Ben Sher is currently the Director of the Office of Global and Lifelong Learning at the Silver School of Social Work. Prior to this position, Ben held numerous titles at the Institute for Community Living, Inc., (ICL) a behavioral healthcare agency serving metropolitan New Yorkers with mental illness and/or developmental disabilities. He began his career at ICL as a Program Director overseeing residential services. He served in this role for eight years when he transitioned to Director of Training and Staff Development, overseeing all clinical, regulatory and student development activities at ICL. In addition to this work, Ben has been an Adjunct Instructor with Metropolitan College of New York in the School for Public Administration, and Public Affairs, CUNY/Queensborough Community College and the NYU Silver School of Social Work.
Number of years in management: More than 10 years
Tell us about your path to management:
Because I was a Reduced Residency student who was using my job as my internship experience, and I was working to train social workers placing people with mental illness into housing, I was “tracked” at Columbia for the Social Work Administration practice area. At first, I was disappointed by this because I thought my heart was in direct clinical practice. When my classes started to teach me about program development, macro interventions, program evaluation and financial models, I gained a strong interest in administrative social work practice. The idea of running programs and influencing policy at a larger level became important to me. I have found that I can always supplement my administrative work with clinical practice (and have). I felt that this path to management has opened more doors for me as a professional.
What leadership qualities do you find to be most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals?
I would say Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership resonates deeply with me. I respond to the idea that we are here to serve those we lead, and to empower them to be strong leaders themselves. I believe strongly that a leader cannot lead without people who believe in mission and vision, and have tried to engender that in the leadership roles I have had throughout my career. I have asked my team to define what the mission or vision means specifically for them, and how they contribute to its existence. Mission statements can be slogans on a wall unless people really know how they are making them living things.
How do you motivate your team members?
A lot of direct praise and encouragement for the things they do. I would rather catch people doing right than focus on what they do wrong. Yes, sometimes we have to talk about the challenges, but I see these as opportunities for growth rather than as problems. I want my team to feel that their voice is valuable in decisions; I may have to make the final call, but I know the best decisions are made in context of the team and not by myself. I also buy a lot of little things for the office, like food. Perhaps this is trite, yet it tells my staff I am thinking of them if I pass a new bakery or eatery and pick up something for them.
Is there a leader or mentor who has inspired you along your professional journey?
“One who will always stand out to me is the first person in my management life who took a greater interest in my development than just as a manager. This person really wanted to see me grow in my role, and offered me a lot of opportunities to interact and access stretch activities that honed my presentation, organizational and professional skills. I still hear this person’s voice in my head when faced with a leadership question and ask myself, “”What would they do?”” Usually the answer I get is the right one and guides me to success in my work. Another person was my field instructor. This person taught me “”there is process in everything””. Keeping this in mind has helped me negotiate many administrative challenges. For example, it helps me understand why someone may act a certain way in a meeting.”
.How has networking impacted your career?
Networking is essential in management. I would say that all my job changes occurred because of the networks I had made. I know sometime people feel this is an area of discomfort for them, yet I think networking can come in many shapes and sizes. Even establishing a relationship with a colleague who does similar work to you in another setting is a network. They might have ideas and know people they are in touch with who can assist you when you need it. Practice and slowly brining yourself out of your comfort zone (and rewarding yourself for doing so) is a great way to start networking. A lot of people talk about how hard it is to network – so we are all in the same boat, so to speak.
What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions?
Ask for help. Sometimes we think because we are placed in a certain role, we are expected to know everything. The learning curve for something new is about six months to a year. Make it your business to find the right people who have answers to your questions. This may not always be the person you directly report to. It could be the administrative assistant who has been with the company for 20 years, or the person who works in the office right next to you. And keep your supervisor informed. Let them know what you are up to, even if they don’t ask for it regularly. Perhaps a weekly email summarizing your activities, or a quick memo. That way they know what you are doing in your role.
Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?
I am excited to be in a place now where I can offer my services as a trainer and consultant around workplace safety. I have been passionate about this issue for 15 years, and now have the opportunity to help organizations see why it is crucial to have policies and procedures that keep their employees safe. It is great to use my experiential learning (both good and bad) to help organizations to consider why this is a crucial area of success to their bottom line. The ROI is that safe and satisfied workers are more productive people.
What do you wish you had known before you started your career?
That it is okay to apply a business model to one’s career in the helping profession. I think too often human service professionals think they are doing a disservice to their clientele if they focus on financial security for themselves. I think we can do both – help people and still make sure we are living a comfortable life. I know this sounds antithetical to our practice values, yet I also think it fits into the idea that if we as professionals are not in a good place, we cannot be in a good place for our clients, whoever they are. I DO think that once we have established financial security, we do have a responsibility to use it wisely and to give back where and whenever we can. To do anything else would be unethical.
Share a mistake or failure that provided the most growth in your career.
The biggest mistake for me came in when I did the opposite of what I said above about advice to new professionals. I was feeling overwhelmed in a leadership role that was growing in responsibility very quickly. I did not tell my boss and this ultimately ended up hurting my health. I have learned now that I should keep my supervisor in the loop about things and not believe that I always have all the answers. I think this experience really shaped my understanding of how crucial teamwork is in the human services profession.
To contact Benjamin Sher for any inquiries please contact him through Linkedin …
*The views expressed herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily endorsed by the Network for Social Work Management.