People First HR Services

Finding right direction Social service agency treats employess with same care as clients

John McFerran

New Directions is one of this community’s greatest success stories, even if it is not yet as widely recognized as it was under its former name, Children’s Home of Winnipeg. With a rich history dating back to 1885 when the railway was being built and Winnipeg was a boomtown of 16,000 citizens, the organization was Western Canada’s first “refuge for homeless, destitute and neglected children.”

“We’re proud to be celebrating our 125th year as the largest and oldest social service agency in Winnipeg,” says executive director Dr. Jennifer Frain. “In 1996, our name changed from Children’s Home to New Directions for Children, Youth, Adults and Families to better reflect our growth and how diverse we have become.”

Diverse is an understatement, given the number of far-reaching care programs that New Directions provides in the community including: family therapy, treatment counselling, youth training resources, supported apartment living and shift-staff residential care. In its disability branch alone, there are five programs each ranging in the intensity of support it provides.

New Directions has 630 full- and part-time workers, including nearly 300 casual support workers and hundreds of foster parents. According to Frain, it is the can-do attitude of the people behind the organization that supports its ongoing evolution and innovation.

“When we answer the phone, our inclination is not to say no, it’s to say, ‘Hmm… how can we make that happen?'” Frain says. “We do our best to figure out what we would need to put a program into place, what kind of staffing it would require and what kind of dollars it would take to provide quality care to the individual in need.”

Q: How do you ensure the “right fit” when hiring people to work at New Directions?

A: It can be a terrible thing to hire the wrong person, both for them and for you, so we’ve become better at clearly communicating all expectations at the start. We’ve had job candidates tell us we spend a great deal of interview time talking about ourselves and that’s a good thing. We don’t want to hoodwink anybody coming here; they need to know exactly who they’re going to work for and we need to make sure they’re okay doing the required work.

For example, we are very tolerant and accepting of people’s choices, meaning we do not want employees who believe they know better than our participants. They are not here to direct or oversee them, but to be guides who walk alongside them. If one of our adult participants chooses to go out for the evening, they are their own decision maker. We are not here to judge nor shut them down. But we can help them come up with a plan to get home safely and responsibly. Same thing if someone wants a pet. Will their apartment allow pets? How will they care for it? Our role is to assist without being invasive. This is why we look for skilled workers who are empathetic and at the same time, understand how marginalization affects people’s choices.

Q: Because of the nature of their work, how do you ensure your people avoid burnout?

A: Although we do see some burnout from time to time, I’m pleased to say we have fairly low turnover. This is likely because we’re conscious of staying in touch with where people are at. The kind of work we do necessitates close supervision and staff support, so every two weeks, our people meet with their supervisors to debrief, to vent, to troubleshoot and to talk about what’s bothering them. It’s important we take their temperature at least every two weeks, but if something’s running hot, we’ll ensure those meetings happen more frequently. In addition, we offer robust employee assistance programs and also offer compassion fatigue training sessions.

Q: Employees are usually attracted to social services because the work is rewarding, not because the pay is great. As an employer, what do you offer to compensate?

A: We try to make up for it by providing a flexible work environment and a respectful workplace. New Directions’ vision statement is “A community where all people have well-being, are honoured and can dream,” which is not only about the way we provide services and programs, it’s about how we treat our employees. In order to work with integrity and respect with participants, we must work with integrity and respect with each other. One of our most cherished values is to focus on all aspects of the individual — the emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual, environmental and cultural — and this is reflected in the way we honour our employees. Whether they want to start a family, continue their education or advance their career, we take a holistic view to recognize and respond to their diverse needs as they go through life. It’s important that we support staff in ways that are consistent with our vision, mission and values.

Q: What element of your people programs would you say still needs to be improved?

A: Everyone here is on a “circle of learning.” They’ll start by learning about their job and the agency and how their program fits within the agency. But one of the things on the circle that has been challenging is job shadowing. It’s been a challenge to create an information flow between case managers or clinicians in different programs. Although they have similar roles, the work they’re doing is quite different so there would be benefit in learning from each other. It would also help support new employees. New Directions has a richness of available resources, but it’s a bit happenstance in terms of what you know coming in to this agency. Although we try to educate everyone with program presentations and updates, new staff may not realize that the specialized help they’re seeking already exists here. There’s just so much information, so many staff and so much going on, it’s hard to expect someone to stay on top of it all. Job shadowing would help.

Q: What books have you read that have challenged or championed your leadership style?

A: To be honest, unless I’m on holidays, I’d rather read articles than a book. That may be because I’m still warped by my thinking in graduate school that it was too sinful to indulge in a book that could distract me from my PhD. So I subscribe to the Harvard Business Review, which I find has some great leadership insight. One article that particularly struck me was on the jobs that a CEO should never delegate. That list included being hands-on with hiring. To me, being involved with hiring is hugely important and fortunately, it’s something that I genuinely like doing.

Q: Speaking of hiring, what traits do you look for in your future leaders?

A: They must have passion and energy; secondly, they have to like managing risk or be able to tolerate it well. Given the sheer size of our organization, they can’t be a micromanager but at the same time, need to be comfortable with building teams and confident in delegating and identifying problems. That’s a biggie. Sometimes, promoting people and moving them from “buddy to boss” where they must suddenly supervise their colleagues can create issues. That’s why we train our supervisors to build conflict-resolution skills, deal with defensive employees and manage the transition to becoming a manager that holds people accountable.

Lastly, our leaders need to be good at multitasking. The thing I love about my job is that it uses every part of me — all my abilities, strengths and training. That fits in with our accommodating attitude around here. Because we rarely say “we can’t do it” but “how can we do it?” it keeps us very busy. I certainly don’t get bored; in fact, I haven’t been bored in nine years.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is founder and vice-president of executive recruiting with People First HR Services Ltd. For more information, visit

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2010 I1