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Keith Ekhator, EdD, LSSW, LMSW, CCTP, Coordinator for the School Social Work Department with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

Keith Ekhator currently serves as a Coordinator for the School Social Work Department with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. After graduation, Keith launched his career as a social worker for the local education agency where he has worked serving the needs of many economically disadvantaged families and youth. This opportunity eventually led to a five-year path to a leadership role where he is able to effectively implement change on a Macro scale. His passion for social work has guided him to serve as an Adjunct Professor for Tennessee State University’s Social Work department where he has created course curriculum for the Institution and taught classes on Social Welfare Policy, Policy Analysis and School Social Work. Keith has made State and national presentations for many professional groups, most recently on Toxic Stressors/ Adverse Childhood Experiences at the Tennessee School Social Work conference.

When Keith isn’t helping in an operational capacity, he enjoys spending time with his family, playing video games, and working out. One of his more recent successes includes his recent completion of the Doctor of Education in Leadership & Professional Practice at Trevecca Nazarene University. Keith is a servant leader that values the importance of learner, collaboration, and empowering people to best person they can be.

Number of years in management: 

Tell us about your path to management: 

My journey into the path of management has been quite the experience. Originally, I wanted to be a direct practitioner and provide high quality clinical social work services, however, someone had different plans for me. During my internship, I was serving as a Crisis Counselor and Suicide Prevention Specialist at one of the local non-profit agencies. While there, I received the “Intern of the Year” award and at this time I must have caught the eye of the President of the agency. I remember her telling me, “You have the spirit and demeanor of a leader, and I see bright things in your future.” This brief interaction led to an opportunity to serve as a field student serving under her leadership. This was an eye-opening experience. As much as I wanted to run from my calling as a leader, I couldn’t. I have always felt unworthy to lead others, but I always had the burning desire to see a change to many different broken systems. Thus, I applied for the current role I am in now as an act of faith, and to my surprise, I was blessed with the opportunity to serve. It has been a very humbling experience as I had to garner the respect of my colleagues while helping my Supervisor develop her vision of the social work department. In this role, I have learned and developed so many tools in research & analysis, effective leadership skills, and program quality improvement. I now embrace my role as a trailblazer in the field of social work, and I would like to do nothing more than to be an asset to others that aspire to lead.

What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals? 

I found the most effective qualities that helped me reach my current position to include the following: integrity, humility, empathy, resilience, vision, and compassion. I am a servant leader and each of these qualities are necessary to help me focus my attention to the needs of my team. I try to incorporate the ideas and views of my people, give them unconditional support and involve their perspective in the decision-making process. It is my belief that this leadership style helps me to be a more engaging and successful leader.

How do you motivate your team members?

It is very important to always give special attention to the morale of my team. To do this, I try to incorporate a work environment where people feel valued. I frequently remind employees that they are part of a team that really appreciates their services. Additionally, as a department, we offer many professional development opportunities to help our colleagues grow. These trainings offer team members the chance to advance their knowledge about the latest interventions and skills to help them to have a greater sense of confidence in working with their clients. More importantly, my leadership style fosters collaboration within the team. I encourage people to fully participate by inviting their input and suggestions. It is definitely a goal of mine to lead with my people in mind. More importantly, I make it a routine to discuss self-care with my colleagues and remind them to take their mental health breaks.

Is there a leader or mentor who has inspired or assisted you along your professional journey? 

I take inspiration from many sources. Though the most influential inspiration would have to be my mother, that also was a social worker. Growing up, I always admired her kindness, wisdom, and compassion toward others. She always goes out of her way to put others first and to lead with the people’s interest in mind. My mom’s presence and influence reminds me that there is a higher power and to always try to do the right thing for all people.

How has networking impacted your career? 

Networking is an invaluable tool for my role as a leader. Through connecting with others, I am able to help develop and improve my skill set, stay on top of relevant research, gain access to resources, and connect with high-quality professionals, partners, and clients.  Networking is a mutual exchange of knowledge and resources between colleagues which has been extremely helpful in advancing the department I work for.

What are you reading and/or following now (books, blogs, social media groups, etc.)?

What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions?

The best advice I have to offer those new to the leadership position is to stay humble, be a good listener and have a growth mindset. Humility will remind you that leadership is a shared experience that should be a memento that all teammates are equally important. This reminds me of Thomas Reid’s quote, “Your chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” If you want to know the level of strength of an organization, then you only have to look to the weakest link. Therefore, it is imperative that all team members are treated with just as much importance as the CEO.

One that values being a good listener will understand that the people’s voice is important to the work. When people enjoy coming to work each day, they will produce high-quality work and be able to make it through even the toughest day. Supporting my people is one of the most important qualities that I value, and it has helped me to be successful as a leader.

People that have a growth mindset are able to see every obstacle and setback as a learning opportunity. This a wisdom that can be applied to any individual, group or organizational success. In retrospect, each of the qualities can be recommendations for new and seasoned leaders alike.

Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?

I would like for anyone reading this to understand the importance of marketing your profession, especially those that are social workers. My dissertation research has shown that it is of great importance that social workers educate the public about their roles. Relevant research on the perception of social workers has shown that the general public does not have a clear understanding of what social workers do. When social workers are able to educate the public about their roles and skills, they are able to positively influence people’s view and level of confidence in the profession.

What do you wish you had known before you started your career?

Prior to starting my career as a social worker, I wish I had known that self-care was as important as I know it to be today. I incorporated a self-care regimen shortly after the start of my first job as a therapist and case manager. This was helpful to my success in such an emotionally taxing field of social work. Likewise, this would have been invaluable to know should I applied this while in my Master of Social Work program. My internship and graduate program were an extremely challenging experience. It taught me a lot about myself, but most importantly, to know my limits and to not push myself too hard. To provide some context, I worked a full-time job, I was enrolled in a one-year advance standing social work program and worked at a field placement five days a week for seven hours a day. Self-care should be an integral part of social work. It is an ethical obligation to the field for anyone that does not have a self-care plan to get and maintain one.

Share a mistake or failure that provided the most growth in your career.

I do not see my shortcomings or obstacles as mistakes or failures. Life has a way of teaching lessons that can either better you or burden you, should you view them as such. I had to learn to see failures as an opportunity to try something different or to modify what already exists. The most memorable obstacle would have to be my college experience. I quit college on the very first day with the intent of not going back. This opportunity provided me with the greatest prospect of advancing my life. During my time away from school, I was able to grow spiritually and find my purpose in life. Once I had a purpose for serving in life, I have been successful in many aspects of my career. I am a stronger person physically and mentally which has helped me to be a better leader.

Where can people reach you for questions (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail address)?

The views expressed herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily endorsed by the Network for Social Work Management.

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