Staff engagement is the key to unlocking great talent

It’s now the morning after the night before, so I can finally let you in on an exciting secret – something that we at the RCVS have been working towards for quite a while, that I have suspected all along, but that we haven’t been allowed to tell anyone:

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
is a great place to work!

And in case you’re thinking, “Well, he would said that, wouldn’t he?”, you shouldn’t just take my word for it.

In fact, having been presented with 30th place at a special gala evening for the UK’s best workplaces last night, it’s now officially official. But 30th place is a long way from 1st, so we have a lot more to do!

The winning team (Photo credit: Carmen  Valino)

The winning team. Plans to introduce ‘Dress Up Friday’ are under serious consideration… (Photo credit: Carmen Valino)

The Great Place to Work (GPtW) Institute is a global research, consulting and training firm that helps organisations identify, create and sustain great workplaces through the development of high-trust workplace cultures. It describes its clients as those organisations that wish to maintain Best Workplace environments, those that are ready to dramatically improve the culture within their workplaces, and those in between the two.

As part of my day-one commitment to make staff engagement a key priority, we have been working with GPtW for the past couple of years, undertaking an annual survey of the whole team to gauge opinions, satisfaction levels and suggestions for improvement. The programme considers areas like teamwork, work environment, innovation, well-being, recognition, organisational culture and how we manage and develop talent. It also enables us to benchmark ourselves against similar-sized organisations, which has the potential for uncomfortable reading from a CEO’s perspective, and leaves little place to hide!

One of my biggest initial challenges was convincing College staff and Council that I was serious about staff engagement; that this was neither a flash in the pan, nor was it going to be easy. And so the early results showed.

An initial staff engagement exercise in autumn 2012, just two months after I started, illustrated that there was much work to do. Morale seemed low, and certain individuals on both the Council and staff were exhibiting poor behaviour that was having a significantly negative effect on the whole team. We took immediate action by outlining the expected new behaviours and attitudes to staff, and instituting a ‘new deal’ with our Council with mutual respect and a ‘one-team’ concept at its heart. A burning platform is often critical for rapid action!

A year later, our first GPtW survey revealed that, on average, 52% of staff felt that the RCVS was a great place to work. This was encouraging, but there was clearly plenty of room for further improvement.

We listened, we acted and we continued to deliver on the promise to make staff engagement our number one priority. We tore up the rule book and asked our staff to write it afresh, making sure that their motivations and their ideas were heard and acted upon. It was staff, aided by managers, who led the turnaround and my job as CEO was to unleash the talent and bring down the barriers preventing positive change.

When we conducted the GPtW survey for a second time, in autumn 2014, the results were remarkable. On average, 91% of the team now felt that Belgravia House was a great place to work, and there were 30-40% improvements across many of the key areas listed above.

Apart from being delighted at this upturn, I was very surprised at just how quickly the transformation had taken place. The GPtW Institute confirmed that there is often a bigger jump in scores in year two, because if improvements continue to be made in all aspects of the workplace, then staff are more inclined to believe change is here to stay.

GPtW award and Guardian supplement

Our award with today’s Guardian supplement – possibly the first time we’ve been called this since 1844

Now, before anyone might be tempted to accuse us of self-congratulatory back-slapping, I consider the whole process to be one of enlightened self interest. Simply put, a highly motivated and energised workforce, focused on doing its best, will improve the quality of our service to the public and the veterinary profession.

There is now a definite buzz about the place, and people are receptive to new ideas and ways of doing things. This has allowed us to set out an ambitious programme of change and reform so that we can become a truly first-rate regulator. We feel more confident, not only at an organisational level, but also on an individual basis in terms of showing initiative and going that extra mile. This has been reinforced by the incredibly positive feedback we have had from the public and the veterinary profession.

To illustrate this, I’ll finish with a quick story…

A little while ago I was contacted by a friend and founder of a great leadership company called Wavelength, to help a senior director at Apple in Silicon Valley to find a family with whom she was a nanny for some 30 years ago. The link to me was that the father of the child she looked after was a vet.

I forwarded the email to our registration team, who managed to locate the wife of the vet, the obituary of the now deceased vet and the location of the son. What’s more, the team then spent time on the phone with the wife of the vet and, as a result, the family and the former nanny have now spent many hours on skype and email, reunited.

The Apple director could not believe we would go to such lengths to help her and said to me that Apple had a thing or two to learn from us about being a great place to work. I should add, that this all happened during one of our busiest weeks of the registration year.

Above all, it is this human touch, going beyond what is expected of us, that makes the RCVS a great place to work. I don’t profess to be particularly religious but I was lucky enough many years ago to meet Mother Teresa in Calcutta and she once said (not to me though!) ‘be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.’

It is in these small non-scripted acts where we see the strength of our culture.