Senior leadership: humility, transparency and knowing when to step back

How investment in staff training, an open culture and peer learning helped senior leaders at Rotherham to transform children’s services performance

Ian Thomas, strategic director of children's services, Rotherham Council

A transparent culture, openness to peer review and increasing accountability were all ingredients to the senior leadership team at Rotherham children’s services turning around its services for children.

“You can delegate responsibility, but you can’t delegate accountability. We are accountable for the service and that means we accept challenge. Our aim is to be open and transparent,” said its strategic director of children’s services, Ian Thomas.

Rotherham’s overall rating of ‘good’ for children’s services, confirmed in an inspection report published this week by Ofsted, also incorporated a ‘good’ rating for leadership and governance.

Ofsted credited the senior leadership team, recruited after a 2014 ‘inadequate’ judgement in the wake of the Jay report that exposed the child sexual exploitation of 1,400 children in the town, as having “transformed” the service.

An effective recruitment strategy and a culture of “openness and transparency with a genuine dedication to improving the lives of children and young people” were among many areas singled out for praise.

Practice partner benefits

Thomas, who joined Rotherham in early 2015, said the council’s journey had benefitted from the support of its practice improvement partner, Lincolnshire council.

Lincolnshire became Rotherham’s improvement partner in May 2016 following the appointment of its deputy leader Patricia Bradwell as Rotherham’s commissioner, taking over from Malcolm Newsam.

Both Thomas and deputy strategic director for children’ services Mel Meggs, who joined in May 2016, had come to Rotherham from ‘good’-rated Derbyshire council, but knew the context surrounding Rotherham council meant we “had to up our game”.

“For us to come from there, into a different context here, and have Lincolnshire overseeing our work in terms of improvement required humility on our part,” said Thomas.

“I think given what’s been achieved we managed to get the balance right. Whilst you need to have humility you have to also rely on your own professional judgement and expertise and confidence in what’s right for Rotherham.”

Meggs added: “They were able to come in and do a deep dive [on new approaches] and provide us with the feedback about what was working and what needed more time to embed, and actually where we needed to be focused.”

The partnership incorporated a learning culture alongside significant peer review, with a programme of work for managers to build confidence in decision making.

Having that constructive challenge “was useful,” said head of service for the locality and disability social work teams Ailsa Barr. “If we’re telling our staff we want to create an environment where it’s high support, high challenge then we have to be prepared as a senior leadership to have that high support and high challenge from elsewhere.”

High support, high challenge

Performance management uses “restorative approaches”, said Meggs, which is embedded in the council’s high support, high challenge culture.

“We are very clear performance management shouldn’t be oppressive and that it’s about doing the best for our children. What comes through strongly in the [Ofsted] report is our grip on cases.”

With assurance that the council was compliant for statutory guidance, Meggs said it was time to focus on quality of service.

“It’s [now] easier for us to validate the social worker’s decision, because we’ve got the evidence in front of us that their assessment is a good assessment, and the action they want to take is the right action, so often now we are validating the decisions that people have already made and just having a bit of oversight on it.”

The context surrounding Rotherham children’s services and its transformation did instil some micro-management in the early days of change, conceded Meggs.

“We’re trying very hard to step away from that. but it’s about stepping away at the right time. The Ofsted reports help us with that, as we’ll be taking another opportunity, because the work’s been validated, to think about moving our decision-making further down the system.”

“I believe you make the best decisions closest to the child and family. That’s the fundamental principle for what we do and that the further away from that child or family that decision gets, you lose opportunity.”

Barr agrees. “There’s a difference between micro-management and holding staff to appropriate account.”

Kelly White, duty assessment function service manager, highlights the “big investment” into the training of social workers. The council uses different evidence-based approaches to social work practice, including social pedagogy, which focuses on the holistic needs of a child and how you work with them as if they are your own, and Signs of Safety.

“It’s our job to give social workers the right tools to do that job well. Signs of Safety is a nationally recognised model of working with families. We’re rolling that out, and that’s focused on how we work with families and how we help families to understand, so we’ve got a shared language and shared understanding of concerns.”

Stepping back

The senior team still have an active day-to-day involvement with frontline staff and will go on practice visits and learning days. There are fortnightly team manager meetings where individuals demonstrate their knowledge of the cases in their team, how up to date they are and what outcomes they are getting for service users.

An audit programme involves an auditor discussing the child, family and plan involved in the case, rather than just reading through case files, said White. “You get the real passion and enthusiasm doing it that way, and if you spoke to social workers they would report that this is a much better way of working for them, they feel included and it’s that inclusive environment we’ve created that’s helped.”

But confidence in decision-making throughout the workforce is clearly improving, along with the trust in those decisions, said Thomas.

“We’ve stepped back from attending every single case meeting; we’ve got some highly talented heads of service that run that role.

“We will dip in and out and observe and offer feedback but we’re confident in what our leaders are doing, and their ability to inspire the workforce is evident in this Ofsted report.”

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3 Responses to Senior leadership: humility, transparency and knowing when to step back

  1. Blair McPherson January 31, 2018 at 1:56 pm #

    I note that senior managers recognised they micro managed in the early days. I didn’t realise the extent till I read ” “We’ve stepped back from attending every single case meeting; we’ve got some highly talented heads of service”. You weren’t joking about micro managing but what time did this leave for the strategic stuff, culture change, business planning and the work with the Improvement Parner LA?

    The article quotes a senior manager saying ,”Performance management uses “restorative approaches”. I am familiar with performance management as targets, league tables and the use of management information but what are ” restorative approaches”. Is it something to do with building confidence and competence?

  2. Ian Thomas February 2, 2018 at 7:43 am #

    Hi Blair evidently we’ve had to create space to drill down into practice on the ‘dance floor’ and juxtaposed to this create space to develop strategy and horizon scan on the ‘balcony’. As Ailsa Barr has said in our work you have to deconstruct to reconstruct without the privilege of being able to close for refurbishment. We have the most resilient staff I have ever seen and they have risen to every challenge. Restorative approaches are about building relationships, so critical in our work and doing with, not to in a culture that supports high challenge, high support.

  3. Diana February 4, 2018 at 6:48 pm #

    You can delegate responsibility, but you can’t delegate accountability.