Last week, I attended the Greater Manchester Contextual Safeguarding Conference and was privileged to hear Dez Holmes from Research in Practice speak. Dez always provides me with a golden nugget or two to reflect on.
As the new director of people at Bolton Council, I was motivated by her challenge to the senior leaders in the sector to think outside of our service boxes and remove the rather notional line that separates a vulnerable child from a vulnerable adult across our partnerships.
To be truly impactful as directors of children's services I think it is time to rethink the system - to focus on people, their strengths and their flaws and rebuild community resilience. To do this we need to reclaim our authority as statutory leaders and provide the safe space needed for innovation, for relationship building and for compassion.
Some of you may well think you have this nailed down and if so, well done - it's not easy to achieve and even harder to sustain! I know I am still on a journey and to inform my thinking I started reading Kindness in Leadership, edited by Gay Haskins et al. If you haven't read the book, I can recommend it. The book outlines several ingredients for kindness such as compassion, authenticity, humility and humour, and discusses the costs of being a kind leader. Let's be clear, being kind is not a soft option. It requires us to value people for who they are in their own right and it requires challenging, engaged and empowering leadership.
Of particular interest to me was a section in the book that asks what could prevent us from being kind. Consistently individuals listed workload, stress and budgets. This shouldn't surprise us and partly explains why "kind leadership" can be exhausting because it requires regular attention as well as being open to listening and leading with compassion.
It is my opinion that before we start rebuilding the communities we serve, we have a duty to ensure our approach to leadership creates an environment for our staff (our best resource) to thrive. This requires us to be consistently and deliberately kind… really, stick with me!
Our workforce faces unprecedented challenges, with growing caseloads and greater scrutiny. Unless you have a spare £5 million or so to recruit a lot more staff you need to create a system that allows them to thrive despite the challenges. And one that makes them want to stay in your local authority. We therefore need to push on with increasing flexibility in working hours, become more open to people-friendly services that take into account any caring responsibilities, and appreciate that there is a limit to what individuals can do, whatever the make up of their personal lives. This is key to preventing burnout.
Fundamentally, if we fail to look after our staff and build relationships with them we shouldn't be surprised if they are unable to create the necessary lasting and meaningful relationships with vulnerable children and families.
We know poor parenting can result in poor outcomes and as 'parents' of some very large families we need to rise to the challenge. No amount of culture change will work unless it is in the hearts as well as the heads of strategic leaders and no amount of strategic planning will replace the need for a professional love of our staff, our vulnerable children and adults, and ourselves.
The system is creaking, kindness is critical and being curious and open minded will teach us more about the people who work for us and in turn, allow them to support the families they work with. The challenge for us as leaders is to first be good role models, encouraging, cheerleading from the side-lines and celebrating the baby steps that collectively lead to better outcomes for our children and families.
In the words of Dr. Seuss: "In a world where you can be anything, be kind."
Bernie Brown is director of people at Bolton Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website