We don’t need turnaround kings, we need long term investment in social care staff

Blair McPherson says the cult of the super manager fosters short term thinking and goals

Jose Mourinho at a press conference before his recent departure as Chelsea football manager. Photo: BPI/RexShutterstock
Jose Mourinho at a press conference before his recent departure as Chelsea football manager. Photo: BPI/RexShutterstock

They are the ‘turnaround’ kings. They can straddle two local authorities, they can manage two large schools at the same time, they can transform your hospital trust, they can restore the reputation of your children’s services and they can get your adult care services out of special measures. They are the ‘special ones’.

So when the magic doesn’t work and the turnaround fails to happen or the results don’t improve or the initial improvement is not maintained what then? How does the special one explain this?

‘I was too good’

Such explanations will often resemble the defence given by another ‘special one’, Jose Mourinho, when Chelsea had an inexplicably bad run of losses. It ran along the lines of: “I was too good, I raised people’s game, I made them better than they were but they couldn’t maintain this standard or meet my expectations”.

In other words it’s not their fault – the teachers/nurses/social workers were just not good enough.

These managers are ‘special’ because of their very impressive track record of success in improving performance, meeting and even surpassing the ambitions of the board.

However, in almost all cases they never stay long. A ‘special one’ is always in demand so after a couple of years they move on, their reputation enhanced, to bigger and better things.

Exhausted staff

They leave behind an organisation that has fought its way out of special measures and restored its reputation but often at the cost of a physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted staff group.

Short term dramatic improvement has been achieved but the transformation has not been embedded. All of the effort was directed at producing an immediate impact and building for the future was neglected.

As a result, when the charismatic leader departs the organisation soon reverts to past behaviour with predictable results.

Short term thinking encouraged

Real change, lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s because changing the way people think, developing relationships, establishing a set of values is an evolutionary process and it needs a different type of leadership.

Yet the government helps this short term thinking with its emphasis on league tables and a narrow range of easily measurable targets and quick wins. This encourages the cult of the super leader, the ‘special one’. It paves the way for a system where we focus on passing exams rather than educating pupils, on speeding up throughput at the expense of patient care and safety, of completing assessments but not promoting independence or improving quality of life.

We don’t need ‘special ones’ we need a long term investment in staff without the short term exploitation.

Blair McPherson is a former director of social services and social worker and now author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

3 Responses to We don’t need turnaround kings, we need long term investment in social care staff

  1. LongtimeSW January 8, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Well said Blair – Of course, never let it be said that these people do it for goodwill – look at the salaries for these “Jill and Johnny-come-lately’s” – what really hurts is the fins of (Famous Airline) Health Care, (Roadbuilding Company) Health Care, Capital (sorry for the spelling mistake), Read (again sorry fro the spelling mistake), circling the waters . . . . still that’s perhaps a different article

  2. Tom Hughes January 8, 2016 at 11:18 pm #

    This cult of the super manager could never be more inappropriately applied than in the field of Social Work. Most of them simply get lucky off the backs of others until the luck runs out and they spent the rest of their careers lumbering off the back of futuitous past glories. This individualism is doomed to failure as Social Work teams can only function at all if everyone is working towards the same goal. Putting one person on a pedestal as this article illustrates only papers over cracks.

  3. A Social worker 9 years in January 16, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    I am writing this response in frustration and saddness to the government proposals for our invaluable service. Having worked for 9 years in front line child protection I cannot fathom how fast tracking graduates into managerial roles will improve the situation.

    A week in my life as a social worker comes with 4 court cases, as a result of very dangerous situations that have placed children at risk of imminent danger. Should they not be in the know, this involves mountains of paperwork that I work on late into the night as well as seeing the children in my own time to ensure they are safe. My reports need to be accurate, fair, balanced and based upon evidence, research and practice wisdom (which can only be gained from experience).

    I have held children in my arms as they cried about their home life, I have sat and worked with children who have experienced sudden death, exposure to substance misuse, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, psychological cruelty and I have worked with women and children contemplating and eventually fleeing from violence facing a world of homelessness and a lack of opportunities. I have entered the homes, without any protection to myself, of people with offences including rape and murder and I sit beside them to discuss their children. I have been threatened , including with a knife and had my credibility challenged on a frequent basis by families who are unwilling to see that concerns such as not meeting a childs basic needs will harm them. The most resistant and challenging families I have worked with, who have made a wide range of professionals involved feel scared and intimidated have involved the sexual abuse of children.

    The lack of early intervention and the difficulty of referring children to mental health services means Social Workers end up holding this all together. Managers need skills to be able to see through what is happening in the family home, and be able to promote the social workers own resilience and we’ll being. Should the government be interested, Vicarious Trauma is a theory they may want to explore with these high flyers!

    In 9 years, I have seen that the best managers are experienced in the front line and have built up their knowledge and practice. Those who have leapfrogged into management leave teams to flounder as they struggle with the reality check of child protection!

    This is damaging to staff and ultimately leaves the children who are being harmed to be missed! Social Workers do not need more managers, they need more administration support and time to digest the extreme situations they are faced with.

    Despite the lack of a personal life that I have and the daily headaches and frustrations I experience I love my job and do it to ensure that children are safe.