(2011), "Neelam Bhardwaja, Corporate Director for Education and Adult and Children Social Services, Cardiff Council,", International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Vol. 7 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijlps.2011.54707daa.001
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Neelam Bhardwaja, Corporate Director for Education and Adult and Children Social Services, Cardiff Council,
Article Type: Interview From: The International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Volume 7, Issue 4
interviewed by Peter Gilbert
Neelam Bhardwaja has been the Corporate Director for Education and Adult and Children Social Services for Cardiff Council since December 2005. Neelam has social work and management qualifications. She has had a long and varied career having worked in Birmingham City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough City Council and the Borough of Poole.
Neelam was the first Asian woman to be appointed to the post of Corporate Director for Education and Social Services in the UK. She has been featured extensively in the national management and social work media and has been described as an inspirational figure particularly for managers from black and minority ethnic groups.
Neelam was President of Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) Cymru in 2009/2010 and is featured in “Who’s Who”.
Peter Gilbert is a former Director of Social Services for Worcestershire C.C., and holds honorary professorships at the Universities of Worcester and Staffordshire.
PG: What influences have played a part on your leadership role?
NB: To start off it would be my family and their aspirations for both myself and my siblings. Aside of that it is my own life experiences which have really shaped that style because I came to England from India in my early teens, which is quite an impressionable age. My experiences were very mixed, some positive and some not so positive, so I would say that my own personal life experiences have shaped my leadership style and how I conduct myself.
PG: I get the feeling that there is a strong influence from your parents about the importance of education and having a journey to go on – an aspiration
NB: Yes, I think it would have been so easy for me to have fallen by the wayside because, when I came to this country, the compulsory school education age was around 16 and at the age of almost 14, not speaking a word of English, it could have easily taken me out of the education system almost by default. It is really credit to my parents that they had high aspirations and made the necessary arrangements for me to have that extra assistance to bring me up to date in terms of my language skills. Had we stayed in India, I would have done equally well as we had the same aspirations there. Though we moved to England, it did not take away the fact that my family put a great deal of value on education, on aspiration and on doing well.
PG: You went on then to university to do your degree?
NB: I did. I did my first degree in biological sciences specialising in biochemistry at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which I enjoyed very much, but somehow making a career in the field of science did not appeal to me. Interestingly, I also didn’t have a very clear idea of what I really wanted to do; teaching, from my parent’s perspective, being an obvious career. Another dimension for me was, we are now also taking of 25/30 years ago and things were very different in cultural terms, that girls weren’t really expected to leave home until after they were married. After I graduated my opportunities of different careers was somewhat limited in that I couldn’t just go off and find a career somewhere. I was expected to return home do something from the home setting until I got married and, that is how, purely by chance, and my only criteria being to continue with further education, I saw the post of trainee social worker advertised by the local council; and the fact that they would then second you onto a postgraduate course ticked all the boxes. At that stage I didn’t know anything about social work and in Asian communities almost everyone was a social worker in some sense. This was before the days of statutory registration for the use of the social worker title and anybody who was doing good within the community or doing anything for anybody else was considered a social worker. So it was really purely by chance that I fell into this career.
PG: Where did you do your social work degree?
NB: Interestingly, I went back to University of East Anglia because what had happened was when I had seen the advert for the trainee social worker I actually did go and talk to the Director of the Social Work School at UEA Martin Davies, who is the author of The Essential Social Worker, and he told me that as my first degree was not in a related subject, I needed to get some experience and then I would be offered a place on the social work course, and in fact that is exactly what I did. So yes I went back to Norwich and did my CQSW and MA.
PG: Where were you then a trainee Neelam?
NB: I did two years in Birmingham, first year was in a district general hospital in a very upmarket area and then the second year was in an inner city area, which covered Alum Rock, and Washwood Heath. So the latter was very tough place and quite a contrast to my first placement – but a very good training ground.
PG: What would you say your value base as a leader is?
NB: Just the human values that I believe in. I believe in trust, loyalty and being up front and I don’t like working with hidden agendas, I am a very upfront, straightforward, honest person and that is how I operate whether that be in my personal life or my work setting. I feel that gives you a good foundation for conducting the business and that way you can be honest and trust each other, those are my values. I don’t like playing games, I don’t like to say the right thing to the right audience, I say it how it is. I recognise that I am not necessarily always right and have no hesitation in learning and developing.
PG: What leadership mistakes have you made and learned from in the past?
NB: I have made quite a few because one of the big mistakes I made early on was where I thought everybody had the same idea about what we were there for and adhered to the same principles. So often I used to just take short cuts with communication simply because I thought we were all on the same page. At that time what I failed to do was to recognise people’s different learning styles, different values and what was important to them. I made the assumption that because we all worked in the social work department and in one particular team, that we knew what the vision was, we knew what the agenda was, we knew where we wanted to get to and I think that really did get me into a few difficulties in that I would have gone about five miles and there were people who were still somewhere behind still procrastinating as to whether they wanted to go somewhere or not. I like to think that is way, way behind me and I have moved on a great deal. Some of the qualities, which are then important, are that people feel comfortable and confident pointing that out to you. If you are unapproachable, or if you give the impression of knowing it all, then people will never have the confidence and you will be the loser. When staff come to me firstly I don’t necessarily know all the answers. They actually see I am human and following the same processes of trying to understand the issue and that we will work it out together.
PG: Do you think it is important to, when you are leading a service, to have had some experience of the front line of that service?
NB: I would say, to use the personnel terminology, it is not essential but it is desirable. It definitely is a plus and certainly from my own experience being able to quote examples, being able to put the situation in context actually does increase your credibility because it does give staff the confidence that firstly you understand and secondly you have been through it and you know, not only what the task is, but really the emotions, the feelings the context and that can then go a very long way. That is certainly the case in my particular experience when I am dealing with some particularly difficult situation, I can actually talk about the real life examples as if they were yesterday and that really does make a difference, having been held at a knife point; but the interesting thing is again we sometimes hear about these clichés about health and safety gone mad and certainly my experience was where I had been held at a knife point by a mother whose baby I had gone to remove on a place of safety. Having been held for nearly three hours and all I could say to the police was would they please ring my husband to let him know that I am not going to be able to collect our young son from the nursery and could he please do that. The next day, I was back on duty nobody asked me how it all went, what had gone on and I didn’t have to fill in any forms. Because I was holding the baby, and the woman had blocked the door by standing in the doorway, two choices I was left with was either try to get out myself and leave the baby or stay with the baby. I could not entertain the though of leaving the baby at risk and chose to stay.
Another lesson which has really stayed with me is how not to take things for granted. I remember when I was a service manager in another authority where there was a child protection investigation that needed to be conducted and there was no one else available so I offered to go out with the social worker. From my perspective, it was meant to be helpful and that the work needed doing there was no one else available, but afterwards I found out that the social worker felt that she was almost being watched and she was afraid that she might make a mistake or do something wrong. That was quite a solitary lesson that sometimes, even when you think you are being helpful, sensitive, caring from your perspective that it can be perceived in a different way and again that is something that has stayed with me. Now, when I offer to do something or assist somebody I do keep that in mind. When dealing with staff, I just want to make sure I am being helpful and that they are actually perceiving me as being that.
PG: Which leadership achievements have you learnt from?
NB: The first one I would pick up and which subsequently helped me build on things; one of these authorities I worked at, I had a very negative experience as it was almost an entirely white authority and I was the only Asian person at whatever level I was at. I couldn’t recognise it at that time but I suppose now one would term it institutional racism and in that authority the kind of experiences I had was where there really was no leadership from the top when it came to the equalities agenda. I really struggled for a very long time and yet when I moved from that authority I applied for a job where I had beaten three other candidates to be appointed, and there the task was to get the authority out of special measures and four new managers had come in around the same time with that in mind, and I was one of those four key managers. We worked together as a team and developed a great deal of respect and positive interactions with staff, I was no different person from what I had been in my previous authority where I had such negative experience. This new authority was like a breath of fresh air and gave me the freedom and almost allowed me to breath again which I wasn’t even aware of. I think that was the tragedy when I reflect on it. The director in the new authority commented when I had been there only five/six weeks: “Neelam you have really settled down so well as if you had been ready for this post for a long time”. I was there for just under three years, and during that time within two years, we did manage to get the authority out of special measures and the inspectors complemented the senior management team in changing the culture and developing and moving the service on. I think, for me, even though I was three tiers down from where I am now, that really was the start – flying in my career and just leaving the baggage from the past behind. I had been stuck in one authority for 15-16 years and almost looking over my shoulder though not being quite aware of it but that just became the daily grind, and then coming somewhere I was respected for my ability, my style, how I got on, how I worked as part of the team and equally importantly achieved. For me that was my biggest achievement, first making that break and getting out and then making a positive impact.
Within about three years, I was approached to apply for the Poole job which was managing at Head of Service level.
PG: Moving into Cardiff, it must have been quite a challenge for you, breaking several “glass ceilings”: a woman and an Asian woman. There are still very few people from ethnic minorities in senior roles in the public service
NB: Thinking back to my experience in Poole, to be honest with you, Peter, I have never gone for jobs in any specific areas I have really gone after the job itself. In Poole, the ethnic minority population is about 0.8 per cent and I have sort of jokingly said to friends look there are weeks and weeks when the only Asian face I see staring back at me is my own reflection in the mirror! Even when you are out and about, although Poole is a beautiful place, lovely seaside town, but not where there is a great deal of diversity. I am how I am, so people know it’s a two-way relationship and it needs to be built on trust and honesty right from the start and I suppose that is how I saw coming to Cardiff, I’d read a lot about Cardiff and knew about the issues, I knew about the difficulties that the service had been facing and the retention problems at a senior level and I suppose I did have the confidence, and although I’d spent two years in Poole, which was rated as good a two star authority, but from my experience in Peterborough, which was in special measures and had required a lot of work, I felt that that experience had stood me in good stead to come to Cardiff. It is also all credit to the recruitment process and elected members, though on paper I perhaps didn’t bring as much experience at senior level but perhaps they could see the potential and what I had already achieved and was capable of achieving. Equally, I would like to think that I have lived up to that expectation.
PG: Did you feel there were difficulties being a member of an ethnic minority coming into a senior position within a council?
NB: Absolutely not. I have quite a healthy positive self-image and, though it seems strange to say, I never think of myself as from a minority ethnic group. I think of myself as “Neelam” and everything that goes with that, so I suppose to me I like to see myself as a person who gets places on their own ability, qualifications, experience and merit. I can appreciate that that wouldn’t be other peoples perception, may be when I first walk into the room what they see is an Asian woman walking through the door, but I suppose when they start interacting with me and talking to me perhaps they forget my ethnicity and what they see is a consummate professional who is passionate about things who believes in doing the best in terms of public service and delivering good reputation for the employer and I would like to think that very soon after starting to interact with me they relate to me as a person and human being and not as someone from a minority ethnic group. I suppose because I don’t have that mind set that is probably why, when I was having various difficulties in one authority, I didn’t recognise the racist elements. What brought it home to me was that we had a management development day and it was around equality agenda. He showed a very telling video. There were no people and it was called The Story of X. There were six or seven noughts and one X and X was trying to be part of noughts and it didn’t matter how this X transformed itself it never could be a nought. That kind of really brought it home to me. When the video finished, I could actually see what was going on, I was the only black team manager in the whole of group of eight or nine people and when the trainer asked of other people if they could relate to this or if they had been in that situation, the only thing they could say was oh when we had been on holiday to foreign countries, but the difference there was after their two week holidays, they could come back whereas someone like X had it all the time and then this trainer said something very provocative and he said I’m really grateful to you and I want to say thank you to you for having Neelam in your team and making her feel welcome and then he stopped. Then there was silence and nobody uttered a word. The sort of person I said I’m sorry I just want to challenge you there I thought I was in this team on my own merit, because I was appointed to the post and I was successful in that, and not because these people chose to have me. The trainer challenged the team as to why it was me who had to make this point and not any of them.
PG: What book would you recommend that leaders in public services read and why?
NB: Even though it was published some years ago, The Seven Habits of Successful People, by Stephen Covey is still my bible because I think we all need not a whole crowd or rush of things, but just some key competences PG: and those key competences, those habits those principles appeal to you particularly? NB: They do and I suppose for a good experienced manager those things become inherent and not something you have to pull out from an article or a book. In your early years, one is learning from books and then later in your career you are developing and building on your knowledge and skills in the light of experiences and may be discarding what doesn’t work and I suppose more and more which I could never have done in my early days starting out as a manager, but I actually do step back and challenge myself and talk to myself if I’ve been particularly harsh with someone. Okay you felt like that at that moment in time but that wasn’t very clever, that sort of reflective thinking.
PG: Which leaders in public services do you admire and why or one example of a leader?
NB: Putting aside politics, Golda Meir. I used to admire her a great deal as I was growing up and I suppose it was something about a woman in a man’s world, holding her own, talking tough but also being able to achieve. I have read about the Middle East politics. I might not agree with all the politics, which is why I said leaving aside the politics or the context, but really as a leadership character, as a role model, I would say Golda Meir, in my formative years, left a mark on me.
PG: This is a very demanding job you’ve got at the moment isn’t it, managing children’s services including education and adult services, how do you encompass all those roles. It is probably the most challenging role in the local authority this one?
NB: Actually people say that to me and I think sometimes am I doing something wrong, because it is a big job but I really do enjoy it and I’d like to think that people who do see me on a day to day basis or who interact with me see that too. I suppose that has been my life philosophy that I really don’t find anything tough, that I don’t find anything stressful that I do take things in my stride and I do whatever needs doing. This is where just having that very healthy attitude of not worrying about things and this is where past experience that when I face difficulties I’ve always got over them and that is why when you are dealing with others or a difficult media situation or a difficult political situation or child protection or commissioning whatever I can actually look back and know that everything comes to pass and it is not half as bad as when you are in the middle of it and that is the worst time to get panicky so it is best to keep on following your normal procedures, keeping calm, finding your way through and you will get over it and tomorrow will be another day. That kind of experience and confidence of having had quite a lot of experience of dealing with difficult things and coming through. I’ve been in saturation media coverage for three weeks at a time talking about various issues, but I see them all as part of the job and I have never hidden behind anything. I am very upfront even when there are very difficult things to tackle I tackle them and I talk about them and deal with them and I just hope that is a good example to my staff as well, that they feel supported that when the chips are really down they don’t feel abandoned, they know I am actually leading from the front or I am alongside them. Whether that’s at a very difficult scrutiny meeting or media situation they know that I speak on their behalf and, as long as we have done things correctly, I will support them. But, even if we have made some genuine mistakes, we will apologies and we will put it right for next time. That is what really keeps me sane, that kind of philosophy and mindset that I don’t get worked up and I don’t get worried, I don’t lose my temper, I don’t shout, just Calm.
PG: You were President of ADSS Cymru for a year. Were there different leadership qualities that you needed to demonstrate in that?
NB: Yes. I did get good grounding because I was Vice President for a year before taking on the Presidency. As the president, I was speaking on behalf 22 Directors of Social Services so I needed to make sure that if there was anything which was not in the ordinary sense of every day business that I actually did discuss it with some colleagues, I got consensus so I was speaking on behalf of the organisation so nobody could actually take exception or say hold on that might be her perspective but that is not all of us behaving in that way so I think it had to be much more really being in touch with your colleagues and, where ever possible, sometimes you had media requests to give an interview on various situations at very short notice. Because a lot of my interviews were about serious case reviews being published or some other situation breaking out in any particular authority, what I then did do was talk to that particular director beforehand and say I’d been approached to do this interview and make sure that I cleared the line with them or I was making a very general statement as a professional rather than a comment on a specific situation. If I am dealing with Cardiff matters, fine I will talk to the chief officer, I will talk to my executive member but that is it. Whereas when I was President or I was interacting with the Deputy Minister for Social Services or I was talking to Civil Servants, I had to make sure I was in tune and in touch with the general opinion around the country before I spoke, more politically aware and really making sure I wasn’t saying or doing anything which was then going to hold the organisation almost at ransom. We needed to make sure we kept in touch, we were with the times, equally if that meant changing, evolving in the challenging political and policy context then we were responding to that too. Being able to communicate confidently, sensitively and effectively at the national level was very important.
PG: What can public sector and private sector learn from each other do you think?
NB: One of the main things that the private sector can learn is first that there probably aren’t as many differences now, because public sector has come a long way. A very recent example I had last year, Sir Digby Jones spoke at a local university and talked about, in a stereotypical way, about the public sector and how much waste there was and there were a number of people in the room who I thought might have gone and challenged him. When nobody did I went and spoke to him at the end of the meeting and his comment was that, well I know full well that public sector isn’t like that any more but I like to say it anyway as that is still the stereotypical image of the public sector. I suggested to him that next time he makes a similar statement, he should also provide the clarification about the current situation. I supposed the public sector has come a long way in terms of streamlining, transforming, looking at its cost, looking at staffing levels so we are learning those values and we have already encompassed some of the private sector values in our working and I suppose the private sector could now learn some of the values about community service, treating people as individuals, respect because I know that there are still some places where people could lose their job at a weeks notice, so I think some of the human side and those values of respect and individuality the private sector could learn from the public sector.
PG: Just a couple of key challenges for public sector leaders over the next few years?
NB: I think it is how to really keep some of our humane values in the face of financial challenges, budget cuts, litigation culture emerging and obviously now the recent issues about riots and what does that say about society because what we shouldn’t be doing is really jumping into quick solutions and labels, so now is the time when we really do need to reinforce those values about the human spirit and helping each other and really the partnership between the communities and the public sector as we still cannot be in the business of doing things to people. We have got to work with communities, we have to enable them and empower them and that means all section of the communities, not just community leaders and those people who shout the loudest or come forward, but really all sections of the community.