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.

A little speech therapy at RCVS Day

I’ll shortly be battling my way through London’s unforgiving rush hour towards the calm Edwardian surroundings of One Great George Street in Westminster, a fittingly grand venue for us to host our AGM and welcome around 240 guests to our annual awards ceremony.

One Great George Street

A look inside One Great George Street

This will be only my second ‘RCVS Day’, but if it’s as enjoyable as last year, then, together with the invited veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, their guests, Council members and my colleagues, I have much to look forward to over the next few hours.

I’m conscious that only a fraction of the profession are ever able to attend this important celebratory event, not least as it’s always on a ‘school day’, but I’m pleased to report that we will be producing a short video of the proceedings, as well as plenty of photos and the usual reports and minutes, so there should be ample opportunity to catch up.

I’ll also be making a short speech, which I thought I’d give you a sneak preview of here on my blog (see below). I’ve tried to encapsulate the significant progress we have made, and continue to make, at the College, without going into reams of detail. In my view, the shorter the speech, the better it’s received, so I hope this hits the right note a little later today!

Some of the business of the day will include the presentation of our annual report and financial statements for adoption by members, and a vote on a motion to submit a new Royal Charter to the Privy Council for approval, which would be the first in almost 50 years.

Perhaps most importantly though, RCVS Day provides us with the perfect opportunity to celebrate the very best of the UK veterinary profession – veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses alike – and give due recognition for the many veterinary accomplishments and achievements that so often go unsung.

Rush hour aside, it’s going to be a good day.

 

My speech…

It is a great pleasure to be here once again among the good and the great from the veterinary world.

This is a day for speeches, but this one won’t be long. I just want to update you on what we have achieved and what more there is to do.

Last year I talked about the First Rate Regulator initiative, a massive engagement programme with the profession, public and stakeholders. It led to the strategic plan, a programme of work to improve what we do and how we do it.

Just six months in to the plan I’m delighted to say we have achieved a great deal:

  • A new Charter heading fast towards the Privy Council;
  • Ambitious plans to reduce the time it takes to process complaints;
  • Mid way through an overhaul of our IT infrastructure;
  • In November we will trial of a new consumer complaints service;
  • A new status of ‘Advanced Practitioner’ – with applications opening in September;
  • Next year we will have a new Practice Standards Scheme and the transition to an independent disciplinary function will be complete;
  • And the charity partner of the RCVS, RCVS Knowledge is going great guns – a clear purpose and mandate for EBVM and a fabulous new Chair in Jacqui Molyneux.

A lot to be proud of and real momentum for change and improvement.

In addition we have listened and responded to fair criticism from the profession including a very productive evidence gathering session on 24/7 emergency care, which has resulted in important changes.

I believe listening and responding is a sign of strength and confidence. We do not seek to be popular but to be sensible in how we regulate and respectful in how we carry out our Royal College duties.

I continue to visit practices and other places where vets and VNs work every week and will be delighted to accept invitations from any of you to see the work that you and your teams are doing.

One of the areas that I am most excited about is how we are unleashing the talents of our team at the RCVS. In the last year we have been able to promote from within, we have a greater focus on training and development and our levels of staff engagement are increasing significantly.

It is not self serving to say these things, but critical to the service we provide and the success we can have as a Royal College that regulates.

I see our role as a force for good, contributing to the profession being world leading, supporting some of the best veterinary practitioners in the world, doing everything we can to ensure the public feels properly protected when things go wrong.

We are honest about our strengths and weaknesses and determined to be the best we can be. Thank you for your support in helping us on this journey.

A quick update about Council…

Trying to condense into four minutes a full day’s RCVS Council meeting involving over 40 people who have considered around 1,000 pages of documentation is quite a challenge, to say the least, but I’ve given it my best shot in this brief video update.

If you would like to read more detail about any of the topics I’ve mentioned, please use the links that appear at the bottom of the screen (or you can click on the ones below).

Receiving you loud and clear

When I joined the RCVS back in September 2012, I was at pains to point out the enormous value to an organisation of listening first and acting second. Indeed, the opening line of my first CEO update in RCVS News (November 2012) read:

‘When you arrive in an organisation, particularly when you are CEO, it is important to listen to your customers, to your staff and to your instincts. It is also important to amass evidence of what is good and what needs to change.’ (Page 9)

Naturally, I still stand by this. The first-rate regulator (FRR) initiative that I launched at Council that November was, above all, a comprehensive exercise in listening: listening to veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, listening to animal owners, listening to RCVS Council members and staff, and listening to our stakeholders. We wanted to build on the good things we were doing and, where we fell short, challenge ourselves to be better.

I was delighted with the reaction to this initiative, especially the 5,000 or so responses we received from vets and VNs. Since then, we have invested a considerable amount of time and effort in evaluating and analysing the feedback we received, culminating in the publication of our ambitious strategic plan 12 months later.

I also said from the outset that we would be open and transparent about our plans and activities and that, where we made mistakes (which I predicted we would), we would be open and honest about them. And so we have been.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Bernard M. Baruch

The profession’s reaction to aspects of the Disciplinary Committee’s decision in the Chikosi case was significant, and it was clear to me that we needed to tackle these concerns head on. Whilst fully supporting the DC’s overall decision, the Operational Board subsequently issued a clarification about a particularly contentious issue, and our Standards Committee has since undertaken a full and extensive consultation exercise on the provision of 24-hour emergency veterinary cover, the recommendations from which will be submitted to Council in June.

More recently, we have come under pretty intense scrutiny for our decision to remove members’ postgraduate postnominals from the Register in order to make things easier for the public to understand. Seeing as Council approved this decision back in 2012, after a full consultation on specialisation during 2011, I have to admit that the sudden intensity of feeling that erupted just a couple of weeks ago rather caught us by surprise! Nevertheless, rather than burying our head in the sand, we listened to the concerns voiced by the profession and decided that there may be alternative solutions that are more acceptable to all involved. The Operational Board has therefore asked Council to review its 2012 decision at its June meeting.

Man burying head in sand
Rather than burying our head in the sand, we listened to the concerns voiced by the profession and decided that there may be alternative solutions more acceptable to all involved

Now, these specific topics have attracted acute interest amongst the profession, culminating in a rapid mobilisation of numerous individuals expressing their opinion via social media and online petitions, as well as more traditional methods such as email, letters to the College and the press, and face-to-face conversations. (I’m all for this, incidentally, although I wouldn’t want there to be a referendum every time the College makes a decision!) So why is it, that when the same people are also asked to take a little time out to decide who should be in charge of making these decisions in the first place, the metaphorical tumbleweed blows into town?

Just 4,137 veterinary surgeons and 1,157 veterinary nurses voted in this year’s Councils elections, representing a mere 16.1% and 10% of the two professions, respectively (and a fall in both turnouts compared to last year). Obviously, my thanks to those who took the trouble to vote, but to the 31,974 veterinary professionals who didn’t, I would like to ask, why not?

We have been repeatedly reminded of late that our communications need to be a two-way process, that we need to engage more closely with the professions and to listen, not just speak. I wholeheartedly endorse this approach, but, equally, I would maintain that vets and nurses have a professional responsibility to keep in touch, to respond, to get involved and, of course, to vote! You lose the moral authority to complain about the College if you essentially do your utmost to ignore everything it does and says.

So, why not start straight away? We have just launched another consultation on the future direction of our highest award – the RCVS Fellowship – and would welcome your input. Alternatively, and as I have said from my first day in Belgravia House, you can raise any issues with me directly via nick@rcvs.org.uk.

I can’t promise that I will agree with you, but I will always listen to what you have to say.

Old friends and new beginnings

I shall be catching up with an old friend over a quick bite to eat later this week, although she won’t thank me for the description, so best keep it to yourself.

Baroness Greengross – septuagenarian independent cross-bench Peer and Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission – was also one of my first bosses, back when I was not long out of College and working at Age Concern (now Age UK).

As is often the case with first bosses, she made quite an impression on me. “If you can’t bring an organisation around to your way of thinking,” the then Director General used to tell me with typical forthrightness, “start a new organisation!”

It’s certainly bold, and I can sometimes appreciate the sentiment behind it. Don’t worry, I’m not about to do that, yet!

In fact, if anything, I prefer a more collaborative approach. Such has been my main motivation behind the first-rate regulator initiative, which has sought to be as inclusive as possible, gleaning ideas, input and best intentions for the College’s future vision and purpose from across the veterinary and veterinary nursing professions, the animal-owning public and RCVS Council and staff.

The results of this work are rapidly taking shape, with a new draft strategic plan for the College discussed in detail at a full-day Council workshop in September.

Providing a framework for the next three years, the plan recognises the wisdom of John F Kennedy when he said “efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”. Clarity of purpose and vision alongside a focused plan of action are vital components to any successful organisation, old or new.

John F Kennedy ((Image courtesy White House Press Office (WHPO) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

John F Kennedy: efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction

With this very much in mind, we have identified five main areas around which to develop plans for improvement, namely: our identity, our service, our infrastructure and foundations, relentless delivery on our core functions and how we can develop our leadership role within the profession.

I was delighted with Council’s response to the latest draft, and the remarkable degree of support they have given it to date. Subject to any final changes, I will ask Council to approve the strategic plan at their November meeting, after which work will start on our operational plan for 2014. I look forward to being able to share the full details with you soon.

The October Committee meetings, together with VN Council, got under way this week, and it’s a pleasure to welcome a number of new RCVS and VN Council members to the team. Newly elected VN Council member Amy Robinson attended her first meeting yesterday, along with new lay members Sue Proctor, Dominic Dyer and Alison Carr, and I shall be showing new RCVS Council members Tom Witte and Kit Sturgess around the building and introducing them to colleagues later this week.

The opportunity to have a good look around Belgravia House is not reserved to just Council members, though. We have one of our ‘Meet the RCVS’ days next week and another planned for early next year, so if you would like to come along and find out more about what we do, please drop a line to our Events Manager, Fiona Harcourt on f.harcourt@rcvs.org.uk. You will be very welcome.

In addition, we are holding a special Meet the RCVS day for those thinking of standing for election to RCVS or VN Council on 10 December. Again, contact Fiona for more information.

Similarly welcome, but having to sing rather louder for his supper as a guest speaker at Belgravia House next week, will be David Smith, Human Resources Director at Asda when the company rose from virtual bankruptcy in the late 90s to number two in the UK supermarket league and number one best place to work.

Having lunchtime guest speakers every couple of months is a staff initiative and one I’m all too happy to support. I hope listening to the experiences of someone like David will help provide the encouragement and generate the enthusiasm we are all bound to need when embarking together on the College’s new beginnings.

Around Council in a few minutes – a video update

We’ve had three Council meetings and an RCVS Charitable Trust Board meeting this week – some 15 hours in total – and I, for one, am ready for the weekend! There has been a lot to discuss, though, and some exciting changes are underway.

Council has adopted the recommendations of the First Rate Regulator initiative, there’s good news about retention fees again, the appointments to the new veterinary and veterinary nursing disciplinary committees have been approved, and there has been some very positive discussion about the future of the Practice Standards Scheme.

Here’s a quick round up from me, this time in spoken form…

As ever, if you would like to contact me about anything I’ve mentioned here, or anything else to do with the RCVS, please do drop me a line (nick@rcvs.org.uk).

Out and about, out of hours

Staring down at a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with acute chocolate poisoning at 11.30pm in Edinburgh the other night, I felt like I was really experiencing the sharp end of veterinary practice.

I’d been invited to witness the delights and challenges of out-of-hours emergency veterinary work by RCVS Council Member Amanda Boag, and spent the evening criss-crossing the south of Scotland visiting practices in Glasgow and Edinburgh to see what sort of cases came in. Fortunately, Mischa was treated quickly, and was ultimately none the worse for her misadventure, despite having consumed ten times the toxic level of chocolate! The commitment of the hardworking vets and vet nurses who I met really was quite extraordinary.

Whilst north of the border, I also took the opportunity to visit the Dick Vet (for the uninitiated, as I was, this is Edinburgh University’s vet school, founded by William Dick in 1823) and now have an even better insight into the amazing facilities available to undergraduates there, and the education they receive.

The necessary financing for such facilities is possible due in no small part to the sterling efforts of the School’s first head of finance, Mary Dick (William’s elder sister), which continues to translate into significant funds: £100m over the last five years and £150m over the next ten, to be precise. You’d think she might look slightly happier about her accomplishments…

Mary Dick

Mary Dick – financing a vet school is no laughing matter

I had an excellent meeting with Head of School, David Argyle, too. Amongst other things, we discussed the one health initiative (the vets and medics in Edinburgh work very closely together), the need for veterinary leadership both nationally and globally and his  inspirational views on what he calls the ‘need for a renaissance within the vet profession’. My thanks to David for his valuable time.

Staying north, I was then joined by my fellow Officers and colleagues for our Regional Question Time meeting in Durham. This turned out to be a successful evening with over 40 delegates coming armed with plenty of lively questions to keep us alert for nearly three hours! We discussed everything from out-of-hours cover (I’m now an expert, you understand) to the first-rate regulator initiative, from day-one competencies of new graduates to the struggles of being a small practice in tough economic times.

Like I said in Durham, meetings like this are a great way to meet members of the veterinary team, hear their views and try to answer their questions. It’s not always possible to get out and about, though, so please feel free to contact me at any time either via this blog or by email (nick@rcvs.org.uk). Whilst I might not always agree, I will always listen!

Of course, while I was out on the road, work continued apace back at the ranch with the team  busy writing to all the MPs picked in the Private Members Ballot to encourage them to support our call for new legislation to protect the title ‘veterinary nurse’, and to introduce an effective VN regulatory system.

Like I said at the time, there is widespread support amongst the public and profession for such legislation, and the nation’s animals and owners deserve better than the current situation. We have had a Bill drafted by leading Counsel and are prepared to offer significant support to any MP willing to pick up this worthy cause.

The last leg of my recent travels has actually involved a few rare days’ holiday – the first I have taken since taking up the CEO post back in September and a very welcome break! With a very important Council meeting coming up this week, together with some intensive workshops on shaping the future of the College and the Practice Standards Scheme, its good to return to office feeling refreshed and ready to face the next challenge!