Central New York Ladder to Leadership Fellow Embraces Professional and Personal Obstacles in New Role; Sustains Momentum

A Profile of Cassandra C. Sheets, LMSW

    • April 10, 2013

Sustaining impact. "It's been an inevitable journey, and one that I wouldn't trade for the world," said Sheets. Now, into the third year of a multi-agency merger—having broken through professional boundaries, taken on oversight of a $2.1 million budget, and acknowledgement of defining personal circumstances, which have bourgeoned her leadership skills—Sheets has truly gained her stride. In large part, she attributes her new found professional perseverance to the leadership skills gained early in her career after being accepted into Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a program created for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.

"The knowledge gained from my experience with Ladder to Leadership was, what do you call it? Life-changing. It's enabled me to build and sustain the type of human service agency that I envisioned benefiting my community, for years to come."

Flashback to 2007. Within the first year of taking on her new role as executive director of the Mohawk Valley Council on Alcoholism/Addictions in Utica, N.Y., Sheets faced challenges, and felt the frustrations of being "new into leadership." "When I took on this new role, I sometimes forgot to listen and that created some professional difficulties, because I wasn't being open with my board, staff and colleagues. Transparency was lacking those first few years," said Sheets. However, since then, she's made it a point to be transparent. "Now, I'm always striving to do better and be more transparent ... it's made me a better leader."

Defining personal circumstances. As an undergraduate at Niagara University in Niagara, N.Y., Sheets had originally pursued the study of retail management. But then, "just as a fluke," she took an industrial psychology class, and was soon fascinated by "the world of employee assistance programs—how businesses formulated safety issues and took care of employees so they could be safe," Sheets recalled. "I liked the fast pace—and the fact that while businesses are involved in creating revenue, their main resources are human, and they have to take care of them."

Sheets next took a course in social work, and found herself concentrating on workplace issues, particularly those related to drugs and alcohol. She graduated in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a minor in social work, and then received her master's degree in occupational social work from Syracuse University in 1995.

Early in her career, Sheets worked as a Communities That Care coordinator with United Way of the Valley and Greater Utica Area and as a consultant to nonprofit human services organizations in central New York. She was repeatedly drawn to developing and coordinating programs, particularly those focusing on alcoholism, addiction, and substance abuse. For a long time, she didn't understand or acknowledge how personal circumstances had influenced her career choices.

"I grew up in a rural town not far from Utica, N.Y., and I had a pretty typical childhood. But there was alcoholism in our family. It wasn't a dysfunctional family—normal upbringing—but we had an elephant in the living room, and it was alcoholism."

Sheets kept the details of her personal history to herself when she was named executive director of the Mohawk Valley Council on Alcoholism/Addictions in 2007— an organization she had worked with in various capacities for almost 10 years.

She didn't know it at the time, but during that first year, some of the professional problems she encountered were directly connected to her personal experiences— which Sheets had never thought were relevant to her professional life. "I wasn't being honest with myself. When I opened up, I realized that one of the greatest traits of being a good leader is having the ability to convey trust and insight and confidence in your staff. The ability to meld personal and professional circumstances—into a positive outcome—is the greatest sign of true leadership."

"I came to grips with the fact that a lot of my family history really affected what I did. I had separated the two domains, and I learned they are not always separate.”—Cassandra Sheets

Ladder to Leadership. From 2008 to 2012, Ladder to Leadership sought to develop a cadre of leaders to enhance the capacity of nonprofit health organizations that serve vulnerable populations, and to cope with an exodus of senior leaders as the baby boom generation retires. The program trained early-to-mid-career professionals to nurture organizational change and work across organizational barriers, develop more constituent-focused services, and adapt innovations from other fields.

The 16-month program included training sessions at the the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., one-on-one coaching and mentoring, and a team project focusing on fellows' own communities. Over five years, Ladder to Leadership trained 219 health care professionals in eight cities and regions: Albuquerque, N.M.; Birmingham, Ala.; central New York state; Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Newark, N.J.; eastern North Carolina; and Portland, Ore.

From 2008 to 2009, Cassandra C. Sheets, LMSW, was one of 30 fellows in the central New York cohort, representing seven rural counties with an 8.9 percent unemployment rate and a 15 percent poverty rate at the time.

A life-altering experience. Through the evaluation tools Ladder to Leadership used to analyze the fellows, Sheets came to appreciate her unique leadership skills and "the tools they gave us to work with what we have." During the program, Sheets also confronted why she had not considered herself "a high-level achiever, and a person who was a good leader.... There were times when I really struggled," she admitted. "But I can now acknowledge, 'I'm really good.' "

But the most "life-altering" change Sheets experienced was making the connection between her workplace struggles and personal experiences. "I came to grips with the fact that a lot of my family history affected what I did professionally.

"I had separated the two domains, and what I learned is that they are not always separate. I had to learn be more transparent—to be more open to people, and more trusting."

Attaining a personal milestone. Shortly after Sheets completed the Ladder to Leadership program, a funder approached her about whether her agency could partner with Family Services of the Mohawk Valley. By combining agencies, all agreed, they could eliminate service duplications and save money. The community would be better served in a difficult resource-scarce climate. "Had I not gained the knowledge and skills from the program, I would not have had the confidence to help spearhead that process," Sheets says.

She became CEO of the new organization, Center for Family Life and Recovery. She now manages a $2.1 million budget—up from her previous budget of $500,000, oversees 62 employees, three site locations and 32 diverse program offerings. She is also working with the area's community foundation and other community leaders to revamp leadership training programs and develop succession plans for nonprofit leaders—the focus of her group project during Ladder to Leadership.

"If I could impart any piece of advice to individuals new in a leadership role, it would be to take the time to listen. Listen to your staff, colleagues and board. Their experiences are innumerable, and sometimes personal circumstances get in the way of allowing us to really 'hear' what they're saying," says Sheets.

RWJF perspective. RWJF has nurtured leaders in health and health care since its inception. "The Foundation's Human Capital Portfolio aims to ensure that we have a diverse and adequately trained health and health care workforce," said Program Officer Sallie Anne George, MPH. "The Foundation has a 40-year history of supporting the development of 'human capital.' However, we saw a gap concerning the leadership capacity of community nonprofits. We designed Ladder to Leadership to close that gap."

"We recognized that many nonprofit leaders are so focused on providing services to the most vulnerable that they are not looking to see where they fit into the larger system, and where it makes sense to collaborate," George noted. "We hoped that Ladder to Leadership fellows would gain confidence in their ability to lead regardless of their formal position, to think more strategically, and to collaborate effectively.

"There is evidence that we are strengthening collaboration in communities, and hopefully leading them to be healthier places to live, learn, work, and play."