Dannette Smith: Leading and Listening as She Advances State Social and Health Services 

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Dannette Smith was not a late bloomer. 

With a trailblazing mom — not many Black women were assistant school superintendents in a midwestern steel town like East Chicago, Indiana in the 1960s — she grew up confident, with a role model at her side.  

And watching the civil rights movement unfold from a young age, including meetings her parents hosted in the family’s basement, she knew she wanted to fix things, to make people’s lives better. That put her on a path to a career in social work and human services. 

Dannette Smith headshot
Dannette Smith

But becoming the CEO of the Nebraska Department and Health and Human Services under Gov. Pete Ricketts a year before the worst pandemic in a century wasn’t on her bingo card. 

When the Covid-19 virus hit, Smith quickly assembled the requisite experts and teams, including a chief medical officer and a public health director. She understood that she needed to be a strong and trust-affirming leader — and to simultaneously stay in her lane because there were times when the health and science experts had to take center stage. 

But as her department addressed emerging threats and people had to collaborate in ways that were new to them, she understood her key leadership task was “keeping everybody in the rowboat rowing together,” she recalled in a recent conversation. It also meant supporting hard-working staff, doing their best to contain the virus and limit its harm. Some department employees, she said, at times got “upset because they didn’t understand why people didn’t understand the science of the pandemic.” 

Her own leadership style, honed over the years that led her to Nebraska, was a mix of being quite forthright — and knowing when she needed to just listen. Mentoring was also something that she prioritized — so much so that it sometimes it started during a job interview, before the person was even hired. 

Maintaining Authenticity 

“I am who I am, and I don’t back away from who I am. And there have been people who have been very happy with my authenticity, and I was very authentic with Gov. Ricketts when I applied for the job.” 

“I have a core of me that speaks to people of color, particularly African Americans,” said Smith. “And if I can’t speak to that, in the work that you’re asking me to do, I’m probably not going to be the right leader.”  

“I need to be able to speak my truth.”

Political Savvy 

In conversation, Smith comes across as forthright, confident, and outgoing (though she says her private persona, her at-home self, is far quieter.) She does see herself as a strong and decisive leader — like her mother “who walked with such grace.” But she values consensus — and knows when to hit pause when consensus is elusive, so she can give it time and circle back. She takes risks — but they are carefully calculated risks. “I’m very, very strategic, and very, very methodical in everything that I do.” In those challenging pandemic years in Nebraska, everything she did, she said, had a reason and a purpose. 

“If you don’t know what matters to you — as a leader — and what you bring to the table, it’s going to be difficult to achieve it.”

Like any human, she makes mistakes. And throughout her career, she learned how to be transparent about them, so not only she but others can learn from them. “I can share my mistakes with my team. They’ve witnessed some of my mistakes. But they’ve also witnessed me getting back up.”   

And that’s a lesson to those who may follow in her footsteps. 

“If you don’t know what matters to you — as a leader — and what you bring to the table, it’s going to be difficult to achieve it,” she said. And she understands some people don’t see themselves as leaders. But she still helps them become more aware of what they care about, to understand what they want to do, and how to make decisions about what is and is not achievable. “I can get real deep with people,” she said with a laugh. 

The Road Taken 

Her route to Nebraska was, literally, circuitous with stops in Chicago, Ill., North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Washington State. She studied psychology at Eastern Michigan University, earned an MSW at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a Milbank Fellow, and went through the Executive Leadership Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for Child Welfare. She developed a breadth of experience as a practitioner and manager.  

She was director of the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services in 2019, when a recruiter called and asked if she was interested in the top health and human services job in a state. (The headhunter did not open his pitch with the disclosure that the state in question was Nebraska.) 

She took the job. By 2019, “social determinants of health” was a reasonably well-known concept, and she was excited about using her experiences to bring health and social services together, and introduce better technological tools, to serve Nebraskans. She got off to a good start, but a year later, Kaboom. It was March 2020, and she was leading the state through a pandemic.  

It wasn’t that she hadn’t acquired knowledge about public health along the way. But she hadn’t had to deal with epidemiology and public health labs and faulty tests and infectious disease and the spread of a virus that no one yet understood but was killing people, some of whom were questioning its very existence. And she also recognized early on that not only did she have to keep then-Gov. Ricketts informed and up to date, with consistently reliable data, she also needed to help the people of Nebraska understand what the science was saying.  

She was one of two African American leaders in Ricketts’ cabinet in a largely white and conservative state. It wasn’t a problem, at least not for her. And she developed an excellent rapport with the governor. She respected his ability to listen, even when he didn’t agree, and his openness to ideas other than his own. “I became very fond of Gov. Ricketts. And I think he of me. Although we were from two different worlds with two different life experiences, it was a working relationship based on mutual respect.” 

Ricketts was appointed to the US Senate in January 2023, and Smith stayed on to serve under Gov. Jim Pillen. But by August 2023, she was ready for a downshift. She stepped down and took a consulting role that would give her a bit more time to reflect rather than moving right into another demanding position.  

“I’ve learned a lot along the way. I think this time that I’ve spent in reflection has probably been more transformative than probably any time in my life.  I’m looking at myself through the lens of a leader,  a mother, even as an African American woman, asking the question, “In this day and age, what does that all mean? I have been contemplating what it is that I bring to the table that is unique, but yet very similar? It’s truly been a time of reflection, deep reflection.” 

Mentorship as Leadership 

She has long understood that mentoring is a crucial part of leading. Her definition means active mentoring, not just being a person with a big title and job that talks to the mentee. Job applicants or new hires naturally tell her how much they want to work with her. “But I want to know,” she explained, “is what that means — what truly excites and challenges you and how do you think that you can help?”  

With one mentee, the focus was on being consistent with his staff. “What that means is consistency in messaging, consistency in developing expectations…and following through.” And she pushed him to really deepen his understanding of his staff’s role and responsibilities. To do that, she sent him on the road to see for himself. He now visits his staff about every two months. That means, Smith said, he is leading in a less abstract way with much more timely and constructive follow-up. 

Politics, Politics, Politics 

Nebraska was her most complicated job, in the sense that she had such a broad purview amid an unprecedented crisis. But in many ways, she said, her job in Seattle a few years earlier was tougher. In fact, she still regards it as her toughest job, but the one that also prepared her for everything she’s achieved since. 

Smith had gone to Seattle to work in human services, specifically on services for people experiencing homeless, to make sure that people weren’t only getting a bed and a roof but also a path toward reintegration with the community, toward a better and more stable life. But there were politics. Lots of politics and she wasn’t used to that. Not politics as in “blue” vs “red” — this was, after all, Seattle. But politics in terms of people, in the local government and partners in the private sector, being rooted in or vested in certain ways of doing business. It taught her to do what she called thinking “from the inside out” and how to be present amid disagreements, and how to be gracious even when it’s hard. She didn’t know it at the time, but it would be good preparation for Nebraska. 

Smith has long known that she had a “knack for working with people, regardless to whether they were from marginalized communities or not.” She has an intuitive sense of how communities worked – and how to work in a community. She had a belief that she could contribute. That she could make things better, that she could lead. Those beliefs go back to early childhood. But over the decades she has honed those skills. 

After her few months of reflection, a reenergized Smith knew what she wanted to do. In March she began her new job as the Commissioner of the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) for the state of Colorado. The state established the agency in 2021 to better coordinate behavioral health and substance use programs – and their funding streams. It’s a narrower portfolio than she had in Nebraska but that’s precisely what she wanted for this next chapter.  

“It’s a very exciting opportunity,” she said. She’ll coordinate with many other health and human services programs in the state, using skills she has built over the decades, but she’ll also be able to build upon the existing foundation and “really solidify what behavioral health needs to look like for adults and children from a perspective of having good access to behavioral health care along with physical care.” Dannette Smith believes she is up for the task and looks forward to learning, leading and guiding the transformation of the behavioral health system in Colorado.