Balancing Compassion and Career Ambition in Helping Professions: An Interview With Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW


Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW, discusses his book, which challenges the notion that compassion in helping professions limits career ambition, emphasizing that it's possible to achieve both professional success and societal impact.

Michael L. Kaufmanm PhD, MSW  Hands raised up, hold hearts, share compassion and hope with those in need.  (Adobe Stock 592358569 by Nadiia)

Michael L. Kaufmanm PhD, MSW

Hands raised up, hold hearts, share compassion and hope with those in need.

(Adobe Stock 592358569 by Nadiia)

You can be a CEO and volunteer for social causes close to your heart. To be successful in your career does not require you to give up on caring for others or striving to help those in need. In fact, the very leadership skills that help someone be successful can be used in their volunteerism as well.

In an insightful interview with Infection Control Today® (ICT®), Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW, challenges the belief that helping professionals must sacrifice career ambition for compassion. Kaufman shares his journey from aspiring CPA to CEO, illustrating that one can achieve professional success while making a significant societal impact.

Doing Good & Doing Well by Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW  (Credit MLK)

Doing Good & Doing Well by Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW

(Credit MLK)

ICT: What inspired you to challenge the assumption that helping professionals must sacrifice career ambition for compassion?

Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW: My career trajectory got the ball rolling on my mindset shift over the years. I initially planned a business career, earning my undergraduate degree in accounting at Rutgers. But when my first job offer at an esteemed firm came in, instead of feeling elated, I felt deflated—the idea of becoming a successful certified public accountant just didn’t fill me with the sense of purpose and intention I’d found through my volunteer work and community service thus far.

But when I decided to switch to social work, many well-meaning members of my support circle strongly advised against it worried about what kind of future I could have as a “do-gooder.” “How will you make any money?” they asked me. “How will you be able to support a family?” Sure, you can have the noble aim to help one person at a time, they argued, but that’s not going to pay the mortgage. And that’s been a long-held assumption in the helping professions: that it’s some kind of contradiction to be both kind-hearted and business-minded—that you can’t work for the advancement of others and still work for the advancement of self.

I wanted to upend that assumption—not for the sake of upending it, but because I had a kernel of belief that I could take my servant leader mentality and my internal drive and apply them on a larger scale to effect more widespread societal change. That’s why I titled my book Doing Good & Doing Well. You can do both; you can have both. If I could rise from a field social worker in Newark to CEO of a nationwide special education network, anybody can. You can stay true to yourself as a compassionate helper, remain committed to the social causes that motivate you, and aspire to a leadership position that will allow you to expand your reach and impact—all at the same time.

ICT: Can you elaborate on how the qualities of helping professionals uniquely position them for leadership roles?

MK: The traits and talents helpers possess—many inherent more than learned—not only equip them to be highly proficient leaders, they uncommonly qualify them to do so. First off, of course, passion is a prerequisite; you won’t find an adept leader who’s lackluster about their role because they simply won’t be able to inspire and, in turn, initiate progress.

Then there’s the grit and resilience helpers are routinely called on to exhibit—whether that looks like finding means to get through all the red tape of the social services system, bouncing back when a client lashes out at you for the pain they’re in, or not giving up on a kid in a juvenile justice program. The kind of soul-deep perseverance helpers carry with them will see staff and organizations through the inevitable difficulties they will face.

Let’s not underestimate warmth. Some might think that displaying warmth in a leadership position equates to weakness or malleability, but it’s the opposite. Leaders gain followers when they demonstrate their empathy, camaraderie, and humanity. An air of superiority or toughness might earn short-term results but won’t earn long-term employee satisfaction and retention.

Doing Good & Doing Well by Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW  (Credit MLK)

Michael L. Kaufman, PhD, MSW

(Credit MLK)

A master's degree in business administration can’t prepare you to care about the organizational vision and the team you lead to realize that vision. An economics class doesn’t teach you how to guide people through rough waters. However, helping professionals display dynamic leadership skills every day in their jobs, and when they take those abilities and aptitudes with them to higher echelons of their organizations, morale is boosted, true collaboration is cultivated, and outcomes improve.

ICT: How can the crisis management skills of helping professionals translate into effective leadership in various organizational settings?

MK: Most helpers are formally educated in and acquire on-the-job training in many critical areas of effective leadership. The social worker knows how to defuse high tension and deescalate conflict. The nurse knows how to manage emergencies and attend to triage situations. The senior care worker knows how to soothe anxiety and calm fears. The teacher knows how to engage a crowd and ignite a spark to learn and to achieve. The therapist has mastered the art of active listening, the youth counselor knows how to break down resistance, and the board-certified behavior analyst knows how to reach individuals with communication challenges.

All kinds of helping professionals in all kinds of roles are regularly faced with finding actionable solutions to pressing real-time problems. That’s what crisis management is—thinking fast on your feet, bringing people together for a united goal, making decisions for the greater good, and keeping a cool head amid the heat. And no one does it better, let alone does it more often, than the helping professionals from all walks of life in every city of this country who, in my opinion, serve as the support pillars of a healthy, functioning society. If you can talk a person out of suicide or shepherd a person with a substance use disorder through rehab, you can more than competently handle board meeting accountability and quarterly budget losses.

ICT: What are some common myths surrounding the intersection of financial success and compassionate work, and how do you address them in your book?

MK: As mentioned previously, it’s a myth—an outmoded assumption—that people who prioritize compassion in their work can’t also earn a good living. Our society does not begrudge good pay to firefighters who put others before themselves, scientific researchers who find cures for disease, or engineers who make our roads or bridges safer. So why shouldn’t helping professionals, from the teacher’s assistant in the specialized day school to the public health admin in the local agency, who also put others first, find cures, and make our world safer, be deemed worthy of big jobs with big pay? Actually, I don’t think anyone deems them unworthy—they’re just not thought of as high-paying roles, so helpers often enter their careers expecting to be fueled far more by their benevolence than their paychecks.

So, the first step is to acknowledge and accept that the helper’s role is just as valuable to our society and our economy as the financial planner’s or the architect’s. I’m talking about internal acceptance here—recognizing that what you do holds tremendous meaning and serves an indispensable function. When you value that role, you start believing you can make a difference on a broader scale, so you start experimenting with spreading your wings to see just how powerful and empowering you can be. A central aim of the book is to grant helping professionals permission to make a lot of waves and earn as much money as they can along the way to bettering their communities.

ICT: What actionable strategies do you offer in your book to help professionals embrace financial prosperity while maintaining their commitment to making a difference?

MK: My book is not a how-to guide from point A to point G—there’s no course you can sign up for or a certification program to complete that will guarantee a certain salary or title. Rather, it’s an exposition of what makes helpers distinctive and how that specialness can lead to multiple routes to financial prosperity to accompany their vocational fulfillment. Nevertheless, there are tangible steps helping professionals can take to further their careers while sustaining their dedication, like joining industry associations, enrolling in continuing education, volunteering for company groups or panels, finding a mentor to help them accomplish their professional objectives, and assertively advocating for themselves—letting their bosses know, loud and clear, that they want to advance and decisively pursuing opportunities when they arise. Service-minded altruists and caregivers often need to be encouraged to open their mouths on behalf of themselves as much as they open their hearts to others.

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