We’re celebrating World Social Work Day by sharing positive stories throughout this week. Last winter, Firstline leader, Paul Allen, won the Leadership Excellence Award at the Guardian Public Service Awards.
We caught up with him and his manager, Susan, to talk about winning the award, what makes great leadership in social work, and what the win means for the wider social work profession.
How did it feel to win the award?
Winning felt like an amazing mixture of joy, pride, and surprise. It was quite overwhelming, but I feel like it was a win for every children’s social worker.
How did people react to the news?
My team’s reaction, and the reaction of the whole floor I work on, has been the best. Pictures of me were put up all over our office and my team were chuffed – they won’t stop telling other people! They’re so proud, and it’s been a real boost for us all. I’m pleased for my manager Susan too, because she did the Firstline programme, and her experience has really filtered through.
My dad wasn’t able to come to the ceremony, but my sister told me that he went round his work telling everyone and handing out copies of the article which appeared in The Guardian.
I think winning the award also has implications for the wider social work profession. People are so used to hearing the negatives about social work, whether it’s recruitment or retention. There are huge pressures, but it’s so nice that the positivity is coming out now because I still love my job. Hopefully that will trickle down to other people.
What do you think makes a good leader?
I always say to my team, know the type of social worker you want to be, and be that social worker.
I’ve always gone out on visits, watched other people and picked my favourite parts from other social workers to incorporate into my work.
I remember when I first became a team manager, somebody said to me, ‘my worry is that you‘re too nice and won’t get results and performance’. So I took a harder line when I first became a manager and I didn’t see much improvement. It was only when I started being myself that I found my leadership improved. I adopted a coaching attitude rather than trying to dictate to other people. People want to work for people they like and it’s important that they know they have someone they can speak to when they’ve experienced a stressful situation.
What has shaped your leadership?
Good managers. I’ve actually been managed by two people who’ve completed the Firstline programme. They’re both people I aspire to be like and I trust them.
My managers were good at finding my strengths. I know I can talk to Susan about anything, and my team can do the same with me. Susan taught me that just sending a simple email saying ‘what you did was really good’ can have such a positive impact. Despite only being a small gesture, it means something massive for an individual to get some praise.
What has been the impact of the Firstline programme?
The impact has been far bigger than I would have imagined. It has been, ultimately, a dramatic change. I don’t really think I acknowledged the changes I was making until people started reminding me how I used to be.
I think hearing other social workers and authorities experiences has also been invaluable. I’ve done other qualifications, but they felt like university courses, like I had homework to do. With Firstline it was about your own journey, that’s what was really good about it.
What have been the benefits of spending time with other Firstline leaders?
It’s been good to hear different suggestions and ways of working. Everyone always assumes that social work managers are confident, but one person I was talking to on the programme wasn’t. She didn’t want to share her public narrative, but I told her it was such a good story and she had to share it. She came up to me on the last day and said, ‘I’m so glad you encouraged me to do it, my team are now sharing more and it’s changed things’. Getting that peer support from other managers has been great.
Why is excellent leadership important?
Burnout is so high in social work. It’s so important to have someone invested in your development, your journey. I have had both good and bad management. I remember how much I aspired to be a good manager because good management has motivated and inspired me.
It’s such a kick to know that somebody is not only enjoying their job but learning and feels confident in their work. Ultimately, if excellent leadership can change that social worker, then it’s probably changing the family’s experience as well. You’ve got a committed and motivated, hardworking social worker who will go out and do that extra visit, that wants to really think about things and have a case discussion. All of this can change the outcomes for some of the children and families more positively.
Is there enough support for the development of social workers on the frontline?
Nothing like the support I’ve received on Firstline. I’ve been a team manager now for about four years and I don’t think I’ve seen anything this specific and targeted.
My friend is on the new cohort, and can’t believe she’s doing the programme – she thinks it’s amazing! I wish there was more well thought out support like this for everybody because I think everybody needs it.
Susan on Paul
What was your reaction when Paul won?
I was delighted. We were actually at the Firstline residential in York, so all of the managers found out together which was really nice. We’re very proud for the North and for Manchester.
As his manager, how does it feel?
It feels great to see any manager working in such a challenging environment, and as hard as Paul and all the other managers, being recognised and valued. We don’t see that often enough really. We see a lot about people that work at a more strategic level, and I think the people that do the really hard work day in and day out working with really vulnerable families aren’t really seen as those kind of important leaders.
What was the reaction of the local authority?
Everyone is delighted. A broadcast went out to the whole department and our chief executive has included it in her newsletter to thousands of employees. The social workers also printed out pictures of Paul’s face to put up all over the office. I think he was embarrassed about it, but deep down he loved it. Everyone sees it as a victory for all of us as well as him.
I think Paul winning this award definitely has implications, it’s about recognising the crucial role of social workers across the country.
What makes Paul a good leader?
A combination of personality, professional approaches, and skills and qualities. He works really hard and is really committed to children and families, and to getting the best outcome, which drives everything he does. He’s really supportive of his staff, so all his colleagues feel safe going out to deal with really complex cases because they know they’ve been given really clear guidance from him. He is a really good team player, and always thinking of ways to better what we do. He also has a good sense of humour.
How does his management style influence his team and their practice?
When he first became a manager, he wanted to do everything himself and take on hundreds of cases. What he’s learnt as a manager and leader, is that what a leadership role needs to be about is the coaching element – modelling behavior, giving really clear guidance, but also letting people go off and do work on their own to develop their skills. It’s about developing people who can then develop other people.
Have you noticed any differences in Paul since he completed the Firstline programme?
Firstline has challenged his way of thinking and approach. It’s taught him to step back a little bit and approach the way he works with his staff differently so they have the confidence and skills to do it themselves. I think this has led to them feeling much more job satisfaction because they know they’re doing it for themselves. We’ve had some good examples of social workers who are newly qualified, who were lacking in confidence and wanted Paul in every meeting with them, who are now able to go into a meeting and be really confident in their assessment of the family. That’s what great leadership is all about.