PolicyLink Director Mildred Thompson Discusses Her Path to Management

18 Apr 2016 | PolicyLink
PolicyLink Director Mildred Thompson Discusses Her Path to Management

This cross-posted blog is part of the Monday Morning Manager Blog Series hosted by The Network for Social Management. The series features a weekly post about a manager who embodies the Network's Human Service Management Competencies and can serve as an excellent example to others striving to improve their management skills. This week's featured post features the Directror of the PolicyLink Center for Health Equity and Place, Mildred Thompson.

Tell us about your path to management:
Having graduated from NYU in the late 1970’s, I thought I was on the path to my dream of being a clinical social worker, working with children and families. I did live this dream, but only for six years. I was an excellent clinician and did some really significant work with the 12-14 year-olds and their families I was assigned to, but in the back of my mind there were serious questions about how these young children became so damaged. I was working with those that had been written off as the most severely disturbed; children who were fire starters, who had beaten up their parents, siblings, and peers; and were thrown out of regular school and stigmatized as socially unacceptable. They were truly outcasts, placed on an island right outside Harlem. Wards Island was home of the state hospital for adults and later a facility was built for children, both for those who lived there, away from their families, and those who attended a day program.

I was unafraid of the challenge. I had begun my career as a 21-year-old head nurse at the famous Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric unit, heading a locked ward for “elite” mentally ill adults. I thought working with children would offer an upstream or preventative pathway to health and wellness. So, my journey continued. Along the way there were deep questions which led to a lifelong inquiry on what conditions contributed to good health and resilience. How was it that two siblings experiencing the same family dynamics had very different responses? What were the resiliency factors that served to protect one and left another strikingly vulnerable? The more I worked with children, the clearer it became that to have a positive impact, I had to engage the families. And I began doing in-home family therapy, because my “theory of change” was that that’s where it all starts and that’s where the work was needed; less on the identified child and more on examining family functioning.

However, as I continued the inquiry, I realized there were additional layers and causative factors that impacted one’s state of physical, emotional, and spiritual heath. Families lived in communities, communities are governed by systems, and public policies shape systems. I learned early on that families and children are often at the effect of inadequate and inequitable systems and policies. Compounding all of these systemic barriers is the shameful legacy of racism, since most of the children in the institution were children of color; African American and Puerto Rican children with families living in poverty. So, I had a choice: either I continue working downstream, trying to help the sea of suffering brown children, one child and family at a time or chart a new course, working upstream by changing malfunctioning systems and policies.

My management career began after leaving New York and moving to Oakland, CA and eventually landing a job as Director of Social Work at a multicultural community clinic. In less than a year, I was asked to replace the center director. I had natural leadership skills that emerged early on and were nurtured by a seasoned mentor. It was on the job training in a very supportive environment. From there, I moved into senior leadership roles within the county public health department, continually increasing my leadership skills, style, and capacity, and eventually becoming director of a new division focused on integrating community health within the health department. So, my pathway of influence continued to unfold, from having individual impact as a psychiatric social worker, to being a family therapist, attempting to impact family dynamics -- then transitioning into system work through the community health clinic and public health department and landing into policy, the final chapter in impacting change!

It would seem admirable if I had this realization early on in my career. I did not, but I had the good sense to be obedient to opportunities continually opening up to me. I remained curious and learned as much as I could and had probing conversations with a range of people, read a lot, and participated in learning circles, constantly seeking answers to why and how and what my contributions could be. I was committed to making a difference and made this my life work. So, for the past 17 years I have worked within a policy organization, PolicyLink, influencing change through system and policy change. This is truly where substantive long-term change happens.

In summary, I am continually on my journey of learning how to be a better person than I was yesterday. Assessing when to pass the baton to the next generation of leaders. Determining how to walk every day with clarity, substance, and grace -- even in the face of challenges and setbacks. My aim is to remain balanced, to practice self-care. I try to remember my training grounds -- in school, home, and places of spiritual development. I have come to rely on my inner voice. I surround myself with people who “get me” and those who challenge me to my higher self. I do my art, listen to music, travel, and read books that stimulate, inspire, and teach.

How do you motivate your team members?
Motivating team members begins with supporting them, giving them space to lead and take risks, knowing when to step back and when to step in. It means allowing them to do it their way, even though you have a proven track record that your way has produced results. It requires patience and intentionally investing in your team.

What are you reading and/or following now (e.g. book, blog, social media groups, etc.)?
One book I am now reading is Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change by Adam Kahane, it's an exploration of ways to solve some of our nation’s most pressing challenges through balancing both power and love.

What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions?
For newly emerging leaders it is important to adopt new values and skills. Social work was an excellent training ground for me, allowing me to examine situations and apply an analysis based on those early clinical trainings. But as the context changes, managers and leaders must be flexible, self-reflective, constantly growing, keeping everyone engaged and actively listening. There must also be a willingness to step back and allow the natural leadership within groups to emerge. Critical throughout all of this must be an impeccable sense of integrity and humility. It is possible to be firm, effective, and caring.

To contact Mildred Thompson for any inquiries please email her at mildred@policylink.org.