Career Saver: Albuquerque Ladder to Leadership Fellow Finds a New Job to Match Her Leadership Style

    • April 10, 2013

The challenge. As the executive director of a nonprofit health care organization in Albuquerque, N.M., Deborah Hoffman knew that her leadership approach wasn't working—for her or the organization. Should she leave the agency? Should she leave the health care arena all together? The only thing certain, said Hoffman, was that "my attitudes about being a leader were negative."

Community health as a second career. All Hoffman had ever wanted to be was a writer. After majoring in English at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Hoffman worked in marketing, advertising, communications, and public relations from 1984 to 1996, creating materials for high-profile clients such as Eddie Bauer in Redmond, Wash., and W.L. Gore & Associates, maker of Gore-Tex fabric, in Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M.

As much as she enjoyed that career, she said, she turned "the magic age of 40 and didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing that." She got a master's degree in creative writing from the University of New Mexico, wrote a novel that was never published ("I'm proud that I finished it."), and returned to the university to teach creative writing and composition to undergraduates.

While attending graduate school and teaching, Hoffman heard about Team in Training, a fundraising program for the local chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The program trains athletes to participate in marathons, bike rides, triathlons, and hikes while raising money to help cure blood cancers.

Hoffman signed up to race in Maui, Hawaii, became a volunteer for the organization, and joined its staff full time in 2002 as campaign manager. Over the next five years she was promoted to campaign director and then managing director, and was named executive director in November 2007. "I just slipped sideways into this career," she admitted.

Connecting with a leadership program. In her new position as executive director, Hoffman couldn't help but remember the words of her grandmother, a Russian immigrant who spent most of her working years as a seamstress in a New York sweatshop. "Don't let the bosses take advantage of you," she often told her granddaughter.

The memory triggered a deep ambivalence, Hoffman recalled. "How could I lead a staff of 10 if bosses were bad? I ended up managing rather than leading, in the way that I responded to best. My style was hands off, assuming that people would do their best with limited direction. Unfortunately, that didn't prove effective."

By the end of 2009, her organization was in chaos under her struggling leadership, Hoffman acknowledges. "The office staff fell into warring camps, gossip became rampant, and goals weren't being met. I felt powerless to change the situation."

But then the unexpected happened, in the form of a postcard from the Albuquerque Community Foundation, announcing Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a program created for the Robert Wood Foundation (RWJF) by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. Hoffman applied, and was accepted.

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 Center for Creative Leadership, one-on-one coaching and mentoring, and a team action 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 2009 to 1010, Hoffman was one of 31 fellows in the Albuquerque cohort, representing a region with a 6.9 percent unemployment rate and a 14.8 percent poverty rate at the time.

A new perspective spurs change. Hoffman soon realized that holding onto her grandmother's beliefs about leaders was detrimental—not only to her organization but also to herself. Through the program, she said, "I understood that people need leaders."

That recognition came directly from the program's evaluations and group interactions, Hoffman attests. After studying different leadership styles, analyzing her own, and participating in Ladder to Leadership projects, she learned, "I do have what it takes to be a leader, and that my leadership style is collaborative.

Hoffman also began to understand why she was unhappy in her position. The fact that her boss at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society wrote a very unflattering review of her work (part of the training's "360-degree analysis") was difficult to acknowledge, but confirmed Hoffman's suspicions that she was in the wrong place. The process and the realization, she said, were both "enlightening and painful."

The result? In May 2010, during her second training session at the Center for Creative Leadership, Hoffman made the decision to leave the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. "I came to the conclusion that the culture wasn't a good fit, regardless of my belief in the mission," she said. "It was scary to leave without another job lined up, but I had gained enough confidence in my ability to, as they say at the Center for Creative Leadership, 'trust the process.'"

Hoffman finished the leadership program in December 2010 with heightened self-awareness and self-confidence. Wanting "to see what it was like to not be a leader," she dabbled for a while in marketing and communications for several organizations, but "found it frustrating. I realized that I wanted to put what I had learned during Ladder to Leadership to use."

Attaining personal milestones. She returned to the health care community in November 2011, when she was named executive director of the American Lung Association in New Mexico. Part of her work entails collaborating with legislators and communities throughout the state to curb the use of tobacco products. "I am looking to be the anti-tobacco voice" in New Mexico, she said.

Now, she says, "I understand my strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and work harder than ever. I also enjoy myself more and feel that I have learned to use the tools where I can be successful and make a difference in New Mexico." She now works with another Ladder to Leadership graduate at the American Lung Association, and remains in close touch with other Ladder to Leadership fellows from her cohort. "Whenever we need help, we call each other."

"It wouldn't be an exaggeration," concluded Hoffman, "to say that Ladder to Leadership saved my career."

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."

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#LadderToLeadership trained 31 pro's in New Mexico to lead health care nonprofits, including Hoffman

"Whenever we need help, we call each other.”—Deborah Hoffman, on remaining in touch with other program fellows from New Mexico