Cleveland Ladder to Leadership Fellow Embraces the Chance to Study Leadership - Not Just "Let It Happen"

    • April 10, 2013

The challenge. Habeebah Rasheed Grimes enjoyed her work as a clinical supervisor for troubled children in a behavioral health program in Cleveland. But after six years she had no idea what her next career step should be.

A career helping children. A Cleveland native, Grimes lived with her mother and brother after her parents' divorce, and their address depended on one criterion: good schools.

"My mom struggled with poverty early on, and she moved around until she thought that we were in the most effective place for education," recalled Grimes. "She knew that education was our and her road out of poverty. She always emphasized and modeled the importance of getting a good education and being a lifelong learner, to avoid the pitfalls of poverty and the challenges comingled with it."

As a high school senior, Grimes knew she wanted a career helping children. She initially planned to be a pediatric physical therapist, but quickly realized that the required science courses did not tap into her strengths or interests. Instead, she chose psychology—a path that allowed her to prepare for a career and also connect to her past.

Grimes had watched her brother struggle with mental health problems during his youth. Studying psychology, she said, "I felt a connection in learning more about what my family had experienced."

Grimes stayed close to home and attended Cleveland State University, graduating in 1999 with a degree in psychology, followed by a master's in clinical and counseling psychology in 2001, and a specialist degree in school psychology in 2002. For the next year, she worked as a school psychologist in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and in 2003 became clinical supervisor for the Positive Education Program at the Eastwood Day Treatment Center, an educational and behavioral health program in South Euclid, Ohio, just outside Cleveland.

Targeting girls and young women. As clinical supervisor, Grimes provided direct services, diagnostic assessments, and staff supervision to help "troubled and troubling youth live successful lives that have joy and demonstrate their competence academically, and emotionally and socially."

"The students have been referred to us because they are very unsuccessful in these areas, and their relationship skills are weak," she noted. "They struggle to interact with adults and peers. They can be very aggressive at times, self-harmful at times. And they all have special education identification, so most have received services for a long period of time, which has isolated them from their peers."

Grimes recognized that it was important to focus on the needs of girls and young women. "One of our best hopes for impacting broader society is to help them become competent young women, and later competent mothers," she continued.

"What I most like doing is helping adults help children. I really connected with the staff and the parents I worked with to find a sense of hope for children who were really challenged. Like my mom, who worried, 'What is going to happen to my kids?,' I want to give them that sense of hope and accomplishment in meeting the needs of a child with special needs."

Connecting to leadership training. After six years as clinical supervisor, however, Grimes felt as though she had "plateaued as a leader. I was ready for the next step but I wasn't sure what that looked like."

She soon heard about Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a training opportunity created for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. Grimes's supervisors thought the training would be a good fit for her, and pledged their support. Grimes was accepted into the Ladder to Leadership program in 2009.

"I always thought leadership would happen to me," Grimes observed. "I thought it was something that happened to you as your career developed. So when the opportunity to learn intentional leadership skills was presented to me, I was really intrigued."

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 2010, Grimes was one of 30 fellows accepted into the Cleveland cohort, representing a region with a 7 percent unemployment rate and a 30 percent poverty rate at the time.

Growing as a leader. Grimes knew going into the project that her organization recognized the need for succession planning. Her participation in the Ladder to Leadership project, Grimes soon realized, "would grant the organization a well-prepared leader for the future."

With that in mind, Grimes embraced the program's training and assessment tools designed to help her understand her leadership style, how she interacted with others, and "what we bring to the table ourselves. They prompted us to use our leadership skills but also guided us through the pitfalls that make it hard to lead."

By working in teams on simulated real-world challenges, Grimes came to an unexpected conclusion. "We were in tears, all of us, when we realized that leaders can help people generate their own solutions to problems—not just tell them that certain ideas are going to work. It was very impactful for me."

Grimes also had to confront an aspect of her work that needed improvement: taking care of herself. "I got a lot of wonderful feedback about my ability to influence others to do their best work," she recalled. "We do really difficult work with challenging students, and people felt that to be effective we had to be available all the time. My staff saw that it took a toll on me to do that, and they saw the wear and tear. One of the things I needed to work on was self-care."

Attaining personal milestones. Taking care of herself was particularly important to Grimes in the months that followed her time in Ladder to Leadership. Just weeks before completing the program in June of 2010, she and her husband learned that they were expecting their first child. They celebrated their son's birth in February 2011. "I called it my personal leadership challenge," she said, laughing.

Juggling the challenges of being a first-time mother to her son and working full-time, she began to put her new leadership skills to use during a time of significant change and uncertainty within her organization. In August 2012, Grimes was named to a clinical coordinator position at the Positive Education Program's central office—a promotion that she said reflected her Ladder to Leadership experience.

"Completing the program successfully was viewed as a very positive thing and made me a desirable candidate for the position. It was a double blessing in that way," she said. "The skills I learned promoting open communication are a perfect fit for my organization. The visioning, sharing of ideas, and shared leadership concepts that I took away from the experience are important for my agency now. The experience definitely changed who I am as a leader."

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."

"The visioning, sharing of ideas, and shared leadership concepts that I took away from the experience are important for my agency now. They definitely changed who I am as a leader.”—Habeebah Rasheed Grimes

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#LadderToLeadership trained 30 pro's from Cleveland to lead health care nonprofits, including Grimes

"I always thought leadership would happen to me. So when I had the opportunity to learn intentional leadership skills, I was really intrigued.”—Habeebah Rasheed Grimes