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A Comprehensive Background for Serving Thousands of Older Adults
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A Comprehensive Background for Serving Thousands of Older Adults

Judy Willig, LCSW; Executive Director, Heights and Hill Community Council

April 2010


There’s a new reality show on TV where the CEO goes undercover as a lower-level employee and gets an “on-the-ground” view of what’s going on within the company he or she manages. I haven’t seen it, but I expect as viewers, we’re supposed to marvel at how removed the CEO is from the people who do the “heavy lifting” in their companies. Of course, I began to imagine my own experience on this program and then I realized: been there, done that. As the Executive Director of a mid-sized community-based agency serving the elderly, both my formal education and work experience have been primarily focused on client services, which is what most of my employees do. As a social worker, I’ve walked in their shoes, almost literally; their jobs require them to be in the field, working with home-bound elderly—something I’ve done many times and still do on occasion, even as Executive Director.

But I do have a confession to make here: when I was in graduate school over 30 years ago, I did my best to avoid all classes in administration, advocacy, and policy. My intention was to do clinical work and to gain enough experience and training to eventually have a private practice. I took every class offered that was related to direct practice and barely tolerated the rest. And now here I am in the top management role, (that private practice dream faded away a long time ago) and I realize it’s my social work background that has not only shaped who I am as a person, but who I am as a boss, and how I make decisions for my agency.

I’d venture to guess that few for-profit CEOs come with those “up from the mailroom” stories we used to hear about. Most of them probably have some kind of business or management degree, and more and more, the trend in social service and public agencies is to draw from this corporate management pool as well. The question I’m left with is: How important is it for the leader of a company to understand—really understand—the experiences of the front line workers, versus having the kind of management/leadership background that can drive an agency forward? I’m sure there are merits to both sides, but my personal experience is that a social work background is important; and in the field of human services, it is critical.

As a social service agency, our bottom line is helping people—but in today’s world, a non-profit organization can no longer get by just “doing good.” Like any major company, it requires a multitude of skills—fiscal responsibility, human resources management, program development, strategic planning, public relations, marketing, contract management, policy development—some of which aren’t taught in a traditional MSW program, or at least not by the same names. The fact is that most of these skills are learned on the job; however, the skills I learned while getting my MSW have given me a comprehensive background in how to work with people—originally, I thought, as a therapist—but equally important, in working with a very diverse staff of 20 people, who in turn serve thousands of clients. It’s my formal education and field work through which I’ve learned to empower staff, understand and respect differences, support growth, challenge employees, and nurture talent. And this works upward, too; managing an agency means working with a board of directors and a whole range of policymakers and funders that draws on every skill I learned as a graduate student—learning to get the best out of, and for people.

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