This article first appeared on The Guardian Social Care Network which you can visit by clicking here:
Think of the words used to describe successful leaders: tough, uncompromising, driven. But these words translate differently when applied to social care. Our interaction with vulnerable people makes the difference, so here’s my list of the top five essential leadership qualities for the sector:
Soon after I joined Regard I visited a service and noticed a toilet was not as clean as it should have been. I asked for the kit to clean the loo myself, proceeded to do so, then said: “Now this meets my standards.” Word spread like wildfire. I never needed to do anything like that again.
A can-do attitude means you’re prepared to set an example by tackling whatever needs doing, including the less pleasant parts of a job. It’s much more effective than harsh criticism: when your actions communicate to colleagues that you’re in active pursuit of common goals, there’s a huge emotional appeal.
This quality can be learned, usually from a colleague whose attitude has motivated you. I’d like to think I set an example that inspires a can-do attitude at Regard – certainly, my staff work incredibly hard and get on with their jobs in a positive way.
This is vital in all walks of life, even when dealing with a negative situation. Ignoring something unfortunate won’t make it go away. Facing a problem makes it easier to deal with: the ostrich mentality just doesn’t work.
Sometimes I have to go to our board of directors with news they’d rather not hear, but it has to be done – it’s part of the job.
You can’t have integrity without honesty, supported by strong moral principles – and how could you provide excellent social care without that? Everything needs to be above board. I don’t think honesty can be learned; by adulthood you either value honesty, or you don’t.
In social care, maybe more than most sectors, an indecisive leader is an ineffective leader: even a wrong decision can be better than no decision. If a leader is indecisive, support staff become uncertain themselves, and this creates a difficult working environment. And because the individuals we support are so vulnerable, lack of consistency can cause genuine anguish.
Of course decisiveness must be tempered by being well-informed – fact-finding is crucial – but those decisions have to be made. In my experience, people either procrastinate or are decisive, not both, but individuals can be trained to be more decisive.
In my day you didn’t need to go to university to get on in the world, and I didn’t go. You could build a successful career by working hard without a degree. But I mean working hard, not just working hard enough.
It’s not about being the last one to leave the office, it’s about focus and application. Work-life balance is very important – outside responsibilities and interests all make demands on our time – but while you are at work you should be applying yourself wholeheartedly to what you are expected to do.
When leaders are hardworking this often rubs off on employees, but a willingness to work hard is probably innate, not learned.
Having a passion for what you do is especially important in social care because caring is not an easy career. We are surrounded by rules and regulations and face daily challenges that can get you down. But what we do really matters. And if you show you’re passionate about the care you deliver it becomes an addictive thing for your staff.
It can manifest itself in small ways. Should an employee come to me with a small request – say new literature for their reception – it demonstrates pride in their job. Although it may be a long way down your to-do list, it may be at the top of theirs. It takes courage to approach the boss with such a request, so it’s important not to ignore this kind of initiative. It makes me angry if I’ve passed on a simple request from a junior colleague and it isn’t promptly actioned.
The same goes for whistleblowing – what courage that takes – and because it’s always a big deal for those concerned, it absolutely demands a leader’s full attention.
I’ve been involved in all manner of charity work over the past three decades, which has taught me much that feeds into my approach towards a client base that needs a passionate lead from the top.
My cup is always half-full - I think that’s innate - but I am very lucky to live the life I do, and I believe I get the most out of it because I am naturally a very positive person.
Sandie Foxall-Smith is the CEO of Regard and was named Investors in People’s ‘Leader of the Year’ 2016