Philip Goodwin: We've made VSO's restructure work

The international volunteering charity underwent a difficult restructure last year. Its chief executive offers his advice on how to make the process work

Philip Goodwin
Philip Goodwin

In 2015, VSO faced a challenging future. We needed to become more adaptable, programmatically effective, and better manage uncertainty about our future income. Our governance was too complicated, and so was our internal organisation. The board made it clear to me, their new chief executive, that we needed to get this sorted.

By the end of the year, we had delivered £4.3m of annualised savings, dissolved our federation structure and taken the difficult decision to reduce our global workforce by 7 per cent, which equated to 65 members of staff. We did this while delivering on our planned programmatic results, maintaining staff confidence in the VSO strategy and leadership at 70 per cent, and growing our income by 5.5 per cent. 

Here are the 10 main lessons I learned:

  • Choosing a goal the organisation can support. Our case, rightly, focused on being better at delivering our mission – we would be guided by what we needed to effect our purpose.
  • We started from the top. The number of senior posts went from eight to four. Senior colleagues showed great leadership in championing what we were doing, even though they were leaving VSO.
  • The case for change was framed early and transparently. We were open about the challenges we faced and the significant changes needed to overcome them. This was done even before we knew exactly what change would look like.
  • Communication was constant. We created spaces to share views. All-staff meetings; email bulletins; an email address for staff to raise questions directly with me. Active communication during a process like this means facing individuals’ anxiety and pain head-on. It was personal.
  • We made it clear we were engaging, not consulting. We wanted staff as active participants in facing these challenges, proposing ways forward. We didn’t set out a blueprint, nor pretend we had all the answers.
  • We focused on the functions needed to deliver our purpose. We looked beyond our existing structure and encouraged thinking on what was really needed to deliver programme impact.
  • Actions count. We made the change real by pointing to practical examples of how things were changing and how this impacted delivering our mission. By talking about actions and linking them to our purpose, there was no dip in delivery.
  • We fully committed. Managing change is a huge logistical challenge. Setting up and managing staff consultations, drawing up job descriptions, providing information. Managers needed to be freed up to dedicate themselves to this, and pastoral care had to be available and its use encouraged.
  • We defined a clear end. In April, we restructured the senior management team. In June, the wider restructuring process began. In December, we closed the process. Returning in the New Year, an emotional shift had occurred.
  • Our trustees supported us unwaveringly. They were concerned about fairness and improving our ability to deliver our mission, but close contact between board and executive saw supportive leadership throughout.

Adopting the approach we did comes with considerable challenges. The absence of a blueprint for change created anxieties, leading some to wonder that perhaps no-one actually knew what they were doing.

Some team leaders very quickly stepped into the leadership space that opened up, while other teams felt left behind or, worse, out-manoeuvred. We could have been better prepared to provide additional support for teams that were less confident, experienced or capable.

Wanting quick wins, we chose to leave some of the most difficult parts of changing the organisational structure to the end. But this made the restructuring process feel as though it was getting tougher and had lasted longer.

Organisational change is always a story of ups and downs, of challenges and failures. But above all, it is crucial that you are clear on what you are trying to achieve as a leadership team.

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