Making a Difference: The Ladder to Leadership Program

May 16, 2011, 8:00 AM, Posted by

This is the first in an ongoing series of Voices from the Field guest posts by scholars, fellows and alumni of RWJF Human Capital programs. The author, Cassandra Sheets, L.M.S.W., is a fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Creative Leadership’s Ladder to Leadership program.


It’s been barely 15 months since I completed my RWJF Ladder to Leadership fellowship, and I’m struck by two things. First, to my great surprise, I think I might have put almost everything I learned to use already, and second, it couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I can’t imagine what the last year might have been like if I hadn’t been through the program.

A newly posted story over on the RWJF Web site tells the tale. But the short version is that I was recently appointed CEO of the Center for Family Life and Recovery (CFLR), Inc., in Utica, New York, to guide the organization that we’re creating out of the merger of two family-serving organizations in the region. I know such mergers have been common in the last couple of years, driven in many cases by economic pressure from the recession.

The recession was certainly at work in our merger, and part of the purpose was to create more stable financial footing for the services we provide families. A lot of them are struggling with addiction in a variety of forms. We provide them with counseling and family support, alcoholism and addiction treatment support services, training and education, as well as mentoring and advocacy on their behalf.

That can be very hard work, but it can also be extraordinarily rewarding. Our aggression reduction groups help kids and adults learn skills to avoid violence and hostility. Our counseling services help families facing a variety of problems with violence and addiction stay safe and get well. Positive outcomes are never ensured, and in many cases, our clients’ struggles will last a lifetime. But we know we help them, and we know that by the time many of them come to us, they’re running out of options.

That’s why it’s so important to our clients and our community that our work continues.

Before the merger, I was the executive director of one of those organizations, the Mohawk Valley Council on Alcoholism/Addictions. When I began my Ladder to Leadership fellowship, I had no idea the merger was in the offing. The new organization carries on most of the work of the two original organizations, but as anyone who has been through something similar will attest, it’s never quite as simple as combining agendas and changing the name on the door!

We’ve had challenges galore, beginning with defining and refining the mission of our new organization, and learning to think about the work we’ve all done and grown comfortable doing over the years in terms of that new mission. How do all our programs connect to each other? And to our new mission statement? And we’ve had funding challenges, too. Recession pressures forced our local United Way to cut back on one of our largest programs, with the result that we’re no longer able to offer a need-based sliding-scale for our counseling services at two sites. Of course, that’s happening just as the families and individuals we serve are being slammed by the very same economic pressures, driving up demand for our services.

Then there are all the challenges associated with easing our staff members’ understandable worries about what the merger will mean for the specific programs they’ve worked so long and hard to create and sustain, as well as their concerns about how the merger will affect them individually.

We were lucky to have strong support from the community along the way. The M&T Bank/Partners Trust Bank Charitable Fund and Utica National Foundation provided support during the merger that allowed us to get some critical consulting help and navigate some legal issues. Their support really helped us in our objective of being a role model for nonprofits in the community. In addition, the Community Foundation of Oneida and Herkimer Counties have been very supportive.

In dealing with all these issues, it feels to me as if I’ve called on every bit of learning I took from Ladder to Leadership! If I hadn’t gone through that intense 16-month process, I doubt I’d have had the confidence in myself as a leader to assure our staff and supporters that we can both weather this transition and sustain our organization despite the economy – much less do both at the same time. I can’t say that I get a good night’s sleep every night; there’s a lot to worry over. But gradually, we’re whittling down the problems to a manageable few, which is progress.

I learned a lot in the program and since about the critical role of communication with our staff and stakeholders—not assuming people know what’s going on and why, or even that they understand what I’m saying when they’re spooked by the prospect of change. Another big lesson for me was about patience. Some things in the life of an organization just take time to settle out, and I need to have faith that they will—faith that we’ll resolve complex issues, and that our people will make their peace with the transition.

For me, the Ladder to Leadership program was a terrific experience. And I can honestly say that I had no idea when I began it that I’d put its teachings to work so soon and so thoroughly. But it has made all the difference, and I think the services we provide the families in our area reflect that.

Cassandra Sheets, L.M.S.W., is the CEO of the Center for Family Life and Recovery in Utica, New York. She has spent well over a decade in the human services field in the areas of mental health and addiction, focusing primarily on program and fund development in nonprofit agencies. She has been an adjunct faculty member at Utica College’s Continuing Education Program and Mohawk Valley Community College, teaching classes on assertive communication, stress management and psychology. She is also a member of the National Health Promotion Associates’ national network of Certified LifeSkills Trainers, and a recipient of the 2008 Oneida County STOP-DWI Community Services Award. Sheets earned a master’s degree in social work from Syracuse University and presently holds a New York State social work license. She is a fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Creative Leadership’s Ladder to Leadership program.

Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders is a collaborative initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Creative Leadership. The program works to enhance the leadership capacity of community-based nonprofit health and health-related organizations serving vulnerable populations. Ladder to Leadership focuses on developing critical leadership competencies through an innovative leadership development curriculum. The program focuses on eight priority communities around the country. For more information, visit the Ladder to Leadership Web site.

Or learn more about all the RWJF Scholars and Fellows programs.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.