The social care sector has been facing a perfect storm of diminishing funding, skills shortages and an ageing population, which has seen almost every care provider sound the alarm in recent years. But Dimensions UK, a not-for-profit providing care and support to roughly 3,500 people, was facing its own longevity crisis on top of its sector-specific issues.
Providing services across England and Wales to people with learning disabilities and autism, Dimensions employs more than 7,000 staff, from carers to HR, finance and IT. But an annual employee survey showed that almost two-thirds of them (64 per cent) felt the organisation lacked prospects for promotion and professional advancement, and many were voting with their feet.
For Simon Gosney, that was a problem. As head of learning and development, he had always been interested in supporting those who care for others, having joined Dimensions in 2014 following a stint as head of L&D at NHS Direct. His chief objective was to help the organisation grow and develop its staff along the way – but he also knew that delivering this effectively would demand a degree of inventiveness.
“In the public care sector, retention and high turnover are real problems. We don’t have high salaries compared to the private sector, which means we have to be competitive in recruiting and retaining staff,” says Gosney. “We responded to this by offering a structured career development programme that gave staff a range of professional options and opportunities, and helped the organisation retain and develop key talent.”
This vision needed to be developed in line with the values of Dimensions – courage, ambition, partnership, integrity and respect. With the support of Angela Sabin, principal coach at Executive Life Coaching, the HR team launched the ‘Aspire’ career development programme in January 2015, with 70 applications for the first 15 places.
It was made available both to those on the frontline and in head office; a third of places were open to employees who applied independently, while the remainder were allocated to those nominated by managers. This was a conscious choice, Gosney explains, to ensure the organisation’s leadership invested in talent spotting and accelerating members of staff who demonstrated potential, and to support managers in succession planning.
Completing Aspire takes roughly a year. Participants attend a launch event where they meet their coaches, who then help them develop opportunities for progression in their chosen fields in five coaching sessions. Videoconferencing and remote training ensure the experience is a flexible one, as participants explore possible career routes within Dimensions, shadow managers and attend skills-based workshops. Line managers are involved throughout the process, working with coaches to create tailored career development programmes that will support each individual in the longer term.
“It’s the first time many of our participants experience coaching,” Gosney says. “It was crucial to make the programme flexible and responsive to their needs, so if someone wants to complete the sessions quickly we can work with them, or if life or work gets in the way they can pause and return to it at a later time; this is great for colleagues who have taken maternity leave or had an intense project to work on.”
Now in its ninth wave, Aspire’s popularity has increased at an exponential rate, with the leadership team committing to its sustainability by training former participants as career mentors, who assist in supporting candidates through the process. While average staff turnover rates across the social care sector are currently estimated at 27 per cent and rising, Dimensions’ latest employee survey revealed that its company-wide turnover rate is just 16 per cent, dropping to 6 per cent among current and former Aspire participants.
More than 80 per cent of Aspire graduates reported positive career growth, 94 per cent said they were more motivated as a result of the programme and 92 per cent said they had confidence in their career opportunities.
Scooping a gong at the 2017 Business Culture Awards was a worthy recognition of the group’s efforts – but the best proof of success, Gosney says, are the personal stories. He talks about an employee who entered Aspire as a junior support worker, and was running a major organisational change project for the company within two years; and a colleague who used his new-found confidence to reconnect a person Dimensions supports with his estranged family in Australia.
“We employ staff with learning disabilities and autism, and about a year ago we opened Aspire to them, making the necessary adjustments to connect the programme with their needs – one was interviewed on BBC Breakfast,” he says.
Dimensions is now seeking to replicate the successes of the programme, without taking a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to broader development in the organisation. “We want to embed a contextually strong approach to talent management planning,” Gosney says. “We don’t just want to clone Aspire. It’s successful because it’s person-centred, but we are looking to redevelop our approach to management development with similar success.”
The uphill road for social care is not about to get any easier – with a rise in the national living wage in April and continued downward pressure on budgets, the financial challenges facing the organisation will persist. But Gosney’s belief in the future of Dimensions is tangible: “I’m confident that whatever comes next will feel highly personalised and responsive to each individual, instead of a generic approach to development. I think Aspire has shifted us away from that mindset once and for all.”