It's tough for a humble guy to accept praise.
Throughout his conversation with a reporter Wednesday, Marc Cherna, Allegheny County Department of Human Services director, kept turning the interview back to his staff. "They make me look good," he said.
Others think leadership comes from the top: After four decades of service to needy children and families, Mr. Cherna has received the first lifetime achievement award from Casey Family Programs, the nation's largest foster child foundation.
Announced by the county Wednesday, the award acknowledges leaders who have advanced the field of child welfare and made a difference in the lives of the families they serve. Mr. Cherna, who worked in the trenches of a residential youth center for a decade before ascending to management, accepted the honor in Seattle last week.
"To be recognized by my peers is really significant," he said. "It's an award I have to share. You can't do this by yourself."
The director, who turns 63 Tuesday, heads a 950-strong department that serves more than 200,000 people a year. Most welfare and assistance programs residents use -- children and youth, aging, intellectual disability -- run through his office.
Mr. Cherna first came to Pittsburgh in 1996, recruited in a nationwide search to head the county's children and youth services department. Before, the native New Yorker worked for more than a decade at New Jersey's Department of Human Services, helping reform the troubled state agency.
When he got here, he might have wish he had stayed in New Jersey. Rocked by scandal after scandal, the department was in disarray, Mr. Cherna said.
"We were a national disgrace," he said. "We had to stabilize the case loads, stabilize the agency and [do] a lot of outreach and community work."
More change came a year later. As part of a larger revamp of county government, regional leaders consolidated 34 departments into just five, forming the unified Department of Human Services that Mr. Cherna now heads.
Since then, the department has transformed itself into a model agency, winning awards, getting nods from national media and frequently hosting visitors from other states looking to figure out the secret to its success.
According to the Casey Family Programs award, the department has reduced the number of children in and out of home care by 48 percent in the past eight years. More than 80 percent of children who left the county system in 2012 ended up in permanent homes, with the vast majority returning to their families.
"This award speaks highly about how well you and your work are perceived within the field of child welfare," the foundation wrote in a letter announcing the award. "It is a positive contribution that deserves our recognition."
The award drew applause from county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, whom Mr. Cherna credits as a willing partner in improving the department.
"This award really speaks to Allegheny County's place as a national leader in the discussion on improving child welfare," Mr. Fitzgerald wrote in a statement. "That distinction is due to Marc's leadership, and we are thrilled to see his commitment and dedication acknowledged in this way."
Awards aside, Mr. Cherna says the department still has plenty of room to grow. He recently hired a new director of children, youth and families and is expanding collaboration among his departments and other areas of the county.
But first, let him savor his award -- as much as a humble man can. At a reception in his honor Tuesday night at the Duquesne Club, Mr. Cherna admitted to the crowd of well-wishers that he was a bit bewildered.
"The first thing I said was, 'Never when I started as a youth worker did I think I would be here today,' " he said.
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497.