Book cover: How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social CareTrish Hafford-Letchfield is Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Teaching Fellow in Interprofessional Learning at Middlesex University in the UK, and Les Gallop is an independent consultant and trainer with many years experience in social work, social work management and training.

In this interview they introduce their new book, How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social Care, a researched and practical guide to the fundamental skills and knowledge that a manager needs, underpinned by the values and ethics that are inherent to social work and social care.

This is the first book in the new Essential Skills for Social Work and Social Care Managers series intended to help managers in social work and social care. Can you tell us a bit about the series, the need for it, and what readers can expect from books that are featured within it?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: There are a lot of good quality books in our field which offer various critiques of management and models for thinking about how to be a better manager. I wanted to think about the actual skills that managers in social work and social care needed, for example, those which help people to practically grapple with the business aspects of management but which also pay attention to and value equally, the need to behave ethically in what can be very demanding environments. Managers that I have worked with in different settings often struggle with keeping up with new developments in management practice and particularly with having the time to think about their own learning and professional development. Becoming skilful as a manager does not always naturally emerge from one’s professional experiences although much of what we learn comes from what we do every day and the opportunity to reflect and consolidate those experiences. However, the need to develop more tailored or specific skills and to be a good manager might come to your attention for the first time when you move into a new management role or make a transition from one management role to another. Managers often acquire responsibility for managing others, without the benefits of formal management training, and they have to combine professional expertise combined with practice ‘know-how’.

This series Essential skills for Social Work and Social Care Managers aims to give front line or aspiring managers access to a practical quality guide to a range of different areas of fundamental management skills; areas that can often be taken for granted. For example, if you are about to go into a recruitment drive, you may want some tailored advice about how to write a job description or person specification, or if you are managing a difficult meeting, what are the quick tips to help you prepare? I hope that these short, handy but well researched guides are particularly tailored for those working in social work and social care environments or any environment with a core business of care.

So, the first book covers everyday skills such as time management, managing conflict and working effectively in partnerships. These are the background skills, so to speak. The second book in the series focuses just on project management and how to manage a project effectively, whether this is large or small. We anticipate further books in the series on skills in effective decision making, acting ethically and commissioning and contracting. I hope that people who have expertise and who are perhaps interested in sharing this with their colleagues as well as meeting the challenge of writing a book will come forward and submit a proposal for the series.

What do you think are the most common challenges for managers in social care?

Les Gallop: This is a question for our times. We live in difficult circumstances, with people in all social work and social care sectors facing uncertain futures. I want though to step back a bit from this and think about other sorts of challenges:

  • Dealing with targets: for many years and under various governments, managers have had to attend to ‘targets’ and all the associated activities, while at the same time recognising that even the neatest spread sheet about performance is not the same as performance itself. I love the quotation from Einstein, told to me by an old friend in management: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. Someone had better tell the government!
  • Remaining human: a silly thing perhaps, but pressure is relentless for a lot of managers, and it is easy to become jaded. Remaining human and keeping a sense of perspective (and humour!) is a real challenge but so important.
  • Reconciling demands: I have spent some time talking to managers recently about their work, and this challenge of keeping plates spinning, all of which are important plates, keeps them busy from the beginning to the end of most days. I’ve found myself comparing and contrasting it with my experience of management. It seems to me that theirs is a much more demanding world than I remember mine being, brought about in part by the target culture and by the increasing public visibility of social work and social care.

One thing remains, though, through the years: the sense of the sheer importance of social work and social care in any society concerned with inequality and social justice – and the healthy challenges that this brings about ourselves and our work environments.

How do issues for managers in social care differ from those faced by managers in, say, the financial sector?

Les Gallop: I’m sure that there are many overlaps between all sectors, given that management anywhere concerns ensuring that people work towards whatever are the organisation’s goals – I like the idea that the key task of management is to create an environment in which safe and creative work can flourish.

However, I do think that there are real differences between the various work places. In social work and social care, front-line staff are the service – whereas in the financial sector we can separate the person from, for example, the advice that they give. We discuss this in the book, using research by Bowen and Schneider on service organisations. They argued that the ‘products’ of such organisations are largely intangible, and service users will judge them therefore through impressions. A support worker’s performance will for example be judged by a service user partly in relation to their personal qualities. In many situations the act of providing the service and that of receiving it are simultaneous. The service user is an active contributor to this process. The Newly Qualified Social Workers with whom I have recently been working know this very well when a parent refuses to engage in discussion about a child’s well-being.

All of this means that in social work and social care organisations, supervision becomes particularly important. Front-line staff need support, motivation and time to reflect on how they work, along with some monitoring, in order that the vital exchanges between them and service users can be as effective as possible.

What originally spurred your interest in social care management?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: I fell in love with management theories when I did my first post graduate course in health and social care management in the early 1990s. It was the first time I had been encouraged to reflect on my management practice and think about the specific role I played and my own management style. I always believe that until relatively recently managers in our sector have been much maligned and neglected even though they have a professional practice background. When I went into higher education in 2003, I was asked to teach a module on management and organisations. I found that there was not a lot of diversity in the learning materials for social work and social care managers which meant going to the more traditional sources and adapting and tailoring them for my students. I haven’t looked back since.

Les Gallop: My decision to apply for my first management post had a lot to do with my manager at the time. I had come to appreciate what a difference she made to my work and that of my colleagues, as well as to the people who needed our service. In fact, I still see the first-line manager as the key person in determining the quality of service people receive. She brought a great mixture of challenge and support to her work and had an undying commitment to individual team development. I had supervised a few students and started to get a real buzz from seeing them develop in competence and confidence, and that added to my interest in management.

In terms of writing about social work and social care management, I did some writing for a university Higher Award in Social Work Leadership and Management. I came across Trish then, who was also doing some writing for the course. Students seem to appreciate it, and I realised more than ever how starved so many managers are of opportunities to think about their work. Ever since qualifying and having a positive experience of being managed I have valued opportunities for thinking about my work, and know how much it has helped me. So – when Trish asked if I would like to work with her on this book, I couldn’t say no!

What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced as a manager?

Les Gallop: Like all the managers I know, every day brought challenges for me. I suppose it is one of the reasons we do it, in spite of cursing it sometimes!

Perhaps though the biggest challenges are those where we have responsibility but little obvious power. I still feel the nerve ends twitch when I think of a situation where the large organisation I was working in was being divided. I had a lot of responsibility for sorting out how the staff in my service might be divided while not knowing about my own future. In the months of working on this there were a lot of tears. Some people had worked together for some time, and so established working friendships were about to break up. We did not know about whether there would be sufficient posts in the new arrangements to go round, and so individual futures were at risk. When we had little information about the overall plans, rumours would start doing the rounds to fill the gaps.

It strikes me that in these times of public service cutbacks there will be many managers going through similar experiences. I needed a lot of support to help me maintain a ‘public’ face of at least some dignity whilst thinking that this just was not what I had come into management for.

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: I am just about to take on a challenge in my own university where I have recently taken on some administrative roles with some delegated management responsibilities. That has definitely made me anxious about whether I will be able to practice what you preach? I may even have to turn to this book for my own advice!. It’s a scary thought that people may think I am not true to my own espoused values. I have always maintained some sort of management role since entering higher education within the voluntary sector which keeps me in touch with the real world. I hope that I am able to keep learning and that I can support others in doing so.

If you could offer just three pieces of advice to a social work manager wanting to improve their management skills, what would they be?

Les Gallop: I am not often the first in the queue when it comes to offering advice! After all, what might work for me might not work for others and vice versa. However I would, with some hesitation, suggest the following, which probably fits with what I have said above.

In order to develop our skills we need to have and to nurture good support systems, so identify sources of support. This sometimes will be people in similar posts whose views and approach you trust. A life outside work is another source of support.

I think then that I have discovered the simple realisation that we will never be the ‘finished article’. It’s a bit of a cliché perhaps, but a commitment to continuing professional development is what separates effective managers from those going through the motions.

My third thought is about self-awareness, as we argue in the book. We all find ourselves able to do some things better than others, and, given scarce time, managers need to work on those skills that are less developed, as well as honing skills that come a bit more naturally. This is why we wanted to give people a chance to do an audit of skills.

Trish, you have written a number of books, and are now the editor of a series of books for JKP – I imagine the advice on time management must come in useful when balancing a busy academic life with writing projects. How do you get motivated and find the time to write?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: Yes, a lot of people think that I am a workaholic and do nothing but write every spare minute of the day in order to produce the books I have managed to write. However, many are surprised to find out how many other things I manage to cram into my busy life, including my music and I always consider myself as a bit of a culture vulture given that there is always so much going on in London where I currently live. However, I am a great believer in Forsters principle of ‘do it first every day’ which means that I tend to write in small chunks but I also write very regularly and in a much focused way. First of all, I establish an overall plan in terms of the timescales and tasks required then I work towards that slowly and steadily. I do tend to write my goals down and plan quite well in most areas of work and I also move the goal posts quite a lot but I believe that by aiming high, it allows for a bit of manoeuvre or compromise. For me, a lot of the work is done in the mulling over and reading, which I do on the tube to work, and in the more unlikely places. Writing for me, is a habit and the more you do, the easier it becomes. My advice is that regular focussed action keeps an initiative alive or keeps you engaged with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of extended procrastination, like everyone else but I think it’s healthy to indulge in that, and for me, I need to feel the acute pressure on my time as a result of a good bout of procrastination and then the challenge to get on with it. It’s all about the balance and being honest with yourself. I would say, be kind to yourself and kind to others, we are only human after all!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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