Becoming a front-line manager for the first time can make for a challenging transition. New manager Susan Ashworth tells Graham Hopkins how she has adapted to her role
Name: Susan Ashworth
Job: Team manager, community mental health team, Somerset.
Qualifications: BSc Sociology and Social Work, Diploma in Social Work, Post Qualifying award, Certificate in Education.
Last job: Lecturer in Social Work, Trowbridge College, Wiltshire.
First job: Secretary at NatWest Bank.
Unlike nurses, social workers don’t have career practitioner grades so if you want career progression (and let’s be honest, more money) you have to move into management. But it’s a move that is often made without a planned transition.
“You can be a practitioner one day and a manager the next with no particular pathway,” says Susan Ashworth, who became team manager of a community mental health team in Somerset a year ago. “You may have some idea of what that might mean having observed managers and having been managed by a range of different people in your career but it is a completely different thing when you’re there yourself.”
Ashworth moved into management from teaching social work in further education, having previously worked as a senior practitioner in a community mental health team. “I was an approved social worker practice teacher and had ASW trainees so the next step for me was to move into education full-time,” she says. “It gave me an opportunity to step outside practice and a busy work environment – and have time to reflect and do some more learning.”
Experience of working in a social care team helped Ashworth marry the dilemmas between theory and practice. “You could often be overwhelmed by the volume of work without being able to stand outside and look at how you might do it,” she explains.
Although supervision has that role, she recognises that at busy times it is sometimes sacrificed. “When I talk about professional development and reflective practice – community nurses, occupational therapists and social work staff all agree they know they have to do it but say it is very difficult to find the time alongside a very busy caseload.”
Commendably, Ashworth is hoping to bring some protected time for development and reflection. “One of the tensions of front-line management is that you need to look after the needs of your staff but you also have performance indicators to hit. And with constant prioritising it is very easy for someone in our profession to put their own needs lower down the scale.”
Ashworth’s own supervision is split. Her line manager, who is not a social worker, provides managerial supervision but she uses a social work manager “to keep that practice focus”.
Training is also crucial. “A workshop on effective front-line management in social care hit the nail on the head for what it feels like coming into management when you’ve been a practitioner: you don’t have expectations of what a new staff member will be like and how they will work in the team and you treat them individually. But when there’s a new manager the expectation is that they will be a manager.”
Being a new manager has meant relying on and encouraging the team to take an active part in its own management. “Don’t underestimate the wealth of experience and knowledge within a team. Certainly in the mental health world people tend to come and stay, so that experience builds up. And listening to the team has helped me make the transition. They will tell you that any great ‘new’ idea was usually in vogue some years ago.”
But could team consultation be seen as sign of weakness or an inability to make decisions? “There is that perception of a hard decision-maker but I believe that social work skills – negotiating, listening, problem-solving – lend themselves to management.
My view is to share information with the team and take a democratic approach – but it takes a while for the team to share that way of working.”
So, one year on and the ex-teacher is still learning. “It’s been a huge learning experience coming into this role and on reflection I had no idea that the job would be so diverse: everything from the sink, fridge and kettle becomes your responsibility right up to interviewing staff and service development – so it’s quite a wide brief. Anybody who has tried to get a rota together to wash up cups will now how hard it is!”