Leader Spotlight: Warren Conner, National Director of Social Work

“No bees, no food.” That’s one of Warren Conner’s personal mottos. And that applies to more than just his garden, which he nurtures and nourishes when he’s not working as the National Director of Social Work for AbsoluteCare.

The motto is about more than food, though. It’s about contributing to a larger ecosystem that in the end benefits us all. “That’s what we do here at AbsoluteCare,” says Warren. We nurture people and watch them blossom. They contribute to our ecosystem. We are all the bees, and we are all necessary to sustain life.”

Warren was surrounded by healthcare heroes in his youth. Nurses, physicians, social workers, and administrators made his career choice almost inevitable. But the real catalyst was the HIV epidemic. “Being personally impacted by the…fear, panic, discrimination, and terrible personal and community loss was the motivator.” Warren felt he could make the biggest and quickest difference by going into healthcare and working at a place that specialized in HIV treatment. He considers it luck to have interned with a Baltimore federally qualified health center (FQHC), where his “office was a foyer and [his] desk was a milk crate.” He stayed there for 20 years (eventually graduating to a real office with a bigger desk) before coming to AbsoluteCare in 2016, where he now works with many of his former FQHC co-workers.

At AbsoluteCare, Warren spends his time constantly developing and refining the social work program, incorporating best practices and innovative interventions that best meet members’ needs. He also offers his department’s clinical insights and consults with other disciplines.

That’s consistent with the thread of cooperation that runs through his life and work, whether it’s gardening or leading his AbsoluteCare team. “I strive to be a collaborative leader. It’s always my goal to get others to participate in the process. I think that is the best way to keep the team engaged and motivated. I try to be accessible and seek input of from others, as I think that enriches the final product.” Building collaborative relationships, he recognized from his very first social work gig, is essential for progress and for success.

And that fits with his other motto, too: If you do good work with people, the results will follow (although they may not be the results you expected). So he’s spent much of his time here expanding the historically narrow role of the social worker. “If you aren’t a social worker providing therapy, you are a social worker linking others to resources, and that’s effective when your clients are motivated and capable.” Because AbsoluteCare’s work frequently involves people who struggle in those areas, Warren has worked to do two things:

  • Facilitate the behavior change that is necessary in order for someone to acknowledge the need for help, accept that help is available, believe that treatment can be successful, and engage in that treatment
  • Facilitate and support the member’s engagement in the current medical treatment consistently, for the long term.

Thus, social workers must extend themselves beyond their case manager role and adopt intervention techniques and strategies used by traditional therapists—but in this non-traditional environment.

If you ask Warren what the practice of medicine needs most, he goes back to what motivated him in the first place: HIV. “We need better comprehensive access to HIV prevention medications.” He would also like to see on-demand behavioral health and substance use treatment, with medication assistance as needed, as “a staple of every primary care office.”

Warren Conner celebrated his 25th anniversary, and his garden is his sanctuary—“except on really hot days, when it is a beautiful view from my air-conditioned house.”