The Priority to Combat Staff Turnover in Social Services: Leadership Development

Posted on September 13, 2022 by Jeff Edwards

Welcome back to the second part in a two-part series on combating staff turnover in social services. Previously we talked about the budget dilemmas that typically put the least experienced and least paid staff on the frontlines, spending most of their time with the clients. Moreover, the heavy toll often inflicted on frontline social service workers means turnover is a common recurrence. If you work in social services, then you've seen this play out time and time again. If you find yourself an administrator in social services, you know it's a problem that is not easy to solve. Taking lessons from military service, I'm going to submit to you that small unit participatory leadership must focus on leadership development in social services. Only here can you infuse the necessary experience and leadership to ensure turnover does not harm client outcomes. So let's jump right in. 

Learn the Lessons of Leadership and Gallantry

When you take a brief survey of military recipients of the Medal of Honor, you'll notice a recurring theme. Namely, you don't see a good number of high ranking officers in the mix. Certainly, there are some, but by and large, you will see lower-ranking enlisted men and junior officers as the norm. That's because actions that require inexplicable gallantry occur on the frontlines rather than in the rear with the gear. So it is for social services and the inexplicable fortitude that is required to tackle some of our nation's most pressing human services problems. 

Every nonprofit executive or board is heavily involved in the strategic planning process, but very few will spend the majority of their time on the frontline. This is right and appropriate as both the executive and board serve very specific functions. However, for the strategic plan to become a reality in terms of client outcomes, an organization must be dedicated to creating a talented core of small unit leaders that are both empowered and accountable. Once again, let's a look at the military for some guidance. 

If You Can't Beat High Turnover, then Control the Ground Game.

Though it varies by service branch, reenlistment rates in the United States military can vary between 26% to 47%, based on a recent 2008 study. What that means is that approximately 74% to 53% of the military workforce is done after their first contract, which typically ranges from 4 to 6 years. Meaning that just when a military service member really knows what they are doing, they are gone only to be replaced by the next generation of inexperienced workers. Does that sound familiar to anyone in social services?

What the military does with a thorough understanding that they will constantly be staffed with new and inexperienced recruits is that they emphasize the development of noncommissioned officers and staff noncommissioned officers. These enlisted men and women are the backbone of military leadership. NCOs and SNCOs are not leaders in name only. They are empowered to make life and death decisions for those who serve under them, and they are held accountable for their performance. This is the formula that wins wars, and this is the formula that could win the war on the numerous social problems facing our nation. 

Participatory Leadership That Is Empowered and Accountable

Organizations that invest in the development of small unit leaders will find that the strategic plan will materialize more accurately on the frontlines. To my fellow nonprofit executives, I hate to burst your bubble, but those staff speeches we all like to give don't quite get it done. Either you have leaders on the ground who will deliver, or you do not. You can, however, be the decision-maker who commits your social service organization to develop those small unit leaders. 

Personally, I worked for an incredible nonprofit organization for many years, and we did things well. However, we never were able to solve the frontline staff turnover problem. The grueling nature of working with troubled kids on the frontlines was just too much, and we were always going to lose large numbers of staff, just like the military was still going to lose those young men and women after their first contract. 

My organization did, however, commit to developing young small unit leaders. Perhaps that's one reason why I did so well, as it seemed so familiar to my military leadership experience. However, those small unit leaders are typically young themselves, and you have to be committed to their development. 

In Conclusion 

In my current role as a nonprofit executive, I was working to develop such a small unit leader when he said, "I'm sorry to ask you this question as I know I'm not getting paid to learn all this leadership stuff from you." That's when I stopped him and told him that he is specifically being paid to learn this leadership "stuff." The bottom line is that I need small unit leaders in place if I am going to make our strategic plan a reality. So do you. 

In the gritty world that is social services, turnover is always going to be a struggle. However, outcomes do not have to suffer. As leaders and executives, we must be committed to developing the small unit leader on the frontline as much as we are committed to developing the next executive to take our place. The military does this well as they realize that combat is often very unkind to the second-place finisher. If we believe our work to transform lives and society is equally as serious, we will do well to develop frontline leaders who are up for the task.