Tips for applying and interviewing for your first social work manager position

This guide helps social workers looking to take their first step from the frontline into management

Photo: Fotolia/Андрей Яланский

Taking that next step, from experienced social worker to team manager, can be a daunting one. This article sets out top tips for when you’re looking to take a step up in your social work career and how you can apply it to the job application and interview process.

1. Think and talk yourself into the manager role you are applying for. 

Look at both the person specification (PS) and the job description (JD), which will describe the skills and knowledge required. Also, use the post-qualifying standards (knowledge and skills statements) for children’s or adults’ practice supervisors (KSSs) as a guide, to talk with aspiration about the role you are interviewing for. You need to talk and reply to questions as if you are in the role already, and answer with the role in mind.

Your interview panel is looking for a confident manager, who can respond under pressure and knows what is required of them as a manager. List how you will meet the PS and JD, and then prepare to share these in interview in a clear and succinct way.

How to use it: The transition from practitioner to manager is one which will be influenced by your experiences in practice, your experience of other managers and what you know is expected of you, from the PS, JD and relevant KSS. Draw on these experiences to develop your identity as a manger and speak from that place, structuring your responses as a manager would.

A good example might be when you have helped a student or less experienced social worker to overcome a challenge, or you have supported your team when your manager has not been available. You want to show you are capable of leading people and a team.

Create your personal brand; what do others say about you and what are you known for in the team? These qualities are important to share. Preparing in advance will ensure you know yourself well and can convey this in interview. Leadership in social work is a hot topic, with many studies focusing on this. Exploring your leadership style may be an advantage to you, to enable you to identify the skills you use and the style which suits you best, but is also proven to be effective in social work leadership.

A study by Rank and Hutchison found that “social work leadership is different than other professions for five common reasons: “commitment to the NASW [National Association of Social Workers] Code of Ethics, a systemic perspective, a participatory leadership style, altruism, and concern about the public image of the profession” (Rank & Hutchison, 2000, p493). They identified in their study that respondents believed the following nine areas as being necessary for leaders: community development skills; communication and interpersonal skills; analytic skills; technological skills; political skills; visioning skills; ethical reasoning skills; risk-taking skills; and cultural competence/diversity skills. Glisson (1989) found that social workers evaluate leaders on maturity, power and intelligence. Further, he found that there is a strong relationship between these three dimensions and both organisational commitment and the job satisfaction of social workers.

Knowing how to motivate a team to perform well, developing individual and team resilience and identifying your strengths in this will support your interview, to demonstrate you can succeed in this difficult management role (Fisher, EA, 2009).

2. Understand the current thinking supporting reflective supervision. To build excellent practice, reflective, high-quality supervision is required. The focus should be on how good-quality supervision can make a difference for children, families and adults. Research informs us that social workers say supervision is often driven by performance data, is task-focused and with an over emphasis on management oversight. Of course, there is a place for this in supervision but this should not replace reflective supervision, where practice is explored and developed to ensure high-quality services are experienced by children, families and adults.

Setting time aside to facilitate reflective practice is key to getting this right for your team. Asking social workers to come prepared to discuss a complex or stuck case, sharing that this will be the focus of a reflective discussion using a particular model, can encourage them to be more reflective. This could be facilitated by a reflective model template, which the social worker prepares prior to the supervision. This will encourage the social worker to prepare, and think critically about the case and their practice before coming to the supervision.

Setting aside time for group supervision can also encourage those members of the team who are less reflective. Group supervisions can helpfully model good reflective practice, in a non-threatening, supportive environment. Selecting members of the team that are good at reflection will support the team to develop their skills. Appreciative inquiry is another method for developing reflective practice. A team member will be asked to select a case, where the outcome has been positive for the child and family or adult, and where they feel good practice has been demonstrated. A reflective cycle will then be used to facilitate the discussion around the case, and team members can ask questions to dig deeper, into the practice, facilitating reflection and drawing out learning.

How to use it: Explore and be ready to discuss the models of reflective supervision you might use; there are lots to choose from. Be ready to talk confidently about the pros and cons of each model and have in mind examples of your experience of this model and what the outcomes were. Importantly, understand that supervision can be a parallel process and mirroring can occur, which will either encourage engagement with children and families or adults to improve outcomes or hinder such practice.

The role you will play in this as a manager is so important, so be ready to explore this in your answer, to show you can see yourself in this role managing the complexity of the supervision challenge. As the KSS for child and family practice supervisors says: “Strike a balance between employing a managerial, task focused approach and an enabling, reflective leadership style to achieve efficient day to day functioning.” Research by Wilkins (2018) explores this view, saying, ‘importantly, we found a “golden thread” between certain elements of supervision, more skillful practice, and improved parental engagement’.

3. Using performance data as a useful management tool, is a skill. Performance data is one of a suite of tools developed to inform managers about their team performance and ensure practitioners are accountable for their work within the full legal, regulatory, procedural and performance frameworks. How you engage with your team to discuss this is vital to succeeding. I often see practitioners who struggle with this concept. For example, as a practitioner you may have a view about its usefulness but as a manager the view may be very different.

A strong manager views performance data as a helpful tool to indicate what is going well and what is not, which supports the manager’s role. If you progress from within an organisation, you may have been a practitioner who colluded with your team about the plight of performance data; those days are gone now. The manager’s role is to hold practitioners to account, to celebrate excellent practice and challenge complacency. Performance data can create a culture of success and responsiveness to problems and support a learning culture.

How to use it: Consider how you will use performance data with your team to motivate and improve practice for children and families and adults. Consider several examples demonstrating when you have used data to support practice development; this could be your own performance, the performance of teams you have worked in or students you have supported. Develop strategies to motivate and lead your team to succeed, through engagement in team meetings, group supervision, action learning sets or focus groups.

Understanding the role a quality assurance culture can have on a team and organisation is key to the success of implementation in any team. You have to win their hearts and minds and to do that you have to believe in it yourself. The social work health check is conducted annually and should be published by local authorities. This is a good source of information about how the workforce feel about working for this organisation. The health check provides a rich picture of what is going well and what the workforce want to change, develop or refocus on. This can lead to action plans to improve both recruitment and retention, enhancing the environment for social workers.

Social work resilience and wellbeing is a focus of the health check, including annual leave hours, ability to take leave, time off in lieu (TOIL) and caseloads. This information will inform you on how resilient the workforce feels at this time. Many studies have discussed the strategies to develop social work resilience; however, each organisation is different, so knowing what works for this organisation is key to success. Methods that proven supportive include monthly TOIL days and diary management and TOIL being on the agenda at each supervision.

If staff feel they are supported to have a work-life balance and develop self-care skills, a culture change will occur, which should develop the resilience of the individual, team and organisation. This must be modelled throughout the organisation to truly have an impact.

4. Know the practice framework, underpinned by theory and best evidence, for the organisation you are applying for.

The move towards evidenced-based practice is stronger now than it has ever been, strengthening practice through evidenced-based models and frameworks. This is a welcome move, strengthening the competence and reputation of the profession and the decisions that are made every day about vulnerable people’s lives.

There is a myriad of practice frameworks out there, you need to understand the tool box you are given when you work for that employer and how they will support the practitioners you will be managing to develop excellent practice. This should be available on the authority website, or you can try calling the appointing manager for an informal chat.

How to use it: Show that you understand how practice frameworks and evidenced-based practice has supported excellent practice, through examples of where this has brought about a change for a child, family or adult. This could be through strengths-based approaches to practice, restorative practice or relationship-based practice; the key is to explore the impact this approach had for the person/s you were working with and why. You need to be able to let your practice shine in your answer and then consider how you will enable the social work practice to continue to flourish, as a manager.

5. Know yourself well and what skills you will bring to the role.

Leadership and management are skills in themselves and not everyone can do it. Some of the skills you will be required to demonstrate may include: communication, motivation, delegating, positivity, conflict management, trustworthiness, authenticity, creativity, feedback, responsibility, flexibility, accountability and commitment.

How to use it: Well-rehearsed answers here are important; your replies should flow. Talk about your skills, in chunks, with examples. For example, with ‘good communication’ you could first discuss and the skills required – such as listening, trust, rapport, excellent verbal and written skills, building relationships – and then the strategies to employ these, through team meetings, group supervisions, emails, briefings, an open-door policy, fostering a culture of positive communication etc. Build your personal statement about your skills and ensure you can talk confidently about your management and leadership skills.

6. Focus on the question being asked.

Often, nerves can get the better of people in interviews and they begin to ramble, missing the point of the question. Most interviews are scored and you need to cover the key points to get the marks. It is not a race, so don’t rush. Take your time, breathe and show you can manage under pressured conditions.

If the question asks for you to describe how you have done something, then focus on a piece of excellent practice that demonstrates your skills and knowledge but keep in mind this is an interview for a manager post, so add how this will support managing others.

How to use it: Focus on the main points of the questions, consider your answer before you start and be concise to avoid going off course. If you are in doubt, ask if the question can be repeated. Prepare several good examples of your work. Focus on creating concise examples, which show your practice, its evidence base and impact. Also prepare to demonstrate how this good practice will make you a great manager.

7. Explore opportunities to gain experience. If you feel that you need additional knowledge or practice examples to demonstrate your skills consider talking to your manager about the opportunities that can be explored for you. Career progression planning is vital to getting ahead. You must put yourself forward and be visible, and develop the essential skills of leadership.

How to use it: Create opportunities to shadow, support team members, mentor students and lead projects, to build up your experience of being a leader. This will put you ahead of the crowd and enable you to shine at interview with examples that are well-prepared, thought-out and clearly show your ability to manage, motivate and lead people, projects and teams.

This article is part of Community Care’s Careers Zone, a part of the site giving social workers and social care professionals advice and guidance about the next steps in their social work career. Like many other Careers Zone articles, this one was produced in collaboration with practising social workers and managers, and in association with the Local Government Association’s workforce and policy team. See all of our tips on the dedicated careers pageDownload our social work CV template and advice page here.

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One Response to Tips for applying and interviewing for your first social work manager position

  1. Annet Kagore May 15, 2019 at 8:29 pm #

    I would like to become a manager