Professional Identity and Branding: Key Elements for a Successful Entrepreneurial Equation

Engaging in marketing or self-promotion can be uncomfortable for the workforce, especially for my colleagues in the health and behavioral health realm. Content on leveraging professional identity has not traditionally been taught in academic programs; the priority is on learning competencies that ensure quality caring for others versus endorsing self-interests. Yet, the needle is shifting, and for many reasons.

“I want to be you”; I’ve been so fortunate to hear this language in recent years. Yet, the adage is accurate: with great power comes great responsibility. It is humbling to know my hard work is appreciated. However, it is overwhelming to know others view me as the standard by which to measure their own professional success. I’ve written a variety of content on this topic, from recent book chapters to blog posts. To achieve a successful entrepreneurial equation, you must be able to name your professional identity (PI) and leverage your professional brand (PB).

Professional Identity (PI)

Your PI is comprised of 3 areas. First is professional knowledge-core: your education and those coveted degrees. There is value is that didactic theory and learning from school. Though it is impossible to remember it all, so what matters most? I’ve had students approach me years after sitting in my classroom to share various “Ellen-isms” that popped in their heads when they least expected, such as, how “critical thinking enhances their objectivity” for clinical and operations decision-making. Some recall that “ethics are everywhere”, while others speak to the importance of discovering their “professional lane”, and venturing on a unique path. How does the knowledge gained from continuing education and trainings inform your evolving self? How do you consider the seminal documents of codes of ethics and standards of practice in your professional actions, work products, and professional interactions? Stop and consider, how does your brain trust influence your career trajectory?

Second are personal values and beliefs. How do these areas align with the mission and vision of your company, or its assorted functions? How might they affect what contracts you consider? Perhaps, they influence your pricing or billing practices, such as whether to accept insurance, or how to address co-payments, or late payments. For example, do you charge interest if any payment is late, whether the service rendered is for a patient visit or organizational consulting charge? If you do, at what point: 30, 45, or 60 days? Do you raise the interest if the timeframe goes beyond a particular point? At what point do you involve a collections agency? How much time do you devote to “free” consultations? How might your values influence what communities and populations you serve? Each of these questions are vital decision-points and beckon for your individual contemplation; I’ve made my decisions, what will yours be?

Finally comes that professional persona or, how do you present that professional identity to the world? It might be the style of your dress, presentation personality, or in your social media presence. How do you promote your efforts to the world, and what is your comfort in doing so? For example, I post a great deal on social media to market my work, whether articles, book chapters, my own books, as well as presentations and trainings; this blog gets a fair amount of attention. Engaging in marketing or self-promotion can be uncomfortable for the workforce, especially for my colleagues in the health and behavioral health realm. Content on leveraging professional identity is not traditionally taught in academic programs; the priority is on those competencies that ensure quality caring for others versus endorsing self-interests. Yet, the needle is shifting, and for many reasons. Increased numbers of professionals are going entrepreneurial and consulting routes. To be successful, you must be comfortable marketing your expertise; wear that professional persona with pride!

Professional Brand (PB)

Your PB is a brief statement that conveys your professional intent, focus, and value to stakeholders of your services. This includes patients, clients, members and consumers, to colleagues, referral sources, and the public. A solid PI drives a winning PB!

Your PB gets incorporated into every business product, from cover letters and work products, to online profiles. It should be printed on business cards and other marketing literature. The language is included in any quick pitch you do at events, or interviews where you share entrepreneurial expertise. The language is your clear and convincing response to those classic interview questions, such as, “Tell me about yourself”, or “Why should I hire you?”. 

Several elements encompass PB. Each serves a dual purpose: how do you want stakeholders and customers to experience you and, how do you want to present to them:

  • Tag line: a brief statement that cuts to the core of your efforts; it’s clear, memorable, and makes you shine above the rest! I, empower interprofessional knowledge; what about you?
  • Logo: a graphic image that represents your professional persona. If you have a creative core, play with this yourself. However, several companies rock this effort at reasonable rates, such as FIVERR to VistaLogo, and Design Hill. All provide bundled options for website development, logos for use across social media and other business platforms (e.g., digital devices, cards and stationary, presentation banners, and other products).
  • Theme: As an entrepreneur you bring a unique business lens geared to a target audience of stakeholders across certain sectors or practice settings. Consider this on the front end of your efforts, otherwise it becomes harder to market yourself and your company. It is common to use your company mission or vision statements for this effort.  
  • Elevator speech: You have 30-60 seconds to give a quick overview of your expertise, credentials, and goals. This brief article from Balance Careers provides sound guidance. 

PI and PB set the tone for your successful entrepreneurial equation. Are you up to the challenge?

I invite readers to share their recommendations on driving PI and PB.

The Madness Behind My Market Validation and Professional Brand

Employers value investing in staff development, but that coveted benefit often falls to the bottom of the priority list from competing fiscal foci or insufficient funds. This is paradoxical amid the value-based healthcare climate where quality drives patient-satisfaction and ultimately, volume. That’s where my marketing validation madness enters the scene.

I frequently get queries about my entrepreneurial scope, especially after being a successful business owner for 18 years. I’ll fess up: this is not my traditional blog article, but serves dual duty as a Doctoral class assignment and my usual bi-weekly post. For those growing their professional identity and brand, it responds to queries I’ve received regarding my company’s fiscal focus, market validation, and ongoing trajectory.

Quality Professionals Render Quality Care, But

Healthcare organizations juggle costly operational priorities from delivery and quality of care, to population target scope, complexity, and case mix, as well as reimbursement and revenue capture. That Quadruple, if not Quintile Aim reigns supreme to render the right patient-centric care, at the right time, cost, by professionals who embrace the work, and informed by wholistic health equity. Yet, any healthcare organization’s quality of care also relies on hiring and retaining knowledge-rich, appropriately credentialed employees. Employers value investing in staff development, but that coveted benefit often falls to the bottom of the priority list from competing fiscal foci or insufficient funds. This is paradoxical amid the value-based healthcare climate where quality drives patient-satisfaction and ultimately, volume. That’s where my marketing validation madness enters the scene. 

Value via Alleviating Operational Burden

My blog followers may already know my mission; every contract I accept empowers the interprofessional workforce through knowledge acquisition. My services span CEU-products (webinars, presentations, trainings), professional speaking, authoring books and other publications, licensure supervision (Virginia only) and professional mentoring among other areas. My subject matter expertise is shared with associations, organizations and higher education; I teach at the baccalaureate and masters’ levels of academia. 

Organizations contract with me to ease their professional development burdens. I do the heavy lifting via per diem and bundled contracts encompassing their individualized needs. Some request CEU pre-approved content required for licensure or certification renewal of social workers, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and credentialed case managers (ACMs, CCMs). The high demand for mental health intervention mandates workforce expansion, and quickly; everyone wants to expand their behavioral health workforce but this takes a concerted effort. Social workers in Virginia seeking clinical licensure (LCSW) must receive Board-approved supervision process with an approved supervisor for 100 hours, a minimum of 1 hour of individual (or maximum of 50 hours of group) supervision weekly per 35-40-hr work week; this occurs in no less than 24 months and no more than 4 years from approval. Most healthcare organizations are unable to provide this labor-intensive process due to other staff priorities. It is worth an organization’s effort and time for a contracted provider as myself, to manage the regulatory rigor of application filing, regulatory monitoring of documentation, and service provision. Employers pay me a defined hourly rate for individual and group supervision. When an organization will not cover the (full) rate, individuals pay the same hourly rate. This actions yields a considerable return on investment for organizations: the more benefits provided for employees the better workforce retention, and patient satisfaction.

An Intentional Fiscal Focus 

Many presume my company provides therapy; this is unsurprising as a Virginia-licensed clinical social worker, certified clinical trauma professional with EMDR-basic certification, and holding credentialing as a board-certified case manager. Besides, there are a plethora of behavioral health billing codes I could leverage, especially with my integrated care scope. The current Magellan fee scale for Virginia Department of Medicaid Services is a fascinating read, though highlights an important disparity in payment; LCSWs earn 20-35% less than their fellow behavioral health colleagues (e.g., psychologists), per psychotherapy visit ($92 vs. $69 per 45 min, $120 vs. $90 per 60 min). That difference, plus time for billing and revenue capture, makes psychotherapy a tough road for sole proprietary, small business owners to travel, especially when it isn’t where the heart lies. It is also further incentive for me to continue empowering the workforce through my innovative business perspective, which is far more fiscally and professionally rewarding. 

Where Will My DBH-Road Lead?

I’ve carved out a unique, yet expansive space, locally, nationally, and globally; my assorted books and articles have a large global following. My gaze is always on market analysis to leverage expansion opportunities. Non-profit agencies or others who worry about affording my rates are never told no. Instead they are asked, “what can you afford?”. If an entity is interested in my unique presentation content, then we partner on pricing to make it accessible to them, as possible.

Expanding my brand happens organically at this point, as my energy drives ongoing inspiration and new dimensions for pursuit. As a Doctor in Behavioral Health Candidate (DBH-C), my lens spans the integrated care, population health, and health equity realms. I am an interprofessional subject matter expert working to mitigate physical, mental, and psychosocial health disparities. I also believe in the power of Trauma-informed care and leadership as vehicles to address workforce retention and manage turnover. These paths will provide further ways to spread those Doctoral wings. The author in me is excited to contribute my brain trust to industry white papers. I plan to advance my EMDR-training path and potentially offer intervention to our worn, interprofessional workforce. The incidence of collective occupational trauma from recent years is massive with EMDR a successful intervention to foster recovery from this unique trauma. Perhaps one day this blog will be monetized. Each of these services stays true to my current billing structure and company mission and vision. Where will my DBH-road go? The short answer is, wherever I want it to! Let this unique entrepreneurial journey continue!

15 Job Search Lessons for Social Work Grads

It’s that time of year! My Masters’ in Social Work students are ready to graduate and enter the workforce. Their efforts to secure employment pose new considerations courtesy of the pandemic. Here are 15 lessons to activate the job search for my students past and present.

Lesson 1: Organize 

Set up an electronic folder on your computer, with subfolders:

·       References

·       Cover letters

·       Interview questions

·       Submitted applications

·       Recruiter contacts

·       Key info about jobs applied for  

Develop an excel spreadsheet to track positions with information including application dates, if you heard back and when, job details (e.g., salary, key benefits, virtual or in-person, multiple sites), contact information. How to organize is up to you, but do something!

Lesson 2: Keep your resume focused, comprehensive, and competency-based.

A resume is your professional face. In your zest to post and send it to potential employers, you can easily include too much info, be too wordy, or use unprofessional language. Think:

·       Formatting: Use a resume template, plus career planning offices at your college or university, and: 

o  Indeed.com

o  The New Social Worker 

o  ResumeGenius  

·       Use competency-based language: Professions have competencies that viewed as pillars of practice. Use that language to describe roles for practicums, internships, or professional jobs; for example, ‘intervened with adolescent population’ instead of ‘worked with adolescents’. Another example is, ‘engaged in counseling’ instead of ‘provided, or did counseling’. Competency-based language also lives in course syllabi and licensure regulations for your state.

·       Attention to detail matters: A resume is your first impression to perspective employers. If there are errors, they will wonder, ‘if you can’t take the time to proof your own resume, why should they believe you’ll do better on the job?’. Do spelling AND grammar checks!

Lesson 3: Have references ready!

Reach out early to references and keep their names accessible! Maintain professional letters of recommendation in your online files. Keep references in the loop so they know to expect any calls or emails for information about you. With so many phishing emails, everyone is cautious about providing information. Your reference can easily miss a vital request to provide the recommendation that leads to a job offer!

Lesson 4: Stay in the know of current COVID 19 realities

Keep up on COVID19 facts and their impact for any populations you might work with. Brush up on Crisis theory, Trauma-informed care, and short-term counseling techniques. Also, review websites of potential employers for pandemic initiatives. This info will help you develop ideas on how to best serve the organization. Knowledge is power; this is a great way to tout your expertise in the interview!

Lesson 5: Know brief assessment tools and resources

With the uptick in mental health across populations and the workforce, have working knowledge of assessment tools to manage anxiety, stress, and depression. Quality resources live at Therapist Aid .

Lesson 6: Interviews are reciprocal opportunities

Interviews are not a guarantee of employment. Candidates can spend so much time during an interview discussing their expertise, they forget to ask key questions about the workplace. 

Research employers before the interview. View the employer’s website to learn their mission, vision, and goals. Learn how the organization conducts business. Ask questions about short and long term goals, and how they see you fitting into these plans. This tactic conveys your interest in the position. Interviews are for potential employers to interview you, but also you to interview them. This mindset puts you in control of the process, and decreases anxiety. Ask questions to learn if this job and setting are for you, such as those at Big Interview

Remember, decision-making timeframes vary, so ask about next steps. Organizations can take 2 days to make final decisions or months! Know what you are facing to help prioritize other offers!

Lesson 7: Ask about job stability

Amid such unpredictable times, it’s appropriate to ask about potential layoffs and furloughs. Some positions are funded by grants, so ask how long the position is funded and what happens next. Hiring freezes can be common and won’t necessarily be information shared. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

Lesson 8: Be ready to name your unique strengths, and demonstrate them 

Job candidates will be asked how they will handle specific situations. Identify your strengths and how they would make a difference. Consider:

·       How do your strengths set you apart from other candidates?

·       Why should the organization hire you?

·       What examples can you provide so the employer understands your worth?

·       How can you demonstrate your ability to work with a team?

·       You will be asked about your weaknesses. Be prepared to respond in a professional manner, and have your answer ready. 

Lesson 9: The only constant in our industry is change 

Know this: the industry will change as will you; be open to what it means for you to change with it. 

Lesson 10: Be open to short-term or part-time roles

An exciting short-term or part-time role may turn into the best career option never anticipated. Don’t dismiss positions that are different from your expectations!

Lesson 11: Set up your professional social media profile. 

Set up a professional profile using established websites and job bank platforms. Facebook (or Meta) can help with networking, but use other websites that highlight recruitment:

Keep a profile professional! Use a polished photo versus a selfie with your BFF, pet, or family! Solid guidance is at What Recruiters Want to See on Your LinkedIn Profile

Lesson 12: Negotiation is expected

Negotiation is expected for any job. Negotiate for everything:

  • A higher hourly rate or salary
  • Remote options or flexible work hours
  • Coverage/reimbursement for professional fees (e.g. licensure exam application, exam prep courses, professional association dues)
  • Coverage/reimbursement for clinical supervision and if it is offered onsite. Organizations may pay a portion of the rate to the whole amount. They may only provide supervision internally or have waiting lists. If supervision is provided, you may need to promise to stay at the organization for set number of years post-completion, or pay pack a set amount.

You don’t know what you don’t know, so ask questions! The answers may surprise you! 

Lesson 13: Don’t be thrown by a title or position qualifications 

People apply for jobs based on titles; titles are deceptiveLearn about the scope of each role before dismissing a solid opportunity. 

Don’t dismiss a role based on qualifications alone. Application processes may ‘kick you out’ for not having hard competency qualifications (e.g., degree, licensure). Other knowledge or experiences can sway the decision; volunteer roles and practicums with a population speak volumes. Don’t assume you’re not qualified!

Lesson 14: Take the right job, not just any job

You want an income when you graduate, but strive for the right job. Listen to your clinical gut during the job search. Don’t jump on the first offer or settle if something feels off. Process the opportunity with peers, former professors, and mentors. We may be amid the Great Resignation, but, the grass isn’t always greener; there are brown spots everywhere. 

Lesson 15: Enjoy the job search

There is pressure to be employed, but explore opportunities. Get out there and enjoy the search!

I invite colleagues and followers to post other practical lessons below to empower our next generation of professionals!

Empowering Your Healthcare Entrepreneur Within

Being an entrepreneur takes passion, professional vision, and energy What else must you consider? Here are 11 entrepreneurial lessons to follow.

What does it mean to be an entrepreneur as a health care professional? What does it mean to put yourself out there with a business, where you brand your unique presence, products, and/or services? I’ve pondered this through my own journey these past 18 years, and know I’m not alone. I have at least one conversation weekly with other professionals and students about my entrepreneurial path , with curiosity about:

·       The role 

·       What it involves 

·       How to get started 

·       How to keep it going, and especially

·       How not to fail.

Amid the “Great Resignation”, or as fellow entrepreneur (and my esteemed professor) Dr. Fanike-Kiara Olugbala Young calls it, the “Great Awakening, the workforce is pondering new career paths and options. To this end, I want to share information and lessons to guide your entrepreneurial journey.

What’s an Entrepreneur?

The definition says it all: “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.”

My fellow entrepreneur’s say, ‘I wanted to make a greater impact, or difference for the workforce”. For me, the journey began with a desire to provide colleagues necessary knowledge to be successful in the ever-changing industry. Being an entrepreneur involves energy, initiative, expertise, and creative vision. It also involves a comfort with taking risks; financial risk, and risk to professional reputation. Each type of risk influences the other; if you are unable to operationalize your vision successfully, you won’t earn money. Inversely, if you aren’t prepared to invest a little money, you won’t be able to clearly implement your vision. 

Traditional academic health and human service degrees don’t feed the entrepreneurial spirit. There are few, to any formal courses on ‘forging your passion’. In fact, the entrepreneurial spirit can be unintentionally discouraged in formal degree programs, at least until the budding professional gains experience. Many innovative minds enter colleges daily, yet required content defined by academic accreditation takes priority. As an educator, I value the importance of theory and application. Yet, the growth of non-traditional professional paths mandate a way to empower distinct talents of budding entrepreneurs, sooner than later. 

Starting the Entrepreneurial Journey

One of my favorite quotes is, “The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an illusion, the tunnel is” (Author unknown). This sentiment perfectly addresses the transition from full-time employee to full-fledged entrepreneur. The journey starts with a traditional job; you graduate with your degree and start a career. Yet, the rigor and routine begin to weigh heavily, and take their toll. The once, enthusiastic health care professional gets the itch to shift gears.

Underneath your frustration, passion takes root, and you long to do more than your current position will allow. Passion flourishes as you write a blog, article, give a presentation or webinar on a unique project. Word spreads about your unique perspective! Engaging in a different focus ignites more passion than you ever thought possible, and attracts attention. Conversations with other entrepreneurs empower you to develop a business plan, market your vision and you’re off; Leaving your full-time gig goes from dream to reality

Ellen’s 11 Entrepreneurial Lessons

Here are 11 lessons to kick-start your efforts. I welcome all entrepreneurial colleagues to add to the list, and know they will! (hear that Michelle G. Rhodes, Deanna Cooper Gillingham, Thomas Dahlborg, Wilson Hurley!)

Lesson #1: Give yourself permission to be an entrepreneur-this is the toughest leap to make. Let’s face it, you need to earn a living. You may sit in your office and daydream for months, or years before taking the plunge. Don’t wait so long that someone else comes forth with your great idea. Give yourself permission to consider options beyond the safety net of your full-time job.

Lesson #2: Define and own your passion-You may have a clear sense of what you want to do. For others, the idea may come when least expected. For me, a switch went off one day in 2004. I saw my enthusiastic colleagues suddenly look fried to a crisp. Organizations were cutting professional education, taking away a vital benefit for the workforce. With many conversations about how to improve health care quality, I wondered; how could any quality care occur without a knowledgeable workforce. BOOM! As a result, every contract I take, every presentation or training I develop, every article or book I write, and class I teach is consistent with my vision. What fun to empower the knowledge-base of my colleagues each day, plus the students entering our ranks. Remember, if you have fun with what you do, you will never feel like you’re working! 

Lesson #3: You don’t have to go from 0-60! It is ok to start slowly. Perhaps you keep your full-time job and do consulting on the side. Get a sense of who you are, your unique talents, and how much time and energy you want to invest. You may not be ready to go, full-time entrepreneur. Write a blog on a topic of interest, or give a presentation. Who knows where it will lead!

Lesson #4: Organize and focus your efforts- Passion can easily run amuck and take us in many directions. I’ve seen colleagues embark on their entrepreneurial journey with all the passion and purpose in the world, though become overwhelmed as they try to tame their newly unleashed energy. Start small, define your professional identity and brand, then you go global. 

Lesson #5: Tout your clout!– Inform the industry who you are and what you do. Be organized and strategic. Create a website with clear messaging unique to you! Consider, how is what you do is different from others? Who is your target audience? What do you want them to know about you? Leverage social media, your messaging, and grow that presence!

In addition, since being an entrepreneur is not just any job, develop a 30 second elevator speech. When someone asks, ‘what you do you do?’, be prepared to respond. I often say, “I empower the health care workforce through professional training, mentoring, and consultation”; succinct and to the point. What would your elevator speech be?

Lesson #6: Being an entrepreneur takes a strong work ethicOrganization and consistency become your mantras; end of discussion.

Lesson #7: Never underestimate your value and worth-Consider what to charge for the services you offer. Ask around and investigate the competition. See what is realistic for your region, or specialty. You may decide to do a schedule of options, offer professional courtesy or pro bono opportunities; your business and vision are an extension of you!

Lesson #8: Develop, and maintain a network of mentors-Being an entrepreneur gets lonely. Surround yourself with colleagues you trust for their guidance, plus unconditional support. They have to be honest with you, even if you don’t like what they have to say. Also, join professional associations and networks that foster your connection with others with like minds!

Lesson #9: Set limits and a sound schedule-Once you find your passion and love what you do, it becomes tough to stop working. I remember hearing, I could work longer hours since I set my own hours; so very true. You can burn out as an entrepreneur, as readily as you can in a traditional role, so be mindful! Being an entrepreneur comes from the unique energy within you. Nurture that inner soul and energy so your passion, purpose, patience don’t fade. 

In addition, learn to say no, or negotiate the date of deliverables. Back to that financial risk topic; you get paid when you work, or engage in successful products that will reap royalties. Fiscal vulnerability can push you to take on too much work, or work that you wish you hadn’t. Practice saying, “NO”, or “I’d love to do that project for you, but can only do it in March vs. January.”, or, “I only want to give you a quality product, and will need an extra week to do that”. You are in charge of your reputation, and destiny!

Lesson #10: There will be peaks and valleys-Financial scheduling is important, so prepare for inconsistent income. Be proactive vs. reactive, so diversify your business to allow for different revenue streams. In my case, I have contracts of different types and payment schedules to provide a cushion when I need it. 

Lesson #11: Be open to all possibilities-Our passion is a blessing and curse; it can expand our opportunities, though also limit our scope. Opportunities that may at first, seem daunting, could turn into important projects.

I never thought of writing a book; articles, yes, but never a book. After co-authoring three articles on the same topic with a colleague, my mentor, Suzanne Powell said, “just write the book.” and we did!  COLLABORATE for Professional Case Management was born. My ethics and health equities core beckoned: I have now authored 3 books with next editions in the works: The Essential Guide to Interprofessional Ethics for Health Care Case Management (2019) the Social Determinants of Health: Case Management’s Next Frontier (2019) and End of Life Care for Case Management (2020). I’m writing my 5th book for publication in Winter, 2023: The Social Determinants of Mental Health: Advancing Wholistic Practice Excellence.

What else do I do? A Google search or glimpse at my LinkedIn Bio will fill you in; every day is different and uniquely inspiring. How high can you fly? That’s up to you. The world is your oyster: GO GRAB IT!

Have other entrepreneurial lessons to share? Add them below~

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