Ana Popovici, Director of Children’s Services at the London Borough of Wandsworth describes leadership in uncertain times, caring for vulnerable children and hybrid working.
Every day is a roller coaster when you are the Director of Children’s Services.
Working in lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak has been a different roller coaster but equally scary and at times exhilarating – when you can see something you are familiar with in a new light.
“I feel sometimes I am building the aeroplane I am flying.”
Whatever our own individual situation, the pandemic has affected us all powerfully, either for better or for worse. The emotional turbulence within all of us is vivid in contrast with the eerily quiet external world, at least until recently.
Virtual working in itself has not phased me. The opposite is the case. I have been fortunate in my career to work in a national role so working virtually and being physically separated from colleagues whilst staying close emotionally and psychologically is familiar to me.
What is different, new and unsettling, especially with my Southern European blood, is the social distancing rules and the limitations to contact and togetherness this brings with it.
Leading teams in times of uncertainty
At the beginning of the crisis I often wondered whether our practice during Covid can remain accurate, humble yet decisive. I wondered whether we would still be able to continue our journey to improvement, which is our narrative story, locally, to keep our finger on the pulse and to make sure no child is left out or behind. I worried about vulnerable children falling through the net, being hidden out of sight as well as hidden in plain sight at times.
As a social worker, being criticised is an occupational hazard. Our work is intense emotional labour and the stakes are always stratospheric.
Working through ambiguity and having to be bold and brave in decision making to inspire the confidence of those around you does allow room for mistakes to be made. That is the reality. Sometimes I wonder which is worse, the fear of being criticised or taking no action.
Building the aeroplane as I fly
I choose, and also encourage my team, to take actions. Actions which are evidence based. I don’t say this with the intention of diluting accountability, I merely want to place the emphasis on having to lead and inspire teams at times of uncertainty.
And the same goes for social workers in their interactions with families, children and professionals. They lead complex, intricated relationships. My aspiration for our local model of leadership of power and empowerment is a distributed one – every social worker, every support worker, all of us are leaders, role models and ambassadors for children and improving their lives. We are all leaders of our caseload or workload.
In many ways the work in a Children’s Services department is business as usual. I feel sometimes that I am building the aeroplane I am flying, piloting the plane with all the automated systems down.
One head teacher said that to me as we were talking about trying to balance our practice during the crisis with thinking about what is to follow, the recovery, the re-building stage.
Hybrid working style
Our social workers have continued to work with grace out in the community and have stayed close to children. They have a hybrid working style – direct visits and virtual visits. They have been resilient and adaptive to all the challenges we have been facing.
I think that extraordinary situations such as this can bring out the best in people, and I have been so impressed by how we are all working differently with the use of technology to keep in touch with each other, with our partners and ensuring that our vital services have continued to operate in order to safeguard and protect children.
Being a corporate parent is one of the most important parts of my job. I have tried to stay in touch and stay close to our looked after children and care leavers, albeit virtually. I am also writing to them every week.
Look out for Part 2 of Anna’s blog next week.
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