We’ve just grown and I mean grown! When we took on a contract from Bristol City Council nine months ago to run its youth services we tripled the number of young people we are working with (to about 9,000) and took on 60 new staff, adding over a third to our team. These are some reflections on the growth process and five things I have learned.
1. Keep your service users at the heart of all your decisions
Most of the new staff were TUPEd over in all areas of the organisation from youth work to finance, admin and operations. It was a huge undertaking with lots of moving parts. It is easy to get lost in the legality of employment contracts, working times, systems and pay. But on a number of occasions, we had to remind ourselves and ask our staff to put young people first. Safeguarding had to be central, as we took on young people who were being supported under the previous service provider. Along with a range of other projects, it meant working different hours and supporting new sessions – without that flexibility young people would have lost out.
2. Planning the handover is vital and pays huge dividends
If the transfer is smooth everything works better from the start. We had about three months to prepare. We planned the transition well with good inductions and team-building for all staff. Everything was ready on the first day, from the visionary introduction to passes, laptops, workspaces and line management. We then went through the obligatory restructure (forced by the reduction in funding from the previous contract) interviewing 100 people in three days (including existing and new staff as we restructured to meet the contract needs), and making some tough decisions along the way. By preparing well everyone got off to a smooth start which meant team members had more patience with the problems when they arose.
3. It’s the little things that matter to people
IT that works, knowing where to find the paperwork, getting to know your co-workers, knowing where you are working and where the toilets are. Happy staff make for a better service.
4. Be honest and open, don’t sugar coat difficult conversations – it will only build resentment. Hear the difficult comments and be willing to change course
You naturally want everyone to feel welcome and safe in their new jobs. You also want to reassure your existing team that they can carry on. Secure staff do a better job. But on occasion, by trying to keep everyone happy, we didn’t make it 100% clear that the restructure we were planning because of the financial cut from the old service to the new would affect everyone. When people are concerned about their role they often don’t hear your message of change the first time. We learned that only by repeating the message that ‘change was coming’ did staff begin to understand and engage with the process. Being honest gives your staff the best basis on which to decide what they want to do and how. In return they will be honest with you, and that allows you to plan better for the change.
5. The upheaval will last far longer than you think – be prepared
Three months in and we were flying! We had done a good job – lots of hard work but the feedback from staff had been positive. The consultants packed their bags, we were hitting our targets and all was well.
But the old adage of teams forming, storming, norming and performing held true. A few months in and the storming started. The caseloads of young people were putting pressure on all staff, the IT systems (provided by the council) have not been working properly, there was confusion about matrix management and staff continued to leave in numbers that felt uncomfortable. This was the real bump – this is when the change really hit and we are still working hard to come through it.
In fact, it is fair to say that nine months on we are only really coming to terms with the changes now. Bit by bit, we are working through the systems that need to change.
All of this adds up to my favourite phrase – culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture largely comes from the top and as CEOs we are responsible for being open, honest and fair. The thing that sees us through all the hard times is a positive attitude, hard work and being open to change.