Key Processes

Key work processes or protocols, such as those for decision-making and budget formulation, are the tools through which a public child welfare director anchors or embeds a new vision and culture in an organization. Well-designed and well-aligned processes offer staff the opportunity to commit to a new vision and demonstrate behaviorally the values undergirding an open, empowering culture. Said colloquially, it is through key processes that a leader “makes things happen.” They are the tools for developing and executing strategy, managing risk, creating investment, garnering resources, ensuring accountability and providing opportunity for growth and innovation.


We know from behavioral research that attitude follows behavior. Because this can seem intuitively backwards, leaders often keep asking for ever more fervent agreement with the stated visions and values (that is, they want the right attitude) and yet continue to be surprised when behaviors do not follow. It is only in being asked to operate in new ways and with new behaviors that staff at all levels can, in fact, demonstrate that they own the new vision and will honor the new values and culture.


Vignette: The public child welfare director of a large state agency spent significant o rganizational time , energy and money training hundreds of staff on how to create a high performance organization that focused on improved outcomes for children, youth and families and doing so with values that supported a culture that was open and participative. The difficulty came  when staff returned to day-to-day activities and encountered systems and key processes that were not aligned to support the vision and new culture they now enthusiastically supported. Budget priorities were being set with out input from operating entities; performance data continued to be used to punish rather than develop staff and 

resources (e .g ., computers) were still being allocated based on personal relationships, the lack o f well-aligned processes was evident to all and the unwillingness of the director to change them meant that cynicism was higher than 

before they started the training .


Design and Oversight

Developing and managing key processes is the primary work of middle management in large organizations. Leaders are obligated, however, to set out the criteria o standards under which key processes will be developed and to ensure that they and the organization are honoring them.


Assessing Current Key Processes

There are a series of questions that leaders can ask to determine if key processes are designed and 

executed such that organizational energy is focused on achieving outcomes for children, youth and 

families and not having to “work systems” that are difficult to understand and negotiate.


  • Does the design and implementation of the process reflect the values/culture of the organization, e.g., provides good service to children, youth and families, and inclusive decision-making?
  • Does the process clearly define who has what roles and responsibilities; articulates decision-making criteria; sets forth clear performance standards (e.g., turnaround time for critical reports); and provides formal feedback loops and mechanisms for continuous improvement?
  • Is the process as streamlined as possible without sacrificing critical controls and supports? Are the number of people required to “sign off” limited only to those that add clear and noticeable value; e.g., review of conforming contract language?
  • Was the process designed with input from both internal staff and external stakeholders who had knowledge and expertise critical to its design and/or execution? Were those most affected by a particular process actively consulted and encouraged to provide input?
  • Does the process account for and mitigate “us versus them” mentality and behavior whether between central and field offices; among operating units or between staff functions and direct service providers, resulting in fewer power plays and manipulation?
  • Does he process strike the appropriate balance among the roles of oversight, support, and instruction;e.g.,financial services oversees compliance with the budget, provides support in making needed adjustments, and “teaches” managers how to track their financial position?
  • Is the process well documented, with instructions, tools and templates provided for expert and non-expert users alike? For example, are there written instructions and protocols for social workers assigned to monitor non-profit service providers? Are there written guidelines for drafting budget narratives or responding to constituent complaints or media inquiries?


Leadership Process Work

Leaders are responsible to set out the broad parameters, and ensure that they and their senior team are honoring the key processes. More detailed guidance on designing and implementing key processes (e.g., workforce) is found in other domains. Listed below are examples of leadership work required for selected key processes.


Practice Model

Disparities in treatment and services for children of color mean that a practice model is either not well designed or is not well implemented. There are a number of points in a practice model where all good intentions can and do have unintended negative consequences, e.g., placement policies; limited services. Leaders are obligated to provide direction and focus, expect rigorous analysis, assume good intentions, and actively engage in problem solving.


Structure and Culture

Leaders set the organizational structure and ensure clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for each level. Stated another way, they define the nature and use of power in the organization, with whom it resides and under what conditions. They teach senior staff the line between the use and abuse of power and they take immediate and forceful action when power has been abused. They set expectations and build processes for how issues falling outside the domain of any one division are to be handled, recognizing that most critical policy and practice issues will 

affect two or more operating entities in the organization. They define when teams will be used and 

how they are constituted.



Leaders carry ultimate accountability for the performance of the organization. Through strategic planning, they set goals and outcomes. They institute monitoring systems to track progress and set performance standards for senior staff. They are accountable for their own behavior and the effective use of their “political capital.”



Leaders are responsible to clarify who is responsible for which types of decisions and insist that data inform any decision-making process. They model decision-making that is intentional, focused and competent.


Key Strategic Partnerships

Leaders are responsible for directly establishing and maintaining effective relationships with key stakeholders including the legislature, judiciary, CEO or governor and their staffs, critical advocacy groups and providers. They do so based on the agency’s strategic plan, not a personal agenda, modeling respect for different perspectives and engaging in consensus building, as appropriate. They understand the symbolic nature of their office and “hand-off” critical 

relationships only when well established and when stakeholders are assured they retain access.


Crisis Management

Leaders need to be present, accounted for and visible during major crises. They need to strike the right balance between being objective, but not disengaged; between being accountable, but not blaming; between acting quickly, but not impulsively. Most important, it is during crisis that significant learning can occur about what systems, strategies and processes need to be changed or strengthened and what anticipatory work can be done to minimize, if not eliminate, them.


Learning and Innovation

Effective leaders “read to lead” and expect their senior leaders to be actively teaching and learning. Continuous improvement processes are rigorously used and new ideas are tested and evaluated. Leaders know and can explain the difference between being bold and reckless. They set conditions to minimize outsized risk, but offer encouragement and recognition for risk-taking,even if doing so does not result in the desired effect.


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PCG Human Services
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