Leadership in conversation

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Brian Philson, MSW, LMSW, ACSW, became president of ASWB’s Board of Directors in November.

When Brian Philson talks about leadership, one word comes up again and again: conversations. Tough conversations. Essential conversations. Conversations that help create a culture of licensure. Conversations that build relationships between individuals and organizations. “Some leaders would run or not want to sit at the table and have that crucial conversation,” Philson says, “I’m a little opposite. … Welcome the opportunity, embrace those hard conversations, and get off the bench and get into the game.”

Philson stepped into the game at ASWB when he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Board of Directors for 2019. At the completion of a one-year term, he was elected as a director at large, and then to a term as treasurer. Philson ran for president in 2022 —  after having several conversations about the demands of the role, including one with the board of directors at Highfields, the human services agency in Michigan where he serves as CEO. “If I’m going to do something like this,” Philson says, “I want to be able to do it well and be able to give it the time that is necessary for that.”

Philson sees serving as president as following through on steps taken by the Board in prior years. “We had begun something as a Board that I wanted to see through,” he says, citing the Board of Directors’ decision in 2021 to publish disaggregated exam pass rate data. Philson describes that decision as “planting trees today that are going to bear good fruit for the next generation of regulators. … I was there when we had tough conversations about being transparent and the importance of being able to have crucial conversations.”

Where is ASWB going to be long after I'm gone and off the board? I want it to be relevant. I want it to be a thriving organization that continues to fulfill its mission.
— Brian D. Philson, President, ASWB Board of Directors

ASWB’s four-year presidency, which includes a year as president-elect, two years as president, and one year as past-president, is a valuable way to step into the leadership role, Philson says. “I really do like the system we have, where you have basically a year in training and observation, to get ready to kind of take the training wheels off, if you will. I felt like it’s prepared me really well.”

His previous terms on the Board of Directors have given him opportunities to observe different leadership styles at the organization, and he describes learning a great deal from former President Harold Dean and current Past-President Roxroy Reid, who remains on the board for another year. “There are very clear elements of both of their styles that I really would like to emulate and take with me,” Philson says. “Rox has an ability to keep things light, to keep things moving, and very relationally connect with all the members, and so I’d like to be able to do that as a leader. … Harold was very efficient, very professional, and demonstrated high respect for every individual, and that’s something I’ve always admired about Harold, and hope to be able to continue that.”

A lifelong Michigander, Philson was raised by a single mother living in poverty in southern Michigan. “We survived as a family because so many different people invested in our lives,” he says, “whether it was a coach, a teacher, a counselor, a social worker, a layperson at our church, whatever. I went to college knowing that I wanted to be an individual who would be able to have skills and knowledge that can invest in a world that needed the help.”

As an undergraduate at Spring Arbor College, he considered either becoming a youth pastor or a social worker. One social work class included an exploratory placement at a juvenile home. Philson describes it as 120 hours observing and getting to know young men and women who were justice involved. “At the end of that, I said ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.'” He changed his major to social work, completed his BSW, and went on to complete his MSW at Michigan State University.

“I spent 22 years working in juvenile justice,” he says, “and I’ve spent the last 17 years at a higher, macro level, running a nonprofit in juvenile justice, child welfare, and children’s mental health.” Highfields, where Philson is CEO, serves 11 counties in mid-Michigan and has a total of 223 employees.

Philson and his wife, Bonnie, raised five children and have seven grandchildren, with an eighth on the way. In addition to emphasizing the value of conversations in leadership, he sometimes drops into sports metaphors “getting off the bench and into the game” from his time as a high school athlete and coach of his kids’ teams. He reaches for that coaching comparison when describing himself as a leader: “I always say I’m coachable, so tell me where I need to be and when I need to be there. … I clearly bring my own style, my own personality to it, but I also recognize there are many more people who may know the content area we’re dealing with better than I. … It’s not about titles, it’s not about position or authority,” he says. “It’s about teamwork and how we can move everybody collaboratively forward in the best manner possible.”

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, the former chair of the Michigan Board of Social Workers, and a CEO who employs approximately 50 social workers, he sees the profession and the importance of regulation from multiple angles. He sometimes asks his peers in other agencies, “‘What’s your role as a CEO when you have a licensed social worker who gets crosswise with the public health code? What’s your responsibility as an organization? What’s your responsibility to protecting the public?’ When I started having those conversations six, seven, eight years ago, it really opened some eyes. … I would like to think Michigan is a better place in that regulatory community because of that.”

When Philson received the president’s gavel from Reid at the 2023 ASWB Annual Meeting of the Delegate Assembly, he was already thinking about the moment in 2025 when he will hand that same gavel to his successor. “I want to look back and I want to feel good about the conversations, the relationships, and any decisions that have been made,” he says. “For me, serving on the Board is remembering that every decision we make needs to be done in the best interest of ASWB.”

“Those are sometimes hard conversations to have,” Philson says, “but [we are] creating a vision for the next two years, or for 25 years and beyond. Where is ASWB going to be long after I’m gone and off the board? I want it to be relevant. I want it to be a thriving organization that continues to fulfill its mission.”

“Two years from now, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘This Board worked well together to make that happen.'”