Agency for Change- Dannette Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services » KidGlov

Announcer:

Welcome to Agency for Change, a podcast from KidGlov that brings you the stories of changemakers who are actively working to improve our communities. In every episode, we’ll meet with people who are making a lasting impact in the places we call home.

Lyn Wineman:

Hi everyone. This is Lyn Wineman, President of KidGlov. Welcome to another episode of Agency for Change podcast. So many of us think about our own personal health, the health of our families and friends, and maybe even we consider the health of our coworkers, team members in our community. But today’s guest, Dannette Smith, is advocating for the health of an entire state as Chief Executive Officer at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Dannette, I’m eager to talk with you today. How are you?

Dannette Smith:

Lyn, I am doing fine this morning. I’m so glad that you asked me to join you. I’m excited about this, by the way.

Lyn Wineman:

I am too. I love having good conversations, and I can just tell from our opening chatter before we hit record that this is going to be a great one. So Dannette, could you just give us a high-level overview of what the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services does, and maybe even share some things the public might not know?

Dannette Smith:

Okay. Well, Lyn, the Department of Health and Human Services is the state’s largest department here in Nebraska. We have approximately 4,800 people that allow me to take care of Nebraskans. Our budget is about $3.5 billion. And so, although I am a social worker in my formal training, I really think much like a businesswoman. And so, I consider this a big business. There are five divisions up under my leadership. And Lyn, I have wonderful, wonderful people that work for me that I’ve been able to recruit all across Nebraska, but also all across the country. Those five divisions include children and family services, for which you know, has all of our child welfare programs, our benefit programs rest there, our SNAP and Medicaid programs are housed in that particular area. We also have child support in that area as well.

Dannette Smith:

My second division is the division for persons with developmental or intellectual disabilities. We have multiple waiver programs that help those persons who have traumatic brain injury, those persons who are suffering with or have developmental or intellectual disabilities, we have programs and services to assist them. Third division is the division of behavioral health with all of our mental health programs out in the community to support people who need support with mental health issues, from treatment, to services with their regional authorities, we support all of those programs. And one of the things, Lyn, we’ve done this year, we’ve completed the strategic plan.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s great.

Dannette Smith:

And that strategic plan is really beginning to look at our state office kind of being the chief strategist for behavioral health. So really looking at how we serve people who are in our state hospitals, our adults, our youth, couples, behavioral health services. We’re looking at peer support programs. There’s a lot of work being done across the country. Looking at peer support, people who have had either substance abuse or mental health issues, being able to reach back in the community and get people engaged in services. So I’m very excited about that.

Dannette Smith:

My fourth division is Medicaid long-term care housing services for our population, but it also houses all of our managed care programs. Those persons who are in need of health services, it houses our three managed care offices or programs. And then finally, public health. And so this year has been a year of learning more than I ever thought I wanted to know about bugs, and critters, and vaccines and viruses than I ever thought. I’ve always had an interest in public health. And throughout my career, I’ve had an opportunity to work with some really good public health directors, but never thought that I was going to be stepping in those shoes.

Dannette Smith:

And so I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. Gary Anthone, with Dr. Matt Donahue, who is our state epidemiologist, as you know. Dr. Gary Anthone is my Chief Medical Officer. And I’m so glad to have him on board. And then I just recruited a young lady out of Knoxville, Tennessee, by the name of Charity Menefee who operates as my Operations Director for public health. So it’s been a year of learning, taking it all in, processing it, and then getting it back out to the community. And I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful team to help me with that this year.

Lyn Wineman:

Dannette, I’m glad you have a wonderful team because that is a lot of responsibility. And I know because of our work at KidGlov in some of those areas that you handle those things, but it is… Really, I mean, if you think about Department of Health and Human Services as a business, that would be a lot of product lines for any business to have. Yet, they’re all tied together for the wellbeing of the state of Nebraska, which is a really, really good thing. So I’ve read up on you a little bit. And I know I’ve read that you have four pillars that guide the strategic work at DHHS. Can you tell us more about the four pillars?

Dannette Smith:

Absolutely. So one of the things that I did when I got here in February of 2019 was to really meet with staff, both leaders, midline staff, and frontline staff, to really assess what was the best approach in terms of leading the department. And so from those discussions, I came up with a four prong approach. And the first one is creating an integrated service delivery system. And what that means, Lyn, is no matter where you enter the state for services, you would be able to see an array of services that you may or may not need, but they are offered to you and you’d be able to explore them. You’re going to hear more in the next coming months, I’d say, beginning between January, 2022, all the way until April 2022, about our new IT platform that’s going to allow us to serve our customers more electronically, digitally, where they’ll actually be able to go into a portal and look at the array of services that we provide here in the state and decide what services they think they need to apply for.

Dannette Smith:

We call it I Serve Nebraska.

Lyn Wineman:

Nice.

Dannette Smith:

So you’re going to learn more about that. But the most important thing about I Serve Nebraska and an integrated service delivery every approach is it begins to allow the customer to come in, look at an array of services, but it begins to make the state to begin to integrate its services as we provide those services out to the community. So I’m real excited about that. So I’ll give you more about I Serve because that’s the first real step. We’ll be doing some program thing, and we’re starting to do that now, but the customer will actually experience that integrated service delivery by the I Serve Nebraska platform that we have coming up. The second one is established and enhanced collaborative relationships. Lyn, when I got here to Nebraska, we didn’t have too many friends.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s too bad. That’s a hard way to start.

Dannette Smith:

Yeah. It was a very rough way. And I think through my leadership, and certainly through the team’s leadership, I always ask them to make 10 good friends. We need 10 good friends that are willing, like you Lyn, that are willing to allow us to tell our story about what the department is doing. So we are doing everything we can to work collaboratively in the community. I am very visible in the community. I’m out and about. People are very shocked by that because they think, “Well, the CEO doesn’t have time.” Well, I make time. I don’t think that you can do human services without a human touch. And if I’m leading it, I have to be the example of what I want to see my leaders do. So I’m out, I’m visible, and I’m making 10 good friends.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s great. I have to attest to that, Dannette, because when I reached out and connected with you online and you connected back, I was like, “This must be someone on her staff,” but I think it was really you. And I appreciate having that connection. So thank you for that.

Dannette Smith:

Well, and I’ll give you another little tidbit about me, which people just cannot believe. I answer my own phone.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh my.

Dannette Smith:

Okay. I really do. I mean, Bonnie will pick up the phone and all of that stuff, but I really do answer my own phone.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s great.

Dannette Smith:

And people are really shocked by that. But I do that because I want to stay close to the people that I work with-

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely.

Dannette Smith:

… and the people I see.

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely.

Dannette Smith:

And if I’m not answering the phone, then people don’t have a sense of who I am as a leader. So that’s why I do it.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s fantastic.

Dannette Smith:

So the third one is aligning DHHS teammates under our mission of helping people live better lives. And let me tell you what that really means. That really means making sure that I have a highly skilled and talented workforce that can turn around and really do this work. And so there is a lot of internal leadership development, supervisory, leading from a woman’s perspective that we’re doing right here in the department. We want to make sure that as we serve our customers, that our leaders, our frontline staff, have the support, have the knowledge, have the skills to be able to provide those services. And so that has to do with aligning people up under our mission.

Dannette Smith:

And then the very final one is enhancing the department’s internal infrastructure to provide more effective, efficient, and customer-focused services to Nebraskans. And Lyn, I can tell you for the two and a half years that I’ve been here, the bulk of my time has been spent on building the right kind of infrastructure for path forward. Okay. You can have great programs and great ideas, but if you don’t have a business infrastructure that can support the work of your leaders, then it all falls apart. And so a lot of my time has been spent on building a solid infrastructure from program development, to finances, to communication, to strengthening staff. Because without those basic components, programs won’t last and the services that were to give to our customers just simply, won’t be at the level that I know I want them to be at, the team wants it to be at, and the government. And so we put a lot in building that infrastructure.

Lyn Wineman:

That makes a lot of sense. Those are four great pillars. And so, and Dannette too, all of those things you mentioned don’t happen overnight. I mean, those are big, big shifts, important shifts. And think about it. If you arrived in this position in February of 2019, the pandemic hit us hard. I have, in my mind, it was March of 2020. You had barely a year under your belt. You spent most of your time in this role during the pandemic, which has obviously impacted the health of many. And I know the work of your department is tied so closely to the pandemic, to the vaccines. Can you tell me more about your response to the pandemic and maybe how you had to adapt?

Dannette Smith:

Well, I have to tell you, I felt like I was thrust into something that was a bit unfamiliar. So the relationship between, and this is just a little tidbit, and some of your listeners may know this or may not know this, but back in the day, public health was like our side sister. Okay. It interacted with human services, but it was more around our programs for women, maternal child health, WIC kind of programs. And one of the things that I think that the pandemic has done is it has now made us look at how we live through those social determinants of needs which we always knew was out there, but we just never brought it in. And one of the things, one of the most memorable learning experiences that I’ve had has been to figure out, how do I take those social determinants of health and put them inside of all that we do, not just public health, but all that we do?

Dannette Smith:

Public health focuses on prevention. It focuses on early surveillance. And all of these are strategies that really aren’t new. We just didn’t use them in human services. And now I think here in Nebraska, we have an opportunity to do that. So that’s one of my first learns. The second thing I would say to you is I probably learned more the CDC, and data systems, and positivity rates, and hospital beds, and non-hospital beds and non-staff beds. I learned more about why we count certain viruses the way we do. PCR tests. I never had any familiarity with that. And antigen tests, never had any familiarity. But through this process, I was able to learn so much from my team. And so one of the things I think about a good leader is you got to be willing to learn from the people you lead. And then sometimes, you have to let them lead you.

Dannette Smith:

And during this pandemic, there was a period of time, a large period of time, where my epidemiologist were saying, “This is what we got to do. And these are the recommendations that we need to make to the Governor.” So for me, it’s really been learning, learning strategies that I can use in other places within the organization to strengthen the whole entire department. I think it’s given us an opportunity to look at public health as a significant partner to human services and how we can transform public health strategy in all of the work that we do. And I also learned a lot about databases and how to use data. Not that I wasn’t a data geek before, I always have been, but I’ve become more because I’ve recognized that data from a public health side can be used to predict future events and occurrences. And so, although it was a stressful time for all of us and for me, it was a sense of great learning for me.

Dannette Smith:

It really helped me look at how I… How can I express this? I’m resilient. And not that I didn’t think I was, but this experience has showed me I definitely was. And it was putting me in to a sphere that was very, very unfamiliar and I had to figure out how to swim. And so the way in which I chose to do that was to do it with my team, instead of thinking that I had to be the so leader and the only leader. I did it with my team. And I got great support from it. And they say that they received great support from me. So this was a career life changing experience for me. And I say to the Governor, oftentimes, because he’ll ask me, “Well, what do you think about being here in Nebraska?” It’s one of my better jobs.

Lyn Wineman:

Aww. That’s great.

Dannette Smith:

Even through the pandemic, it’s been one of my better jobs.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s great. Having being a lifelong Nebraska myself. I always am glad to hear that, that people like it here when they’ve come from other places. But Dannette, one thing I really appreciate about what you’ve just said is that the pandemic was obviously a very difficult time that none of us would ever want to go through again. But I think the best leaders figured out how to take the positives out of it. And that’s what I hear you saying, is that you figured it out. And the positives that you have taken from it, I’m sure have made the bonds with your team stronger. The learnings have made your work more successful. And I think that it’s such a great way to look at it. So I know another thing that you focus on at the department is community engagement and working with community stakeholders, because I know you have to have the infrastructure in your department, but also, there are a lot of people outside of your department, in the communities throughout Nebraska, that impact your work. Can you share more details about why that’s so important to what you do?

Dannette Smith:

Absolutely. I can. And I’ll go back a little bit to the pandemic, that without those relationships, and I’ll talk about kind of the communication that we did, but let me just start off by saying I was deeply rooted in community engagement from my work in Chicago. I lived and worked in Chicago and that’s where I’m from. Illinois, Indiana, border there, and deeply rooted and understand the value of engaging community in everything you do. So when I tell you that I’m highly visible as the CEO, it’s because I don’t know any other way to lead and to be engaged in the people that I serve. I believe I have to be that example. And I have to be out there to kind of talk about what the department is doing. And really engaging, listening, and hearing their feedback about what we could do better, but also what are the things that we’re doing well?

Dannette Smith:

So during the pandemic, we did a lot of communication with our community stakeholders. Each one of the divisions had, at least twice a week when we were at the height of the pandemic, at least twice a week, calls with their community stakeholders about the data that we were collecting here in the department. The reason why we did that is because we didn’t want people to be fearful as they were serving our constituents in our stead. We recognized the more information they had, the better they were going to be able to serve our customers and our constituents. And so there were a number of stakeholder calls. I did stakeholder calls from across the state, the business, businesses, chambers of commerce insurance. Everybody was on that call. People, even people from the faith community joined us. We wanted to make sure that Nebraskans had good information to be able to take back out to their community. That’s community engagement to me.

Dannette Smith:

It allowed the community to ask the CEO directly what was going on. If there was information that they didn’t understand about testing, if they didn’t understand about vaccinations and signing up or working with our local public health departments, they could ask me that directly. And if I couldn’t answer it, I was able to give them information. So the ability to be able to be responsive and to have be able to reach out and touch people and be able to call them by name on that Zoom call with 50 people, people love it.

Dannette Smith:

The other thing though, that I’ve done for me as a leader is I developed what is called a key communicators group, and I know you’re familiar with that, where there are people in the community that have had, and have demonstrated their best intentions towards me as the leader and want make sure that I’m successful. I have used that group as a way to kind of share some ideas about some of my thinking. I’m very innovative, I’m very creative. But sometimes, I can be on another page, on another planet. And so I use this group as a way to say, “Am I flushing this out the right way, thinking about this idea the right way, is this something that Nebraskans could wrap their arms around and be behind that?” And so I’ve done that too. I think-

Lyn Wineman:

I really think that’s a lovely idea, right?

Dannette Smith:

Yeah.

Lyn Wineman:

Being able to share with a trusted group, who’s looking out for you, but also telling you how certain things come across. Having that circle of trust or communication, I think, really helpful. Great idea.

Dannette Smith:

And my final comment, and Dr. Khalilah LaGrand, who is my Director of Communications, has really done an excellent job on my behalf and on the behalf of the department to get the word out there to not only major stakeholders in the group, but Lyn, what’s also very important to me is that we’re reaching down and we’re touching small communities as well, sometimes communities of color. I want to be able to reach to the eastern part of the state, but I also want to make sure that I have a message for the western part of, of the state. And Dr. LaGrand has really done a good job in helping me be able to do that.

Lyn Wineman:

I do have to give Dr. LaGrand a shout out. We get to work with her from time to time, and she is pretty fantastic talented person there. So we’ll see if she listens to this if she lets us know she heard that all right. So Dannette, I’d really actually like to talk a little bit about you now. I always love to hear the story of how people’s career paths led them in this direction. Were you an eight-year-old on the playground saying, “I want to be the Director of Health and Human Services?”

Dannette Smith:

Not quite, but I can tell you. I can tell you I started out wanting to be a psychiatrist.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh wow.

Dannette Smith:

I wanted to be a psychiatrist. And my mother said to me, “Well, you don’t have the best study habits. And I don’t know that I’m going to invest that kind of money. So you better figure out what else you can do.” So anyway, long story short, got a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on and got my master’s in social work. And that happened because a colleague that I was working for told me he thought I’d be a wonderful therapist, a wonderful therapist, a good social worker. And he said, “You ought to try it.” So I ended up and I went and got my master’s, and the rest is the kind of history.

Dannette Smith:

But I’ve always liked working with children and families. I’ve always liked to do that. When I worked, and I’ve worked all over the country, and so I’m not going to go into all of that. But I’ve worked all over the country. And I had one county commissioner when I worked in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Mecklenburg County, who told me, she said, “You’d make a wonderful state secretary.” And I said, “Really?” She said, “Yeah.” She said, “You’re so gracious. And you’re really articulate. And you’re really passionate. And you would make a great state secretary. Have you ever thought about that as a career?” And I said, “No.” I don’t know what I was thinking about in Mecklenburg. I think I was really thinking about raising my daughters. And she said, “You ought to think about that.” And so I’ll be honest with you, Lyn. I got around that idea and I started planning what my career would need to look like to get to be a state secretary.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s amazing.

Dannette Smith:

And so here I am. Here I am.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s amazing. It also speaks to the power of reaching out to people when you see a spark or a light in them and saying, “Hey, I see that in you.” And then you heard that, and you investigated it, and you went for it. And here you are. I love that. I love that. So Dannette, times are changing, and I think mostly for the better. And we’re starting to see more women, more people of color leadership positions. Can you just share a little bit about your journey and maybe any challenges that you had to overcome? I’ve got to imagine there were some at some point.

Dannette Smith:

Well, I’m going to, as always, I’m going to start with the positive.

Lyn Wineman:

Good for you.

Dannette Smith:

And the positive is simply that what a wonderful opportunity we are in as women, and certainly, women of color. We have a wonderful opportunity to do some things that perhaps I only dreamed about that young women can actually do now and be now. It goes back to that commercial. “If you see it, you can be it,” or something like that. “If you see her, you can be her.” Okay. It goes back to that, that commercial. And so I think, what I tell my daughters and my daughters are in their 30s, “There is nothing that you can’t do. And you cannot tell me you can’t do it because you can. We’re in a different era. And we’re in a different legacy where women can do anything.”

Dannette Smith:

I would say to you that in my career, it has a lot of hard work. I have had to be willing to listen to things that have not been so nice, either about me or for me, but what I’ve always tried to do, Lyn, is to keep a positive attitude. I’m an avid reader when I can. I always like to learn. And one of the things that young women will ask me is, “How did you get to your position? What did you do?” It was through hard work. And it was through being willing to go through a lot of challenges. I always tell people it is so important to be a good listener. And a good listener doesn’t listen with their mouth constantly going. A good listener just simply listens to what’s being said, and even listens to people that you would consider your nemesis.

Dannette Smith:

One of the positives about a nemesis is that they show you the areas that are your weaknesses and they give you an opportunity to fix it. And so I look at that as an opportunity. Are there issues for women of color? Absolutely. Do I think that’s going to necessarily change? No I don’t. But I think that we’re in an era where you can make a difference if you choose to. I choose to make a difference where I am here in Nebraska. I choose that. Are there easy days for me? No, there aren’t. And some days I know why it’s not easy and it has nothing to do with skill level. Yeah. But I don’t let that deter the work that I’ve been called to do.

Dannette Smith:

And so that’s the third thing I would say to you, I’m called to doing this work. And when you are in a leadership role, you have the responsibility to be called to do the work and then do the work, which means you have to have a lot of people around you to help you be successful. But the flip side of that is you got to help them be successful as well.

Lyn Wineman:

I love that. Dannette, I love your positivity. I love your strength. That’s also good. I also really liked what you just said about your nemesis. Listen to your nemesis and learn from it and then move on. I think that’s really a great analogy. So you are obviously a leader who is making a great impact and you’ve already given us some advice, but really focusing in on young leaders who want to make a difference, what are some key bits of advice that you would give?

Dannette Smith:

Well, I’m still going to say be a good listener. Number two, be willing to learn. So when your boss says, “I want to send you to a conference in Washington, DC,” don’t say, “No, I’d rather do it in Zoom.” So say, “No, I’ll get on the plane and go,” because when you go to DC, you’re going to have the opportunity to meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet if you were on the Zoom call. Yeah. So be willing to explore and try new things. And then the third thing I would say is hone in on that skill, that passion that you really know that you do well. Hone in on it and make it the very best that it can be. I’m very good with community engagement. I’m very strong operationally. I’m very strong with policy. And so those are things that I really, really do well. Finances, I do it, don’t like it. So I make sure I have people around me who do it well, if that makes any sense.

Lyn Wineman:

It makes 100% sense. I’m the same way. I say often, “I’m an advertising girl. I need a good accountant.” So there you go.

Dannette Smith:

And Lyn, if you’d let me talk a little bit about character, because I think that’s important.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh, yes.

Dannette Smith:

Sometimes, I think young people think that we can be shy on integrity, and you can’t. My word is my bound. And I say that even to my daughters, I say to them that “When you give me your word, that means that you mean what you say, and you say what you mean, and you’re going to do it.” And there is no quick way with integrity and with good character. Be honest, if you can’t do the job, say you can’t and say, “But I’m willing to learn. Steer me in the right direction.” But to be outside of integrity, I don’t think is good.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah, that is good.

Dannette Smith:

And that’s part of a strong character.

Lyn Wineman:

Really great, really great advice. I’m glad that you added that in. I think, especially in a state like Nebraska, a smaller state where you find that people know each other. I just was in a conversation the other day where somebody who works for my husband at a wedding that I was at, and she’s the neighbor of the bride. And we all knew each other and we had this great conversation. And in Nebraska, you better have integrity and character because if you don’t, everyone will know. So Dannette, everyone who listens to this podcast knows that something I love is motivational quotes. And I get to talk to a lot of inspiring people like you. So would you be willing to give us some of your own words of wisdom for our listeners?

Dannette Smith:

So I had to have Dr. LaGrand kind of help me with this.

Lyn Wineman:

She’s good at that.

Dannette Smith:

And yeah, she’s good at it. And my favorite one is one I just said to you, which is get yourself 10 good friends. You cannot survive as a leader without people who you can trust and who can tell your story when you are not in the room.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s amazing.

Dannette Smith:

You’ve got to have 10 good friends. And then my last one is everybody that leads needs a coach. And I say that a lot around here all the time. Even though I’m the leader, I have a very dear mentor that lives in Chicago, that when I get stuck, I call her and she reminds me all the time. She says, “Danny, you are doing a tough job. To reach out to me,” she feels it’s an honor. I feel it’s an honor to talk to her. But anyway, in these tough jobs, you have to have somebody you can talk to where nobody holds you guilty of anything.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah. Such good advice.

Dannette Smith:

You can just say it. So I always say everyone that leads needs a coach. A coach needs a coach.

Lyn Wineman:

Nice. Sometimes, you just need to get out of your head a little bit, right?

Dannette Smith:

Exactly. Exactly. Those ideas are bouncing around in there and someone else can kind of see it through for you and help you. So good. Dannette, you have given us such good information. I knew this was going to be a fun conversation today. For our listeners who would like to learn more about the work you’re doing at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, learn about some of the programs, how can they find out more?

Dannette Smith:

Well, they certainly can come to our website, which is dhhs.ne.gov.

Lyn Wineman:

Nice.

Dannette Smith:

That’s dhhs.ne.gov.

Lyn Wineman:

Great. We’ll have that in the show notes too, if anybody didn’t grab that. So as we wrap up this very fun conversation, what is the most important thing that you would like our listeners to remember about the work that you are doing?

Dannette Smith:

Well, I would like for your listeners to know that the Department of Health and Human Services, as big and mighty as we are, we really are here to serve Nebraskans and we want to do an exceptional job for the people we serve. And so please come to our website and take a look at all the services.

Lyn Wineman:

Fantastic. Dannette, I fully believe the world needs more people like you. So thank you for taking time out of your very, very busy day to talk with me.

Dannette Smith:

Well, Lyn, thank you for having me. I thoroughly enjoyed this way too much. Way too much. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Lyn Wineman:

Maybe we’ll have to do it again sometime.

Dannette Smith:

We will. We will. Thank you so much for thinking of me this morning.

Announcer:

We hope you enjoyed today’s Agency for Change podcast. To hear all our interviews with those who are making a positive change in our communities or to nominate a change maker you’d love to hear from, visit KidGlov.com at K-I-D-G-L-O-V.com to get in touch. As always, if you like what you’ve heard today, be sure to rate, review, subscribe, and share. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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