How to unravel the complications in social care leadership

unravel the complications in social care leadership

Nik Shah, Adult’s and Children’s Social Care Consultant at Odgers Interim, discusses the current recruitment and resourcing issues at a senior leadership level in social care, and offers novel solutions for solving the problems

Senior leadership in social care is facing a catch-22; adult’s and children’s services are requiring more with less. Local authorities are contending with funding and resource challenges that are having a detrimental impact on attaining, sustaining and developing senior talent. These underlying challenges for adult’s and children’s social care have been exacerbated with the emergence of the covid-19 health and social care crisis. Deep seated sector issues and solutions are now being challenged further as a result, running the danger of sudden quick fixes being implemented, only to then create an even bigger issue further down the line. It is time for the many excellent leaders in the sector to be given the ability to do just that, lead!

Structurally, the department has changed over the past 10 years. Across the larger authorities, the once all-encompassing position of director of people has been split in two: director of adult’s services and director of children’s services. Although this division of the role has enabled greater leadership of both critical areas, there has been greater demand on the already strained senior leadership talent pool for social care. But this addition to the senior leadership team is an exception to the rule. The past decade of austerity has seen local authorities carry out a ‘delayering’ of the structure to strip back to the core leadership roles. It’s meant that the jump from head of services, to assistant director, and then on to director has become that much harder to make as the gaps between roles have been widened further.

What’s more, the restructuring is not only increasing the difficulty of progressing up the ranks in what is already a challenging career path to navigate but it is making the discrepancy for social care professionals from diverse and BAME backgrounds even greater. Currently, there is a growing and readily available diverse talent pool of middle management candidates, but many authorities fail to support and nurture this high-potential group of future leaders.

Social care functions also have the external pressures of the Inspectorate; the external governing Ofsted and CQC bodies. A negative rating of an authority’s social care services causes a host of challenges and often results in media scrutiny, the loss of key talent but above all, a poor assessment inevitably leads to the discharge of the incumbent director/assistant director of services. What follows is a rushed and frantic recruitment process to seek out ‘turnaround’ candidates to help the authority get back on track. Due to the distressed position of the authority, roles go out to the same yesteryear supply pool rather than going through a fit and context-based recruitment process, authorities can be  presented with anywhere up to 100 CVs for an individual role. This has become a widespread but highly flawed procedure which has resulted in the creation of a vicious cycle where authorities appoint the wrong candidates who subsequently leave and become available for hire by another overwrought authority.

To solve the problems, authorities need to begin by looking internally. Talent exists within the ranks of local authorities, but it needs to be developed and supported so that a genuine pipeline, that transitions high-potential managers through to directors, is created. Authorities need leaders who can bring staff together and manage them collaboratively and therefore need to create mechanisms for middle managers to work across the entire spectrum of social care, from adult’s and children’s services through to health and commissioning. This requires the authority to embed this experience comprehensively into their HR and talent management strategies.

Diversity at a senior leadership level generates a proven competitive advantage, but professionals from BAME backgrounds face heightened challenges in progressing to leadership positions. Local authorities need to nurture this talent with a comprehensive talent management strategy. Internally, the most effective talent development scheme is mentoring which should be cross-departmental in order to add supplementary education of systems leadership. 

Local authorities need to be reconsidering their approach to recruitment and stepping away from the overreliance on the framework model which inhibits the injection of new skills, creative thinking and innovation. Rather than returning time and time again to the same agencies who provide the same faction of sub-optimal senior leaders, they should take a more bespoke approach, working with recruitment partners that match candidates to roles based on a combination of cultural ‘fit’, technical capability to meet the specific requirements of the role and department, and the wider context of the authority and how it operates within the local area. Importantly, in order to achieve this, local government needs to partner with recruiters who have the ability to diagnose the problem and have a strong relationship with their network of candidates, not just a list of names on papers.

With this in mind, local authorities can benefit significantly in working with recruitment partners to offer development sessions to aspiring heads or directors of services, so that a healthy talent pipeline of external candidates is developed and can be ‘tapped into’ when and where needed. These can be as much as full leadership programmes where training and coaching is coordinated between the recruiter and local authority, to anything as little as one day mock interview sessions. It’s here that the ‘managerial gene’ can be developed, as well as any areas that might need strengthening. These partnerships between recruiters and authorities are invaluable as they offer a space to give in-depth and meaningful feedback – something lacking in most recruitment processes; and is particularly useful for the cohort of BAME candidates who are often most in need of that feedback to help navigate the glass maze.

Overcoming the leadership challenges in adult’s and children’s social care requires a more thorough reconsideration of the structure of the department and the type of employment of its team members. Whether commercial or public, the most competitive organisations now have an agile workforce. This approach encourages collaboration (free-agents and contractors bring with them relationships with other departments and authorities) and enables a natural process of knowledge transfer (the contingent workforce brings with it skills, experience and new ways of working). At a time when the mounting challenges in social care will be best tackled by the people working in it, how authorities’ source, structure and manage their talent will be organisation-defining.

The sentiment talent is an organisation’s most valuable asset rings true in social care. The past few weeks have been a very transparent example of this. The social and healthcare Covid-19 emergency has put a very immediate and overwhelming strain on local authority’s children’s and social care department. Across the services, there has been a very sudden need to remodel and pivot to comply with the social distancing measures, yet the guidance provided is insufficient and the resources required are undersupplied. With extraordinary demand on services, above and beyond the already unsupportable load, senior leaders are having to simultaneous manage operations across the functions to adapt to the new circumstances in order to deliver the support their service users so desperately needed at this time.

Whilst social care across local government is awash in a sea of what may seem to be insurmountable challenges, it will be senior leadership talent that effectively turns the tide.


Dave Clements at 05/05/2020 22:08 said:

I agree, Nik, that quality leadership is critical. Especially now. I do, however, think a particular quality is needed more than any other - challenge. Of course they also need the support and confidence of corporate and political leaders too. But for me, too often the ever-increasing demand on services is taken as a given when it should be interrogated. While an ageing population with increasing care needs inevitably puts enormous pressure on under-resourced local authorities, questions still need to be asked. Are people really making decisions about their own care and support and helped to become more independent? Are their budgets truly personal? Are early help and and an ethos of prevention reducing the numbers of children entering the care system and coming to the attention of child protection services, or just creating an ever greater volume of interventions of all kinds? If a leader can create a culture of challenge, and widen the conversation to the frontline then they may well begin to ‘turn around’ badly squeezed services that can ill-afford to grow caseloads, and improve outcomes too.

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