The view from the balcony: supporting local authority senior adult social care managers to lead beyond the Covid-19 crisis

Lynda Bull 22 May 2020

This commentary has been written by IPC Associate Lynda Bull as a follow on to her blog ‘Balcony or battlefield: supporting local authority senior adult social care managers through the Covid-19 crisis’ in April. Subsequent IPC publications – Surviving the Pandemic and Potential reconstruction challenges for social care leaders post-lockdown - have focussed on the challenges faced by adult social care. These, in conjunction with people’s experiences of leading and managing the crisis, have prompted further considerations of leadership as we move beyond the current crisis and out of lockdown.

The view from the balcony

Expectations to develop strategies and plan for the immediate and longer term future on local authority senior social care managers will surely now increase.  Next steps are crucial and leaders will need to think how to manage these. 

So, as a leader you will still need to stand firm on your ‘balcony’, but what is the ‘view’ telling you about yourself and what might you need to think about to take your organisation forward?

Don’t feel you must have already developed the blueprint for the future

There is currently much speculation about what the adult social care future might look. You may feel an immediate pressure to be a future hero and have clear views on this already…. it’s not realistically possible so don’t beat yourself up. But you can move forward:

  • Be confident about experience and insight gained. Remember you brought your skills and experience to bear throughout this crisis; you have built on this as you and your team have had to make rapid operational decisions, take on new responsibilities and implement changes. You have a valid basis for thinking ahead – think about how you can capture and learn from this – remember what worked well in a crisis may not always work so well afterwards. Of course there will be positives, but there will also be those in terms of services and staff, where issues may be more starkly revealed. Finding simple, quick ways to engage staff in sharing and capturing their learning and insights could help reconnect staff, the service and contribute to an evidence based next steps.
  • Pause and value the small things. It might be tempting to immediately think about developing major strategies and service redesigns. This will be important further down the line and of course good to do some early thinking, but you will have changes that have had a positive outcome that can be retained (and ultimately built upon). You will have your own examples. One that was given to me was of a care home who had to ‘cohort’ its residents as a number were highly vulnerable. This had the unexpected positive result of the cohorts having to find innovative ways of positively communicating with each other (and others) by using technology, sharing activities such as baking and a pen pal scheme with another care home. Small things but good to keep.
  • Value the contribution of others. Local authority colleagues, councillors, adult social care staff, health partners, community organisations and citizens. All stakeholders will have valuable experience to offer. Check out their experience and how they coped. Think systematically so you can develop and share the emerging view together.
  • Continue to be personally confident, honest and trustworthy with everyone. Anxieties will persist and assurance will be need on all fronts so it will still be important to be clear what can be achieved and by when. You will have a local context, but think about setting priorities, timescales for specific actions to start grounding future thinking but also be clear that the day job continues and real concerns around  immediate surges in demand and capacity will need addressing.
Indulge yourself in self-reflection

As a senior manager you may well consider you have successfully balanced the balcony and the battlefield, but it is always worth pausing on the balcony to reflect on your leadership. It’s not really an indulgence, more of a necessity!

  • Have I stayed true to my values and management style – did I have to adapt it to changing circumstances and am I comfortable with that? For example, when under pressure did I become unnecessarily directive at times in contrast to a more natural inclusive style? Depending on your experience, working through this crisis may be the first time that you have had to consider your approach and style – what have you learnt? Most importantly, what did I do well? 
  • Did I model behaviours that I wanted replicated in my managers? For example, did you stay connected at different levels with your staff and at the same time truly delegate responsibilities and problem solving? Managing through a crisis can very much be an exercise in trust – having the confidence in staff to deliver the detail.  Did you encourage your team to get on with it, how did that work?
  • What did I gain from being in the battlefield? Hopefully, it gave you an insight, strengthened relationships and gave people an opportunity to relate to you in more everyday setting. Again you will have your own examples but one that was given to me was of a senior manager who took time to go into the battlefield and personally ring every care home in the area to reinforce the message of local support with a very positive impact in terms of strengthening relationships. What seems small actions and time out can have a disproportionate positive affect.
  • Did I make space for myself? During frenetic times did I pause and think about what I was doing?  Who did I get support from and how can I make this endure?
Check out your team

As a leader, team working is all. As you move forward into the next phase of change, checking out the staff team - understanding the mood on the battlefield - is vital.

  • Evaluate new ways of working. Increase in working from home is a case in point. It is in many ways positive and will no doubt endure, but it will be important to stand on the balcony and truly evaluate the positives; what can be retained and what adjustments can be made.  Your team will have many thoughts on this – build a consensus on the way forward in a way that engages and motivates them whilst reassuring them of their safety.
  • Are we all battle-weary? The answer will undoubtedly be yes to an extent. The issue for a leader and their managers is to work out how such issues as leave (which may have accumulated ) can be managed so staff can have a break; can recruitment be re-energised and have staff, who may be feeling particularly affected, be supported. Post crisis there may be a feeling of individual and generalised disillusionment which could affect managers and front line staff alike. Be alert to this in others and yourself (you will need respite too) and focus on positively moving things forward individually and collectively. It’s a long haul and developing resilience is important.
  • Develop your workforce. In tune with developing services for the future there will need to be workforce planning. Messaging this now is important. It is the time to work with partners on reviewing the crisis response and considering what skills are needed for the future. Staff will have taken on changed roles and worked with others in different ways. What needs to endure? It is interesting to note that some local authorities have noticed a drastic reduction in sickness absence in some areas. Not sure why? Is it staff being heroic or is it also because of a shift in the job, increased trust, recognition and so on?

The view from the balcony is a fascinating and challenging one with significant opportunities to get a sense of what needs to happen now and to develop adult social care services in the long run. It is also a time of personal reflection on what it is to be a leader. The challenges may be stark, the way forward unclear, you certainly won’t have the picture now, but senior managers should be confident. They went into this crisis with considerable experience, managed change at pace and can be sure they have enhanced their experience, learning and skills to move into the next phase.

With thanks to IPC and local authority colleagues.