Three Questions for a Social Work Leader, with Erin McAleer

Erin McAleer, '05, (center) and current MSW students and faculty during the latest installment of BCSSW's Leadership Luncheon series.

Erin McAleer, ’05, (center) and current MSW students and faculty during the latest installment of BCSSW’s Leadership Luncheon series.

Erin McAleer, MSW ’05, represents an emerging brand of social work leader – one who is advocating for social justice in a position of influence. For much of her career, this has meant working in government: McAleer was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s Director of Cabinet Affairs, and a Legislative Director in the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Following the end of Patrick’s tenure as governor this January, McAleer made the switch to the non-profit sector, where she is now the Director of the Boston Opportunity Project, a new initiative from Be The Change, Inc. designed to address child poverty in the city. 

On March 13, McAleer was invited to the Boston College School of Social Work to share her expertise with students as the latest featured guest in the school’s Leadership Speakers Luncheon Series. During her talk, McAleer told the group how her background has been instrumental in gaining a foothold in the public sector.

“McAleer’s role as a social worker, according to her employers, was actually a determining factor in gaining employment in government,” writes one student. “This became a theme throughout the entire conversation. She described how her values as a social worker were able to inform her decision-making as an executive official and the advice she offered to the governor. She, rightfully so, took pride in sometimes being the dissenting voice in the room because she understood the potential human impact of the choices made by the administration.”

Here, McAleer speaks with BC Social Work about the impact social workers can have on policy, the importance of forging a personal leadership style, and what a strong network can mean for a career.

What does it mean to be a social worker in 2015?

Erin McAleer: I believe that we’re circling back to where we started, with renewed emphases on advocacy and social justice. We’re in a time of rebirth, where the profession is expanding exponentially. There are now opportunities for social workers outside of the traditional understandings of what social workers are and do. Not only do we continue to make a major difference on the ground in day-to-day interactions with clients, but we are also playing key roles in leadership at non-profits and in government. We are CEOs and directors, guided by a social work framework and a passion for social justice, with unique experiences that bring insight, versatility, and innovative perspective to the table. It’s such an exciting time for our field.

Tell us about the most important lesson you’ve learned as a leader in the field. 

EM: Be comfortable with your own style. Throughout my career, I have learned that there are many different ways to be a leader, and often, in aspiring to climb the ladder, you can find yourself trying to adopt the styles of others. I tried this, but it doesn’t work. You have to be true to yourself.

As a professional with a social work education, I’ve learned to take advantage of my interpersonal skills, and discover the needs of the people I work with. Developing an understanding of the work styles around me has helped to inform the way I lead. In my experience, the top-down or command-and-control framework just doesn’t work. I prefer a more grassroots approach to leadership.

What recommendations do you have for those who aspire to be social work leaders in the future?

EM: Focus on building your networks. Strong relationships, across sectors and across communities, are very important, and could lead to new opportunities throughout your career. You have to take the time to network though, which isn’t always easy since we are all so busy. Get out there, and meet people, and stay in touch professionally. I can’t tell you how many times in my career various contacts have come through and made a positive impact on me, or on a project I’m working on.

“Three Questions for a Social Work Leader” is a recurring column at Innovate@BCSW, designed to share some of the knowledge imparted to the Boston College community by social work professionals from beyond our campus walls.  

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