international NGO space and the knowledge that InsideNGO and its members share through the various platforms has been invaluable to me and our staff.