Ramona has an MSW degree, and she is a child protective social worker. During her annual evaluation, her supervisor informs her that she has the knowledge and skills to make a great supervisor and suggests she consider applying for a supervisor position. Serving as a supervisor never crossed Ramona’s mind. She loves her work, but she is not sure if administration is for her.
Latasha thoroughly enjoyed her social welfare policy courses and serving as an intern for the NASW State Chapter Director of Advocacy and Legislation. As a result, Latasha’s long term goal is to run for public office. How does she prepare herself for this goal?
Jeremy recently graduated with his BSW degree and is passionate about the social work profession. He is impressed with how NASW promotes the profession and advances social policies. Some day he wants to seek a seat on the NASW State Chapter Board of Directors. He recently moved to a new state and wants to position himself to get elected to the Board.
Leadership is defined in various ways, but common among them are that leaders are responsible for the performance of others and good leaders want those with whom they collaborate to perform their best work. Gardella and Haynes (2004) noted the need in human service agencies for more leaders with degrees in social work. As social workers, we challenge inequality and promote fair and equitable treatment of the persons we serve. The NASW Code of Ethics (1999) stipulates that we have an ethical responsibility to provide leadership in addressing the causes of social and economic injustice, poverty, oppression and discrimination and in helping those we serve to acquire the services they need.
You do not have to be an administrator to serve as a leader. Human service supervisors, managers, and directors play leadership roles, but so do agency board members, community organizers, political advocates, and social workers who lead professional organizations. Certain types of work experience and training are considered prerequisites for being hired, appointed, promoted, or elected to leadership roles. So how do you acquire this training and experience?
Professional Development Plan
There are many paths you can take to prepare for leadership. Having a professional development plan can guide you in gaining the knowledge and skills needed for effective leadership. Think about the leadership roles you think you would like, and write them down. Seek out others in the roles you have identified and ask them what leadership skills they feel are important in their roles. Ask for their feedback on any skills you need to acquire or strengthen, and write them down. Determine what leadership skills you already possess, and write those down, as well. Develop a list of activities that can help you gain the leadership knowledge and skills you need. Prioritize your activities, and set goals for how and when you are going to engage and complete these activities.
Always maintain an updated résumé, and review it annually to determine if it effectively projects a pathway to leadership. As you assess progress toward your administrative and leadership goals, ask whether you are establishing leadership credibility. Do your professional work experiences reflect diverse competencies, such as strategic planning, financial management, advocacy, and conflict management?
Networking, Conferences, and Education
Networking with other leaders increases your visibility and expands your knowledge. There are several ways you can meet and network with other leaders. Holding memberships and being active in professional organizations speaks about your commitment to your profession. The types of professional organizations you choose to join and the boards on which you serve make a statement to others about your interests, values, and the types of people you know or with whom you associate. Network and interact with people who differ from you in their viewpoints; leadership experiences; and professional, social, and cultural backgrounds.
Take advantage of opportunities to attend events where leaders, such as elected officials, community leaders, renowned scholars, political advisors, and so on, are speakers. One way to find events, professional organizations, workshops, and conferences is through the Internet. Many organizations have an “Events” link. For example, if you go to the NASW Continuing Education Resource Center Web site (https://www.socialworkers.org/ce/search.asp), check the “Leadership/Management” box, and then click “Begin Search,” you will see a list of workshops concerning leadership and management, as well as dates, credit hours, and registration information.
Other Web site examples include:
Social Work Leadership Institute: A Growing Workforce to Work With Older Adults
Influencing State Policy
Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research
Social Work Conferences: World Wide Upcoming Events in Social Work and Other Fields
Another way to search for presentations by renowned leaders, scholars, and politicians is through college, university, and community college Web sites. They recruit renowned leaders and others to speak to both students and the general public, and these presentations are often free and open to the public. You may even have an opportunity to meet one of the speakers. Many university and college Web site home pages have links for campus events or academic and department calendars. Often, those links advertise scholars, politicians, community leaders, and others who are scheduled to give presentations on their campuses.
In addition, there are universities and colleges that offer continuing education programs that address leadership, management, and administration. Some programs offer CEUs or certificates. You can acquire continuing education program contact information by visiting the college or university Web site. Once you contact a program, request that you be placed on its mailing list or listserv to receive updated information about program offerings. There are a number of webinar workshops on the Internet. Some professional associations, such as NASW, offer free webinar workshops for their members. Members do not have to travel to workshop locations and usually acquire CEUs.
Some newspapers and bookstore Web sites (i.e., Barnes & Noble, Borders) have an events link. Those links often provide information regarding authors who are scheduled to visit bookstores, libraries, and other locations to give presentations regarding their books. Some of those authors may have written books addressing leadership topics. These presentations are sometimes less formal and will provide you opportunities to ask authors questions and network with other attendees who may have interests that are similar to yours. In addition, the event sections of local newspapers advertise community symposiums and workshops that address leadership topics.
Informal and formal means provide excellent opportunities to acquire leadership experience. Observe leaders and learn from their experiences. Make sure to let others know that you are interested in leadership and administrative positions. That way, when they learn of opportunities, they can alert you.
You can gain an understanding about and develop leadership skills by attending conferences and workshops on leadership. Examples are National Association of County Human Services Administrators Annual Conference (http://www.nachsa.org/), Black Administrators in Child Welfare Annual Conference (http://www.blackadministrators.org/), National Network for Social Work Managers (http://www.socialworkmanager.org/) Annual Management Institute, and the Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care (http://www.sswlhc.org/).
If you plan to move up the career ladder, no amount of education is too much. A master’s degree along with your BSW degree, or another master’s degree or doctorate, along with your MSW, can only help you. The type of degree you seek depends on the administrative or leadership position that interests you. Some examples of useful degrees are administration in social work (if you have your BSW), finance, business, law, and human relations. If you are a BSW or MSW student, you may consider a minor in the latter areas.
Educational activities not only help you build administrative, supervisory, management, and leadership skills, but also provide you opportunities to meet and network with people who may have similar leadership aspirations as yours. Leaders are lifelong learners. Many administrators have a master’s degree. When shopping for a graduate program that best fits your needs, makes sure the curriculum addresses administration, management, and leadership.
Read, Read, Read
Reading helps you develop a career vocabulary on leadership while building your knowledge and skills. Read a cross-section of books and articles from various fields, including management, strategic planning, grant writing, conflict resolution, public speaking, fundraising, legislative affairs, personnel issues, leadership, finance, and so on. Consider taking some classes that cover these topics.
If you’re on a tight budget, visit your local or university library to check out books and to review articles. Be sure to read professional journals. Full-text articles from many journals are accessible online, either through your university or local library. Librarians can assist you in locating and accessing online articles. Some colleges and universities extend library privileges to alumni.
In addition to social work publications, such as the Journal of Social Work Administration, review business publications. Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week, for example, inform you of business trends and issues. These and other publications can be found in libraries and bookstores. Biographies and autobiographies of successful community organizers, grass-roots leaders, and prominent leaders can give you critical insight into how leaders think and act.
To make reading more enjoyable, start a book club. Share and discuss how you can apply what you have read with others who are interested in learning more about leadership and in using leadership skills to create positive change. Better yet, allocate time to discuss your readings and ways to apply what you have learned with one of your mentors.
As discussed earlier, joining an organization is an important way to gain leadership experience, and this is especially true if you become actively involved on committees and boards. Eventually, you may serve as a committee or board chairperson. Active participation shows hard work and commitment on your part to fulfilling the mission and goals of the professional association. When you participate in professional organizations, your visibility increases and you develop a strong and deep network of friends and contacts.
Diversify the office positions you seek. For example, gain budgeting experience by serving on the budget committee. This opportunity can often lead to chairing the committee and even serving as treasurer of your organization. Even though budgeting may differ from organization to organization and agency to agency, you acquire valuable, hands-on experience in planning and administering funds.
Other excellent ways to practice leadership are to hold leadership positions in student organizations, organize a group of students to address a campus issue, or work on a political campaign. Identify legislators and the committees on which they serve that attract your interest. Send them e-mails with your suggestions and thoughts about issues on which the committee is working.
Effective leaders have excellent interpersonal, verbal, and written communication skills. Leaders make presentations; advocate; deliver speeches; mediate; articulate a vision; write grants; and prepare memos, letters, and petitions, for example. There are several ways to improve your communication skills while promoting your visibility and your cause. One example is to write an editorial on an issue that concerns you at least two or more times a year. This action promotes visibility and generates a possible dialogue about important issues in your community, and it establishes you as a subject matter expert.
As a leader, there are times when you will have to speak in front of a group of people, such as community leaders, legislators, concerned citizens, agency CEOs, and so on. If you are shy about public speaking, join Toastmasters, an international organization that provides a supportive and nurturing environment to help you overcome your shyness and develop your public speaking skills. In Toastmasters, you have the opportunity to write and deliver speeches in the presence of your fellow members, who constructively critique your delivery, body language, grammar, how well you emphasized your key points, and so on. If you do not have Toastmasters in your local area, this would be a great opportunity for you to mobilize a group of interested persons to establish a chapter.
Find several good mentors from whom you can obtain insight into and advice on your professional and personal needs. Mentors are resourceful individuals who can influence your career development by helping you overcome barriers and by providing coaching, emotional support, challenging assignments, and sponsorship. Being mentored helps build your knowledge and skills.
Good places to seek out prospective mentors are your employing agency and professional organizations. Some agencies and professions have formal mentoring programs. It’s important to identify mentors who give supportive, constructive direction and feedback and who are good role models. Your network might be comprised of community leaders, supervisors, legislators, and social workers. Communicate with your mentors regularly to find out about educational, training, leadership, and job opportunities. Taking advantage of networking opportunities and acquiring mentors can facilitate your preparation for leadership and administrative positions.
Now let’s discuss those three individuals mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Ramona was contemplating whether she wanted to become a child protective supervisor. To prepare herself, she may want to consider reading; attending workshops; and taking some continuing education classes on supervision skills, personnel management, performance evaluations, conflict management, hiring practices, leadership development, morale building, program evaluation, team building, and financial management. She may want to receive mentorship from a current or former supervisor; attend professional association, state, and/or nonprofit meetings that supervisors attend, absorbing all of the knowledge that she can; and ask her supervisor to assign her responsibilities that will groom her for supervision.
Latasha’s long term goal was to run for office. Some activities that may help prepare her are: Get involved with NASW’s Political Action for Candidate Election (PACE); serve as an NASW delegate; join Influencing State Policy (http://www.statepolicy.org/); identify a legislator to become one of her mentors; inform legislators, city council members, county commissioners, and other leaders that she is interested in running for office; join Toastmasters; seek a law degree, master’s degree in political science, policy, or a similar area; work on campaigns for those persons who are seeking office; attend workshops and conferences attended by political leaders; serve on legislative committees; and read autobiographies and biographies of political leaders.
Jeremy feels he can be an asset to NASW and wants to position himself to get elected to the state Board. Jeremy should consider establishing a reputation for himself by doing exemplary social work wherever he is employed and engaging in professional and volunteer activities that advance the profession of social work. He should consider getting involved with the NASW state chapter specialty practice committees, such as child welfare, mental health, diversity, health, alcohol, aging, social and economic justice, and school social work. Depending on where Jeremy resides, his NASW state chapter may have local program units, branches, regions, and/or divisions. Jeremy’s involvement in the units will provide him opportunities to network and work with social workers who promote the mission and goals of the social work profession.
There are a number of additional leadership skills. Some of those skills are having good oral and writing skills, self-awareness, and being approachable and open-minded. As social workers, we should always look for leadership opportunities and realize that leadership preparation does not always require that one serve as an administrator in a human service agency. Good leaders do not emerge from metamorphism. As in any other profession, lifelong learning is necessary to ensure that we have the knowledge, skills, and competencies to make effective social workers.
As you review the literature, talk with mentors, or attend workshops, you’ll discover myriad traits and styles that characterize a good leader. In the social work discourse, we often speak of the importance of empowering those we serve and working with them from a perspective of strength. Remember, that same concept applies to leading a group of people.
National Association of Social Workers. (1999). Code of ethics. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Gardella, L. G., & Haynes, K. S. (2004). A dream and a plan: A woman’s path to leadership in human services. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Terri Moore Brown, Ed.D., MSW, ACSW, is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work at Fayetteville State University, which is located in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She received her Ed.D. from North Carolina State University, MSW from East Carolina University, and BA from Methodist University.