It’s nice when a plan comes together…

The front page of Veterinary Times on 1 June bore the headline ‘Staff back RCVS as great workplace’. This reflected our coming 30th in the top 100 Best Workplace Awards (medium-sized category), run by the Great Place to Work Institute , beating the likes of Coca Cola, Office Angels and General Mills. [See my previous blog for details.]

This was pleasing news in itself, but it was also particularly great to see that headline in print, because one of the exercises carried out back in 2013, as we put together our 2014-16 Strategic Plan, was imagining the headlines we would like to see on the front page of the vet press in three years’ time: the RCVS being a great place to work was one of them.

Clarity of vision

The moral of this story is that when you have a specific goal in mind, and especially when you can articulate and visualise how it might look in print, it has a much greater chance of being met.

This is why our Strategic Plan is full of very specific goals, which were developed out of a process that involved staff, Council and, through the First Rate Regulator Project, the profession and public at large. Some organisations shy away from specific objectives – it’s too easy to be called on them if they are not met. But plans without bite are inevitably left on the shelf to gather dust.

And so I would like to reassure you that, 18 months into our current three-year plan, we have either met, or are on target to meet, the majority of our objectives. The list of actions yet to be tackled is manageable, and one which we may yet add to before 2016 is out.

Complaints progress

But don’t just take my word for it. In addition to the excellent headline in the Veterinary Times, a further testimonial to our hard work could be seen in the Veterinary Record recently (30 May 2015).

Here, veterinary surgeon John Dinsdale was kind enough to praise our Professional Conduct team, specifically highlighting the positive changes that have been made in our concerns-handling process and improvements in communications. This work has been part of our Strategic Plan objective to ‘reduce the time it takes for a complaint to be concluded in a fair and transparent manner’. Mr Dinsdale also commented positively on our trial of an alternative dispute resolution process (ADR), another of our Strategic Plan objectives.

A third piece of recent external validation came in the form of the independent Chair of our Audit and Risk Committee, Liz Butler, giving our current IT projects, which include an upgrade of our database, a new online Practice Standards system and a new IT system for our Professional Conduct work, a clean bill of health.

You can find a full update on our Strategic Plan progress in my CEO Update to Council, available online as part of the June Council paper bundle.

We will soon be starting the process of developing our 2017-19 Strategic Plan, and I will continue to push for sharp, meaningful objectives of the kind that you can sum up in a positive headline. Of course, by being specific you could set yourself up to fail, but it is better to fail to reach a stretching goal than meet a feeble one. Of course, to set yourself stretching goals and meet them is even better!

Finally, following our very successful journey to Edinburgh the other day to hold the first RCVS Council meeting outside London in living memory, here’s a quick video update outlining the main discussions and decisions from the day…

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.

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.

Avoiding tunnel vision

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium might seem a strange choice of venue for a recent staff ‘away day’ to discuss how to build a winning team, considering the club itself hasn’t troubled the local silversmiths since 2005, but at least there was plenty of space for everyone to congregate in the trophy room.

Cheap digs at the Gunners aside, I had wanted to take the staff away from their normal working environment for a day of brainstorming and fresh thinking about how we can improve as an organisation. I’m keen to sharpen our organisational focus, without narrowing it, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with how the day turned out.

From the outset, the external facilitator, Matt White, invited us all to ‘lean in’ both literally and metaphorically, as he took us through a whole serious of exercises, debates, and presentations to look at our vision, values and purpose. Focusing very much on our service agenda and strategic direction, I was delighted with the range and quality of ideas emanating from my colleagues, regardless of whether they were a new recruit, or had been working for the RCVS for many years. These are now being fed into a draft strategic plan, for further consideration by our Senior Team, followed by the Operational Board in July and, of course, Council at a special meeting in September.

Topping off all the hard work with a fascinating tour of the stadium itself, it was, all in all, a very interesting, successful and productive day. Worth a quick tunnel celebration, wouldn’t you say…?

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In other news…

I had a meeting with the Chief Veterinary Officer for Scotland, Sheila Voas, to talk about the implications of Scottish independence on the work of the RCVS.  If next year’s referendum does result in Scotland leaving the UK, then we have agreed to work closely with the Scottish Government on a transition towards a new and independent body in Scotland.

I was also pleased to catch up with Duncan Rudkin, my counterpart at the General Pharmaceutical Council, which is the regulator that has now separated from its Royal College. This meeting was timely, as it preceded a recent round table session of our Legislation Working Party (including representatives of the BVA, its divisions and the BVNA) to look at RCVS activities that are synonymous with the work of Royal Colleges, as opposed to those more readily associated with regulation. 

I was really pleased by the quality and constructive nature of the discussions, especially as we were tackling some complex and thorny issues relating to the future of the organisation. There was a strong consensus that the RCVS should not seek to split its Royal College and regulatory functions and that our regulatory role would be complemented by pursuing ‘Royal College’-type activities that focus on raising standards.

The working party will meet again in September to develop a draft strategy for expanding our Royal College role, and this will likely be the topic of an afternoon debate in RCVS Council later this year.

Finally, if you haven’t already, I would urge you to take a look at our recently published annual report, which presents a comprehensive overview of our activities over the past 12 months. To increase the appeal of a traditionally turgid publication, we have this year, for the first time, produced a video version of RCVS Review to complement the usual printed publication.

I was interviewed from the top of Belgravia House for my bit. From tunneller to roofer in the space of a fortnight!

(You wait weeks for a blog update, then two come along all at once. Watch out for ‘A month of celebration!’ – coming soon…)