Imagine executing a restructure of hundreds of staff and only having to let go of two people. Sound impossible? That’s exactly how this restructure unfolded.
Continuous learning is an essential part of a modern career, perhaps even more so when you work in education. A recent lesson for Lynden Lemsing CPHR was that sometimes the old way of doing things is the best way of doing things.
After initially pursuing a career as a lawyer, she took her first steps into HR during a five-year stint at an engineering firm. She discovered she loved HR and so undertook a Masters in HR Management with a specialisation in Employee/Industrial Relations. Today she works as the head of HR for Sydney-based independent school William Clarke College.
While education and engineering might feel like worlds apart, from an HR perspective these industries face very similar challenges. How do you recruit great talent? How do you keep these great hires engaged? And how can you get the most out of your people?
After staff began expressing frustrations, these were the questions Lemsing needed to answer. She came to the conclusion that an overnight fix wouldn’t do and, together with her executive colleagues, decided the school’s structure required a major review.
“It felt like we were trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
Changing it back
Thankfully, the timing was somewhat fortuitous. The school was in the midst of a new strategic plan, a rebrand and had a newly-minted headmaster at the helm – so Lemsing felt she could ride the wave of change.
She had experience restructuring corporate teams, but this time, not only did she have to think of what was best for staff, she had to consider the wellbeing of the 1600 students stomping around in the playground.
For the past few decades the college had catered for secondary students. In 2007, a junior school was introduced. As a means to connect the two, a middle school (Years 5-8) was put in place, meaning the college ran under what’s called a ‘three-sub-school model’.
While the structure assisted this initial transition, Lemsing says it caused resourcing and daily management issues.
“Our attention was caught up in trying to make the three sub-school structure work and this took the focus away from our core business. It didn’t align with general industry standards and most of the curriculum was developed to fit the primary or secondary space. It felt like we were trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
There was also a lot of money tied up in the existing structure – such as the administrative costs that sit within each sub-school.
“By removing those costs, we were able to reallocate our resourcing into teaching and learning, and student wellbeing.”
And while the students’ best interests were a major driving factor, Lemsing also had to address problems at a staff level. Employee engagement survey results showed that many staff felt the current model didn’t offer them enough career progression. For some secondary teachers, teaching the Year 11-12 bracket is where a lot of fulfilment lies, says Lemsing.
“Some staff felt they were giving something up by moving into our middle school model.”
Frustrations were also felt from a recruitment perspective. “One of the previous challenges we faced was recruiting for a head of junior school during the three-sub school structure. Someone at that level wants to lead a whole primary school, they don’t want to lead kindergarten to Year 4. But once the restructure was underway, we were able to go to market with a Prep to Year 6 head of school role, and that increased our candidature significantly.”
A transparent approach
When you think of restructures, your mind might wander to negatives – brutal funding cuts, executive secrecy, disgruntled employees and a mass axing of jobs. But that didn’t happen.
Let’s be clear, it easily could have. It was a highly sensitive situation and a mammoth task to take on, but Lemsing and the executive team had a very simple rule to get them through – clear communication.
“I was really passionate about advocating for staff. I didn’t want anyone to walk away feeling unsure about what this meant for them. I’ve worked in businesses where people have said, ‘We’re restructuring and cutting X amount of jobs.’ And then staff are left for weeks on end before they find out more. We didn’t want to do that to our staff.”
Prior to announcing the change, Lemsing and the executive team spent six months going through the school’s structure with a fine-tooth comb and consulting relevant stakeholders.
The restructure was announced in January 2017 but was implemented over a 12-month period. There were two important reasons for this. Firstly, in the education sector the biggest recruitment periods are in term 3 and 4, so she wanted to be fair to those who might decide to move on. Secondly, once the school year is underway, it’s not a good idea to make any large-scale changes as it will disrupt the students.
All negatively affected employees were notified first and then everything was clearly laid out for the wider school community.
A communication piece was developed for staff that broke down the individual departmental structures, redeployment positions, vacant positions, hiring timelines, the rationale for the change, and a FAQ section.
Unlike many restructures, this one actually increased staff trust in the executive team.
“Something I feel really proud of was that staff who were negatively impacted by the restructure came out and said they understood the reason for the change and they felt they were well treated.”
The data backs up her anecdotal evidence. Following the restructure, staff engagement increased from around 74 per cent up to 81 per cent and staff felt career progression opportunities increased from 63.65 per cent to 82.4 per cent. Beforehand, 16 per cent of staff were teaching outside of their area of specialisation; post-restructure, zero were.
Throughout the process, one of the goals was to retain as many staff as possible. This was accomplished. Only 2 and a half full-time roles were made redundant. That’s two and a half out of 230 permanent staff. With the restructure producing such impressive results, Lemsing decided it was the perfect case study to achieve HR certification through AHRI’s Senior Leaders Pathway.
Lemsing’s advice to anyone who might be considering a similar restructure is to plan and consult. “Make sure what you’re doing is based on real feedback that you’ve received. You don’t want to do anything arbitrarily.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
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