Debbie Sorkin


Currently National Director of Systems Leadership at The Leadership Centre, Debbie has been Director and non-executive Board member and has experience including at CEO level across social care, health, housing and planning. Her particular expertise lies in strategic planning and implementation; leadership development at all levels and developing networks and partnerships. Leading on national level engagement of social care and other sectors with systems leadership, Debbie's aim in to embed systems leadership in the wider system of health, care and well-being, in line with government policy.

One of the greatest pleasures of being in a particular field for a number of years is you get to know about it, and feel you have something useful to say. In my case, it's leadership - both within and across organisations - with a focus on health and social care.

Jo Cleary was Chair when I became Chief Executive of the Skills Academy. She was excellent; supportive and exacting in equal measure. Without realising it, I was being coached into the role. I was Chief Exec anyway, but became a much better one thanks to her.

You communicate best by doing. Bill Mumford, the former CEO of MacIntyre and now CEO of a hospice says, "People don't experience our values, they experience our behaviours." If you're in a leadership role everyone is watching what you do in practice and calibrating their behaviour accordingly. Where you get that sense of disconnect in public services it is generally when values are not acted out consistently in practice.

Clarity is the characteristic that most marks out a leader. Clarity of thought and values. The two complement each other so where they come together to feed the culture of the organisation they bring recognisable consistency and strength. Clarity also means having the insight to know when you don't know, and the courage to say so.

Howard Wilkinson once said the only certainty of being a football manager was that at some point you would be sacked. I increasingly get the sense that public services leaders, and not just at the top level, are set up to fail. There is  no countervailing intelligence that acknowledges difficulties, allows that the individuals facing them may be the best people to deal with them, or supports individuals or organsations to learn.


To someone going into leadership today I would say model the behaviours you want to see in the people you lead. And let them lead too. You don't have to do everything, and in fact it will be much better if you don't. Also, get a coach,  join an action learning set and where possible undertake professional development with people from different professional backgrounds to you so you can see what its like to walk in other people's shoes.

The best advice I ever ignored in my career was "You know nothing about communicating, Debbie: leave it to the marketing professionals."

I put my success partly down to luck. People don't always acknowledge this enough. I was in the right place - the Skills Academy, and on the Systems Leadership Steering Group -  at the right time. Also, I have an ability to listen; an ability to think; and an ability to describe. I can talk about things in a way that makes them clear to other people and leaves them with a sense of "Yes, I can do this."

More ideas emanate from front line staff than you'll ever find in a strategic plan or framework. Every time I go out to talk about systems leadership I draw on Myron Rogers' ideas around living systems, I reference social movements and public narrative, and I'll always signpost people to Sue Goss' long article 'A View from the Bridge'. I suspect that the best ideas are the ones that come almost instantly. You can see they are the right thing to do straightaway.

Inspiring others is about giving meaning and recognition. Painting a picture not only of what we do, but why we do it, and showing people why their role is important in this no matter what they do. Its not about being loud or charismatic in the traditional sense. Whilst both have 'wow' factor it doesn't last because its not attached to anything meaningful.

I'm increasingly concerned that public service leaders' careers are derailed not by a behaviour or trait so much as being in the wrong place at the wrong time or, for some bizarre reason, being unable to square a circle.

The role of leaders in complex situations is to ask questions. There is nothing weak about asking for help and inviting as many people as you can get to help you. And I speak as one who finds it VERY difficult to ask for help.

I like running. There's something about the mindlessness of it after a day when your mind's been going at full tilt that brings you back into balance. That and the last movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto. It has a real sense of "Stuff you" to it, and is completely joyous. Its impossible not to feel cheerier by the end of it, even after the most challenging of days.

My legacy? Easier access to better leadership, and stronger links between health and social care. Other than that, I would like to be remembered as a good sister and an aunt who listened.