Social Workers: The Surprise Heroes of Innovation

Sometimes innovation comes from unexpected places. Jennifer Thompson, executive director of the New Jersey and Delaware chapters of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and a member of the Newsweek Expert Forum, explains why c-suite leaders are increasingly incorporating social workers into their decision-making process.

Jennifer Thompson

When considering implementing a new product or service, most CEOs consult the usual suspects: their senior leaders; their clients or customers; their investors. But how many of them consult a social worker?

The answer, if we had to guess, is not many, which means leaders may be missing out on a valuable opportunity to spur innovation. That's because curiosity is "baked in" to social workers' formal education — and it's a key to innovation.

Jennifer Thompson, executive director of the New Jersey and Delaware chapters of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), explains that social workers are trained to be curious about situations, about people, and about ways to improve existing systems. "If you approach anything by asking the questions, 'What if...? How could this change? What might be possible?', you're going to accomplish some type of innovation, whether it's a system or a policy or a program," she says. "Social workers bring that to the spaces we work in."

Another way social workers grease the wheels of innovation, according to Thompson, is by expertly identifying and solving complex problems. "We've got to be nuanced about how we talk about problems," she says. "We're [used to] uplifting communities facing challenges, and thinking creatively about solutions. So we're on the front lines, as far as identifying what's working and what's not working, and thinking, 'How might we do things differently?'"

For many executives, the idea of bringing a social worker into the c-suite isn't objectionable so much as totally unexpected. Thompson explains that most business leaders simply aren't used to thinking of social workers in these roles, or seeing them occupy positions outside of a certain paradigm (such as their roles in hospitals, shelters, or other social service or civic organizations.) "The first thing that CEOs need to do is discard this idea of what a social worker is, because it's a very limited lens," she says. Instead, "they need to look at the core skill sets and the training that we bring to the table. Social workers are skilled researchers, they're skilled negotiators. Look at skill sets social workers possess rather than the title, and then think about where those skills can fill gaps within companies."

For example, think about how a social worker might enhance the work of a marketing team. "They bring a different lens of communication, understanding linguistic nuances. Social workers in communication roles understand the underpinnings of timely communication, impact to community, and how to speak to diverse communities in different ways than a marketing professional, who may never have been trained on how to do these specific things," Thompson says. "A social worker is going to bring historical context and seek to ensure that the companies move past performative inclusion and representation to create transformative dialogue with their consumers and constituents."

Social workers undergo rigorous training in diversity, equity and inclusion, in cultural competency, and in numerous other areas in which there is seldom a dedicated focus in the business world. "How might those skills and that training support your leadership table and bring in a different voice?" Thompson asks. "CEOs should be thinking about a multidisciplinary approach, which is something the nonprofit world does really well, but it's not so prevalent in corporate America."

Increasingly, Thompson says, social workers are showing up in unexpected spaces as CEOs across a surprising array of industries start to see the skills they bring to the table. "Technology is one of the spaces that we're seeing a lot of us working and making the transition — either through social workers [enrolling in] certificate programs in tech and web, or even developing technology and virtual reality programs on their own," she says. "Big tech companies are starting to hire more social workers as they develop platforms for telehealth organizations, virtual office spaces for mental health professionals, and the like. Social workers at those tables facilitate conversations about the implications overall, the implications for clients, the implications for mental health, and how they're going to address this with insurance companies," she says.

This trend is not unique to tech. "We are seeing a lot more social workers enter corporate America, in finance, for example — doing financial modeling, helping people understand what the average American is looking for," Thompson says. "Human resource management is also particularly relevant; social workers are absolutely working in and leading diversity, equity and inclusion work in Fortune 500 companies, or coming in as consultants leading these critical conversations. We're everywhere."

Thompson explains that one of the main challenges the social work profession is facing, particularly in this era of increasingly unusual and diverse applications for their skills, is a sort of inward-facing brand problem: conveying the range of opportunities to their own incoming cohorts so they can advocate for themselves as candidates for these diverse and surprising roles. "It's our internal challenge as a profession," Thompson says. "When I talk to students, which I do a couple of times a week, my parting line is, 'Discard everything you thought you knew about social work, because what you thought you knew is very limited. Social work can transform as many times as you do, as a professional and as a person. It can take you places and spaces that you've never thought possible. And when we're thinking about looking for social work jobs, look to marry your skills with the work that needs to be done. Are you a skilled negotiator? Great. Go look for a job that's going to allow you that opportunity. Are you passionate about DEI? Great, social workers can lead in that space.'"

Above all, Thompson's message to the community and social workers alike is "We're here, and we bring value to all leadership tables." For CEOs interested in expanding their teams, ask a social worker. Invite them in. "I guarantee you, we'll surprise you and challenge your team in ways you never imagined," says Thompson. For new social workers about to embark on their professional journey, her advice is to "Find a space you're interested in working in and pull up a chair. You can be a CMO, you can be a tech developer, you can be any job title — but you can also remain a social worker in these spaces."

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