Sara has been a practicing LCSW in the field of health care for over 18 years, with experience in policy development, elder law, home health, skilled nursing and hospice. She is a tireless advocate for quality end of life care through community outreach and education. She has also been a speaker at both national and state wide conferences on the topic of improving the conversation regarding hospice care and is an expert in advanced care planning.
My task is to write about leadership and how to utilize social work skills in a nontraditional setting. Most of my 20 year career has been spent in “non-traditional” social work roles. In fact, with the exception of my first job, I’ve never had a social work supervisor. So my perspective may be slightly skewed however my skills and training remain the same. What I have found over the years is that my social work training always shines though in whatever professional role I have. I reflected on my experience and identified 5 lessons that I hope would encourage any social worker moving into a leadership position.
- Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone
I have seen this many times and been guilty of it myself. Social workers tend to get pigeon holed into certain responsibilities because that is where we are comfortable. Neale Donald Walsch said “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Real leadership also begins there. I am not saying it’s easy- it’s really hard and uncomfortable and many times I have been resistant. But there is no doubt, it is when I have pushed (or been pushed) outside my self-imposed limits that I have learned the most about myself and discovered that I have skills far beyond what I expected. So don’t be afraid to take the leap. It can lead to great places.
- Know your value and find your voice
This can be particularly hard for social workers. In general, we underestimate our value and are unable to effectively communicate our worth. I see this all the time in the hiring process. No other professionals are as hesitant to negotiate compensation as social workers. But it goes beyond that. In my current position, I am responsible for the daily operations of the company. This requires me to regularly sit around a table with CEOs, CFOs, VPs and other executives. Just to be clear, this is not a soft audience. In fact, my boss is kind of like Tony Soprano so I’ve learned that I better come to that table prepared! It can be intimidating at times to be heard amongst voices that are much stronger than mine but I’ve learned this- social work skills are KEY to overcoming these obstacles. We are master communicators and negotiators of conflict. Time and time again, I have found that my quiet yet logical voice will be heard even amongst much louder voices. And eventually, others start waiting, listening and hearing. So don’t be afraid to find your voice, however loud it may (or may not) be.
- Find (and Be) A Good Mentor
This has been one of the biggest drivers of my career. I have been fortunate to be mentored by several people over the years, some social workers but most not. I am so much better for the time that every one of them invested into my career development. I still have mentors and probably always will. So if you don’t have a mentor, find one! Seek out someone that you admire and ask him/her to mentor you. The benefits will be tremendous. But don’t forget to give back. I am always looking for young professionals to mentor and find it to be one of the most rewarding things I do. Remember, you can’t move up if you can’t be replaced so mentor your replacement and see what happens. I have challenged all the managers at my company to mentor someone this year. It is the best way to build leaders within your organization and discover untapped resources.
- You will lose friendships along the way (and other tough stuff)
This has been the hardest reality for me. As social workers, we are relationship based and trained in a strength based model. I have had to terminate people that I really liked and every time, I feel bad. I have seen jealousy and pettiness and heard people questioning my professional abilities (she’s just a social worker…she can’t do that….she thinks she’s the boss…). And I have lost friends. Because when you’re a leader, you can’t always be the friend. And that’s the hard stuff.
- Follow your passion
This is where it all comes together. Stressful days, frustrating meetings, huge setbacks all will come. You have to find what you are passionate about, what you are meant to be doing, the path that has been created for you. When you find that, opportunities will come your way because your skills will shine though and your passion will be evident. When I came to Transitions Hospice, I knew within a month that it was the place I had been waiting to find. For me, there is no greater mission than caring for dying people. Everything you do, every hard decision, every mistake, every obstacle, every frustration is worth overcoming when you believe wholeheartedly that it is what you are meant to be doing. When you find that vision, all the rest of the pieces will fit together.
I truly believe that social workers make the best leaders in any organization because of our diverse training and varied skill set. However, as with anything, our strengths can become our weaknesses if they are not channeled in a positive direction. I encourage every social worker to consider leadership, in whatever capacity that means for you. I don’t think you’ll regret it.