The importance of first line managers in social work, and the challenges they face

Featured article - 20 July 2018
By Anna Field, Firstline Programme Officer, Frontline

Head-shot of the author, Anna Field, Firstline Programme Officer, Frontline

Early on in the life of the Frontline, we realised that it was not enough to merely train the next generation of social workers; in order to be exceptional, social workers need excellent support and leadership. Frontline is a charity with a mission to transform the lives of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding individuals to be leaders in social work and broader society.

Our research showed that the role of the first line manager is vitally important and extremely challenging. As well as leading, supporting and protecting their teams, managers must demonstrate excellent practice while remaining target-focussed. Managers have to display high levels of confidence, skill and judgement to make considered decisions, hold staff and partners to account, and empower social workers to transform the lives of children and families.

How can outstanding managers impact their teams and organisation, and improve outcomes?

The impact of strong first-line leadership should not be underestimated. Despite operating within a challenging context, outstanding managers can have a huge influence on the culture of their teams and morale of their staff. The benefits for the local authority are far reaching. By increasing staff retention and reducing the need for expensive agency staff, local authorities can provide vulnerable children and families with a better-funded and more stable service.

What are we doing to help?

The aim of our Firstline 10-month development programme is: to improve positional leadership in social work; to empower managers to have a greater impact on social work practice and the social work system, for the benefit of vulnerable children and families. Working with partner local authorities – almost 40 so far - we select good managers and enable them to become outstanding leaders.

What does excellent leadership look like?

We believe there are eight capabilities that are essential for outstanding social work leadership, and these underpin the Firstline programme.

  • Resilience and self-reflexivity
  • Analysis and decision-making
  • Professional authority
  • Impact and influence
  • Learning and developing others
  • Inspiring others
  • Holding to account
  • Moral purpose.

We place the most emphasis on developing resilience and self-reflexivity. This is because managers with a reflective mind set, emotional self-awareness, and an openness to challenge and change, are best able to support their teams and thrive in their work. When we surveyed our most recent cohort (in spring 2017) 86% of Firstline leaders reported a positive change in at least four out of the eight leadership capabilities by the end of the programme. We think that this underlines how important support and leadership needs to be for social workers.

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