How CanTeen developed an HR strategy that makes everyone accountable for success

HR strategy

Does your organisation’s HR strategy have contributions and buy-in from your whole organisation?

The idea of collecting feedback from every single team or department in your organisation to shape your HR strategy might sound like a colossal challenge – or even  a waste of time.

Yet this is exactly what youth cancer charity CanTeen has just done, and to great effect.

Why do it?

The benefits of this collaborative approach to their HR strategy have been huge, says CanTeen’s Chief Operating Officer, Peter Allwood. As a result the organisation has seen many improvements, from performance of current staff through to the quality of candidates applying for new roles.

For CanTeen, the decision to develop their people strategy collaboratively was highly conscious. It was an opportunity to bring their culture, values and principles to life.

“Our culture at CanTeen is very much about empowerment, accountability and pushing responsibility down through all levels of the organisation,” Allwood says.

How do you get staff on board?

CanTeen’s egalitarian culture meant they didn’t have to ‘sell’ the idea of a collaborative people strategy to staff – but they did undertake a number of initiatives to ensure everyone was on the same page.

This included:

that ultimately led to the development of the strategic plan.

How do you measure success?

While Allwood says reduced  staff turnover and increased engagement were key aims of the plan, the ultimate measures of success of the HR plan have been organisational performance and effective delivery of the organisation’s overall strategy.

“While of course we look at objective measures, we also factor in more subjective ones as well,” Allwood acknowledges.

“We conduct entry interviews with every staff member three months after they start, as well as exit interviews and peer support groups – even the gossip in the kitchen is useful information.”

The benefits beyond people strategy

Interdepartmental collaboration isn’t just valuable for improving your people strategy. In fact, Allwood argues that breaking down barriers between departments and allowing people to contribute outside their day-to-day roles has deep benefits that can ripple throughout an entire organisation.

“People are more engaged [when you facilitate collaboration] – you get more out of them, and their productivity and performance improve,” Allwood says.

“Silos break down because people are working on projects and initiatives outside their normal areas, so that leads to better relationships and better cross-organisational effectiveness.”

Allwood says that another benefit for CanTeen was improved strategic thinking – the result, he says, of “giving people space, time and permission”.

So, who’s really accountable?

When taking a whole-of-organisation approach to HR strategy, accountability for the project can sometimes be unclear. If everyone is accountable, then no one is.

At CanTeen, a lot of work was done to ensure this wasn’t the case.

“When we presented the plan to our staff we said, ‘Here’s all our information from 11 workshops involving 140 people, turned into a coherent strategic plan … it’s now back to you to deliver and you are accountable for it,’” Allwood says.

For Allwood, making staff responsible – rather than just HR – for the strategy’s delivery was crucial to its success.

“It’s consistent with our culture and approach at CanTeen – that is, empowering our managers and taking very much a decentralised approach,” he says.

Allwood acknowledges that HR still provide an essential role in offering expertise when and as needed. The organisation worked closely with CanTeen’s managers to ensure the success of the plan, allowing them to take the lead on implementation among their own teams.

Roadblocks and risks

With all new initiatives come some risks. Cross-collaboration can be a struggle for not-for-profits, Allwood concedes, with day-to-day work often taking precedence over ‘blue-sky’ thinking.

“It’s easier for corporates to take time out for strategic planning sessions, but in an NFP people tend to be more operational,” he says.

“You have fewer resources and income is reliant on the success of ongoing fundraising activities.”

“To get staff to sit back and think a little more long-term and strategically is not easy – but the benefits are huge.”

One of the biggest risks Allwood identifies lies in managing the expectations of staff.

“When you say to people, ‘Just go for it, just dream, just come up with the most radical ideas’, there’s an inherent risk in that,” he says.

“The expectation can be created that even the most radical ideas will be automatically implemented, so we communicated the fact that there would be the necessary filtering of ideas.”

Allwood also cautions that if there’s a lack of trust within your organisation’s culture it will be hard to execute a collaborative strategy. Outcomes are far superior when people feel trusted in their organisations, as they take the process more seriously, he says.

How to collaboratively develop an HR strategy within your organisation

While a cross-departmental approach to HR strategy can be a challenge, Allwood strongly recommends exploring it – with some caveats before you do.

1. Get your culture right first

It can’t be overstated: the culture of your organisation is a critical consideration.

“If you have a siloed culture or a very structured hierarchical culture, you can’t decide overnight to adopt a cross-departmental approach on a particular initiative – it just won’t work,” Allwood says.

“So it has to be consistent with the culture, structure and ethos of the organisation, and that has to be based on values and principles.”

For organisations that don’t yet have the right culture, it’s essential to break down these barriers before starting a collaborative strategy process.

2. Ensure that trust runs deep

Allwood cites trust as absolutely critical to the success of a cross-departmental collaboration.

“Senior management needs to let go and trust their staff,” he says.

“It also needs to be clear that it has to work both ways, and staff then need to step up and take on that responsibility and accountability.”

3. Lean into risk – but provide a framework

Any organisation taking this approach to HR strategy needs to be prepared to take a few risks and tolerate potential failure.

By the same token, a clear vision and strategic direction that is appropriately communicated to staff goes a long way towards mitigating those risks.

“People need a framework and need to be clear about what the organisation is ultimately trying to do and where they need to head,” Allwood says.

While developing a collaborative HR strategy is not without its challenges, if done well it can bring huge benefits to your organisation. Like any strategy, success lies in planning and being prepared for a few bumps in the road along the way.

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