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Discerning Leadership Abilities in Child Welfare Organizations

James R. Harris, Jr., Ph.D.

This article is reprinted with the permission of the author, James Harris, Jr. author of: Respecting Residential Work with Children, 2003 & Promoting Healthy Childhood Development Today, 2007.

The immortal Yogi Berra once said that, “You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going ‘cause you just might get there.” When he tried to clarify this point he explained that, “If you don’t set goals, you can’t regret not reaching them.” Confusing as these Yogi-isms may be, in a way they speak to the strategies that some child welfare agencies inadvertently employ as they prepare for the future, including identifying the leaders that can bring them where they ought to be heading. Sometimes we don’t see leaders in our midst, even those that posses the right qualities, traits, and skill sets.

Child welfare agencies, specifically those organizations that serve children and youth in residential facilities, need effective leadership - just like any other business. They are not exempt from having to change top administrators and identify new leadership. Whether it is through retirement or poor performance, change is inevitable. Yet, in spite of the buzz that once surrounded the advent of succession plans some child welfare agencies utilize less conventional means when it comes to filling key leadership positions. Our field does not always engage in proactive planning; we may not have the funds needed to train potential “up and comers” in our agencies; and, in many instances we fail to see leaders already working in our programs.

On the flip side, there are organizations that do a good job in maintaining effective executive guidance. They seem to know the answers to the more important questions that come to mind when considering leadership in child welfare agencies. A few of these questions might be:

  • What traits are necessary to becoming a leader of an organization?
  • What are the skills associated with one’s ability to manage a program, and can effective supervisors be groomed to one day lead the agency?
  • How do agencies find and support the development of emerging leaders (especially within their organizations)?

When an agency can answer questions such as these, and when that organization has a strategic plan as to serve as a directional guide, the group should be able to discern its executive leadership needs for the future. To fail to consider such questions or to procrastinate in developing a plan to identify tomorrow’s leaders an organization may be placing its good work in jeopardy in the future. As Mays (2002) warns, many ventures are not successful simply because they are never begun. Thus, if we procrastinate, by the time we bring ourselves to action it may be too late.

Executive Leadership: Traits That Enable One to Lead an Organization

Just as any other business (and perhaps more so) child welfare agencies need leaders that possess a wide range of abilities and traits. Knowledge of legal and regulatory requirements is important, as are issues such as the understanding of corporate compliance in funding practice, hiring procedures, etc. Executive leadership is also expected to be responsible for business and marketing strategies, including fundraising and promoting the organization within the community. But these abilities are only part of the picture of a good leader in the child welfare community.

In addition to business savvy, we have to remember that in child welfare, the business at hand is vulnerable children - and their families. Thus, there are specific traits that should be evident in top administrators. Heading this list is emotional intelligence. Certainly, the ability to perceive, assess and manage our own emotions, as well as tending to the emotions and needs of others is very important. We need to recognize our own strengths; our own limitations, but it is essential in our work to recognize the needs of our clients and their families. Leaders in our field must be able to convey these needs, and develop effective strategies to meet them. From the concept of emotional intelligence come the more humanistic traits that are necessary for exeuctives within child welfare organizations. This list includes:

  • Balancing the expectations of the youth we serve, as well as other community stakeholders;
  • Being an effective advocate for the needs of vulnerable youth and their families;
  • Responding to the diversity of youth and families served with respect to culture, gender, sexual orientation, spiritual beliefs, socioeconomic status and language;
  • Promoting the elimination of discrimination and stigma for the youth served, and their families.

Another important trait for today’s leaders is the ability to be creative – to think “outside the box”. As more and more States begin to renovate child welfare systems, organizations will need leaders that can either change the ways their agency offers services - or find new methods to serve individuals. For example, can the XYZ Children’s Home, which has provided traditional “group care” services to youth for over 50 years, change to become a program that provides home based services? Or, will their leadership refuse to see and/or accept change, thus risking the agency’s long-term existence?

Today the leaders of child welfare organizations need to be more multitasked than ever. They need to possess strong business skills, balanced by an understanding of systems issues, and knowledge of how to service youth and families. One can have the strongest accounting skills, but without truly understanding of the needs of youth and families the agency may not effectively serve its clients. Conversely, one can understand the needs of its client base, but without being able to balance a budget they may not remain in operation.

In summation, the traits of leaders in the child welfare field are likely to include:

  1. A good business sense.
  2. Understanding of legal and regulatory mandates.
  3. Emotional intelligence.
  4. Child and family systems knowledge.
  5. Tenacious advocacy skills.

Naturally, these traits are acquired through years of practice. Experience can be gained in any number of positions, including at the time an individual earns their first promotion within a child welfare agency. That is why it is logical to explore the abilities of program supervisors, and to invest the necessary resources (funds for training, assigning mentors, etc.) in these positions. For this is often the place where future executives strengthen their abilities and gain the experience that allows them to lead an agency in the future.

Grooming Leaders: Skills Associated with One’s Ability to Manage Programs

In a conversation that I recently had with Charlie Appelstein nationally noted trainer, consultant, and author (Gus Chronicles, No Such Thing as a Bad Kid), he stated that he began his Supervisor’s Conference: Train the Trainers course because “so many people are bumped into leadership positions before they are ready and don’t have the tools to properly lead” (personal conversation, 3/1/06). As our agency, the Rhode Island Council of Resource Providers for Children, Youth and Families (RICORP) has sponsored this supervisory course for the past five years, we can attest to its value. The sessions are always filled to capacity with first-time administrators and program supervisors eager to acquire a new skill set.

If one has worked in the child welfare field for any amount of time they can state that it is not unusual for a direct care worker (with a college degree) to be promoted to a supervisory position with less than two years on the job. In some cases a worker earns a promotion off the floor with less than a year’s experience. The problem with such rapid advancement is that the individual recently working directly with youth may now be responsible for supervising the program serving these clients. After little time in the field the relatively new worker may find themselves supervising and evaluating residential staff (that only days ago were their peers), scheduling shifts and filling gaps in coverage, training new workers, and resolving any number of potential conflicts.

There are occasions when this newly promoted supervisor may not have gained an understanding of the basics of physical and emotional care of youth - not to mention the etiology, symptoms, and treatment of behavioral disorders and children’s psychological disturbances. When an individual is rapidly moved up the ladder, the organization must be sure that the supervisor is trained and supported. New managers can become overwhelmed at all these new and distinct tasks suddenly thrust their way.

There are inherent skills associated with administering to an individual program. While tasks such as scheduling and completing necessary paperwork can be taught, emotional intelligence also comes into play. With this stated, there are numerous skills that program supervisors must posses to help them lead their programs effectively. These attributes will also help them should they one day become executive administrators. This list includes:

Having a strong work ethic. A supervisor is part of a larger team and can’t lead from an office, working 9-5 Monday through Friday. Supervisors should be expected to work occasional evening shifts, as well as a weekend day every now and then. This facilitates staff morale and keeps the supervisor abreast of issues within the residence. This helps potential leaders assume executive roles where “getting the job done” does not always fit within standard working hours. For example, advocacy at the State House does not always occur during the morning; board meetings are often scheduled during the evening; etc.

Balancing business needs with staff and client needs. An effective supervisor must maintain adherence to agency rules and regulations all the while balancing the needs of the clients and the workforce. If a youth or staff member disagrees with an agency policy, and has a valid argument, a good supervisor will research the topic and bring the issue to the executive team (especially if does not counter legal requirements). This will help potential leaders learn how to make changes within organizations (and systems) through investigation, soliciting various opinions and viewpoints, and taking into consideration the needs of its clients.

Being an effective communicator. A good supervisor promotes open communication and team building, making sure that direct care staff members, the clinical team, and other administrators continue to work together for the good of the youth. As someone that has served in these differing positions I can attest that communication between the various agency disciplines can only help youth. This skill will help potential leaders learn how to bring conflicting parties together. It will also help the supervisor learn how to relate to (and with) the more challenging individuals that executives can deal with.

Having these skills is paramount for a supervisor within a larger agency. When such individuals are discovered, the organization would do well to nurture such them, providing him or her with applicable training opportunities, being mindful that this is someone who could one day assume a greater leadership role within the agency.

Supporting Emerging Leaders Within an Organization

One thing that successful leaders have in common could be that they had worked for years in the field, and they may have been overlooked within their particular organizations. Their skills did not stand out - or they were not noted. While there is no disputing that sometimes an organization is making a wise choice when it conducts a national search for its next chief executive, there are those occasions when the ideal candidate is already working within the agency. The trick is finding these individuals.

While potential leaders may emerge from the pack, others are harder to find.

How many times has a supervisor told a staff member, “You’re such a great worker….if only you had a degree.”? Yet, the organization does nothing to help that great worker pursue their education. While it may involve a financial commitment from the agency, other times it would only require encouragement. And, then there are times when it is something else.

An example of this is the case of RICORP’s partnership with the Community College of Rhode Island. In 2001 we designed a degree program for direct care workers in children’s residential program. Utilizing a subsidy, workers can enroll in each 3-credit (college) course for $50 plus the cost of the text. This is a fantastic deal yet the program suffers from low enrollment. According to numerous direct care workers this is because staff members are: 1) not informed of the program, or 2) agencies cannot afford to pay for them to take the classes. There are even some workers that contend that staff members are not encouraged to attend (even when workers are willing to pay the fee themselves) due to scheduling conflicts or their direct supervisors’ perceived disapproval. Thus, opportunities abound that may require an agency’s leadership endorsing them.

Aside from formal education programs agencies could send potential leaders through a multitude of leadership training sessions. There are training programs that provide the basic material focused on child welfare issues, while other sessions offer managerial and executive content areas. Progressing from basic training to executive sessions help provide the individual with a well-rounded picture. Such programs not only help the individual acquire new skills, it shows the person that they’re valued by the agency, and that they should stick with the organization.

In addition to education and training programs, organizations can support emerging leaders by giving them additional assignments. An example of this could include sending an individual to represent the organization at a national conference. The Child Welfare League of America offers such an event annually, whereby participants from across the country head to Washington, D.C. each winter for the League’s national conference. A highlight of the event is when delegates from each State head to Capitol Hill to advocate before their congressional delegation. Another example could include having the individual research, organize and oversee a specialized training program for staff members. These are but two of an endless list of opportunities for the identified emerging leader.

Lastly, in Appelstein’s Train the Trainer course for supervisors he notes that workers who desire to be a supervisor should make their ambition known. This makes perfect sense but sometimes it is difficult to do. Some workers might think that a lack of training/education would be an automatic disqualifier. Others may fear straining the relationship with their supervisor if their ambitions are put forth. The way to counter this would be for organizations to encourage staff members to come forward (to a designated individual) if they want to find out about internal promotion. When an agency has these requirements (plan for promoting staff) in writing it should shared with all members of the agency team. Even if the organization does not have immediate openings in the key positions, they can help to groom tomorrow’s leadership in the child welfare field.

A summation of ways that organizations might support emerging leaders is as follows:

  1. Offer educational opportunities to staff without “proper degrees” or at least make them aware of programs that can help them in this endeavor;
  2. Provide for specialized leadership training programs;
  3. Find applicable tasks for the individual as they await promotion;
  4. Encouraging potential leaders to identify themselves.
Planning Makes Perfect

Given that there are multiple traits and skill sets required of effective leaders, agencies should have applicable plans in place. This would include strategic and succession plans. (In addition, the agency might have a document in place that notes the requirements for promotion within the organization.) After all, not only do agencies need to know where they are going, and how they will get there, but they also need to know who will take them there. This is especially true if a member of the leadership team is planning to leave their position in less than three years. The strategic plan describes the “where” and the “how”, and the succession plan helps discern the “whom.”

While planning for the future may be an uncomfortable topic for some, without it the organization is taking a chance that they’ll continue being led by the right individual. Sometimes this is okay – the gamble pays off; other times it does not. The question remains: When we work in a field where our leaders need to be business minded, emotionally intelligent, top notch advocates, effective fundraisers, good communicators, and team builders, why do we assume that such individuals are a dime a dozen?


Appelstein, C. (2005). Train the Trainers: Understanding, Modeling, and Teaching the Core Principles and Techniques of Residential Treatment. Salem, NH: Appelsetin Professional Services.

Mays, C. (1991). A Strategy for Winning. New York, NY: Lincoln-Bradley Publishing Group.

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