Kenneth Dolan-Del Vecchio, MSW is an author, health and wellness executive, family therapist, organizational consultant, and human resources leader. As Vice President, Health and Wellness, at Prudential Financial, Ken holds responsibility for behavioral health services provided to 20,000 domestic employees, cross-functional workplace violence prevention, and collaborative development/delivery of leadership skills and health-promotion initiatives.
Number of years in management: More than 10 years
Degree/Institution: MSW, Hunter College of the City University of NY; BA Biopsychology, Cornell University
Tell us about your path to management:
I worked for a number of years as a psychiatric social worker/therapist in various hospital settings and then in independent practice and family therapy institute-based practice. I joined Prudential’s Health and Wellness team because dealing with managed care as an independent practitioner was an increasingly enraging experience. After coming to Prudential, 18 years ago, I began shaping my family therapy/social work skills to fit the role of not only therapist, but also organizational/leadership consultant and people-manager. Some thoughts on how I advanced from associate manager to vice president follow. In what I hope was a diplomatic and reasonably humble fashion I continuously enlarged my contributions, creating programs and consulting with organizational leaders in order to foster healthy workplaces and healthy relationships among team members within the company’s business groups and across levels of hierarchy. I made a practice of being exceptionally prompt in my responses to requests for help and giving the most comprehensive, multi-systems focused guidance I could muster. I was assertive in seeking promotions, although I never behaved in an entitled fashion. I did my best to treat everybody at all organizational levels with the same degree of respect. I was respectful to my supervisors, always keeping in mind the realities of organizational hierarchy. On the other hand, I made a point of assertively bringing forward my own thoughts. I cultivated my skill at public speaking, seeing this as extremely important to increasing the visibility of my contributions. I also read extensively–in subjects within and beyond the borders of my field– and wrote for publication articles, book chapters, and books that synthesized the information I was gathering. In this way I’ve both contributed to my fields of practice and raised the visibility of my own voice. Also, I’ve always understood that we have two jobs: We have the job that we’re doing today, and we have the job of stewarding our career. We owe it to ourselves and others to do them both well. The job of stewarding our careers requires us to understand our own personal mission in life (I urge you to craft one if you don’t already have one–mine is to use my voice, my talents as a therapist, and my skills as a writer to bring more health, sanity, and justice to the world so that I leave it a better place for my son and his generation), stay alert to new opportunities, continuously work to expand our skills, read widely in our field and beyond, recognize that we undoubtedly a role model for others, and demonstrate belief in our own competence.
What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals?
I believe the most important leadership quality we can have is the determination to use whatever institutional power we have as power with rather than power over.Power withmeans experiencing power as responsibility. Power over means experiencing power as the right to dominate people and resources. We exercisepower with when we work to orchestrate shared success, viewing others as human beings who work with us to share in achieving that success. Power with helps others build their competence and confidence, stretch in order to reach their full potential, and function together as a team within a workplace environment that feels consistently safe, respectful, encouraging, supportive, welcoming to differences of background and thought, and helpful. Power with never loses sight of the fact that a leader embodies the group’s culture, setting the tone, expectations, and values through his or her actions. Power with provides clarity of mission, vision, and strategy; and helps team members know how their work contributes to these.
Key leadership skills include listening, courage, assertiveness, diplomacy, accepting constructive criticism with gratitude (constructive criticism is not an arrow to one’s heart but rather an effort to improve one’s work), giving constructive criticism with great regard for the dignity and value of others, seeing everyone I work with as a customer who deserves quick and extraordinarily helpful service, passionate commitment to helping others, careful assessment of the power dynamics within every interpersonal interaction and striving to empower those with less power than me and positively influence those who have more, giving others the benefit of the doubt, valuing those who think differently than I do and those who come from backgrounds different from mine, seeing every introduction as an opportunity for learning and collaboration, sharing my talents and ideas freely across disciplinary and organizational boundaries, approaching others at all organizational levels with certainty regarding my own competence and equal certainty of theirs, and, perhaps most important of all, practicing kindness even when holding others accountable for raising their performance, and even on those occasions when a team member must be terminated from employment.
There are two quotes that stick in my mind—one’s about kindness and the other, courage—and I sometimes write them on any available white board at the start of meetings. I think they offer key guidance for leaders (and I think everybody is a leader, whether by formal designation or by virtue of the fact that each of us is a role model):
“In the end only kindness matters.” –Jewel Kilcher
“Your silence will not protect you.” – Audre Lorde
Incidentally, my boss sometimes comes into the room, looks at what I’ve written, crosses out “kindness” and replaces it with “results.” Go figure.
How do you motivate your team members?
I listen to them with great care and respect, thank them regularly for their work and mention how much I appreciate the way their work helps their clients/customers, say please and thank you with every request, encourage their creativity and risk taking, celebrate their contributions by sending news of their achievements up to my supervisor (Prudential’s Chief Medical Officer), give credit both privately and publicly for the work they’ve done (I hate when leaders claim credit without spotlighting the individual(s) who actually did the work), take personal responsibility for things that go wrong (without identifying up the chain of command the team member who may have made an error), admit and apologize when I’m wrong and say what I plan to do differently in order to prevent it happening again, provide encouragement to do things beyond what they’re comfortable with and then make sure to commend such efforts, do my share of the work, stay mindful of their workload and negotiate deadlines and priorities accordingly, always remember that I’m interacting with human beings with feelings, aspirations, and outside commitments; keep a good humored attitude, try to be a good role model for a balanced approach to work and life outside work and other aspects of healthy living, treat them with kindness and maintain positive expectations. Finally, I speak with team members directly and promptly when I see a performance issue that needs addressing. It never helps to avoid such crucial conversations.
Is there a leader or mentor who has inspired or assisted you along your professional journey?
I’ve had several mentors and worked for great leaders, and I’ve worked for some really bad leaders too. All have provided valuable learning experiences.
How has networking impacted your career?
It’s hard for me to overstate the impact that networking has had on my career. As I mentioned earlier, I see every introduction as an opportunity for collaboration–and the more introductions, the more opportunities come your way. I love people and learning about what they do and what matters most to them. Currently, I work from my home in Massachusetts every other week and from my office in Newark, NJ, on the alternate weeks. I try to schedule lunch with a colleague from another area of the business or another workplace entirely every day when I’m in Newark and I frequently have dinner with colleagues as well. I have a habit of making colleagues into friends.
What are you reading and/or following now (e.g. book, blog, social media groups, etc.)?
I’m always reading. I just finished Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the Drug War. I’m just finishing Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men. I’m nearly done reading David Talbots The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. I’m also studying a number of books on permaculture, the nurturing of a regenerative, food producing, landscape. This reading informs my growing avocation of developing such a landscape where I live. I also love reading William Trevor’s short stories and novels. My favorite author is Alice Walker and her book The Temple of My Familiar is my all time favorite novel. Right up there also is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. (Once you get me on this subject of reading it’s hard for me to stop.) I also make a habit of catchingAmy Goodman’s Democracy Now every time I can.
What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions?
Think big, act big, go for it! We need more well-meaning people with strong moral compasses in leadership positions. Often the people who fit this description are also very humble and choose not to step forward to claim leadership roles. Sociopaths have no such trouble, and there are far too many of them in high places.
Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?
Right now I’m finishing my fourth book, this one for parents. It should be released sometime this year.
My previous books include:
Transformative Family Therapy: Just Families in a Just Society, a family therapy textbook that I wrote with two coauthors, published in 2007.
What do you wish you had known before you started your career?
I wish I’d known what a satisfying and educational ride this would be. I’ve grown and learned so much through my experiences at work. I’ve also met so many special people, many of whom mean the world to me.
Share a mistake or failure that provided the most growth in your career.
Not exactly a mistake, but I got laid off from my job as a psychiatric social worker in 1992. This was very painful for me as I identified strongly with the role and with the hospital where I was employed. Thereafter, I resolved to never hitch my identity to an employer or professional title. I love my work and my profession but I’ve been true to that commitment. I’ve achieved more than I ever thought possible since being laid off, and I don’t believe much of it would have happened if I hadn’t suffered that loss.
To contact Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio for any inquiries please email him at kenneth.r.dolan-delvecchio@
*The views expressed herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily endorsed by the Network for Social Work Management.