It is no secret that social workers are often described as passionate. The question becomes: How can one turn that passion into a successful and fulfilling career? Many social workers desire a career that is not characterized with “burnout” but with true joy. Personal passion has to be defined, directed, and cultivated to have career success. The three major components of building a successful career—defining vision, seeking mentorship, and participating in professional development—can assist in building a career that fuels your passion or help sustain you!
1. Define your vision.
Defining your vision can be a challenging task. Vision forces us to think about the life we want and its components. The keys in creating a vision are to have goals, steps, and timelines. Most of us have done this with our clients when creating family and treatment plans. A fun way of creating goals is to create a vision board. Vision boards are usually large poster boards containing a collage of words and pictures that come together to create a story in future tense. For example, a vision board can include a picture of your dream home, the words of an inspirational song that provide you with motivation, the names of two countries that you plan to visit within the next two years, and a picture of the building that houses the agency for which you aspire to work. Vision boards are not permanent, in that they can be edited and updated as often as you see fit. The vision board should be placed in an area where you can view it daily. I usually create a new vision board every other year. For me, 24 months allows room to work toward my goals at a reasonable pace.
Some people may find that a detailed checklist works better. Checklists can be divided into categories such as entrepreneurship, professional learning, work objectives, special projects, volunteerism, debt management, and family. The checklist should include reasonable timelines for each goal listed. If you are saying to yourself, I need help to even break down what I visualize for my life, there are books available on this phenomenon. Those books are usually located in the self help section of most bookstores.
An experienced mentor will also aide in the creation of reasonable aspiration setting and attainment.
2. Seek mentorship.
Mentorship is an opportunity for the mentee to be developed professionally and personally. After creating a physical display of your vision, you should seek a mentor who is currently occupying your dream job. Many people are open to having at minimum one meeting with an aspiring professional. Do not be afraid to ask those you admire to coffee or lunch to “pick their brains” for ideas and suggestions on professional development and growth.
Mentorship does not always have to be one-on-one but can take place in a group setting. The mentor can share his or her experience with a group of aspiring professionals. Conferences that are geared toward personal and professional development may provide the information you need.
Personal growth is very much a part of this process, especially for young professionals. It makes no sense to work hard at career goals but lack the interpersonal skills needed for success. Personal attributes like interpersonal and communication skills can be worked through in a mentoring relationship.
Mentorship can also take the form of patterning. This can be initiated by reading the biographies of those you admire. A great way to pattern is to take note of the mentor’s organizational affiliations, educational background, and skill sets. In the age of social networking, it is easy to locate information about those we admire. Many people have LinkedIn accounts where their résumé is made available to the public. The résumé, as opposed to the bio, may provide insight as to the work completed and the timing. I once heard Oprah state that she often mimicked Barbara Walters’ interviewing style and wanted to dress like many veteran television personalities. It appeared that without meeting these people, Oprah was able to mimic some of their characteristics until she could develop her own style. In the same way, we should glean from those we admire until we are able to find our own path and what works for us.
3. Participate in professional development.
Skill and professional development takes on many forms. They can range from classroom-based courses to volunteer work. It will be helpful to look at the trends in your social work specialty to get a sense of what degrees and certifications are needed for you to flourish. There are social workers who work with public health agencies who have found it beneficial to return to school for a public health degree. Other social workers who work in the nonprofit arena have obtained certifications in nonprofit management. Social workers who work in school systems often return to school to enter doctoral programs in educational policy.
By developing new skills, you are adding features that polish you as a job candidate. Find out what skills you need to occupy your dream job. Skill development-based organizations like Toastmasters International provide free or low cost opportunities for public speaking development. Many volunteer based organizations provide leadership development as a part of the volunteer experience.
On a personal note, I have benefitted from leadership and brand development courses offered at the Junior League of Atlanta, where I am a member. I have also taken a writing workshop given by the National Association of Social Workers, Georgia Chapter. Many local Chambers of Commerce offer leadership courses that promote leadership in local communities. The leadership program model spans economic, social, governmental, and cultural segments. The skills developed in volunteer leadership roles, programs, and on-the-job committees can be used as résumé builders. Dr. Lois Frankel, author of 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, advises us to volunteer for special projects in the workplace to increase skills and to gain recognition.
Skill and professional development also occurs in networking. In 2010, I was a part of a women’s networking group. The objective of the group was to provide a diverse group of women an opportunity to create a New Year plan, share it with the group, and for the group to utilize its networks and influences to aid fellow group members in achieving their goals. The diversity of the group members also provided additional insight and considerations in my goal setting and life planning. This may be a great idea for some workplaces, as well as social and other groups. Some of the women in the group desired to go back to school, and the group read and edited each personal statement. One of the women is now completing her master’s in business administration at Cornell University.
Many of you may be taking some of these steps now. It is important to organize your vision for positive outcomes. Mentorship will be a key factor in your organization of goals. As social workers, we tend to be resourceful for others. Research opportunities to fine tune your goals. Take advantage of low- and no-cost trainings and leadership opportunities. Skill and professional development are important in becoming the ideal you. As you take this journey of turning your passion into a successful career, your clarity will increase with every step and goal accomplished. Much success to you on your journey!
Sonya O. Hunte, MSW, is a Homeless Education Liaison with the Atlanta Public Schools. She is also the CEO of Hunte Community Development Consulting LLC, a company specializing in nonprofit strategic program development, training, and community partnership planning.
From The New Social Worker, Winter 2012, Vol. 19, No. 1.