How to solve the social care leadership problem

In the world of social care, the post-pandemic environment has created a greater need for versatility and more agile structures of working – which in turn have put added pressure on leadership figures. Nik Shah looks at what can be done to help protect and develop one of the sector’s most valuable assets

The pandemic has left the social care sector under immense pressure. Greater numbers of people have been presented to social care services at a time where councils are juggling pandemic responses, public health mandates, and their own remote working.

A combination of soaring demand, inadequate resources, and a restricted work environment have left senior leaders burnt out. For many, it’s signalled retirement or career moves out of the sector. At the same time, aspiring leaders need more versatile skillsets and cross-departmental experience, but the pressures of COVID-19 often mean they lack capacity to gain either. What’s more, councils are too often using reactive recruitment approaches when social care leadership desperately needs a proactive and considered approach to talent. The culmination is a not-so perfect storm where an untenable environment has led to talent vacuums that local authorities are struggling to plug.

These challenges have their foundations set in legacy structural problems. Over the past ten years, the director of people role has been separated into two distinct positions: the director of adult’s services and the director of children’s services which, while being a necessary step, has led to councils needing twice as many leaders with twice as much expertise in a single area.

Concurrently, a decade of austerity has stripped down senior leadership structures, making the jump from head of service to assistant director, and then on to director that much harder.

COVID has exacerbated these issues. Rightly or wrongly, the NHS has been prioritised over social care, resulting in a surge of vulnerable people in the care system. After almost two years of working through the pandemic, many senior leaders feel tired and burnt out. Large numbers have left their roles or the sector as a result.

Part of the solution to these problems exists internally. The pandemic has necessitated collaboration across health care, private businesses, and voluntary organisations. A cohort of middle managers have gained unique experiences in breaking boundaries and working with partners – something that is very much akin to the necessary systems leadership experience required for directors of social care roles. If councils are open-minded, they will find a pool of newly created home-bred talent who can bring people together and manage collaboratively.

The other part of the solution requires a different approach to external recruitment. Social care leaders are currently picked from a merry-go-round of CVs, inhibiting the injection of new skills, creative thinking or innovation. Instead, local authorities should take a more bespoke approach, working with recruitment partners who have strong relationships with their network of candidates and can use this to match the very best candidates to roles based on a combination of cultural ‘add’, technical capability, and an understanding of the wider context of the authority and how it operates within the local area.

Local government needs to partner with recruiters who know the sector and its challenges inside out, who have the ability to diagnose the problem and can work hand in hand with the organisation to help identify and support the candidates who can best solve their present challenges. You need to choose a provider that can ensure you aren’t deterred by unconscious bias, suggesting ways in which you can remain focused purely on the skills, experience and attitude of potential candidates.

The type of workforce model is just as important. Traditional workforces made up entirely of permanent employees working nine to five are no longer fit for purpose and lack agility. This is especially true of social care leadership where the demands of the job require flexibility, the constant injection of fresh skills and new ways of thinking.

The most innovative organisations now have an agile workforce – a core of permanent employees working alongside flexible talent, interims, and contract workers engaged on a project basis. This approach encourages collaboration (as interims bring with them relationships, knowledge and experience from other places) and enables a natural process of knowledge transfer. This modernised approach to sourcing and structuring will be critical in how authorities meet the talent challenges created by COVID.

Leadership is one of social care’s most valuable assets. If talent is developed, nurtured, and applied to solve problems rather than fill roles, then an organisation can achieve almost anything. While social care is fighting to swim in a sea of pandemic-induced problems, the right senior leaders will be able to help chart a course to calmer waters. 

Nik Shah is Senior Consultant at Tile Hill

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