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Strong leadership to build the future of social care

Oonagh Smyth, CEO, Skills for Care

Skills for Care’s CEO Oonagh Smyth discusses how to create a culture that can attract, nurture, and develop the social care leaders of the future.

It’s true that the past two years have been filled with new challenges for our social care leaders. The people leading social care have stepped up to guide their teams and stepped in to ensure that the people who draw on care and support continued to receive the support they needed.

Social care leaders have not found it easy but the work they and their teams have done has been admirable and has been instrumental in raising public awareness of the vital role of people working across social care at all levels.

As we cautiously prepare to live a life alongside COVID-19 social care leaders are now managing the impact which has been left.

One of the most obvious impacts is the current challenge of recruitment and retention which many social care leaders have told us they’re facing. Our most recent data has shown that vacancy levels have risen to pre-pandemic rates, and we know that we’re recruiting within a very competitive job market right now. So, while things are really challenging, there are things that we can do to find people to work with us and to keep them.

Leaders are incredibly important for creating cultures that people want to work in and stay working in. We have been thinking and talking a lot about compassionate leadership at Skills for Care, using some of the work that Michael West has been leading.

Compassionate leadership is not soft leadership, it requires a huge amount of courage and strength. We need to understand ourselves as a leader and lead with kindness, being authentic in all that we do. This authenticity and vulnerability can feel hard for some people in a work setting but it helps build one of the most important things for teams – psychological safety. The ability for people to feel safe in their work helps to foster a culture where we can challenge, improve, learn, and grow. We are helping organisations to build more compassionate leadership with Affina Organisational Development which is part of the Skills for Care family.

When we have a great culture that people want to work in, we then need to make sure that people know about it through our recruitment. Leaders need to be excellent at recruitment and this starts with values. We have all heard about values based recruitment but what does that mean in practice?

For me, it starts with understanding our own values as the leaders and the values of our organisations – and then asking whether we are living those values in the recruitment process. Our values come through whether they are written down or not, in subtle ways from what we focus on in a job description to how we run a recruitment process. We might say that we are person-centred but if people do not experience that in the recruitment process, there will be a disconnect between what they experience and the values that you talk about which might put people off or disappoint them. Challenging our own recruitment processes from start to finish through a values lens can be helpful.

If people are new to social care, we have to think about how we talk about and showcase social care that both excites them but also means that there are no surprises. Providers do such innovative things here, videos of people they support, conversations with people in the role, visits. Whatever we can do to really make social care real for people is valuable.

Once we have people working with us, it is important that they feel developed and supported. We know from our insights and experience, but also very strongly from our data, that if you develop your team, they are more likely to stay. The more you develop them, the more likely they are to stay with you. Some people might want to focus on their practice skills. Some might want to progress into leadership and management. Having a culture where we understand people’s aspirations and starting points and where learning and development is deeply valued and supported is vital to keeping and nurturing our talent.

At the heart of nurturing our workforce and future leaders, we must focus on equality, diversity, and inclusion to ensure we can provide fair opportunities for progression for everyone across social care and build a diverse team of social care leaders for the future. We’re supporting this through our Moving up programme which provides leadership development for people from black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds. We are also leading the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) for social care which will support social care leaders to monitor and report on progress on diversity objectives and identify opportunities to continually improve. 

Our strategy at Skills for Care is focused on these areas – supporting social care to make sure we have the right capacity, skills, and cultures so that we can continue to support people to live the lives that they choose.

There are things that we cannot control, but if we can all work together to showcase the rewards of working in social care, prioritise the development of our teams, and nurture a supportive and inclusive culture for all, we can make sure to build the next group of leaders that we can hand the baton onto at the right time.


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