Are you a social care leader in waiting?

Social care is crying out for good leaders, but what does it take to be one, asks Rowenna Davies

Social care is crying out for good leaders, but what does it take to be one, asks Rowenna Davies

Now more than ever, social care needs good leadership. As the axe bears down on local authorities, good leaders could make the difference between collapse and evolution, and help to protect vulnerable people on the frontline.

But two big questions still need answering. First, what makes a good leader? Traditional top-down leadership can often be an obstacle that gets people’s backs up rather than an asset. Second, if you are interested in becoming a leader, how do you get there? Some of the best potential leaders never emerge because they are too caught up with work on the ground, or because they don’t know the right channels.

Richard Jones, president of Adass and director of adults’ services at Lancashire Council, knows a thing or two about leadership. He says it’s about more than managing a bureaucracy or massaging your ego. It’s about putting others before yourself.

“Good leaders engage people in any setting,” he says. “They could be working in a children’s home or managing a whole department. They should always be asking ‘Am I doing this appropriately? How could we do things differently?’. They give people a shared sense of enterprise, not just in a ‘wave the flag, follow me over the top’ way but by offering people a sense of confidence that what they are doing makes a difference.”

Jones started his career as a social worker and worked his way to the top. But his story shows that even the most advanced professionals encounter setbacks. “I remember applying for one role after I became a team manager that I thought I’d get but didn’t,” he recalls. “You feel a sense of rejection and you question whether you’ve got what it takes, but the key is to look for feedback and learn from it. Some authorities are just looking for yes-men and yes-women and you’ll be considered too much of a threat – they’ll be scared you won’t toe the line. Getting the budget right is important, but so is finding someone who can get staff involved, engaged and inspired.”

A recent report from Scotland shows the importance of good leaders. In one of the UK’s first proper analyses of leadership in social care, Scotland’s Social Work Inspection Agency (SWIA) assessed every local authority in the nation and found a striking correlation between good leadership and outcomes. Those authorities with better leadership delivered better services for users while morale, confidence and performance among staff increased. Not a single authority that ranked as a good service overall scored badly on leadership.

“This report shows that leadership is of critical importance,” says chief inspector Alexis Jay, who oversaw the report. “We’re talking about much more than just running a service effectively or managing the status quo. Good leadership occurs when social workers plan ahead, understand future risks and develop comprehensive plans that they can deliver. It’s about senior managers communicating messages with conviction and confidence, consulting people and supporting providers across all sectors.”

Jay believes that leadership in social care has not been given the attention it deserves, and that the SWIA’s report may well hold lessons for the rest of the UK. “Although we found that some councils do a huge amount of good work, there is no comprehensive approach to leadership development in social care as there has been in other sectors. It’s something we aim to fix in Scotland, with work now being led by the Scottish Social Services Council. From our evidence it looks like leaders are not identified early enough or systematically supported. A lot of the time staff don’t know the professional routes or education open to them.”

So if you are interested in leading, how do you progress? Luckily, authorities are waking up to the need to improve professional development. More senior positions are being created, offering the chance to specialise, teach or achieve consultant status. In Jones’s council, Lancashire, free sessions led by management are provided for staff to discuss what leadership means and how to progress. Other more national schemes are coming forward. A new grading – advanced social work professional status – is being piloted (see panel) and other initiatives are available on the Children’s Workforce Development Council website.

Whatever your confidence level, Jones’s final piece of advice is to take the initiative. “Why not shadow someone who is doing the job you like?” he says. “Seek out the right people and have a conversation about what you can offer. When I was applying to become team manager I never thought I’d get the job, but often you just need some mentoring and support – not a load of management books.”

Managers on the frontline

It is one of the perennial bugbears of social work that promotion means being sucked up the management chain and leaving the frontline. Advanced social work professional status (ASWP) is a new project that aims to give social workers a nationally recognised alternative.

Candidates that qualify for the status are likely to receive increased pay, autonomy and respect for frontline work, but organisers stress that the details will be left to each individual authority. Keith Brumfitt, director for Children’s Trusts, part of the Every Child Matters agenda, believes this will help prevent clashes between newly qualified recruits and traditional management structures.

“ASWP standards of excellence have been set by employers and are collaboratively built on their professional knowledge, experience and understanding,” he says. “Authorities tell us that setting out a clear set of expectations encourages practitioners to work hard to close any gaps in their experience. It’s a significant motivator.”

To receive ASWP status, practitioners must show longstanding experience in the frontline, leadership, good judgement, sensitivity and teamwork, among other skills. A two-day interview process will determine whether they meet criteria, but an initial self-assessment is available online.

Led by the Children’s Workforce Development Council, 45 local authorities were involved in designing the criteria to help employers identify prospective candidates. In the month since applications opened, more than 80 local authorities have put forward 130 candidates. Interested applicants are advised to get in quick: although there are still spaces available, funding has only been secured until March 2011.

● For more information visit the Children’s Workforce Development Council   

 Andrew Cozens: “The thing that still gets me out of bed in the mornings is that I want to change the world”

CASE STUDY Andrew Cozens: ‘Seek to influence, not control’

Andrew Cozens, strategic lead for adult social care at the Local Government Association, has had a glittering career. Starting as a social worker, he did a stint in the voluntary sector before working his way up to director of social services at Gloucestershire and Leicester councils. After taking the presidency of Adass five years ago he joined the LGA. Here, he explains the essential qualities for a successful social work leader.

“The thing that still gets me out of bed in the mornings is that I want to change the world. My time at Adass got me interested in how to influence change on a national level, and it’s a privilege to be able to straddle the world of services and politics and see how they interact. I enjoy having the chance to talk directly to ministers, civil servants and heads of services, and figuring out what makes things work.

“What I miss most about my previous jobs is not so much the hands-on work, but the first-hand evidence that what you do matters. At the top you see the statistical curves getting better, but it’s hard to visualise how that changes people’s daily lives. You have to remember that there are people out there who are making a difference, and that you’re doing much more than managing a bureaucracy.

“There are various qualities that make a good leader in social care. Passion, the commitment to follow through, tenacity – the ability to do a tough job in a tough time. You need to be able to communicate with a variety of audiences and, further up, the ability to manage the media is important. You need to be comfortable not controlling things – you seek to influence, not to tell people what to do. It’s a difficult balancing act to hold people to account and stand up for them.

“My biggest tip would be to keep an eye on the wider practice of development. You need to understand the political context and keep up your networks. When opportunities come along do take that external work – it can be tough to carve out the space to make it happen, but it tends to be rewarding.

“The LGA has a range of online toolkits to help councils see what councils might do to face broader challenges such as child poverty. Signing up for the bulletins on our website or joining our online discussion forums is a good place to start.”

For more information visit the Local Government Association

This article is published in the 30 September 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Are you a leader in waiting?”

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