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From AD to DCS: 8 Top Tips for Securing Your First DCS Role

by Chris Barrow


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Senior leaders in children’s services have some of the most important roles in the country. They all strive towards a common aim: that all children, regardless of background and circumstance, can access quality education to make the best start in life and that the most vulnerable are protected. They are deeply motivated by and connected to the work they do, and as a result, they tend to prioritise their work over their own career ambitions. As individuals progress up the ranks of senior management, they are often faced with familiar questions and barriers. This is no more evident than at the Assistant Director level, where there is an understandable nervousness that a DCS role would take them too far away from practice, coupled with the increase in scrutiny and pressure it brings. More Assistant Directors than ever in the sector view the prospect of becoming a DCS as a leap into the wilderness rather than the logical next step in their career. 

Deciding whether a DCS position is for you is a big decision and shouldn’t be rushed; it’s a unique role and isn’t for everyone. Many DCSs describe it as a lonely and isolated role at times, and recent years have seen an increased turnover rate. That being said, there are also a number of benefits. The role allows you to not just operate within but also shape the wider system in which you operate. This enables you to have a greater impact on services, not just within Children’s but across the Council, bringing positive change to the lives of children, young people, and their families. Moreover, while it can be a solitary role at times, there has been a consistent trend over the last 5–10 years of senior teams moving away from traditional ‘fiefdoms’ of responsibility towards true collaborative CLTs who see both challenges and opportunities through a Council-wide lens.

As recruiters, it is our job to work with you in partnership to truly understand you as an individual—your career ambitions, your doubts, and your drivers. To ask the important questions - if not you, then who? Local government Children’s Services are facing a cliff edge of senior leadership capacity, and it is the responsibility of everyone connected to the sector, including us, to encourage and develop the leaders of the future. 

Here are my top tips for making the step up to DCS. 

1. Think through your decision 

As I’ve noted, this decision is not one to rush, and, aside from the natural doubts everyone has, you should feel ready for the next step. Think about why you’re considering your next role, what you want from it, and why that matters to you. Utilise your networks, particularly those who have made or are looking to make the transition from AD to Director, and ask for their honest opinion and advice. Equally, don’t just ask those you’re closest to; use it as an opportunity to expand your network and get a broad range of views and opinions, as people will have had different experiences.

2. Seize opportunities in your current organisation.

It is important to evaluate your current role and where it sits within the organisation. Some of the key things Councils look for in an AD looking to step up are their ability to: work across the Council and be a corporate player; operate as a systems leader working strategically with key partners; work with elected members and be politically astute; and galvanise a workforce under significant pressure to achieve positive outcomes for children and families. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it is worthwhile thinking through some of these key areas and identifying where your strengths lie and, importantly, where your gaps are. Speak with your current DCS and Chief Executive to see where you can broaden your experience and professional development, whether that be by gaining more exposure to working with elected Members or becoming involved in cross-Council initiatives and systems work with key partners. 

Jane McSherry, who gained her first DCS job in Merton, believes this was vital for her being able to make the step up: "Proactively asking my DCS and Chief Executive at the time to do things outside of the day job that fed into the wider corporate agenda was key for me developing as a senior leader and securing the role. I asked to be more engaged in the health space and became increasingly involved in our work around the ICS transitions with colleagues from across the Council and our health partners. It’s all about being able to demonstrate in an interview that you can operate as a systems leader as well as a leader within the Council."

3. Consider getting a coach or mentor.

Having an external coach or mentor who has operated at this level is invaluable to making the step up. They are experts in the field who know the role inside out and have coached numerous people to get there too. Aside from the broader leadership piece, I would highly recommend specific coaching around honing your interview technique, which is an art in itself! Several coaches from my own network also work as technical assessors for senior hires and have been on both sides of Member interviews, so they have a detailed understanding of what’s expected at each stage as well as the potential pitfalls. With margins between candidates often being very small, this can make a real and tangible difference to your chances of success. 

4. Leadership programmes 

Being part of a bespoke leadership programme such as the Upon Aspirant Directors Programme, run by the Staff College, can be a great way to not only develop the skills and knowledge needed to make the transition to DCS, but also connect with like-minded people from across the country and broaden your understanding of national best practice. Regional leadership programmes such as the London Leadership Programme (LLP) are also a great way to learn corporate leadership skills and expand your network. 

5. Network, network, network

A Leadership programme is a perfect opportunity to broaden your network, but there are a number of other ways to link into the wider Children’s community. Engaging with ADCS and attending their annual conference is one great way to do so, as is attending other key events on the calendar, such as the annual NCAS Conference. With busy day jobs, networking with others can often fall by the wayside, but it is vital and can open up hidden opportunities. Forming strong, trusted relationships with key recruiters in the sector is also paramount to ensuring they have intimate knowledge of how you operate and where you could flourish, so no opportunity is missed.

6. Targeted approach to your search 

DCS roles can vary considerably, and before you even start your search it is worth thinking about a range of factors that make up each: the size of the authority; the stability of their CLT; their current Ofsted performance; their preference for either a social care or education background; and their approach to hybrid working to name just a few. Knowledge is power, so really utilise your network, particularly anyone who works, or has worked, in that Council or with the Chief Executive, other members of the CLT or the Children’s SLT. If there’s an option to have an initial conversation with either current DCS and/or recruitment partner to get under the skin of the role and organisation then seize it. Ask what the Members (particularly the Lead Member) are like to work with, and the importance they place on Children’s Services. This is also sometimes evident in the various corporate strategies and Overview and Scrutiny reports which are publicly available online. Equally, there should hopefully be the opportunity to speak with the Chief Executive which is a must. The relationship between the DCS and the Chief Executive is absolutely crucial, and this can help you decide whether the opportunity is right for you. Don’t be afraid to ask the recruitment consultant for support throughout, whether that be looking through a draft CV and supporting statement, interview advice, or asking for reasonable adjustments to be made to the recruitment process for a disability. This is what we’re here for. 

7. Tailor your application 

Tailoring your application and doing your homework on the role and the organisation are vitally important. Have those early conversations with the recruitment partner, the Chief executive, and your wider network before even starting to put your application together, ensuring you ask the crucial killer questions to get under the skin of what they are truly looking for. Read through the Council’s key strategic documents, such as their Corporate Plan, CYP Plan, and Ofsted reports, and play back some of the key messages, as well as offering your own thoughts and views. Include examples of where you have covered the DCSs responsibilities to help demonstrate that you are ready to take the next step. Likewise, any cross-Council or cross-organisational initiatives with other local authorities or partners demonstrate your ability to operate as a collaborative systems leader. Ensure you include metrics throughout your CV and supporting statement to help quantify your responsibilities and achievements, and that your motivation for both the role and the authority is front and centre. The application is your opportunity to really ‘sell’ your experience and frame why them, why you, and why now. 

8. Don’t be discouraged and ask for feedback!

Being successful in a DCS role is not easy, and more often than not, you will be up against serving Directors. So don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t happen immediately! Most DCSs will tell you it took them several attempts and that going through those processes helped them grow and develop into the leaders they are today. And last, but certainly not least, if you are going through a recruitment process, make sure you ask for detailed, honest, and constructive feedback at each stage, as you can’t work on what you don’t know.

My colleague Yasin Din recently organised a roundtable, hosted alongside Jill Colbert OBE, discussing this very topic of Leadership Development and Practice Improvement for future Directors of Children's Services. Yasin will be sharing more of the learnings from this session in the coming weeks.   

If you would like a further discussion about stepping up to the Director of Children’s Services role and/or coaching opportunities, then please get in touch using the details on my profile.

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