Judy Arnold's AVASW Article of 7/2011


I’ve been in the midst of a whirlwind lately! I retired from the VA on June 3rd and there was the consequent surrounding swirl of activity. I am truly gratified by the enormous outpouring of well-wishes. Thus far though, life hasn’t “settled down” significantly. On my last two days of duty, I served meals at the VA Eastern KS Health Care System’s all-employee picnics, Topeka and Leavenworth campuses. The first day of retirement, I volunteered at the Heart of America’s Stand Down in Kansas City, Missouri. The following week, I participated in three national conference calls.

One of those calls was the VHA Social Work Leadership Council. Did you know that your President represents you on this Council? That is one way that your membership “buys” a voice in the future of our Strategic Plan at a national level.

The second was the monthly call of your AVASW officers. Our Executive Board continues making communications with members a top priority. We attempt to be responsive to your questions, concerns, suggestions, and comments. We address inquiries that come our way about employment and internship issues. We post information, regarding resources and education. We discuss advocacy efforts and initiatives on behalf of our clients and our profession. This month, a request for us to consider organizing a national conference was taken under advisement.

The third call was the VHA SW Managers call. Whether you are a Chief/Executive or not, you should consider tuning into those monthly calls. There is always pertinent information provided to the field on timely topics and announcements are made, which help to keep us all connected in our “community of practice”.

Now as I write this in my second week of retirement, I have just given a presentation to the MO-KAN chapter of the Society of Social Work Leadership in Health Care. Essentially, I gave a synopsis of three different workshops, which I attended at the Society’s National Conference last November. “Why Social Workers Are - or Can Be - Excellent Organizational Leaders: Skill Sets and Opportunities” was my composite title.

The skills which we possess that I covered were: Social Work’s systems-thinking; training in holistic (“big picture”) thought; ability to set up and manage complex processes; facilitation of discussion (we bring people together); team leadership; ability to problem-solve well, using creativity and innovation; ability to lead in a crisis; willingness to be “truth-tellers” and advocates; ability to partner well with others and to forge alliances; and willingness to take appropriate risks and to confront barriers.

What are those barriers? 1) Sometimes, it has been value-driven work without concurrent demonstration of our professional contribution to the fiscal health of the organization. Do we articulate our vital role in patient “flow”, discharge-planning, case management, length of stay, rural and other outreach issues? Do we show how our work transfers to “the bottom line”? 2) Some Schools of Social Work did not offer “Leadership” coursework in the past or perhaps do not offer it now. Other professional disciplines have traditionally provided class work in this area. We should do the same. 3) Our professional image can be a barrier, regarding both how we view ourselves and how others see us. Do we project an empowered or a victim mentality? Do we value our own contributions? How do others see us – as effective or ineffective? How excited are we about our work? Do we convey to the general public, not only the importance of our services, but also a professional enthusiasm?

Opportunities can be seen initially as barriers or challenges; hopefully, we’ve begun addressing some of those discussed above. At the conference, private-sector Social Workers spoke about agencies where our discipline is not thriving. They reported to a “loss of ground,” when identification as discharge-planners and case managers was given up. Examples mentioned where Social Work can shine were in the arenas of patient/family-directed care, workplace violence, and advance directives.

A condensed list of strategies used to surmount the challenges and convert them to successes - in other words, the measure of a good leader - follows. 1) Develop “nimbleness” (VA’s core competency of flexibility/adaptability). According to the speaker, we need folks, who can “build the plane flying” (Char Tong). 2) Develop political “savvy”. Know “the rules of the game”. Solicit feedback, as to how you and your work are perceived. And yes, get to “the table”. (I might add, “and participate in the meal”!) 3) Be indispensable! To do that: Seize opportunities. Be aware of both potent threats and potential gains. Help Senior Management with their organizational problems. Remember, although there may be other content experts, we are expert at interpersonal issues, processes, and problem-solving. Treat your organization, much as you would your client: assess, diagnose, develop a care plan, case manage, follow-through, and evaluate. Always, when making proposals, quantify the value by including data. Finally, continue to tell our story!

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