4 ways to lead with pragmatism and flexibility

The second part of our posts on The SPARK Series 2017 features the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Housing and Development Board, Dr Cheong Koon Hean’s sharing on leadership. Jointly organised by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, AMKFSC Community Services Ltd, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and the Social Service Institute, The SPARK Series 2017 is an initiative aimed at grooming future thought leaders and change makers of the sector.


As the former CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and current CEO of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Dr Cheong Koon Hean has vast experience in the national macro planning of Singapore’s urban and housing landscape.
She shared about her pragmatic and flexible approach to leadership that helped her bring about solutions to urban planning challenges such as space constraints, limited resources and the growing needs of Singaporeans.

1) Have a long-term vision, and wait for the opportunity

As the “master planner”, Dr Cheong emphasised the importance of planning for sustainability. With Singapore’s problem of being a “small island with big needs”, Dr Cheong found it essential to take the necessary steps towards urban planning.
Citing the example of Marina Bay, Dr Cheong shared that long term planning meant that blueprints for the area were in the making four decades ago, and land was reclaimed ready for the time when the city had to expand. When Dr Cheong took on the role of URA chief in 2004, it was the opportune time to drive the Marina Bay project forward as Singapore was in a phase where it needed to increase its competitive edge. Marina Bay provided the opportunity to give Singapore a new signature image as a global city.
While you may have big aspirations that you are eager to execute in your organisation, it is essential to be patient, take incremental steps towards your goals and plan for the long-term.

2. Seeking personal motivation within organisational vision

The motivation for doing a good job must come from within each person in the organisation. It is important for every staff to know the `purpose’ and the `meaning’ behind their job. If our job is meaningful and we feel that we are contributing, then we will be self motivated and there is no need for supervisors to look over our shoulders. A shared `organisation culture’ is also important so that we work as a team and look out for one another.

punggoldiscovercube
As part of The SPARK Series, participants went on a trail at Punggol Riverside Park.

3. Embracing top-down and bottom-up leadership approaches

A balance of top-down and bottom-up leadership is necessary for aspiring change-makers. Usually, the leader needs to provide the strategic perspective and to steer the broad direction of the organisation. On the other hand, the leader does not know everything and should be open to ideas and suggestions from his or her colleagues. The leader encourages participation from all.
Encouraging individual ownership of projects promotes a sense of belonging within the community, and creates more stakeholders who are potential leaders of the community. Additionally, holding conversations at the ground level opens access to innovative solutions.

4. Be pragmatic and flexible

When multiple agencies work together, friction is inevitable due to individual interests. Leaders are responsible for mediating these conflicting interests and seeking collaboration among all stakeholders. Decision-making entails trade-offs.
Having a big-picture perspective and a pragmatic approach paves the way for feasible solutions. It increases your understanding of each party’s stake, giving you different angles to approach an issue and value-add to an initiative.
Through marrying both pragmatism and flexibility, leaders would be able to better galvanise the multiple stakeholders towards a common objective and lead their team into finding innovative solutions.


 

The SPARK Series 2017 runs until 15 December 2017. Read more about the series’ first workshop, “On Leadership”.

How do you lead through change?

The first part of our posts on The SPARK Series 2017 features Senior Fellow of the Civil Service College, Ms Lim Soo Hoon’s sharing on leadership. Jointly organised by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, AMKFSC Community Services Ltd, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and the Social Service Institute, The SPARK Series 2017 is an initiative aimed at grooming future thought leaders and change makers of the sector.


How do you lead beyond your discipline and challenge the social sector? Senior Fellow of the Civil Service College, Ms Lim Soo Hoon shared her insights and experiences as former Permanent Secretary of the Ministries of Community Development, Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office and Finance.

1. Leadership based on relationship

There’s a difference between having a team that will work with you and a team that will work for you.

As leaders, our job is to unify the team to accomplish a task together. Give your subordinates space and encourage them to clarify issues. People tend to have a greater sense of belonging to a team when they know that they have something to contribute. Feedback from subordinates is valuable, and people on the ground tend to have a better sense of the problem, and possibly even the solution.

Besides knowing how to lead downwards and build relationships with your team members, it is also important to lead upwards and know how to manage your boss. For example, when writing a proposal, subordinates who lead upwards know their bosses’ reading style, and thus are able to get information across effectively and efficiently.

2. Embrace change

In the past, leaders were the experts and had all the information. Now, access to information is widely available, and our subordinates may very well be more skilled at a task than we are.

This may be challenging, as many of us would like to have control, rather than to be controlled by others. Therefore, how we react to our subordinates is very important – if we always react negatively, we can be sure that our subordinates would not want to approach us to point out our blind spots. We then lose a valuable resource.

With the many uncertainties that change brings, former experts have to relearn skills. To lead through change, leaders have to persuade and convince people of what’s in it for them, and that it would be worth the cost.

3. Be curious

Leaders are expected to have the foresight and curiosity to know what is going to happen. That is only possible if we read widely – not just keeping abreast of the happenings within our sector, but also issues outside our sector, as those happenings are well likely to impact our own sector in a matter of time.

It takes more than one person to create change. It requires leaders who have a vision for the future, as well as supportive team members.

There is no guarantee that the risks we take will have positive outcomes, but what is more important is the way in which we handle negative outcomes. If mistakes are made, admit it and change the direction if necessary.


The SPARK Series 2017 runs until 15 December 2017. Read also about the series’ second workshop, “On Building City for Community”.

Staff profile: Giving hope through social assistance

Limin provides social assistance as a Manager at SSO@Bukit Merah, and works together with agencies in the community to meet the needs of her client holistically.


“How much is enough, and how much is too much?”

As a Social Assistance Officer, Limin often faces the dilemma of striking the balance for every client. She has to consider the needs of her clients in providing financial assistance, but at the same time ensure that she helps to preserve individual resilience and foster self-reliance.

Mdm Ang (not her real name) first came to Limin on financial issues she faced as a part-time working mother raising 2 teenage children. It was seemingly a simple issue where Limin would assist Mdm Ang to seek full-time employment while providing her with short-term assistance.

However, it soon evolved into a multi-faceted challenge within a matter of months. Mdm Ang’s younger son dropped out of secondary school, and her older son married his pregnant girlfriend Clara (not her real name) while he was still serving National Service.

With major changes to the family’s situation, Limin had to come up with an entirely new action plan to better support Mdm Ang with her changed circumstances.  “From seeking employment for Mdm Ang, it became having Mdm Ang look after the newborn child, while we found Clara a job to support the family,” Limin recalled.

Knowing that Mdm Ang had been linked up with a Family Service Centre (FSC), Limin worked closely with the FSC social worker to coordinate support for her in meeting her various needs.

Although there were minor hiccups along the way when Clara left her first job, she eventually sustained a stable employment with help and encouragement from Limin and the FSC social worker. Clara also started becoming more willing to learn how to care for her baby.

The family managed to maintain sufficient income after about a year, and it was heartening for Limin when Mdm Ang said that the family wanted to try coping on their own without relying further on financial assistance.

There were times along the way when Limin felt at a loss as issues evolved, but she was encouraged when she saw significant improvements to the life of the family.

“I’m glad that I could work with other agencies to go in-depth into the different issues that my clients face. Seeing each case through from start till end, I am able to witness how financial assistance in a calibrated manner can positively impact them,” she said. “It reminds me of the meaning of my job, and that it is all worth it when I see how it makes a difference in their lives.”

If you are interested to pursue a meaningful career at MSF, find out more information here or view available job listings here.

With unity comes strength and resilience

In celebration of World Social Work Day, Rachel, Elizabeth and Jeanne (from left to right) from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, share their story of how they helped a pair of young siblings overcome childhood trauma, and eventually reunite with their father.


Social work may be tough, but it is where you see the most positivity, strength, and resilience in life.

Anna (not her real name) had been providing foster care to a pair of young siblings, who were victims of severe childhood trauma. The children’s father, John (not his real name), who was their only kin at that point in time, was unable to care for them.

Initially, the siblings had trouble getting used to living with Anna in a structured environment. The young siblings, who were only 3 and 4 years old then, could not cope with their emotions and displayed signs of aggression due to the intense trauma that they experienced.

There were times where Anna found it challenging to guide the kids well. That was when foster care officer Jeanne stepped in to provide support for Anna and taught her about the effects of childhood trauma. Together with Jeanne, clinical psychologist Elizabeth helped Anna work through her anxieties and taught the siblings skills to stabilise their emotions.

At the same time, child protection officer Rachel worked with John to stabilise his job and living arrangements. She also worked on strengthening his parenting skills, hoping to eventually reunite John with his children. The team subsequently linked the father with a Family Service Centre to build up his support network, which he lacked.

In the months that followed, Rachel, Elizabeth and Jeanne worked closely to best support Anna, and put in extra effort and hours to reconnect the children with John more frequently. They also took time to meet the children’s school and student care personnel regularly to help them understand the children’s past traumatic experiences and how to respond to their current behaviours.

Their hard work eventually paid off. John was able to pick up good parenting habits and play the role of a committed caregiver for his children. Rachel, Elizabeth and Jeanne were pleased to see that the kids were well-fed with John cooking for them on a regular basis. Most importantly, they were glad that the kids were happy and safe.

Soon after the siblings returned to John, the team organised a get-together with the family and Anna’s family. It was a heart-warming gathering, and John acknowledged Anna’s instrumental role in providing a stable, nurturing environment for his children.

“While we were doing different things, we were all on the same page, and could be confident in making decisions with the support from our team. Learning from each other has also helped in the work that we do,” Jeanne said.

Reflecting on the journey of helping the two siblings, Elizabeth said: “We are proud to be able to ‘graduate’ them from MSF’s help. There is nothing is like going home.”

Rachel echoed the sentiment. “Many times, it is the people and the work that keep us going. We are really happy when we see children and families reunite,” she said.

Fostering Innovation In Social Work Practice

An interview with the Director of Social Welfare, Ms Ang Bee Lian on the topic, ‘Fostering Innovation in Social Work Practice’, for World Social Work Day.


q1

Innovation involves looking inward and outward. Inwards, to reflect on our services, interventions, work processes etc. and to rethink about what we do and whether there are any areas of improvement or new ways of doing things. Outwards, to learn from best practices, to build upon the ideas of others both within the sector and beyond, and to tailor them to the relevant contexts.

Sometimes, we may think that innovations should mainly happen in the realm of science and technology and not so much in the social work setting.

We should however think of innovations as part of social work where we can find alternative ideas or solutions to improve the living conditions and well-being of individuals, families and communities.

q2

The perception that innovation is too difficult and irrelevant to the profession might be the main obstacle. Some may even identify innovation as only for the creative or brainy. Innovation is more about having a spirit of curiosity about the issues that we deal with and to explore how else these issues could be addressed. It requires us to be willing to step out of our daily tasks and routines, to relook and analyse with others on how to approach these issues in a different manner. We need to move away from the status quo and ask “what if” questions e.g. what if processes were “packaged” in a different way or what if our assumptions about particular human behaviours were wrong. Having a spirit of curiosity would constantly push us to question and to find the answers or new perspectives on the situations we face.

q3

To promote innovative practices, we need to start with developing a spirit of enquiry and learning. The management would play a key role in fostering such a culture by creating an open and supportive environment where employees can share new ideas and initiatives, build upon current ideas and be receptive to collaborate with various stakeholders. Likewise, the management could listen to their employees and take relevant ideas into consideration.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in evidence-based practice where social workers look at best possible evidence to inform them as to what works. Evidence-based practice also requires a spirit of questioning to find “evidence” on whether the current solutions work and if things should be done in a different manner. It is not about throwing away our current processes and programmes but to look at what works, to keep what works and to try new approaches and ways that offer solutions and positive outcomes to our clients’ issues.

Innovation can start in small ways, but goes a long way in growing professionals who would constantly look for new and better ways of addressing social issues.


Happy World Social Work Day!

Know a social worker? Take some time today to show your appreciation to the social workers in our midst!

Supporting those at their most vulnerable

Nancy is currently the Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF’s Office of the Director of Social Welfare. In her time at MSF, Nancy has covered areas of work from policy development to programme implementation for youth-at-risk and youth offenders.

This year, Nancy was awarded the Outstanding Social Worker Award 2016. The Outstanding Social Worker Award is the highest award in the social work profession, presented annually by the President of the Republic of Singapore to recognise the outstanding contributions by dedicated social workers to the social service sector in Singapore.


Reboot, redesign and reform.

For Nancy, these are some key words that come to mind when describing her work. This has led Nancy to advocate for a greater use of technology and innovation to improve areas of work in MSF.

During her time as Chief Probation Officer, Nancy introduced a voice biometric system for time restriction checks of probationers. This system made a marked reduction of physical time restriction checks by the Volunteer Probation Officers.

Supporting those at their most vulnerable

In all her years of service, one incident has clearly stood out in Nancy’s mind. She was then a social work student at the National University of Singapore.

During her field placement, Nancy was faced with a situation where a man was about to jump off the window of his flat.

However, when his 8 year old son was brought into the room by the police officers, the man stepped off from the ledge of the window.

After the scare, Nancy recalled comforting the boy – who was shaking very badly. This episode left such an impact on Nancy that she continues to remember it till this day. 

“Social workers witness the most intimate moments of people’s lives, and I regard that as a privilege,” said Nancy.

Guiding the next generation of social workers

Today, Nancy serves as a senior lecturer to social work students at UniSIM. The degree course at UniSIM is one of two full-time social work programmes in Singapore.

In her current role as Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF, she aims to improve the sector to become efficient and effective, as well as to help the sector be ready for the future.

“Social workers need to go beyond practice to navigate between policy, skills and knowledge to be all-rounders,” added Nancy.

 

 

“If we can help, we will”

14125204_xxlBy Li Li@MSF

As an officer in the Office of the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents (CMP), Li Li conducts conciliation during which she tries to persuade the children to maintain their parents. She also assists the elderly and their family, by referring them to other social or voluntary agencies for support and/or assistance.


 Li Li has lost count of the number of times she has been scolded by the adult children of the elderly she is tasked to help.

As she attempts to persuade these children to support their parents, the common response she gets is: “You’re just an outsider. If you’re the welfare ministry, provide the money then.”

The elderly, who approach her at her Lengkok Bahru office or who are referred to her by MPs, Family Service Centres and Social Service Offices (SSOs), are often those who are unable to support themselves. Hence, they have to struggle to get maintenance from their children.

After interviewing them, Li Li contacts the children to hear their side of the story and possibly, persuade them to support their parents. This step though is often the hardest part of the process – and her job.

In the course of trying to even speak with the children, she has had them bang the table, threaten her, and slam the door in her face when she tried to visit them at home.

“Before joining, I thought it was nice to offer help to people,” Li Li says. “But here, it’s a bit different. You try to intervene, you get scolded kaypoh[1].”

And even when she gains access into these families’ lives, she often finds herself thrown in the middle of a mind-boggling moral dilemma.

She recalls the time when a woman approached her for help after her husband became paralysed and could not work.  The case turned out to be more complicated, however, when she found that the woman was the second wife of the man. The children from his first marriage were unwilling to maintain him because they were angry with him for remarrying.

To add to that, his stepchildren – the woman’s children from her previous marriage – saw no obligation in supporting a stepfather who had not raised them up. Who then, was to be made to support their father?

Then there are the thorny cases she has seen more than once – children who refuse to support their parents because they had been abused by them when they were young. Should she still make the children pay?

Topping it all off are the misconceptions people have of her job and her role.

The elderly think she can help them get their children to support them beyond their basic needs – such as a parent who came to her wanting his child to give him money for airfare – while the children think she sides with the elderly and that she is just here to force them to pay.

Yet, despite the rough times and misconceptions, Li Li continues to strive on, contented with the compelling sense of achievement that she is able to break ground.

As an officer constantly on the ground, Li Li occasionally takes on other responsibilities, such as referring parents and children with their consent to other social or voluntary agencies for other support and/or assistance.

“If we can help, we try to help,” she says.

More than that, it is the satisfaction she gets from watching families reconcile and reconnect, as well as helping the elderly get their maintenance, that keep her on the job.

She recalls the case of an absent father who was remorseful of his past and volunteered at a senior activity centre to make amends. Believing their father was sincere in his efforts to change, his children eventually agreed to maintain him. And to Li Li, witnessing such grace and forgiveness, can sometimes be all that she needs.

[1] Kaypoh: A Singlish term, that can be used to describe a person/an action as nosy or a busybody.