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MENTOR - GETTING IN WITH THE IN CROWD

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Just as penguins huddle together for warmth, joining a professional organisation has real benefits, says Claire Sen...
Just as penguins huddle together for warmth, joining a professional organisation has real benefits, says Claire Seneviratna

Whether you are the chief executive of a multi-national or a window cleaner, you can almost guarantee you will be courted by an organisation which professes to represent your interests in return for exclusive benefits.

Known loosely as professional organisations, they are a burgeoning phenomena in the world of employment, attaching themselves limpet-like to every profession, specialism and position you can think of.

But can these organisations ever be anything more than trumped-up talking shops, providing a comforting clique that has as much to do with soothing egos as career enhancement?

David Clark, director general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, says: 'We can offer direct support to our members in terms of their professional development. The analogy I use is with penguins who huddle together to keep warm. In a way that is what we encourage our members to do - cuddle together because it can be cold out there.'

Strength in numbers is certainly a selling point. Faced by never-ending government initiatives and policy announcements, officers often look to their professional association to give them a steer on what their reaction should be to the latest missive.

Chris Waterman, executive director of the Confederation of Children's Services Managers, says: 'Within three days of the publication of the Education Bill we had two pages on our e-bulletin advising members on Confed's position. This can save members a lot of time and worry about how they should respond, particularly when as public servants they are accountable for their actions.'

When journalists issue blanket requests to councils for information under the Freedom of Information Act, professional associations can be vital in advising members whether they need to respond or not.

In an extension of its comfort blanket role, Solace even provided press office support to then chief executive of Lincolnshire CC, David Bowles, last year, after he was ousted after blowing the whistle on leader Jim Speechley. Similarly, in 2003, Solace provided media support to Jim Brooks, chief executive at Kingston upon Hull City Council, when he became embroiled in a dispute with his employers.

Mr Clark says: 'Because both men had council press office support withdrawn during their disputes, we stepped in to give them advice and backup so they could represent their position. The support we offer can extend even to that personal level.'

The talking shop criticism is often levelled against associations but is strongly rejected by Julie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services.

'That phrase implies that we simply talk to ourselves, which is completely untrue.

'We are constantly involved in discussions and negotiations with government departments and partner agencies about various issues and legislation. Although a large number of our members are directors of children's services, members of more education-oriented organisations can share joint membership, ensuring we are exposed to other viewpoints.'

Organisations can also offer tangible benefits when it comes to career progression.

'We work hard at breaking down barriers and making sure we are open to all echelons of the profession,' says Mr Waterman. 'So even if you are not a senior manager, you can still rub shoulders with people in more senior positions.'

For aspiring leaders, Solace is just as welcoming, with 40% of their 1,500 members non-chief executives.

Mr Clark says: 'There is no apartheid in this organisation. Anyone who reports to a chief executive can become a full member, they don't even have to make do with affiliate member status. We have started accepting people on graduate schemes. For them, it is all about receiving mentoring from serving chief executives.'

Ms Jones adds: 'Benefits to members include contact with policy developments and the associated politics at the highest levels, being able to share the burdens of office with peers, taking back and enriching their own councils through the lessons learned and the contacts made as well as the benefits of making good friends in busy networks.

'In so far as all the above can give directors insights into the wider context in which social care works, it can only enhance their prospects.'

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