What makes a successful Director of Children’s Services/Leader and what are the aspirations of those in the profession?


11 Aug 2017

Thought Leadership, Executive Interim

What makes a successful Director of Children’s Services...

When we talk about leadership, a few names spring to mind – Churchill, Obama, Caesar, Martin Luther – and what they all had in common – Integrity, Inspiration, Passion, Confidence and Ambition. As Bill Gates once said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others”. The same is arguably true in the workplace, whereby we look to our managers for guidance, support and empowerment.

The question around the next generation of DCS’ is an important one and needs thorough analysis. CYP recently found that the rate of DCS appointments, on both an interim and permanent basis, is slowing down. This could be due to individuals staying in post for longer, which on the face of it is welcome, but Dave Hill (Executive Director for Social Care, Essex) highlighted his concern for the lack of talent coming through. With the number of vacancies decreasing we need to consider why this is happening for such an important statutory role. What should be done with succession plans to ensure that the next wave of talent rises to the top? Over the last few months I have been speaking with a range of sector professionals from Social Worker level through to current and past DCS’s. When asked why there isn’t a large pool of aspiring DCS’s – some common themes emerge, including communication, training, media and inspection pressure.


Career progression needs to be communicated by managers from an early stage argues Darren Morrow, a previous social worker and current deputy team manager based in an inner London Borough. However, he also points out that this can be difficult for Locum Social Workers given training opportunities are not at the same level as that offered to permanent staff. Furthermore, he is of the view that a large number of social workers do not want to go down the management route as they would prefer to stay close to family frontline work and feel that climbing the management ladder hinders this. However Louise Rees, DCS at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, who does not have a social work background, argues that as a Director it is vitally important to stay connected with the frontline and to be very visible to staff. Therefore, perhaps there is a perception and communications issue around how the role of a DCS is portrayed to staff. Equally, do you even need to have a background in social work to become a DCS?


Ultimately, the role of a DCS will require you to manage others. So organisations need to identify those individuals that do and invest in their training. Many of the authorities that Darren has worked for have provided strong training opportunities for social work. With that said, he considers to profess through a management structure practitioners have to possess a level of assertiveness and express ambition to undertake management training. While the training that ADCS offers is highly advantageous, organisations need to focus on succession planning to increase the amount of talent, argues Andrew Bunyan (ex DCS, Derby). Furthermore, now that portfolios are becoming bigger, the role of a DCS is evolving and not always for the better. With the number of DCS appointments down year on year, Dave Hill is concerned that there is also a diminishing pool of applicants – as he wrote in the MJ earlier this year. Since 2010, budgets have been sliced and it has become difficult to manage highly sensitive cases and services on reduced resource. The lack of aspiration in the sector can certainly be related to the lack of money but more needs to be done to promote the role of a DCS and train people on what ‘good’ looks like. Colin Diamond, DCS at Birmingham City Council, believes that people learn by doing, and senior management need to give middle managers more authority and exposure in senior decision making processes. Therefore, there needs to be a ‘no blame’ culture which provides people with more confidence and aspiration.

Internal and external pressures

When things go wrong in Children’s Social Care, they can go very wrong, suggests a former Assistant Director in a London Borough. They went on to point out that ever since the death of Peter Connelly, the media has been quick to blame individuals and sometimes it is this approach which drives council’s responses. With Ofsted inspections on the horizon the external pressures can become so great that they deter professionals from wanting to become a DCS. Another senior manager at a London Borough claimed that there was no succession planning and no room for Continuous Professional Development as money was so tight. This manager went on to argue that the added pressure Ofsted can “literally destroy” ones career so quickly that people are fearful of ever becoming a DCS.

Top tips for future DCS’s

Recent tragic events across the country have reiterated the importance of local leadership. DCS’s have an important role in shaping the future of many young lives in their communities and indeed in motivating our aspiring children’s social care professionals. Below are a few points about what makes a good DCS from those that I spoke with:

Being able to inspire confidence up and down the management chain

Showing energy and passion

Understanding the wider context – voluntary/private sector landscape

Developing good interpersonal skills

Suspending any preconceived ideas about an authority

Finding a good mentor through ADCS network

Penna perspective:

Recruiting to the role of any statutory post is always an important one to get right but with recent legislative changes to tax (IR35) and the expected exit cap, the market is becoming more candidate driven. The pool of candidates has shrunk and as a result, market forces have driven up interim rates. The job is also broader than the provision of good children’s services as you will also need to have an eye on, amongst other things, finance, governance and commissioning. One way in which ‘the pool’ could be widened is for authorities to consider candidates who do not have a Social Work or Education background. As the landscape of children’s services evolves, perhaps the role of a DCS will not continue to exist in its current form. The emergence and growth of Children’s Trusts has expanded the options of some aspiring professionals. Not only that but with portfolios becoming bigger as stated earlier in this article by Andrew Bunyan, the role of a DCS or Director of People may have additional responsibilities in the form of Public Health, Education or Adult Services. It’s our job at Penna as consultants to be honest, open, challenging and positive about the future of recruitment and to advise clients on the best way to attract the right talent.

Matthew Jones - Associate Consultant, Executive Interim