Andrew Grant, Chief Executive of AVDC talks cultural change

Writing in the Municipal Journal, Andrew shares his thoughts on cultural change

A culture shock: How to turn your great idea into reality

"Necessity truly is the mother of invention. The revenue support grant is gone and it’s not coming back so councils are getting creative. We’re all adapting to this new reality; save money here, make money there, and we’ve all got our own plans on how to go about this. But a great idea is nothing without the right people in place, infused with the right culture, to see it through.

Everything comes down to people. The insurmountable stumbling block for so many great ideas is not having the right people in place to make that idea a reality. It’s widely stated that up to 70% of all change programmes fail. Now fully accept that figure or not, it does highlight that change isn’t a walk in the park. You can have a ground-breaking concept or buy the fanciest equipment, but if you don’t have the right people to implement it you won’t succeed.

So what do I mean by  the ‘right people’? I mean those who fully buy into your culture and vision, taking ownership not orders. Simon Sinek’s excellent book, ‘Start with Why’, includes the simple line: “Give people a reason to come to work, not just a place to work”. Get the culture right and your staff on board and you’re creating a winning concoction.

I’m an unashamed advocate for council commercialism and bang the drum loud and proud to all who’ll listen. It gives me great satisfaction to say AVDC are now working more commercially, on the path to becoming a social enterprise.

We’re pushing on with our digital strategy, automating services and integrating AI technology, we’re offering our expertise to other councils and run a series of commercial ventures to generate funds to protect services. However, without the right cultural underpinning, all our innovative work would likely be for naught.

George Colony, CEO, Forrester Research, began his talk at Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2016 event with the statement: “You’re all going out of business, slowly, but you don’t know it yet”. This struck a chord with me as local government is increasingly asked to provide more with less. Having a culture which can adapt to this changing environment and stay in touch with customer demands in a digital world will be vital to success.

We’ve come through our transformation with everyone in place buying into our social enterprise vision and knowing their role in making it a reality. Following a review of all services, staff went through a challenging behaviour-based assessment process to ensure they had the right commercial mind set to carry the organisation forward, before applying for newly-designed job roles. There’s no doubt this has been difficult for everyone and some didn’t pass, but the aim was always to get the right people in place.

In a nutshell attitude trumps aptitude. For me, it’s not about keeping only the most skilled staff; what’s needed are staff with the correct mind set. It’s then up to the organisation to give them the right support to succeed. Skill gaps can be brought up to scratch with training if the individual is enthusiastic and open to change, but it’s an infinitely tougher ask to alter a person’s innate behaviours. Staff negativity can easily scupper a change programme.

Now we’ve got the right people in place we intend to keep it that way. Gone are the annual talent reviews of old, backward-looking by nature and no longer fit for purpose in a forward-thinking commercial organisation. To stay relevant change needs to be ever-present, so we’ve brought in a new framework to continually embed our commercial behaviours, focussing on staff development, rather than simply rating past performance.

So what about the risk? Well the biggest risk is doing nothing. I’ve heard it said that cultural change is too hard hitting, harsh on staff, too much work, expensive, not worth the risk. Wrong. The glory days of government funding are long gone and the old council model is unsustainable; do nothing and you’ll fail anyway. Innovative ideas are needed but for them to be successful council culture must change too.

With no risk comes no reward, but if risk is inevitable anyway, why not go for the complete overhaul? From high to low, all current AVDC staff have gone through our transformation and come out the other side more involved, informed, commercial and invested in seeing our new-look council succeed.

We’ve taken the plunge and I’d urge all councils to do the same. AVDC are hosting a conference on 19 October to look at the finer details of transformation. We want to share our learning. Making the decision to change is straightforward but making sure your staff are willing and ready to change is more challenging.

Join us to discover how to truly transform into a commercially-focussed and income-generating social enterprise, without losing focus on your customers and staff. I look forward to seeing you there!" 

Andrew Grant, Chief Executive, Aylesbury Vale District Council

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