How the RSPB changed its HR practices without ruffling feathers

Britain's biggest nature charity shows how everyone can benefit from leadership training, not just leaders

Ann Kiceluk
Ann Kiceluk

Make your way up the winding forest path, turn left at the hide full of excited nature lovers and, when you reach the front doors of the RSPB’s ornate Bedfordshire headquarters, you’ll probably find yourself greeted by one of the geese and moorhens that wander the grounds and meander up to reception every so often for a drink of water.

If it sounds like an impossibly quaint place to do business, Ann Kiceluk – the charity’s people director, whose office is the former gentlemen’s dressing room of this converted countryside lodge – is at pains to point out there’s plenty of the 21st century here too. That includes the video-conferencing screen in the corner of the room that connects the RSPB’s disparate offices across the UK. And it extends to the organisation’s broader philosophy of embracing conservation and "saving nature" – its new mission statement – as well as the more traditional business of protecting wildlife.

"Birds are central to the future of what we do, but it’s not just about that," says Kiceluk, who is in her fourth year with the charity after a career in local government and the education sector. "You don’t have to be a twitcher to work here."

The RSPB is on a mission, then, to embrace its role as Europe’s largest nature conservation charity, with more than 2,000 staff, 12,000 volunteers and 200 nature reserves across the UK. And its people department is equally determined to move beyond being simply "somewhere you go when you want to recruit someone or make someone redundant" to becoming an enabler of strategy and a key partner in an agile organisation.

That shift has taken in everything from diversity to health and safety over the past few years. But perhaps the most fundamental challenge has been to the notion of performance management. "We haven't managed performance very well in the past," says Kiceluk. "It’s not a problem that's unique to the RSPB, but we needed to get better at it."

The answer has been Developing One Team, a programme of learning delivered to line managers and cascaded to their teams. More than 800 staff have taken part and Kiceluk says the results are already being felt in "changes to behaviour and language, and the way leadership teams are talking about their own development in a way they didn’t before".

Engagement statistics bear this out, with levels at their highest for four years and impressive scores for opportunities to learn and grow. Most significantly, DOT has been delivered without the use of external trainers and at virtually no additional financial cost. Original materials were developed by the learning and development team (supported on occasion by volunteers such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator practitioners), but it was left to line managers to deliver the learning on the understanding that, although they could make it feel "authentic", they couldn’t skip any elements.

"We had quite a bit of pushback when we said our L&D people weren’t going to deliver it," says Kiceluk. "People said ‘I’m not a trainer’, but if you’re the leader of a team you probably have skills you don’t even realise you have [to deliver training]. And the business partners supported the managers behind the scenes to make sure it happened.

"The programme is about everybody understanding that they can be leaders and take on the responsibilities that come with that. You might be very accomplished in a specialised field but, if you’re leading a team, that’s probably the most important part of what you do because you’re delivering through those people."

DOT has ushered in a new performance-assessment model that Kiceluk says "isn’t about ticking boxes and isn’t just a chat – it’s about asking how you’re performing". But she is clear that, although overhauling the reward structure has been another central plank of the people department's new mission at the RSPB, it doesn’t herald a shift to performance-related pay in its commonly understood sense.

When she arrived, Kiceluk says, the pay system simply wasn’t fit for purpose. "It wasn’t transparent, and there were a lot of variations and inconsistencies," she says. "Everyone accepted that it needed to change. More than anything, it was about equity, because two conservation officers in different places were being paid very different amounts and nobody knew why."

The team developed role profiles, which led to career paths and pay bandings, a clear sense of progression and clarity on earnings at different levels. The majority of the organisation has benefited from the changes to remuneration policy, Kiceluk says: "Pay is one of the most personal things for people. But this has given us a transparent structure so you can see what the jobs are, what the requirements are and where you might go next.

"What we want next is to link pay to your contribution. That doesn’t mean performance-related pay, because that isn’t appropriate for the business we are in. But we want to say that if you want to progress through your pay band, it should be based on your contribution to the organisation. There was no way of measuring that until we had the structures squared."

Through it all, the people department has changed too, with the introduction of four HR business partner roles working "collaboratively and proactively" with managers and senior leaders. And it has extended its remit to take the same development opportunities and strategic ideas offered to staff to the volunteer base. "I couldn’t understand why such a big and important part of our workforce wasn’t viewed in the same way as everyone else," says Kiceluk.

The people department, she adds, has "changed the language" used to describe volunteers and helped to ensure they enjoy management opportunities and involvement in strategic discussions. And the amount of training for those recruiting and overseeing volunteers has increased. "You need training if you manage volunteers because, in many ways, it’s harder," Kiceluk says. "Volunteers are often older, they might even be ex-investment bankers – you’re putting a 21-year-old with no management experience in charge of them. If those volunteers aren’t happy, they’ll walk – so their engagement is really important."

Over time, she hopes their skills will be better understood and will be matched with the right roles, recognising that they come forward because they want to "make a difference". And that’s an ethos that extends across the organisation. "People are committed to what you’re doing, and that brings rewards for you as an HR professional. How many of us can get up and say we’re going to work to save the planet?"

This article first appeared in People Management

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