After employee turnover rates doubled within a four-year period at this school, this HR professional devised a program designed to help employees realise their potential.
In July 2020, Shannon Wilson CPHR had been working as HR Advisor at Shearwater Steiner School in Mullumbimby for eight months when James Goodlet, the new Head of School, arrived. Before long, Goodlet had devised a strategic focus aimed at boosting employee initiative and improving the school environment while still delivering high-quality education.
An employee survey in late 2019 had revealed that employees, while hungry for change, felt unacknowledged, under-appreciated and overworked. They reported that their roles and responsibilities lacked definition, and that professional development lacked structure. By 2020, voluntary staff turnover had reached 20 per cent – up from 10 per cent in 2016.
Wilson recognised that if Goodlet’s strategic plan didn’t address these issues, it would struggle to get the support of staff. So she set about working on the cultural issues at play to ensure he had a strong foundation to build on.
A four-pillar approach
Even though the school recognised the need for change, leadership was wary of introducing a performance management system.
“Teaching is a unique job,” says Wilson. “Efficiency and productivity can’t be determined simply by looking at students’ scores, so it’s difficult to devise an objective process for performance management.”
Also, the school’s leadership felt that a performance management system would be perceived as a function to address underperformance when it was so much more than that.
“So we had to change the language,” says Wilson.
She adopted a holistic, four-pillar approach she called the Staff Potential Program, which doubled as her capstone project to achieve AHRI’s HR certification. The program comprises a “whole person” review, a goal-setting framework for a staff potential plan, probationary reviews for new staff and procedures for under performers.
Creating a tailored framework
The whole person review precedes the goal-setting framework, and unlike traditional performance reviews, it’s personal, spiritual and professional in scope. It takes the form of an unstructured conversation between employees and their manager.
Wilson drew on the research of American neuroeconomist Paul Zak when putting the plan together. (Neuroeconomics is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain human decision-making.)
“The personal aspect provides a safe space to open up and reduces stigma around sensitive issues such as mental health,” says Wilson. “This conversation also assists us in fulfilling our duty-of-care obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act.”
The spiritual aspect is two-fold.
“It provides staff an opportunity to reflect on how one’s professional practice is supported and influenced by the Steiner philosophy, and, beyond that, to explore one’s passions outside of work to support and nurture their personal wellbeing and identity.
“The professional aspect is concerned with how the staff member is going with their career and where they see themselves in the future, and this can be used to inform our succession and workforce plans.”
Following the review, each staff member creates goals utilising the SOAR analysis framework, which stands for strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results. (See template here). This means focusing on strengths and opportunities, in line with aspirations, to achieve specific results.
“We tailored the framework for our staff. For example, we encourage them to look at opportunities which exist in the organisation and support the school’s strategic plan, such as undertaking strategies to better integrate school curriculum.
“The intent is to guide managers, so they feel empowered to act when it’s needed, with an understanding of both legal and ethical obligations.” – Shannon Wilson CPHR, HR Advisor, Shearwater Steiner School
“Additionally, staff are required to devise goals in line with their professional standards. Teachers, for example, would develop at least one goal which reflects the NSW teaching standards, such as devising a goal to support student participation in the classroom.”
Wilson’s program includes probationary reviews to ensure that realising staff potential is a priority from the beginning. They take place when staff members are three and six months into their positions and begin by mirroring the whole-person review process.
“The probationary review begins as a discussion about how the new staff member has found their time in the school so far. It provides an opportunity for us to find out what support is needed from their perspective in terms of development or resources while providing their managers with the opportunity to address any issues early on.”
Meanwhile, the risk of underperformance is addressed through policy and guidelines, which explain what is expected of employees and how leadership will manage underperformance.
Wilson emphasises that this is a flexible approach.
“The intent is to guide managers, so they feel empowered to act when it’s needed, with an understanding of both legal and ethical obligations. For example, when to take notes and how to draw up an improvement plan while identifying appropriate reporting lines.”
The Staff Potential Program was launched in late 2020 and had achieved some pleasing results by April 2021. There was a 10.8 per cent increase in the number of staff who felt the school vision was clearly articulated; a 24 per cent increase in the number who felt supported by their supervisors; and a 23 per cent increase in the number who said they now received more regular feedback.
“I was particularly happy that so many staff felt better-supported,” says Wilson. “In formalising the need for conversations between staff members and managers, we’ve created a space which is really positive.”
She acknowledges there’s still work to do. Not least because the pandemic and vaccination mandate for NSW teachers have negatively impacted job satisfaction and increased turnover rates.
“Designing and implementing an HR program for a whole organisation can be overwhelming and intimidating, but completing it as part of AHRI certification really helped.
“In bringing together research and evidence-based strategies, I had more confidence in my recommendations and in the design of the program. It also helped me build clout with the leadership team.”
Join a growing cohort of HR professionals who are taking the next step in their careers by undergoing HR certification with AHRI.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 edition of HRM magazine.