Boosting the quality of social care leadership

The National Skills Academy for Social Care has been asked by the government to improve the sector's leadership. Kirsty McGregor dissects the qualities that will be needed by tomorrow's social care leaders

The National Skills Academy for Social Care has been asked by the government to improve the sector’s leadership. Kirsty McGregor dissects the qualities that will be needed by tomorrow’s social care leaders

In her 2007 review of adult social care in England, Dame Denise Platt said strong leadership was needed to transform social care from “the invisible service” into one delivered with imagination, excitement and enthusiasm.

Since then the sector has taken steps to tackle the leadership gap, including the creation in 2009 of a National Skills Academy for Social Care (NSA), as recommended by Platt – part of its remit being to identify and grow leaders in all parts of the sector.

But the current economic climate has thrown a spanner in the works.

Stretched resources and increasing work pressures have limited the opportunities for frontline staff to develop leadership skills.

This presents a real challenge for the Department of Health’s vision for adult social care in England, published in November 2010.

Leadership and personalisation

Setting out the vision, ministers said that, as part of the personalisation agenda, councils should be able to provide personal budgets to everyone eligible within the next two years, and professionals should have the freedom – and responsibility – to work more closely with service users.

Delivering this would require a capable and well-trained workforce and strong leadership, they said.

To make this possible, the government asked the NSA to produce a leadership strategy for the sector.

Ministers said a capable and well-trained workforce and strong leadership was needed to deliver widespread reforms to the sector.

To make this possible, the government asked the NSA to produce a social care leadership strategy, published this week.

The strategy defines “good” leadership, identifies emerging challenges that social care leaders may face and looks at the support and resources available and needed to develop the next generation of leaders.

The document begins with a definition of leadership: “For the purposes of the leadership strategy, leadership means the behaviours, attributes and actions carried out to promote and deliver care.”

But the interpretation of what makes an effective social care leader is entirely subjective.

Sharing leadership responsibility

Brian Cox, head of leadership and management at the NSA, says the key thing to remember is that everyone has a degree of leadership responsibility in social care; from personal assistants and residential staff to chief executives of large private sector providers and directors of adult services.

“Leaders aren’t always in management positions,” Cox says. “Care assistants can demonstrate leadership skills by putting their values into action in a warm, human but committed way.”

For example, a care assistant working with older people might notice a service user’s neighbour also needs care, and do what they can to get them the support they need. “They are showing leadership skills by championing social care and reaching out to other people,” says Cox.

Recent research by the NSA and the Work Foundation found social care leaders displayed many of the same qualities as private sector leaders, such as allowing decisions to be made at a local level, empowering people and creating an open and supportive environment.

But it also identified a number of qualities distinctive to social care leaders, including:

• Having a vision which extends beyond their own organisation to wider social and community issues.

• A passion for making a difference and a strong desire to inspire others with the same passion.

• Determination, resilience and courage.

• A willingness to challenge the status quo because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Effective social care leaders also understand the politics of their role, adds Trish Hafford-Letchfield, an inter-professional teaching fellow at Middlesex University.

“Political skills help managers effectively understand people at work and to use their expert knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance personal and organisational objectives, as well as to enable people to feel good about what they do,” she says.

According to Hafford-Letchfield, leadership and management are not mutually inclusive or exclusive.


A map of leadership and management standards for social care from Skills for Care identified a number of key areas that every manager needs to do well, such as using information to make critical decisions and communicating with external agencies.

But Hafford-Letchfield says any leadership and management framework in the social care sector also has to emphasise social and moral practice – doing the “right” thing for individuals and communities – over the technical, specialised activities of managers.

Chris Davies, former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, calls this the “touchy feely bit”, as opposed to the cognitive, instrumental part of a leader’s role.

He says good leaders model the behaviour they would like their staff to demonstrate.

“There’s a theory that behaviour mirrors down through an organisation, so how you behave as a leader impacts on the way your frontline staff deal with their clients,” he says.

“And if you want to create a learning culture, you need to show you’re still learning. A boss who appears to have all the answers is limited.”

Above all, Davies says good leaders always bring their staff’s focus back to the outcome for the service user.

This is an increasing challenge in the context of delivering personalisation and person-centred services at a time when budgets are being slashed.

“It’s not easy,” Davies says. “Big organisations create their own demands.”

This problem is not unique to adult social care.

Munro’s view of leadership in child protection

Professor Eileen Munro’s review of child protection has found that organisational demands do not always contribute to better outcomes for children. Just as leadership was central to the government’s strategy for transforming the delivery of adult social care, so too was it a key focus of Munro’s interim report, published earlier this month.

Munro said child protection would benefit from leaders with particular strengths, such as openness to possibilities and personal resilience.

Her final report, due out in May, is expected to include further details.

In adult and children’s social care, training can help to develop leadership skills on the ground. The NSA offers several leadership programmes, including a course for frontline supervisors, team leaders and senior carers. Some universities, such as Middlesex, also offer an opportunity for social care staff to come together to reflect on and develop their leadership skills.

But Davies argues that the next generation of leaders will not emerge from structured programmes or a “written strategy handed down from on high”.

“Good leaders often emerge through their roles in social care, even if they aren’t the nominal team manager or leader.

“The best leaders develop their organisations by distributing leadership around themselves and allowing a continuous stream of new leaders to come through.”

Case study: communication skills are central to leadership

Sadie Scott, project manager at MacIntyre, a charity providing care for people with learning disabilities, describes what she learned from taking part in the National Skills Academy for Social Care’s frontline leaders programme:

I started off as a support worker at MacIntyre 21 years ago and moved my way up to head of service and then project manager. My current role, which I started 18 months ago, involves managing managers, so it has very specific challenges.

The frontline leaders programme was an opportunity to reflect on what I do as a manager and talk about how to approach difficult situations with staff.

I think to be a good manager you need to have good leadership skills. Management can be quite a tough balancing act and you need to get the best out of your staff, so it helps to be approachable and hands on. When I ask staff to do things in a certain way, I’m talking from my own experience; they know I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves. I get a lot more out of them using that approach.

On the frontline leaders course we spent a lot of time working on communication skills and how to deal with disciplining staff.

We were given scenarios to work through, such as a meeting with a member of staff who wasn’t performing well. It made us think about how we were going to do it, but we also talked about why. That’s where the leadership skills came in.

At the moment, I’m inducting a new team member at management level and the course helped, because we discussed how to give feedback in those kinds of situations. I have also learned the importance of planning and preparation, which helps when you’re having difficult conversations.

The opportunities to have those discussions with peers can be few and far between.

Because there was a focus on leadership, we spent a lot of time talking about how to get people on board. If you’ve got your staff behind you, you’re half way there.

Your views on leadership

MrP Good social care leaders are able and willing to get their hands dirty. One manager of mine, years ago now, used his Land Rover to pick staff up when it snowed and took them home at the end of the day.

Emm A good leader works with the needs of junior staff and service users in mind, not just the interests of the organisation.

lorihurst Most social care leaders are run off their feet and not able to consider their own leadership development and delivery.

Julian Self awareness or knowledge, having a vision (as in a strategy, not seeing the Virgin Mary in the resource room) and loyalty to the team.

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Published in 24 February 2011 Community Care. Headline: Looking for leadership


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