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Interview

Think Salvation Army and it’s the mall at Christmas, as a brass band gives a peerless rendition of Silent Night, as shoppers rush past to their next purchase. But what many don’t realise is, the Salvation Army is dealing with the worst kinds of human tragedy – across more than 130 countries – from slavery and people trafficking, to addiction and homelessness, working on a myriad of levels, quietly, stoically, humbly.

Jo tell us about your early life and how you found the career path into HR.  

I studied English literature at the University of Gloucestershire, with ambitions for a career in publishing; the aim was to be a magazine editor. But what underpinned my academic studies was voluntary work and, during the course of my time at university, my aspirations began to move towards a career in the charity sector. But back then, there weren’t really any graduate opportunities in the sector and so I applied for a number of graduate management places and successfully gained a placement in the Financial Services Sector at Endsleigh Insurance, in Cheltenham. This really was a reality check as I was one of 3000 applicants, and I was the “token female” at the final assessment centre because, I was told, graduates “kept on going off and having babies”. But I must have done something right as the token female ended up gaining the role! So, an “interesting time” in financial services in the nineties, but it taught me an awful lot about management and I was determined to turn tokenism into merit.

 

One aspect of the role that I really took an interest in was training and I became a residential course tutor for the graduate programmes up in Burnley, as well as managing a team. I was there five years, and continued with volunteering, and decided that the third sector was where my heart belonged. I applied for a job with Mencap, where my role was to start the first family advisory service in the country, working with education, health and social services to support families, when first going through diagnosis with a child with learning disability whether that was at birth or slightly later on in childhood. The service went from strength to strength and it gained full funding from the local authority.

 

Building on my background in training I took on the role of National Training Strategy Manager and particularly focused on the further development of national opportunities for accredited training for volunteers and people with a learning disability. This was the Blair Labour Government era, and there was a lot of funding in volunteering, and so I saw a real opportunity to invest in infrastructure and really maximize our volunteer framework. I met with the then CEO, Dame Jo Williams, with a plan to transform our infrastructure, both optimising our volunteer network, as a part of our workforce, and to improve further the platform to support opportunities for people with a learning disability. I gained the go ahead from the CEO to pitch a business plan to our board of trustees, which not only gained approval and funding from our trustees, but they even asked me if I wanted more investment, something that was unheard of! The trust of my CEO and the faith placed in me by my board of trustees really boosted my confidence and was a game changer for my career. With the support of a talented team and a strong infrastructure we were able to attract significant external funding of over one million pounds and work closely with the cabinet office, to encourage diversity of volunteers including those with a learning disability, young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The impact was not only organisational, but formed a broader basis of how to work with volunteers across the sector, and continues to this day. I worked closely with Ministers for the third sector during this time, including Ed Miliband, and I was invited to chair one of the key committees around the future of volunteering, looking at an Access to Volunteering Fund, similar to Access to Work, and how to support people with a disability into volunteering locally.

Tell us about your next career move.  

I was approached by Guide Dogs for the Blind to be Head of Volunteering – a similar remit – building an infrastructure. Again, many thousands of volunteers, from fundraisers to puppy walkers and another fantastic charity improving lives and supporting people. Working on the premise that it ain’t broke don’t fix it, I introduced a similar set up, building the infrastructure, looking at how we reward, support and engage people, and introducing a much more person-centric approach, both for employees and volunteers. Of course, there was no lack of people wanting to volunteer working with our amazing puppies and dogs, but not many roles to directly support people who were blind or partially sighted. So, we brought in a pilot programme, trialling a new way of working, a service called My Guide – training volunteers as sighted guides and matching them with a person who is blind or partially sighted, enabling them to leave their homes, often for the first time since losing their sight.

What are the main challenges of managing volunteers who are working alongside salaried colleagues?  

My approach has always been to treat it as a whole workforce. People don’t come into the third sector for financial reward alone and there are a variety of motivations across salaried staff and volunteers. All are individuals and flourish when treated in a person-centred way, which ultimately means the best support for the people utilising our services. So, in terms of the people strategy, it must encompass everybody across the wider workforce, empowering and valuing people, but also having a commercial mindset – optimising performance and efficiencies is as important as it is in mainstream businesses.

The charity sector has been rocked by some atrocious stories recently, what do you think led to that, poor corporate governance?  

We have all watched this with a great deal of concern, and I think all organisations in the sector need to take the Government-commissioned report very seriously, and not think “well this could never happen to us”. We need to look at the cultures of our organisations and ensure they are not a breeding ground for unacceptable behaviour and poor practice. Within the report there are recommendations that must be adopted, including having really effective processes and systems, something that is at the very core of HR, and a building block to a healthy culture. We need to constantly sense check the way we work to ensure we are supporting people to the highest standards, and using all forms of business intelligence; data, metrics and engagement surveys, to monitor areas where issues may be emerging, and provide proactive interventions before they become problems. All this needs to happen within a transparent, well-communicated and regularly reviewed way. I’m a passionate believer of making HR very accessible, because when policies confuse and frustrate, that’s when people side-step them.

What happened next in your life and career?  

Well, a significant part of the story I haven’t mentioned during this time was raising three children for seven years as a single mum. That’s why I’m so passionate about supporting people with their families. I was incredibly fortunate to have a great leadership team who supported me throughout and opportunities for promotion and progression, even when I was working part-time, I definitely could not have carried on with a career without that support. Of all aspirations, if I can do my bit to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to make the choice between career and family that will be a great achievement. I remarried and now have six children, and I’m a massive advocate for men and women equally, to be able to take time out to look after their family and continue with their careers, as I did.

And yet progress for parity is crunchingly slow. It's hard to believe that women are still being paid less than men to do the same job.  

There needs to be bravery to carry on kicking away at the hill, there needs to be more women on boards, because equality will only be achieved when we’ve stopped talking about it and it only exists in the history books. Parents still don’t want to share that they need to go home for a school play, or to attend a parents evening and that is a sad state-of-affairs. As leaders, we need to be honest about our own priorities outside of work and rolemodel, embracing bringing our whole selves to work. It is all possible and it should be just normal. I’m now involved with a charity called Leaders Plus, which runs a leadership programme including; mentoring for both male and female leaders who are returning to work with children under two, and how you balance sleepless nights when you’ve got a board meeting the next day, having conversations with your manager about flexible working and dealing with the inevitable guilt that comes with it all.

Tell us more about your current role with the Salvation Army.  

What really attracted me was the Salvation Army’s remit, which is to help and support anyone who needs it, regardless of who they are and how they arrived at that point. So, in terms of scope and diversity of roles, the organisation has no equal. This was closely followed by the role requirement, which was described as being “a change agent”, in order to really transform what HR did and represented within the charity. They had just been through a huge organisational restructure, which had been incredibly difficult and the part that hadn’t successfully changed was the cultural shift. So, the initial meetings with the Board left me under no illusion that this was anything other than a massive undertaking. HR itself was very reactive at the time, and there was no people strategy or clear HR plan. The team had themselves been affected by the restructure, whilst supporting the rest of the organisation, and had lacked investment in their own development. They were trying to cover a lot of ground and constantly reacting to issues on the hoof, with no time to look at proactive solutions. To make things even more challenging, there were four thousand five hundred employees in the UK, doing 600 different roles.

Explain about the way the organisation is set up and its core focuses.  

We are involved in some of the most challenging aspects of society today including; homelessness, addiction and human trafficking. So, a high need for people services and social care staff, which is incredibly hard to recruit for, as we are competing in the hugely under-resourced social care sector. Equally difficult is retaining people, with high attrition and people moving from service to service and out of the sector, because it is not an easy place to work. So, there was HR – along with other departments in the organisation – quite battered and bruised at the end of a difficult change programme. Clearly, it still needed investment, support and development, so the board said; “set out your HR strategy”! and I replied, perhaps rather too forthrightly: “I don’t do HR strategies, I do people strategies, and it needs to encompass all of the workforce”. The Salvation Army is first and foremost a church, with 1500 officers, who are the ministers of the church equivalent. So, we have the 4,500 employees, the tens of thousands of church “soldiers” and volunteers, and the officers, who have two years residential training, then they’re commissioned, and it could be anywhere in the world. We’ve got 700 churches (corps) in the UK alone and they could be running addiction services, supporting people who are homeless, and supporting families in need.

The officer post typifies what vocation really means.  

Indeed, officers aren’t paid they have provision for a home and, a car if required, and a basic cost of living. They are there because they have been called by their faith and they give their whole selves to the Salvation Army – and, may I say, we have incredibly dedicated employees too, who give all of themselves to their roles. So as you can see, it’s a complex and dynamic range of roles that have to be considered, which is why I was so insistent about the scope of the people strategy, which has been a very ambitious drive to engage, empower, support, develop and nurture that whole group of different people, without segregation and achieving inclusion.

Do you think the Salvation Army represents equality today?  

I would say it was an early pioneer of equality. I studied the history of the Salvation Army and the role of women was ground-breaking, going back a hundred plus years – the first female preachers, for example – and that’s fundamentally the basis of everything we aspire going forward. I spend a lot of time talking to and working with senior officers and leaders to really understand their motivations, but also bringing them together with employees, and their motivations, which are strikingly similar. They also consider it a real calling, if not from a religious aspect, then a humanistic one. We are now working on actioning the people strategy encompassing; value-based behaviours, effective systems and processes and mission based innovation, and it’s important to make that effective, take away the bureaucracy and barriers that stop people actually doing the incredible work that is so fundamental to the service and all the many and varied people that rely on it. Plus, we’re working on empowering people – from leaders to volunteers – focusing on inclusivity, and supporting that with a very strong, five year HR plan, that covers the whole employee journey. Last, but not least, we had to address how we portray ourselves – the Salvation Army is not great at blowing its trumpet, to coin a phrase.

That humbleness is one of the compelling aspects of the Salvation Army.  

That’s true; by its very nature it attracts very humble people. But as an employer competing in a tough recruitment market, you need a bit of front and to show how good you are, in order to attract talent. We talk to people and they have huge respect for the Salvation Army, but they don’t know what we do. They may enjoy the brass bands at Christmas; they might even know that we provide a hot meal or accommodation for the homeless. But I doubt many would know that we’re the largest contracted organisation dealing with the outcomes of human trafficking and modern slavery. They probably don’t know the addiction work we do, or Employment Plus, supporting people that have managed to move on in their lives and want to go back into work. We need people to know about that, so we’re really working to look at the different ways we can promote our brand.

What is your vision for the Salvation Army, as an organisation for the future?  

I’m a great believer in smarter working and bringing people, places and technology together creating those environments where people can flourish. We’ve just brought in an agile working policy which is such a departure. The Salvation Army has put a huge amount of trust and support in this journey, and we’re building a new Territorial Headquarters up at Denmark Hill where our training college is, because our existing headquarters are very old and far from a conducive environment for work. Having carried out a great deal of work on the HR basics right for the past two years, from reward to policy, management training to effective HR systems, the exciting thing is we can now start to deliver on some of the more exciting and innovative areas – from chat bot technology to support our most marginalised employees to agile working and embracing new ways of working. Our new generation of workers want to find true purpose and meaning in their roles and the third sector can offer this in spades. One of the policies we’ve just recently launched allows our employees to spend three days a year, out and about volunteering with our frontline services, working in one of our life houses (homelessness hostels), or one of our older people services, supporting weekly food banks or breakfast drop ins. Suddenly, in the field you realise what the link is. As for the HR team itself – many have never been anywhere other than headquarters – so one of the things I’ve been championing for the last two years is having them out and about alongside the services they are supporting. This leads to understanding the people they’re supporting and the pressure that is on them day in and day out. If it suddenly kicks off in a hostel, you can see why maybe a form hasn’t been filled out properly.

What do you see as the big challenges for the future?  

We need to raise our voice, to ensure that we’re part of influencing Government and related services to help find solutions to the increasing challenges that our society is experiencing. The demands on our services are exponentially increasing such as, human trafficking which has grown beyond all expectations. So, we’ve had to step up our game to meet that head on. We’re seeing more complex needs within our homelessness hostels – where before many were helped out by very short-term intervention services – now, more people are ending up there much more long term, because there’s nowhere else for them to go. There are people in the community with really complex mental health needs, that would once have been supported through the local authority provision, but that has diminished. So, we have to ensure that we are really supporting our employees to be able to deal with that multifaceted support requirement. With this in mind, we have to remember that our people are dealing with high-stress situations as a matter of course and support them in their resilience and well-being. As we continue through times of political uncertainty and increasingly complex social problems, the third sector as a whole, needs to be able to support people in crisis. We need to invest in the empowerment and capability of our people to meet the challenges, and HR is at the core of that. It’s a great position to be in, because you can influence outcomes in so many different ways.

FOR FURTHER INFO
www.salvationarmy.org.uk

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