Transcript: Leadership and professional identity

Susan Taylor, past President of Social Work Scotland, provides the keynote on leadership and professional identity, focusing particularly on the post-qualifying period.

Podcast Episode: Leadership and professional identity

Category: Social work (general) 


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

ST - Susan Taylor

Building the Future: shaping our social work identity newly qualified social worker conference was held on 31 May 2018 in Edinburgh. Delivered with the University of Edinburgh (in partnership with the Higher Education Heads of Social Work Group), Iriss, Scottish Social Services Council, the Scottish Association of Social Work, Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government, it provided an opportunity for newly qualified social workers to come together to connect and reconnect. In this episode, Susan Taylor, past President of Social Work Scotland, provides the keynote on leadership and professional identity, focusing particularly on the post-qualifying period.

You’re listening to Scotland’s Social Services podcast.

ST I’m just going to talk to you, so there is not a power point presentation, and Avril asked me to talk to you about leadership and professional identity. Particularly think about the post-qualifying period, and I thought, oh my goodness, that’s like a PhD and I’ve got 15 minutes. So, this is a bit of a romp through some of those issues, but hopefully there are a few moments of inspiration or thinking that you can take from this. So, what I want to do is I want to share with you a letter that, quite recent, was sent to one of our social workers in East Ayrshire, and I have anonymised this obviously, and it’s a little bit of a mix of letters, but the essence of it is absolutely pure. So, it’s a letter from David, who is currently serving a custodial sentence, he is 19, and it’s to his social worker, Mike. So, I’m going to read that to you and I want to just unpick some of the issues around leadership for you, as practitioners, that come out of this letter, and maybe think about some of the issues about professional identity. There probably could be some beeps through this letter, so I am going to miss those bits out, but you will get a sense of what I am saying to you.

So, Mike, here we go again mate. Gutted. Should have listened to you, but as per usual, I didn’t. But after I get out I will start listening and if I don’t go to the gym anytime you want, I’ll go this time. I need to say a massive thank you to you for everything you’ve done for me, you’ve done more than thousands of years of work for me, ha ha, but you are the best guy I could ask for and you are like an uncle that I should have had. Well, I am sober saying this but, I love you, and he signs it off saying, I suppose get me a letter, Love David.

Absolutely genuine letter that came from one of the young people that we work with, and I want to just think about some of what’s in that letter, and what it says to us, as social workers, because it absolutely captures so much of what Jane has just presented to you. If you think about leadership and your qualities as practitioner leaders, which you all will be, leader isn’t about management and seniority, as Jane has said, it’s very much about your qualities as an individual, as a person, as a human being. How do you create that level of inspiration where that young person is saying, do you know what? I have felt how you’ve invested in me, you get a real sense of that right through that letter, I feel how you’ve invested in me and you are inspiring me to want to do better and want to do more with my life. My goodness, the power that you guys have got in your hands, it’s incredible. It’s up to us to use it responsibly.

So, that ability to use your qualities to inspire is part of being a social worker. The ability to energise people from quite a challenging place, and as many of us know, our prisons are absolutely full of people who are there because of inequalities and poverty, not because they are dangerous, and when you go in and out of prisons doing reports, look around you, look at the eyes of the people in prison and you will see talent like yours which has been lost into that system. It’s waiting for you to unlock it. People who have just taken a different path, and some of you will recognise, that could be me. So, be aware of that need to energise, that need to build hope. So, your qualities around being able to do that with people is really what’s about being a leader as a social worker. It’s all the qualities that you will see in any leadership literature. You think about anybody that inspires you, you will find those qualities. So, that’s my 1st point to you, think about your qualities as a leader.

Your capacity to develop relationships would be my second point. I absolutely believe that social work is really all about how you really trigger change and how you can really maximise opportunities for change through relationships that we make. I don’t just mean with the people that we work with, in terms of people that use our services, I mean with each other, with our partner agencies, with everybody that we actually do this business with. I think a lot of our social work training actually prepares us for life. So, be aware in this room you will be meeting with colleagues and taking a journey with colleagues that you will meet later on in life in different places, and that’s the case for many of us, that we will meet again and how you treat each other and work with each other is key. Creating those relationships in the way that Mike and David have, which is all about making space to build hope and making space where you can have those conversations that sometimes are really difficult, because it’s about difficult stuff, you don’t get to the point of that letter without quite a difficult journey travelled, with having some really challenging conversations about behaviours and presentations, but really getting beyond what’s that all about and what childhood trauma has actually been there for David and what is it that his story is about and why is it that he is in this place? Why is that that he doesn’t have adults around him that he can trust and rely on? Why is he hasn’t got family that are standing around him? All of those things mean that building relationships is key. Seeing the strengths in people that others can’t see is your role as a social worker. Where people are written off, it’s your job to see through that and to stop and think and see differently.

Creating opportunities, I think is critical and the more I have become a social worker, the longer I have been in this, the more I realise your network with others, the sporting world, the arts world, the yoga world, the wellness world, everything that’s about creating opportunity in our lives, is actually what many people we work with need. Building lives and building lifestyles. So, you are a catalyst to all of that and, again, through a relationship you can do that, and I love the fact that there are social workers who work in East Ayrshire that dance and share a passion for dancing, and they love football and they develop football tournaments with 90 young people turning up, and I say, that’s social work. it’s not all over a desk with a file in front of you, it’s about the things that you do, the network that you have and how you make that real for people.

So, don’t let people tell you it’s all about doing reports and the churn of the business, that’s only if you allow that to happen. Keep your heads up and see that your relationship with people and the possibilities you create for them is about being a social worker. Ultimately it’s how you make people feel, in that sense, and the people feel that you invest in them, that you value them, that you see them, maybe even for the first time, that you see their strengths, that they actually hear you say good things about them and they say, really? Nobody has ever said that about me before. You will be the person with that power and don’t underestimate it, it’s a massive leadership responsibility. That ability to develop a relationship, though, isn’t simple and it shouldn’t be seen as, we are in the position of power and other people aren’t, it’s very much a 2-way process. Not every relationship will be like that one that David and Mike have, not everybody needs that, so it’s about working out what that looks like, negotiating that with all the people that you work with. Everybody is different, but we need to clear about our responsibility with our power and recognise that carrying that integrity in our leadership and in our values is so important, in terms of making sure that people feel that they can trust us and feel safe with us. So, that’s the 2nd point.

3rd point, your ability to persevere. Some people call it stickability. You stick with things even when others give up. So, when a school excludes a young person, you are still there at the school gate. When a young person is asked not to come back to a club, you are back in negotiating, can we think about this in a different way? Always constantly reframing things for others, there are other ways to think about what you are seeing as negative, that’s the job of a social worker. Always being able to reach out, even when things are difficult, and be aware that I am absolutely clear that David will have taken, with Mike, quite a difficult journey, and there will be moments where I would be saying to all of you, how will you respond when someone swears at you because they are so angry and frustrated at what’s going on in their life? Or they spit at you, or worse, maybe violent towards you? That doesn’t happen every day, but it will happen at some point because, actually, what we know about stress is that we carry stress around with us, and young people, and young adults you may work with, people who are in very difficult circumstance, isolated, marginalised without a support network, very often will carry such stress around with them that the slightest thing will make them react, and it’s for us to interpret that and to see that and see beyond the presentation, because we know that every behaviour is a form of communication. Very often violence is a sign of pain, and our job is to get behind what’s going on.

So, that ability to stick with things, challenging we know, but you need to know yourself well to do that well. You need to know what your triggers are, when will you react? Because that’s the moment you might need to walk away and think, that’s the moment you might need your colleagues with you, it’s the moment you might need to spend some time talking to others about how you are responding to an individual or a situation. Now, we see examples of that all the time. If I think about some of the work that we do in residential childcare, where staff will take some consultation time and say, oh my goodness, this young person has really pressed my buttons today and I really had to manage myself, I had to watch myself because I knew what was happening and I had to get hold of my professional hat and say to myself, don’t react personally, don’t do it. Think about my professional responsibility here. I need to be able to get on the balcony and watch what’s going on here, and that’s the job of a social worker, stickability.

My 4th point is demonstrating values-based leadership. So, if you think about that letter, everything in that letter says, actually, in this relationship have been lots of empowering conversations, lots of moments of really thinking about, what are you doing? Why are you doing it? Could you think differently? Enabling David to think differently about his life. Moments about promoting self-determination, creativity and practice and really living the codes, this is a letter that really says, this is how you live the code. This is how you absolutely implement your values, and one of the things that I was meeting with social workers in East Ayrshire, yesterday, about the whole systems approach, how we support young people and try to divert them out the justice system and I was saying, you know, there are things that workers do in East Ayrshire that make me just fill up, because I don’t ask them to do it and it’s not in their job description, but the absolutely know the culture we have created is one where we say, this is how we do things around here, children and the adults we work with need to feel that we care, and sometimes that means doing things that you instinctively would do for your children.

So, the staff that text every morning, at 7:30 in the morning and say, are you up for your work, your training? Are you up yet? Or get up early and text and say, Happy Birthday Son, I’ll catch you later on today, because nobody else will. Those are the social workers that I say, come and work in East Ayrshire. I will never build that into a job description, I just look for people taking their humanity and their value base into their role, because you can’t build that into job descriptions, it’s about who we are as social workers and the people that do it are the people who hug me when I go into a room, because actually, they are like that with their colleagues, and I love it. So, find somewhere like that to work, because that is actually what social work should feel like.

My 5th point is about your ability to remain resilient through all of that. As a leader you have to be able to be resilient, and Jane’s points are really well made. It’s not about being kind to yourself in a really self-indulgent way, it’s actually just thinking about the fact that you have really challenging moments in your career, but you’ve got really wonderful moments in your career. You will work with lots of really interesting people and remember, you know, I talk very much as a social worker, but also someone who has been a carer, who has had family members accessing social work services, and there are some really joyful moments that you will have, moments when children are adopted, moments when you are working with carers and they absolutely design arrangements around the care of a relative that means that family absolutely can see a new way to live again. It’s a fantastic opportunity that you have got to help shape things with people, working shoulder to shoulder with people. It’s not about doing too, it’s about being with, and any of you that need to access any professional service will know that you don’t want to be at that other end of a table being talked to, or talked at, you want to feel that you are a partnership in this journey. So, it’s so critical that we think about how we look after ourselves in the midst of that journey. It’s why the resource that has just been launched with Iriss and the SSSC and Social Work Scotland I think is really critical.

We have tried to take all the resources together into one website and one place so that you can make use of those, and there are lots of other things that you can make use of, but professionally, your resilience gets better by really accessing good quality supervision, good reflective practice, good reflective space, being supported through your team and through you supervisor, really important. Making space to come to days like this because you will guarantee, I will guarantee you that you will say, I haven’t got time to go to events, I haven’t got time to, and if I hear that once I hear it 100 times. You need to make the time. I heard a worker, the other day, who had moved from administration into working in frontline practice and said to me, you know, I can’t believe all these workers have such control of their own diaries and many of us don’t have that as workers, and they are so privileged, but everybody moans about not having time. So, it’s about how we maximise the use of our time.

So, what does that all mean for professional identity? Well, a few key messages, and I say this because right now, because of the integrated context that many of you work in, either social work and education, for example, or social work and health working together in health and social care partnerships, you will find yourself in a place where you are hearing lots about professional identity and I would say to you that we are probably not the same as some of the other traditional, very well respected and established professions. It’s not that we are not well respected, it’s just that we don’t work from a position of expert power, because I think people living their lives are experts in their own lives and we should all know that from living our own lives and be aware that we are not talking about social workers here, and carers and service users over there. This is about one community.

Today you are a social worker, tomorrow you may be accessing social work services, never forget that for your own families. So, we need to be really clear that what we are about is actually taking a journey in life and our expertise as a social worker is really quite different from the more traditional professions. So, I think probably, the issue of professional identity, for us, has been quite challenging for some time. Trying to work out what that looks like, but I have heard calls for many years, back in 2006 when we had the Change in Lives Review, when we looked at what the purpose of social worker was we said, there is an urgent need to think about what is the professional identity of social work. And, actually, frankly, now what I know is, every decade we say that, when change happens, every decade we say that. I think we need to resist that, so we need to think much more about how do social workers think about themselves? What is it we think we offer? What is it that our own self-concept is, based on our values, based on our beliefs, our attributes, our experiences and our contribution? And if you think about what Steven Webb says, professor Steven Webb, he talks very much about professional identity being carved out in the context of the policy context, the workplace, the value placed on our contribution by others, and that’s so crucial, in terms of how we work with other professionals.

So, what I would say to you is that we all have something to offer in shaping our professional identity and right now other professions are struggling with theirs. I think that’s because, increasingly, we need to be more grey. Blurred at the edges about what we all do. You can’t increase education attainment and learning in schools if you don’t make sure that children aren’t hungry when they come into school. So, teachers now need to think much more widely than learning, and we are all in that position.

So, how do we articulate our professional identity? We do it through our values. We recognise that we think differently to other people, other professionals. We think about equality and we think about social justice and we see people through that lens. We see through the lens of experience. That’s very different to how other professionals view the world, and we often forget that. So, I would encourage you to think about how you are promoting that, because it means that you think about the obstacles, the social obstacles, the political obstacles, the economic obstacles, the structures, differently. It means you will advocate for people when others don’t even think about it, and that’s what makes you different, and actually that stickability, that makes us different. That stickability and seeing people through people in despair, people who are going through very difficult circumstances. That unique value of being holistic, seeing through the eyes of others, through a people lens. Working through relationships and persisting through challenge. Working with that value base is our uniqueness and that’s our professional identity, which we need to absolutely claim and help to share, because it’s about sharing that and that develops understanding.

So, I suppose my question, to finish, would be, are we making enough of a contribution to shaping our own professional identity, and could we do more? When we had the professional summit in December, Social Work Scotland decided, actually we are not going to revisit again what we are about and what our purpose is as social work, because we know. We know who we are, we know what we do, we know what our contribution is. We just need to get a bit more vocal about the real importance of that and we need to work alongside people that use our services and carers absolutely in articulating the value of shaping supports and opportunities around people. So, if we shape our professional identity then we can begin to think about what we offer and integrated settings, and that means that we can really begin to think about our human contribution to the way in which we work as practitioners.

So, essentially, leadership and practice in social work means applying our values, investing ourselves as human beings through relationships and really thinking about how that defines our professional identity and, I suppose, sharing that with others. I think it’s a real privilege to be a social worker and I really wish you well in everything you do in social work in the future, thank you.

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