Developing leadership among all practitioners

In the last of our series on the Social Work Reform Board's professional capabilities framework, Kirsty McGregor explores the importance of developing leadership among practitioners at all levels

In the last of our series on the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework, Kirsty McGregor explores the importance of developing leadership among practitioners at all levels

As Learn to Care’s report on leadership and management for social work and social care asserts: “Leadership is often seen as the panacea to cure all organisational ills.”

Yet the report, published this week, warns that many employers are failing to provide specialist leadership development opportunities for social workers.

“Professional leadership can offer new opportunities for social workers, boost their morale and improve their practice,” says Claudia Megele (pictured), a social worker and service director of A Sense of Self, which offers support groups, psychotherapy and counselling services in London.

But, she adds, it could also become another bureaucratic requirement that burdens social workers and their practice if, for example, organisations cut their training budgets and pass the decision-making buck to practitioners.

To avoid this, the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework requires social workers at every stage of their careers, from student to pre-retirement, to develop and show genuine leadership skills. This involves taking responsibility for the development of others through supervision, mentoring, assessing, research, teaching and management – as well as self-leadership.

“You need to ensure people can manage themselves, and then they can help others,” says Professor Keith Brown, director of the centre for post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University and co-author of Learn to Care’s report. “Good professional leadership stops inappropriate behaviour because it sets standards and values in teams. It’s a case of asking how, as a professional, are you responsible for things?”

Easy implementation

Some aspects of the professional leadership capability, such as peer supervision, mentoring and assessing, can be implemented easily, says Megele. Research and teaching, both of which require more time and preparation and take practitioners away from the frontline, may be more challenging.

“Given the difficult climate of cuts, the question becomes how employers will implement these recommendations,” Megele says. “Organisational and management culture is key, as is the partnership between employers and universities. We cannot expect staff who are under excessive stress and may need support themselves to provide support for others, and we cannot expect rigid hierarchical cultures to breed professional leadership.”

In England, the development of post-qualifying programmes and support schemes for newly qualified social workers have helped to foster the growth of leadership because people are required to mentor their colleagues, says Ruth Cartwright, England manager of the British Association of Social Workers. This will be further underlined by the new framework for continuing professional development, which is being engineered by the Social Work Reform Board and will be taken on by the College of Social Work in 2012.

Cartwright says frontline staff need good examples from managers willing to share their own learning. They also need opportunities to work with others, whether through talking over a cup of coffee, a staff meeting, a formal presentation to a team or supervising and mentoring colleagues. This should be supplemented with dedicated time to carry out research and present the results to others. “Every team should be able to have a social work student and be involved in their development, with one person named practice teacher,” Cartwright says. “There should also be clear progression for people who wish to go into management and those who do not.”

Leadership development for managers

Learn to Care’s leadership strategy agrees that leadership should be at every level and “not just about a select few who own the ‘title’ and the position”. However, it emphasises the importance of leadership development for managers. This, the authors find, has often been undertaken by way of general management and leadership programmes, either supplied in-house as part of corporate training or purchased as a general business master’s or diploma course. “There is a lot of training out there, but it’s not assessed,” adds Brown. “How do you know it has made a difference to practice? Our research suggests there is a lot of dissatisfaction with existing programmes because they do not meet the needs of frontline managers.”

Learn to Care argues that leadership development requires a professional focus, reflecting Professor Eileen Munro’s recommendation, in her review of child protection, of an approach that values “professional social work expertise”. “It’s about allowing professionals to make professional judgements,” says Brown. The Social Care Institute for Excellence has developed a course that claims to do just that (see box).

Along with the eight other capabilities in the framework, the professional leadership capability, with its emphasis on improving and developing a workforce that learns together, aims to produce a learning culture in social work organisations rather than one of blame and fear. As Megele says: “We have seen a lot of what does not work. But these recommendations offer a window of opportunity to do things differently for everyone’s benefit.”

Combining professional identity and leadership

The Social Care Institute for Excellence has developed a new course called Excellence in Social Work Leadership for social work managers, team leaders, approved mental health professionals and consultants. It is also open to social workers with a leadership role in safeguarding, the Mental Capacity Act, personalisation and other areas of practice.

The programme’s leader, independent consultant Karen Linde, says that, unlike more general leadership programmes, this course brings together professional identity and leadership development. There are three modules: leading self, leading ethically and leading within living systems, which addresses the need for collaborative leadership across organisations.

The emphasis on ethical leadership encourages managers to lead from a human rights perspective, reflecting the complex and often highly-charged nature of social work decision making. “Ethics is an important part of leadership practice,” says Linde. “We also try to ensure people know their professional boundaries.”

The course looks at the new challenges facing social work leaders, such as the move towards community working. “How do you engage communities while maintaining professional boundaries?” says Linde. “Managers can discuss that here. They can begin to re-construct the profession.”

This year’s cohort of 20 social work consultants and managers had to complete a 360-degree assessment before starting the course. The assessment requires a minimum of five people, such as peers, team members and managers, to give feedback on that person’s leadership approach. It has many pros and cons, according to Learn to Care’s leadership strategy. If carried out correctly, the 360-degree tool increases self-awareness, but it relies on careful planning, good training and support.

Linde says social work leaders found it useful: “It’s a self-development tool; they rate their competence across a number of dimensions and compare it to the feedback. Many senior teams regularly have access to 360-degree, but frontline leaders tend not to have had access to it before. They have loved it.”

Participants have also appreciated the opportunity for peer learning. “Developing peer networks enables people to connect with others and support their own professional development,” Linde says.

View from the reform board

The Social Work Reform Board expects all social workers to take responsibility for the learning and development of others through supervision, mentoring, assessing, research, teaching, leadership and management. Practitioners should lead and inspire others, from students and service users to their peers. They should also take responsibility for informing and influencing policy and practice.

Working Paper on the Professional Capabilities Framework, Social Work Reform Board, January 2011

Find out more about the Social Work Reform Board’s vision

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More articles on the professional capabilities framework

The need for more critically reflective social work

Promoting diversity in social work practice to combat oppression

Ethical dilemmas for social workers at a time of cuts

Published in Community Care, 29 September, 2011, The leading edge

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