by Lakeya Cherry, MSSW
As social workers, we are encouraged to strengthen the capacity of those we help but often don’t identify, develop, and utilize our own strengths to advance our careers in management. Unfortunately, there has not been enough of an investment in the training and professional development of social workers as we undertake the challenging work to empower clients and impact communities.
When I was a social worker just starting my career, I was eager and believed the social work profession had chosen me, a phrase I heard often from classmates and colleagues. During my first few jobs after graduation, I did direct practice work, and I gave it my all because people depended upon me, and I knew my clients deserved my help. Over time, I often noticed things happening in the workplace that didn’t feel right or that could have been done more efficiently, but I felt powerless to change them. It was frustrating to feel restricted in my ability to speak up, and this was counterintuitive to everything I had learned in my MSW program.
I eventually felt stifled professionally and sought a macro practice role to have a greater influence. It was a good change. I finally was making a difference, and my views and ideas seemed to matter. Even though I had worked hard and achieved success, when I was presented with my first management opportunity, I lacked confidence in my ability to lead, so I hesitated to take on this new challenge. But reflecting on the opportunity at hand, the old adage, "there was no 'I' in team” sprang to mind. I realized I didn’t have to know everything to lead or manage a team of talented people.
I learned that what I was taught in school and the skills I had gained as a clinician had well prepared me to do a great job. I took the time to get to know, individually, the people I was managing and to find out what their personal and professional goals were, and we established plans to ensure that these professional goals were met. I built trust with each team member and fostered a team structure that everyone was invested in. By doing this, there was “buy in” and a collaborative effort to meet our objectives.
When meeting my new team members individually, “where they were,” and by close consideration of my own experiences with my managers (both positives and negatives), I was able to thrive in this role. I was initially surprised at my success and the responsiveness of those who worked for me, but after a while in my new role, I realized I was always fit to lead. All social workers have the potential to lead.
As the Executive Director of the Network for Social Work Management, I take pride in the mission of the organization to strengthen social work leadership in health and human services. I lead this organization with consideration for what services I wanted and needed to grow professionally. It’s imperative that, as social workers, we realize our own strength, power, and abilities to effect change. We make a difference in the world every day, but it’s not until we see ourselves as the leaders we are that the world will see us for our worth and begin to value us.
Management is not easy. Sometimes you will feel alone, unheard, and over worked. But the beauty of it all is that you finally have the space and creative freedom to do and try what you’ve always wanted to do to better have an impact on the communities you serve.
Lakeya Cherry, MSSW, is the Executive Director of the Network for Social Work Management, an international membership organization dedicated to strengthening social work leadership in health and human services. Cherry’s prior experience includes a senior management role at 2U, Inc., a technology company partnering with universities to place degree programs online, and various direct practice roles in New York City and California.