Thinking Strategically Is Key to Leadership for Lesli Suggs
Lesli Suggs: It is my responsibility to ensure that we continue to lead in the ever-changing world of child welfare.
After being the first in her family to graduate college, Lesli Suggs became a social worker, which led to a career in management and, ultimately, to her current role as the first social worker in a generation to lead The Home for Little Wanderers, America’s oldest child welfare agency.
This is her story.
Growing up in Texas as the granddaughter of sharecroppers, I was the first one on both sides of my family to go to college and graduate. My father saw education as the great equalizer, and he was determined to give me and my sisters that opportunity. I attended Texas Christian University on a scholarship, intending to major in music.
I soon figured out I wasn’t going to be a Paris opera singer or teach music, and switched majors. Social work intrigued me, and I had liked volunteering growing up. I began thinking about ways to give back.
After graduating, I was drawn to Massachusetts and interested in its politics, so I packed up a U-Haul and moved to the Commonwealth in 1988 for my first job at the Key Program in Pittsfield as a direct-care counselor. Though I made $17,000 a year, working 60-80 hours a week, I loved the work.
At the Key Program, and later, while running programs in Fall River, New Bedford, Plymouth, and on the Cape, I saw firsthand children who were in truly unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own. They were struggling mightily—either with family or without family—with a variety of issues, whether it was poverty, income instability, mental health concerns, or substance abuse. I also saw the impact we could have.
Throughout my life, I have naturally moved into positions of leadership, even as a young adult. When working at Six Flags, I was the foreperson of the Mine Train, managing the roller coaster and ride staff and, later, at Woolworth, I oversaw the health and beauty counter. I like managing and running things, identifying efficiencies, creating high-performance teams and thinking strategically.
Increased levels of responsibility, combined with a passion for the work itself, kept me in the field of child welfare.
After receiving my master’s degree in social work from Simmons College, I worked at Comcare Services as coordinator of specialized foster care. From there, I oversaw program operations at Health & Education Services, Inc., and served as vice president at Communities for People, Inc. before joining The Home in January 2011 as senior director of behavioral health and community-based services.
Along my journey, I discovered that my ability to think clinically as well as strategically further heightened the impact of each organization.
While working as senior director, where foster care and adoption were part of my portfolio, I created the Permanency Initiative, the foundation that has since become central to The Home’s more than 25 programs. Permanency is the idea that every child should grow up in safe, loving surroundings.
The need for this fundamental shift in thinking became clear to me when we were working with the Boston College School of Social Work on ways to integrate adoption theory into our foster care programs.
During those discussions, we decided to cohost a conference exploring how to put permanency into practice. After hearing an amazing young woman, who was attending UMass Boston at the time, express that she was still longing for family at age 19, I thought, “The Home needs to do that. I want us to do that.”
When I became vice president of program operations in 2013, I began executing the Permanency Initiative, creating a strategic task force to help us implement new internal practices and advocating externally about why this shift is so important. Now, as president and CEO, permanency work is baked into everything we do.
Ten to 15 years ago, I also began to lean into policy and started using my voice in that way. Policy and how you implement policy can have a direct and dramatic effect on the vulnerable populations we serve and on the human service workforce. I am active on many boards, associations, and government coalitions and am as vocal about issues like fair wages for the highly credentialed, highly skilled professionals in our sector as I am about ending youth homelessness. There is a strategy to how you frame an issue, how it gets traction, and who pays attention.
As CEO of an organization with such a legacy and longevity, it is my responsibility to ensure that we continue to lead in the ever-changing world of child welfare, and leverage all that we know, in the very best way we know how, to do more good for kids. We have always pushed when giving voice to children, and that will be the case long after I am CEO.