The People Who Inspire series highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s Post features Nick Berbiers, Social Care Interim Manager and Consultant at Neist Point Limited in the United Kingdom. Nick also serves as an expert panelist at SWSCMedia (Social Work and Social Care Media): a knowledge community of practice that brings Social Work and Social Care practitioners, organisations, academics, researchers, students, policy makers, users of service and other allied professionals, stakeholders or enthusiasts and interested parties together, to discuss issues, innovations, opportunities, dilemmas and challenges as well as relevant developments in relation to Social Work and/or Social Care.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
A long story short. It is the late 1970’s, the final years of school, and I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do as a career. I was edging towards the idea of university followed by journalism, but was not that certain: I mention that as writing resurfaces again later in the story.
It is also perhaps worth observing that during my teenage years at school I was also in a band and highly politically engaged. They are not supposed to sound separate and distinct because at that point in the UK they were not. This was the period of punk and of organisations like Rock Against Racism (which was essentially a coming together of British punk and reggae artists and black and white youth to do what it said on the tin: get rid of racism. And the Anti-Nazi League, which was formed to fight the rise of Right Wing political parties (if one can give them the credibility of calling them that) like the National Front. I was heavily involved in those and forever on marches, at rallies, and at political concerts.
If I can be permitted a slight deviation into history here, I do think that was a fantastically important and dynamic period in UK social history, that tends to get airbrushed-out these days if only because it did not last that long: though transience is not the only reason (read England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage if you would like to know more about it). There was something happening then that synthesised music, politics and youth culture into a very powerful force aligned and related to what was similarly going in New York say in the same period with Afrika Bambaataa, Universal Zulu Nation, et al: and indeed many other places.
It all lives on in many ways that can still be discerned, and yet equally all got rather lost within the inevitable dilution of commercialism and conventionalism. That is a tragedy. Both here in the UK and in the States we could have done more, we could have gone further. I’m glad that musical pathways were opened up that were not there before. I’m glad musical and artistic opportunities were created for disaffected and disempowered young people of all races. And I’m glad something – even if it was a pinprick – was done to challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, fascism, and other forms of oppression. But in the end we let the music and art win and the politics dissipate at the very point when it was gaining a head of steam and some momentum. We should have kept all the plates spinning. I’m still waiting for that powerful synthesis to begin again. Unfortunately, so far, it’s been a thirty plus year wait. It’s a job for the young. Come on The Young. We’re waiting. I’ll be there when the call comes.
But I digress.
Back towards the end of school period, I then happened (by dint of fate or karma) to meet someone who worked in residential child care. Her describing her work to me lit a bulb, and so I went to college and trained in residential social work then worked as an RSW in a special school for five years. I then qualified in field social work, and subsequently worked as children and families’ social worker, a fostering officer, a leaving care manager, children and families team manager, and a senior social work manager. Those were all permanent posts, but at that point, about twelve years ago, I felt I would like the variety of interim management and consultancy and so formed a company to do so. And I have been doing that ever since.
I primarily work in children’s social care and have increasingly tended towards change and improvement management and consultancy, with what I suppose could be called a managerial specialism in child protection improvement: though I am always a bit dubious of people who call themselves experts or specialists in that specific area of work as I do not think anyone can ever know enough to be ‘an expert’ – an experienced learner would be a far better term.
So for anyone not familiar with interim management or consultancy, it means that I either fill a senior management role in the organisation (usually a local authority) for a period to achieve specific aims and outcomes, or work alongside managers and practitioners as a consultant to advise and assist them.
And just to go right back to the beginning, I am myself an adoptee and was a young carer. I have no idea to what extent that played or plays a role as a motivator. I can only say it is a part of my life experience and thus part of who I am, and inevitably it gives me some empathy with and understanding of the experiences of the young people and their families with whom I work.
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
There is a danger that this will sound passé and bland, but at the risk of that, it’s ALL about social justice and equity. I hope it is visible as a motivator, a driver, and an aspiration in my management and consultancy work, my writing, my involvement in SWSCMedia, my advocacy work, my political engagement, my social engagement, my parenting, how I vote, how I treat people. Everything.
That is all about people, and rightly so, but I will also take the opportunity not to leave our neighbours and co inhabitants of the planet the animals out of the equation. We have not only fucked up our on domain for ourselves, we have given even less thought to the fact that we have spoiled it for them too. And just to add salt to the wound – or cosmetics in the eye – we as a species have a grotesque record of abuse and neglect toward other species that reviles me beyond words.
If there are any all-powerful beings who decide to bring in a verdict on our species one day that will be high on the charge sheet. I do what I can, and we can all do more.
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
At this point it is change and improvement management in children’s services: and as strange as it sounds, the more difficult, challenging, complex, and demanding the better. I find that type of work stimulating, satisfying, engaging, and rewarding. I am very results and outcomes orientated, and thus that work fits with and utilises what I regard as my strengths. Know what you are good at and be that is my philosophy.
I also really enjoy working with people. I am usually managing large staff groups comprising students, practitioners and managers, and I get a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from assisting and supporting those colleagues to develop and improve individual and organisational practice, systems and services. That then translates into the quality and efficacy of the work that colleagues bring to their work with children and families, which is the whole raison d’être for doing the work I do. It is highly motivating and inspiring.
I mentioned my interest in journalism all those years ago, and interestingly over recent years that has returned full measure with a drive to write. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to be published as a writer on social work and social care subjects subsequently, and now even get asked to write things – which I find astonishing and entirely unexpected as I don’t really think I’m all that good at it.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoy’ writing – I actually find it quite a hateful process – though sometimes I enjoy the end result. And I do like having ‘a voice’ in the way that published writing or blogs affords: not as a manifestation of hubris, but because I want to contribute to the discourse.
What aspects do you find challenging?
Having been an interim manager and consultant for twelve years or so, there have been – and inevitably always will be – gaps between assignments; sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes very long. That I find very frustrating and end up getting very bored if the hiatus is too lengthy. It’s like anything episodic, acting say, when one just has to sit and wait for the next role. So I write, I cook, garden, go for long walks, smoke too much, glug far too many cups of tea and coffee, and very quickly end up praying to the gods of social work that the bloody phone will ring!
When I am out there doing the work, I do not find it too personally challenging: no doubt because I have quite a lot of mileage on the clock and am very used to the work, the stresses, and the demands. What can be challenging in the specific type of change and improvement management I do, is firstly containing and managing very high levels of risk – such as when services have failed and there have been child fatalities – whilst working on returning services to safe and functional operational status (which takes time), but in the meantime ensuring there are no further critical incidents. That is not an easy phase – it is complex and challenging in many senses. And secondly, whilst I quite understand the imperative, it is not the easiest thing in the world having politicians wanting 100% change and improvement immediately: not by next week or next month, but NOW. It is a little trying, but it goes with the territory.
What/Who Inspires you?
Many people – so in no order whatsoever:
My parents. My children. Innumerable young people and their families and carers that I’ve worked with. Innumerable colleagues I’ve worked with. Dr King. Robert Kennedy. Miles Davis. The Sex Pistols. President Nixon. My animals (or put more accurately, I’m their human). The Clash. The 1966 England World Cup team. Claudia Megele and all my SWSCMedia colleagues. The Rolling Stones. Barbara Castle. Nye Bevan. Karma. Malcolm X. Chris Wright (my History teacher and housemaster at school). Jennie Lee. Muhammad Ali. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Who. Dr Kissinger. Zen. Our host Relando.
That is only a fraction of the full list. A few of those may seem contradictory, but hey, life is long and people are interesting. Inspiration can be evoked in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. And equally I can also be inspired as a reaction to negative things I see or hear.
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
I don’t actually measure my work in ‘success’ terms. I believe in continuous improvement and so any contribution I might make is only a part of the continuum and not an end in itself. It is, by definition, an endless journey.
I try to make a very purposeful and positive contribution to whatever it is I’m doing, to the very best of my ability, and having completed that I journey on to the next thing. I’m never satisfied, and I do not experience it as having ‘succeeded’ because that’s conclusive. I do my upmost to achieve and preferably exceed the requirements and expected outcomes of the task at hand, and in doing so have, I hope, contributed to positive developments and progressive evolution for individuals, groups, teams, and services – and thus ultimately service users. But the moment I foolishly think that I have succeeded, I will clearly have outlived my usefulness and will most certainly retire to keep bees in Devon like Sherlock Holmes.
Are there any special projects you’re working on currently?
1. I write regularly for publication and for blogs on social work issues, mainly, but not exclusively relating to children’s social care services.
2. I frequently engage (usually uninvited, sometimes invited) with governments and sector organisations to raise ideas, make proposals, and advocate on various issues. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they do not.
3. I am passionate about the development and introduction of service-user led outcome measures, and I frequently undertake all manner of activities in relation to trying to move that forwards.
4. I am an Expert Panel Member for SWSCMedia. I regard it as a hugely significant and important organisation for the development of new and innovative forms of e-learning, the support of students and practitioners, and continuous improvement and development in social work and social care generally. I intend to participate and contribute with my excellent colleagues for many decades to come as it grows and evolves in ever more interesting and influential ways.
Also, I am senior children’s services interim manager and consultant for hire, who could be off doing an assignment for a day, a week, months or years, at the drop of a hat. I never know when the phone will ring or what the assignment will be. I am therefore in a perpetual state of readiness.
Is there anything Else you’d like to add?
I would like to thank Relando very much for inviting me to participate in this series. I was very honoured to be asked. I hope there are sometimes things I do that inspire in ways for good, though a combination of English reticence, protestant work ethic, and the genuine self-criticism that I can always do better in everything, makes me feel very undeserving of the epithet.
Grace & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW
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