‘I am nothing without my staff’ – leadership lessons from a social services director

Engaging directly with staff, acting with integrity and allowing your opinions to be challenged are among the key lessons that Sherry Malik has learned during her time in social care senior management.

Management meeting
Picture posed by models: Rex Features

I am fast approaching the first anniversary of when I started in my role as role director of children and adults in Hounslow and this has led me to reflect on what I have needed to perform the role and on the nature of leadership.

How do you want to ‘be’ at work?

Before you start the job, think about how you want  ‘be’ at work. How do you want others to perceive you? It’s not enough that you know your subject matter and that you have experience. That is a given. This role is about leadership so it is as much about you as a person and your ability to influence, as it is about the authority inherent within the role.
I wanted to be a visible leader: approachable, present, being able to connect to my staff and listen to what they wanted and needed in order to be able to do their best every day. This may sound idealistic when you are managing a department with over 1500 staff in multiple locations and there is only one of you.

I had learnt some important lessons in closing the General Social Care Council, the previous regulator for the social work profession, where I was deputy chief executive. Together with Penny Thompson, the chief executive, we embarked on a journey over two years, to keep staff motivated and engaged despite the closure.

Engage with staff on a human level

We learnt how to communicate effectively with not only our staff, but also the wider sector, stakeholders and the 100,000 registrants in England. I learnt the power of social media, blogs, newsletters, visits, speaking at events and answering questions honestly. I learnt the importance of walking the floor, listening to staff and engaging with them at a human level during this two-year period of deep uncertainty. Most importantly I learnt that you can’t just do it once but that you need to do it consistently and reliably.

I have actively put this learning to use in Hounslow and visit frontline staff most weeks, walk the floor especially during changes and hold twice-yearly all-staff meetings. On my first Friday I posted a blog for staff, which I have committed to writing every Friday since. (My assistant directors take it in turn when I am on holiday). It is a platform I use to congratulate individuals for their outstanding work, motivate, inform, empathise and get buy in for changes. Colleagues tell me that they look forward to it, not only because it tells them about the work of the department, but because it provides an insight into what the director does, which I am told is often a mystery to many junior staff!  I am called by some, affectionately I hope, ‘the blog lady’!

Let your values be your guiding light

Leading requires difficult choices and decisions to be made every day and I have always found that when I am facing tough times, my values and principles are my guiding light. Things will go wrong – and there will be many occasions when you will not agree with colleagues on the best way forward. That is without doubt. What matters is how you behave when dealing with these issues – and this is when your values and principles come into play. Work through the problems and issues with integrity, respect, honesty and openness and you can hope to come out of it with your dignity and self-respect intact. You may not always win the arguments, but this isn’t about winning, it is about doing the right thing.

Don’t let pride get in the way of learning

In the day-to-day challenge of doing the job, I sometimes hear things I don’t fully understand – sometimes it is about context and sometimes it is about a particular area of work I am less familiar with. I confess there are times when I wing it, but more often I have taught myself to conquer my pride to ask, ‘tell me how this works, ‘I don’t understand why we do this’ or ‘what is x?’. This is important because no one can know everything and pretending that you do doesn’t fool anyone. It only leads to a lack of trust between you and your staff; your opportunity to learn disappears. So don’t let pride get in the way of your learning, ask the questions which will ultimately lead to better decision making.

Wilful blindness

I have left this issue to the last deliberately, as it is the most dangerous of mindsets for leaders. Wilful blindness is a legal term used when “an individual seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting him/herself in a position where s/he will be unaware of facts that would render him/her liable” (Wikipedia).

In the case of leaders this translates as being driven by what you believe to be true and right. You then select the information which supports your thinking and choose to ignore information which does not. You choose not to have open debate and discussion about the issues because of fear that you may be proved wrong. But this only drives the debate underground and you lose the pulse.

I have learnt through my mistakes that I am nothing without my staff and that if I allow my opinions to be challenged it is a sign of my strength. I can look back at this past year and see that I have learnt huge amounts not only about the context I work in but also about myself.  I know I am aspiring every day to be a better leader.

Advice and support for managers

Community Care is re-running our popular Supporting managers in social work conference on 17 September, to provide managers with advice and support on issues including change management, quality assurance, crisis management and promoting behavioural change among staff. Register now to hear top speakers such as Professor Eileen Munro and network with your peers.

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‘We need to expose managers to the actual, visceral nature of frontline social work’

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