At first glance, Pacific Clinics’ Chief Strategy Officer James J. Balla’s career trajectory may look surprising, starting with the U.S. Marine Corps and moving through positions at the United Service Organization (USO) and later a series of private and nonprofit healthcare providers, including Pacific Clinics. But look closer as consistent themes run throughout his more than four decades of professional work: opportunity, growth and service above self.
“My greatest success is turning around and growing organizations, first stabilizing them and then sustaining them to attain their highest potentials,” says Balla, who will step down from his current position at Pacific Clinics on April 28, 2023, after 25 years.
Balla’s focus on growth began following his service in the Marine Corps, including working in the Judge Advocate General Division, better known as JAG. Receiving numerous meritorious promotions and accolades, Jim is most proud of his Secretary of Navy Commendation. Following his honorable discharge, he joined the USO in Los Angeles, which supported active-duty military members and their families. As executive director, he helped grow the organization’s operating budget, and members served over his nearly four years at the helm.
Following in his nonprofit human service work, Balla later joined Glendale Family Services as its executive director. There, he led his first merger with Verdugo Mental Health Center during the summer of 1994.
“What I did early on in my career was find ways to help small organizations grow through funding expansions, robust program collaborations, partnerships and mergers,” Balla says. “I found that was how most organizations could fulfill and sustain their missions.”
Identifying such opportunities has consistently been one of Balla’s strongest leadership qualities, says Greg Bowman, Ed.D., Pacific Clinics board member. “I think to a person that people who worked with Jim would say that he is the kind of leader that you want to work with because he doesn’t wait for something to happen. He makes it happen – often taking action before others perceive an issue.”
At the same time, Bowman adds, “He’s a remarkable professional and a humble individual who leads by seeking first to understand before being understood.”
Balla’s deep integrity defines his leadership, says Michele Hamlett, Pacific Clinics board member and chief administrative officer for Retirement Choices of California. “It is evident in any of his interactions that he’s extremely self-aware and deeply empathetic. That’s a hallmark that all leaders should possess and greatly benefits organizations like ours.”
Balla has continually looked for growth opportunities, leading two more industry-recognized mergers later in his career as he sought synergy through joint agency growth and expansion initiatives.
“As most organizations desire to grow and address trends and challenges, they need to constantly position themselves for success based on the ability to grow organically or through strategic partnerships and collaborations,” Balla explains. “This is especially true in the nonprofit sector where, as stewards of the public’s trust, it is our responsibility to administer transparent and well-managed organizations in receiving the funding necessary to sustain their programs and services.”
After nearly two years with a private medical group, Balla returned to the world of nonprofit service when he joined Portals as President and CEO at the end of 1997, a community-based organization that served Metropolitan and South Los Angeles. Balla, again, saw an opportunity for the agency to expand its services to underserved communities throughout Southern California, this time through a merger with Pacific Clinics in June 2007.
That merger came together, Balla recalls, after careful analysis, strategic planning and a lot of hard work by both organizations’ boards and employees – a role Balla is perfectly suited for, Bowman opined.
“Jim is the kind of person who says what needs to be said, even though sometimes what he says is not something you want to hear,” Bowman says. “He’s very approachable, and the employees perceive him to be that way.”
Hamlett also emphasizes Balla’s ability to connect with employees in deeply personal ways. “All the great things you hear about Jim are true,” she says. “He truly cares about his team.”
Following the Portals and Pacific Clinics merger, Balla served as executive vice president and chief operating officer. Later, he became the agency’s president and chief executive officer for over a decade. As he did 15 years before, Balla recognized another opportunity for Pacific Clinics to expand to serve more people and grow into a statewide organization by merging with Uplift Family Services.
Partnership and mutual respect were critical to the success of the merger, says Kathy McCarthy, Pacific Clinics’ current CEO / President. “Jim has been a terrific collaborator. His deep knowledge, experience, leadership and shared commitment to our employees, clients and communities positioned us to bring together our life-affirming programs and services statewide.”
The shared values and focus on consistently improving client outcomes were critical to joining the two organizations. Unlike previous mergers, in which one organization was much larger, both were among the most sizable in California. The potential was in combining each of the individual agency’s operational strengths and industry-recognized services, including Pacific Clinics’ array of behavioral health programs for all ages that meet the needs of diverse communities. And for Uplift Family Services, specializing in child and family services and its children’s programs and wraparound services model, which sought to reunite children in foster care with their families. Combined, Pacific Clinics could offer a full continuum of services, including important support services such as housing and employment coupled with linkages to physical healthcare, all vital to effectively delivering high-quality behavioral health services.
“Through integrated care models, you can provide treatment and support services that address different aspects of a person’s life,” Balla says. “Through these models, you can measure significant improvement in the outcomes of the individuals who have access to a full range of coordinated social supports.”
This type of care and assistance is critical “having dealt with what seemed to be a worst-case scenario,” Balla reflects on people’s mental health during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. “Unfortunately, the pressure hasn’t let up, and the need for mental health services has never been greater.”
“This is no more evident than through the lens of our homelessness epidemic,” he adds. “We find that people who are unhoused have greater burdens and may also deal with other challenges such as mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders. The need by just a pure measure of homelessness and the number of people seeking care has grown exponentially.”
On a positive note, the stigma of homelessness and mental illness is lessening as more information and awareness are shared in our communities, Balla says.
Balla also is hopeful because both public and private resources are increasing, and technology is providing new tools, better analytics and better access to those seeking help. “This will lead to better approaches to providing care for individuals who struggle with mental illnesses.”
Since completing the merger between Pacific Clinics and Uplift Family Services in March 2022, Balla has taken on the role of chief strategic officer, leading the organization’s five-year strategic planning process. His focus also has been on ensuring Pacific Clinics retains its excellent service reputation in the numerous communities it serves.
Balla’s commitment to the agency’s growth has placed Pacific Clinics in a strong position following the merger, Hamlett shares. “Through his steadfast perseverance, he influenced the coming together of a powerfully combined organization that clearly and effectively meets the needs of communities statewide. Realizing that we’ve been able to come on the other side of the pandemic healthier, stronger and more resilient is among the greatest benefits we can share with our clients and supporters.”
Sue Ramar, chair of Pacific Clinics’ Board of Directors and senior vice president/investment counselor at Bailard Wealth Management, underscores the positive impact of Jim’s dedication, adding that the agency’s strategic plan serves as a guidepost moving forward. “Using his expertise, Jim led us through a collaborative strategic planning process, developing highly impactful and executable initiatives to help us provide the highest quality of services in our community.”
As he reflects on his career, Balla quickly focuses on the people he has worked with and those they have assisted.
“For nearly 40 years, I’ve committed my career to support the human services field and provided my leadership to sustain and grow organizations to serve more individuals and families. To me, service above self has been my greatest reward and most gratifying.”
But just because he has some time to look back does not mean he’s done quite yet.
“There’s still road left in both of my shoes,” he says. “I see myself for the next five to seven years, continuing to help organizations to achieve their most aspirational goals to fulfill their missions.”