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John Handley


HR Director

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What can be learned from being a mutual company?


While there are more than 10,000 mutual societies in the UK including building societies, co-operatives and community benefit societies, credit unions, friendly societies and registered societies, MyCSP is the first Government mutual joint venture – a former public sector department, ‘spun out’ into a private organisation, but importantly one with a mutual structure and I believe there are some very important organisational lessons to be shared.

We have around 680 employee partners providing services to around 1.5 million pension scheme members and operating from four bases across England. Our genesis was an announcement in April 2011, when the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, announced the transformation of the organisation, and we went live on 1st May 2012.

Our mutual structure means that our employee partners own 25% of the shares in the business with a founding belief that this will deliver a real sense of ownership. This, in turn, should deliver improved employee engagement, better services to clients and millions of pounds of savings for the taxpayer.

This does not happen naturally of course, and there are some big decisions to make and much thought applied to how these changes are implemented.

Be explicit about what is changing

There were some obvious changes to make when it came to the technology platform and the site structure. These formed part of the three year Transformation Programme which reduced 11 sites to four and enabled work to be freely moved across all areas.

Getting to the same level of specificity about the organisational changes is often more difficult, especially when it is transforming into a new mutual model.  Sometimes this is because the changes are multifaceted and evolving, interconnected and hugely complex, sometimes because there is no single voice with primary accountability for making these changes explicit and manageable.

We need to make these ‘soft’ issues hard and tangible, just as with every other part of the transformation

Weave employee partners into the fabric of the business

Your organisation needs to work out what mutual means to it. For example, we want ‘mutual’ to mean that we feel part of something greater than just ourselves. It can be a confusing environment for managers who have never experienced a mutual before, or who have not grown up in businesses where accountability is pushed deep into teams.

The quality of decision-making is critical to every business and mutuals are no different. Mutual, in our case, does not mean scattered democratic decision-making – it means influence, listening, getting close to what our employee partners think and ensuring their voice is meaningful.

The way we do this is in three explicit ways. The Employee Partners Council (EPC), set up at the creation of the organisation, has a voice in every key decision-making team including the Board, the Executive Team and the Employee Benefit Trust, the body who are responsible for the employee partner’s 25% stake in the business. They bring perspectives, voice opinions and take away understanding of what decisions are made, and why. Secondly, we are very open with all our financials, progress, obstacles and challenges.

Although this will change to some degree as our majority shareholder, Equiniti, initiates an IPO, we will retain our belief in openness as far as we are able. Finally, the rewards from commercial success align the interests of all three shareholders; Equiniti, the Government and our employee partners.

Measure what’s important

For us, engagement surveys have been core to how we measure our progress on organisational maturity, and these have demonstrated how far we have come. For example, the most recent survey results, conducted in April 2015, showed:

  • 77% percent of employee partners ‘valued being an employee owner rather than just being an employee’
  • 83% of employee partners feel they are ‘able to challenge the way things are done’ – up from 56% in 2013

Whilst these are strong indicators that the mutual structure is working for the staff, we also chose to validate our progress with a respected UK standard. It is for this reason that we underwent an Investors in People assessment in the summer where we achieved Silver Status with our first attempt.

This is a good way of measuring staff satisfaction, morale and ensuring that the business continues to operate at a high standard of productivity. Ultimately, we retain an ambition to embed every aspect of “performance through people” in the way we work.

Role model the way

We believe that cultural norms should, ideally, be led from the top and lived throughout the management structure.

Most HR professionals take the input from their staff seriously, but we do firmly believe that our employee partners, as significant shareholders and stakeholders in the business, make the difference to the success of our organisation.

Our CEO takes it upon herself to meet each new employee, including our recently hired apprentices, for a coffee. This is an example of how the spirit and philosophy of the company can be embedded in each individual from the ‘top’ right from the very beginning. But, it is also a two-way process.

Our CEO does not just take this opportunity to introduce the employees personally to the organisation and inspire them with the culture engendered by being part of a mutual team, but she also listens to any questions they might have and seeks to understand their early impressions of life in MyCSP, thus giving her valuable feedback.

Turning this type of role modelling into the norm across all managers is integral to the work which we have recently kicked off for our next generation of leaders. A Talent Programme, for example, can develop a number of core skills, whilst also ensuring the intangible, but vital, differentiating factors of mind-set, behaviour and rewards are embedded for the long term.

Reward what you want to see

From the start, we would recommend introducing commercial sector practices linking performance and reward as we have found this to generate real extrinsic motivation. Conducting half-yearly reviews with employee partners, and linking this to the opportunity to earn a half-yearly performance bonus, can prove to be very productive.

This measures and rewards both performance outcomes and behaviours. As a result of being shareholders, employee partners also benefit from the opportunity to receive an annual dividend linked to the profits of the company. We find that this connecting of performance and pay has enabled everyone to understand what we value.

Delivering roadshows to every employee partner led by your CEO can also create an environment where you openly share information and invite conversation in a light hearted, simple but effective way. We have held a series of roadshows this year, and they proved to be very effective.

Create strong levels of accountability

These changes are complex and multifaceted, though with the right leadership should appear simple and obvious. This brings me to the final lesson. One member of the senior team should be focussed specifically on the people and cultural dimensions of the transformation.

This will take in the practical changes to recruitment practices, reward processes, team structures, legal guidance and exit management, all the things we often associate with HR. It should also involve the management development programmes, the engagement and communication practices and processes, plus the leadership mind-set, testing whether our ‘walking the talk’ means the same thing to us all. These are less tangible, but crucial, areas to understand, manage and embed.

MyCSP was created a little over three years ago. In that time it has shifted from being a public sector organisation to a commercial enterprise. It has not been without its challenges, but the mutual status has created a deeply-rooted principle that has united all stakeholders. Every stakeholder wins or loses together, and all shareholders have learned how to win as one.

Final point. Seventy-nine percent of employee partners are proud to work for our organisation, and 76% of our employee partners would recommend it as a great place to work. This is our ultimate accolade; we have a business our people respect enough to invite their family and friends into. There’s no reason why being a mutual can’t work for you.

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John Handley

HR Director

Read more from John Handley

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