How to create a good people and culture strategy

Amy Underdown - 7 June, 2023

Category : Blog

How to create a good people and culture strategy

We know there’s always pressures on schools and trusts to grow, retain staff and improve staff wellbeing and culture. But creating and executing a good people and culture strategy is no mean feat to achieve in the context of the great resignation, cost-of-living crisis and other challenges that schools and trusts face daily.  Last year,

people strategy

We know there’s always pressures on schools and trusts to grow, retain staff and improve staff wellbeing and culture. But creating and executing a good people and culture strategy is no mean feat to achieve in the context of the great resignation, cost-of-living crisis and other challenges that schools and trusts face daily. 

Last year, in the context of taking on hundreds of new schools and trusts, we hired 100 new people at Arbor. At the same time, we managed to exceed our retention goal of 80%, maintain our ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) at above 40 and sustain a strong company culture! I thought it might therefore be interesting to share my learnings from the past year as Arbor’s Head of People and Culture, to see if any insights might be useful to those also going through rapid growth or taking on new schools. 

Why is having a good people and culture strategy so important?

This first point is the easiest to talk about. A good people plan or strategy is critical, because people are the most important part of any organisation. 

What’s slightly harder to answer is what makes a ‘good’ people and culture strategy. I think we have to go back to basics here and make sure every people strategy is people-focused, which sounds obvious, but it can easily be overlooked. There’s a reason at Arbor that we call ourselves the People and Culture team (rather than HR) and it’s because we are always human-first. It’s important that this gets buy-in from the wider team, as a people strategy should align with the general business strategy. 

As well as this, a good people strategy will unlock the full potential of our people. I think this is summed up quite well by our unofficial mantra in the People and Culture team: giving people the tools to do their best work, in an engaged and inclusive culture where they can bring their full selves to work.

How can you measure the success of your people and culture strategy?

As much as having your finger on the pulse of things is important just by the ‘feel’ of the company, I really believe in using data to understand where we are as a business and to inform our future strategy. We do this in several ways:

1. ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score)

This helps us to anonymously monitor employee engagement, employee feeling, and employee sentiment. Anything above 0 is considered good, but our target is to have our ENPS at about 40, where we have averaged over the past 12 months – which makes me really proud.

2. Talent attraction and retention

We measure ourselves against time to hire, diversity of our recruitment pipeline and the quality of hire (e.g. if individuals make it through their probation period and tracking that everyone is progressing as we would expect them to.)

3. Roles filled by internal candidates/promotions

Last year (2022), over 30% of our employees were either moved or were promoted into a new role, which is way above anything I’ve seen in businesses that I’ve worked in before. Rightfully so, people want to be in roles that they enjoy and where they have a sense of value and self-worth. We’re lucky that by working for Arbor we get to demonstrate real value by improving the education sector, but it’s my job to create an environment where people can feel self worth internally and how they progress. This is reflected in the roles of school staff who do a very ‘rewarding’ job, but it’s important that individuals working in schools feel that their role is fulfilling and that they are progressing. We have a dedicated person who owns learning and development within our teams.

4. Anonymous feedback 

We also encourage employees to use our dedicated tool for anonymous feedback, which goes directly to senior management. We make sure once a week that, as a senior management team, we take the time to respond to these, both privately but also where appropriate in a public setting such as a company-wide town hall. I would recommend setting up monitored and transparent feedback loops and to take them seriously as an organisation. This gives employees a voice and shows that we listen and act, but also gives the space for senior management to respond and explain. 

Can you measure culture and how do you do it?

Culture can be actually quite tough to quantify as a lot of it’s quite intangible. It’s the things that you know are there but can’t necessarily explain. Having said that, I do think a good school or company culture should be easy to describe.

At Arbor, we do pulse surveys, welcome interviews and stay interviews, as it’s important to get a measure on how the culture feels to someone who’s just onboarded, as well as someone who has been in the organisation for many years. More importantly, it’s acting on the feedback you receive, especially where you start to see trends. 

We do more thorough surveys annually where we encourage every employee to go into detail on areas surrounding leadership, communication, wellness and general culture. Importantly, we have a team of people with the word ‘culture’ in their titles – this shows how much weight we give this in the business. It’s why it’s important to me that my title is ‘Head of People and Culture’, because it comes back to my original point of a people strategy being personal and human-first. 

It’s also important to me that CEO, James, is so passionate about our people strategy as he becomes almost an extension of our team. He’s a real driver for people and culture as well, meaning the people agenda is heavily prioritised. Having this buy-in from the business, as well as clear lines of communication, action and accountability, means that our people and culture strategy can be more impactful. 

Making your people and culture strategy scalable

Your people strategy will change based on the phase of the journey that you’re on. So having an organisation in a zero to 50 employee range is going to be very different to when you’re 250 plus. The answer is not to just continue to increase headcount and increase the size of your team.

We’ve obviously scaled massively in the last year and flexibility in our approach has been crucial. You have to drop things and pick things up as and when. But how can you make sure you’re not losing sight of what you’re trying to do but also still tackle some of the more urgent business needs?

A starting point is to clearly define roles and responsibilities within your organisation, as well as assigning clear goals and using a prioritisation framework within that as well. Setting out non-negotiables. Having this framework helps teams to focus on things that are going to continue pushing the business forward, without compromising on business need. 

It’s also important to have the right processes and systems in place. These can’t break as you scale, as it’s really difficult to retrospectively fix and mend when your organisation is moving at such a fast pace. To make sure of this, we commit to continuous review of our systems and processes. Typically every process or policy will be reviewed on at least an annual basis – and this review cycle includes getting feedback and input from employees to make sure they continue to be impactful. If you’re able to streamline, then your processes and systems should reduce the amount of manual and administrative work done by your teams, so they have more time to deliver genuine impact. 

Closing thoughts 

Because people are the most important part of any organisation, having a clearly defined people and culture strategy is critical. And, hand-in-hand with this, recognising that a people strategy is a vital organisational function. 

At Arbor, I’m really proud of the people that we have working for us. I think all of those people are so driven around our mission and focused on improving education that it makes me really energised and really happy to come to work every day. 

Whilst I know that Arbor as a business will function inherently differently, I hope some of these insights or principles are useful to those working on HR in schools or trusts. If nothing else, remember to be people-first, always! 

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