Keeping in touch with the frontline is a continuing concern for managers at all levels: at a time of crisis they are the ones who must step into the breach. Andrew Mickel reports
There are some qualities that everyone would like to see in their manager. Leadership skills and the confidence to make good decisions, organisational skills and a sound knowledge base, and the ability to communicate with both staff and those outside an organisation, all help to make a good boss.
But what specific merits does a good social work manager need?
Independent workforce consultant David Leay has no shortage of suggestions. “You need someone who is publicly committed to making a difference,” he says. “They’ve got to be supportive and also challenging so that if something a social worker is doing isn’t working then they can say, ‘look, we’ve got to rethink that’. And they’ve got to be fair; if you treat people in an unfair way, it can clearly antagonise them.
“Bad managers are people who can’t manage their time – they may be empathetic with their staff but they may not necessarily be well organised – and those who can’t work in partnership with other people. We have to value people.”
Having a good manager able to deliver on Leay’s suggestions can go some way towards mitigating the worst aspects of being a social worker, and help staff focus on the most important parts of their job. But it is worth considering that social workers often have more than one boss.
A social worker based in a team led by someone from a different profession, for example, could have a professional lead to help with the technical aspects of the job, as well as a hierarchy of social work managers above them from team manager up to and including the director of service.
Where a manager sits within that hierarchy will affect the qualities they need to employ at that time to be effective. For those at the top of the management food chain, particularly in large local authorities with a lot of staff, staying in touch with the issues on the frontline is essential, but can take real effort.
Sarah Mitchell, (pictured) the strategic director of adult services at Surrey Council, sends out weekly e-mails to keep staff informed of what is happening in the service. She also tries to read one case file a week, and goes back to the responsible practitioner with her thoughts.
“It reminds me just how difficult the job is,” Mitchell says. “It’s easy to sit around and think about performance and budgets. But you read a file and it immediately reminds you how hard the work is.”
Making an effort to stay in touch with what is happening on the frontline can also help make a manager more approachable should someone in their team have concerns at work. It can also give staff a greater feeling of ownership over the work being done.
But a good manager also has to be able to respond quickly to events in a way that ensures their staff feel supported. In Westminster Council, following the Baby Peter scandal, senior managers accompanied social workers on visits to all children with child protection plans.
Acting director of children, young people and families Geoff Skinner visited three of an estimated 100 children who received these joint visits.
“It was a chance to have an independent view of how work is progressing,” he says. “Morale was under a lot of pressure post-Baby Peter, so I think in that sense we were showing we value people’s work. It was a massive success; for managers like us it was a chance to reconnect with frontline work, while the social workers appreciated seeing managers getting stuck in.” The exercise was successful enough to be repeated this summer with an estimated 160 children.
The lessons learned through staying in touch with the frontline will vary from one director to the next, but will inevitably remind them of difficulties of the job they may have forgotten about. Skinner, for example, was struck by the families who appeared to comply with social workers but who didn’t really believe they had a problem, such as with alcohol or domestic violence.
In post too early
The issues facing frontline managers are very different to those facing directors. The problem of people being put into these positions too early has been exacerbated by a shortage of social workers in general. And, once in post, there are very few places for new frontline managers to look to for advice on how to perform the role well.
The General Social Care Council’s code for employers does include some broad brushstroke guidance on what they should be doing. In addition, to try to raise the standard of supervision given by new social work managers, supervision standards have been created by Skills for Care and the Children’s Workforce Development Council.
Leay worked on the guidelines that accompany the standards. He suggests practical ideas such as diary planning and agendas to make supervision sessions work well, and ensuring that staff are given the time and space to raise their own issues too.
He also says that a good manager will find ways to help progress the careers of their staff – something also covered in the GSCC’s code for employers. “You can give them additional responsibilities or give them a mentor,” Leay says. “Or you can give them different experiences by shadowing. It’s about finding out what their career aspirations are, and helping them discover what’s realistic.”
Being a good manager in social work means treading a fine balance between staying true to the social work ethos, while pushing forward with the practicalities of the job. But, whatever a manager’s level, the ability to motivate those beneath them should be a universal quality, says Mitchell.
“We’re just about to recruit good social work assistant directors, and we’re looking for people who are passionate about a vocational career,” she says. “Managers need to bring energy and enthusiasm to the job every day; be positive and energetic. It’s never going to be easy, but the thing that gets you through is knowing about social care and being passionate.”
Good management during a time of change
Managers have a crucial role in helping staff to adjust their roles, attitudes and approaches as personalisation takes hold in adults’ services.
Marian Harrington, strategic director for adults and communities in Westminster Council, started a series of informal lunches that staff could go to, at which personalisation has become a key topic.
“At the moment, there’s a lot of change for social work staff and I think they feel their role is being eroded, and their professional responsibility too,” Harrington says. “I wanted to do as much as I could face to face to get people to see this as positively as possible. I think it’s important that people have the opportunity to ask me directly and to feel that they are a part of it.”
Julia Patton, a workforce development manager for older people’s services at the council, attended one of the recent lunches. “I had questions around the transformation and changing job roles, and the impact on the service users,” she says. “Basically, I wanted to make sure they weren’t decreasing the services.
“It was incredibly informal and it was good because there were only four of us. It was a very welcoming atmosphere and it didn’t feel like you were making an official complaint. Some of the areas Harrington related to showed me she’d come from a similar background to me.”
Patton says the lunch was effective in both helping her understand where the council’s personalisation agenda was heading, but also in making contact with her director.
And Harrington believes that keeping that contact going can benefit the service and the staff alike. “What I want most of all is for managers to be clear with staff about what is expected of them, and also what support we can offer people to help them develop within the council,” she says. “We’re keen to help people progress.”
Supervision Standard Guidelines
This article is published in the 17 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading How am I managing?
(Pic: Tom Parkes)