Whole Family Approach to Workforce Engagement

Leadership depends greatly on relationships. It is a human business. Studies conducted by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus1 find that leaders spend upwards of 90% of their time with others and on people problems. The social work profession has long recognized the “use of self” as an essential characteristic of the helping profession. Use of self 

is also a major leadership tool


Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses

Leaders generally know early in their careers what they are good at and where their weaknesses are. Effective leaders openly acknowledge their weaknesses and allow others to compensate without undue risk. They actively seek people who will complement them, extending their competence. Listed below are some questions that effective leaders typically explore. Leaders may also want to use other recognized self-assessment instruments that provide perspectives from peers, supervisors and subordinates on their behavior.

  • Does the leader recognize and take into account that their actions may well be given meaning, both positive and negative, beyond the particular situation at hand, that is, may be given symbolic meaning? 
  • Do they make good use of symbolism and organizational stories and legends in explaining decisions and actions?
  • Does the leader ask for and listen to feedback, both structured and unstructured? 
  • Are they prone to shoot the messenger? 
  • Does the leader comfortably and openly acknowledge gaps in her skills and knowledge and ask directly for help?
  • Does the leader accept and adapt his message to the needs of his audience or does he require the audience to adapt to him?
  • Does the leader adjust her approach when doing so will increase understanding and investment?
  • Does the leader deal with ambiguity, ambivalence and frustration without becoming defensive or angry?
  • Does the leader understand their influence, pleasure or displeasure is felt agency wide even when their direct personal influence is limited?
  • Does the leader understand that even casual remarks can result in considerable loss in time, energy and goodwill and is careful, but not withholding, in his interactions?
  • Does the leader practice simple courtesy?

Vignette: A state agency director traveled to meet field staff. Staff were upset over an action taken by the agency. As the conversation went on, the director became noticeably impatient and finally said, “This conversation is ended. The decision is made I suggest you shut up and do it.” While staff feared his authority they never respected his 

leadership. The word of the day becam emalicious compliance; decisions were implemented superficially and without real commitment.


Embedding New Skills and Discipline

Successful leaders work on improving their own skills and discipline as well as nurturing the skills of those around them. This requires taking chances and accepting that some failures will occur in the process of learning for both the leader and their staff. They recognize that senior executive staff is, in many ways, more visible to staff on a daily basis. And it is senior staff that will carry and translate the messages.


Set Expectations

Effective leaders clearly articulate how they intend to behave and how they expect their senior 

staff to behave. They do not leave it to chance or to second-guessing.

  • They work on, and are open about, their own continuous development.
  • They do not act entitled or believe their leadership derives from having “paid one’s dues. 
  • They understand that the “price” to stay is greater than or equal to the price to getting there. 
  • They regularly set higher standards for themselves and raise the bar for others as well.
  • They do not minimize the reality of the work to be done changing fundamental processes while maintaining ongoing service delivery.

Focus on the Executive Team

New directors most often have an executive team that is comprised of some inherited staff and some 

new staff they either bring with them or are able to hire. Regardless of composition, effective 

leaders spend considerable time “nurturing” both the individual members and the team as a whole. 

They want to nurture and take advantage of the different personalities, styles and perspectives 

each member brings while helping the team learn to work together under new direction and new 

expectations. Directors can expect to face the following challenges.

  • Helping members find time, energy, and enthusiasm for proposed changes when the current workload appears overwhelming.
  • Helping in-house staff learn how to manage former peers.
  • Helping staff understand the different skills and abilities needed as a day-to-day manager and as a team member and how to comfortably navigate those dual roles.
  • Helping the team adjust if team members are removed from the team and as new team members replace them.

Acquire New Skills

There are a number of sources that provide lists of competencies needed for effective leadership, 

most of which are relevant and easily adaptable to public child welfare directors.


There are several additional skills Warren Bennis and Burt Nanos consider critical to managing 

one’s own behavior.

  • The ability to accept people as they are, not as you would like them to be.
  • The capacity to approach relationships and problems in terms of the present rather than the past.
  • The ability to treat those close to you with the same courteous attention that you would extend to strangers and casual acquaintances.
  • The ability to trust others, even if the risk seems great.
  • The ability to do without constant approval and recognition from others.
  • The ability to recover after anger, fear and defensiveness.
  • The ability to help others grow and accept responsibility, i.e., stewards of the vision.


Change & Innovation Agency
FEi Systems
PCG Human Services
Governing Magazine
Conference Edge