Paul Bott has been Chief Executive at St John of God Hospitaller Services UK (SJOG), a 140-year-old charity providing housing and support across England, since October 2018.
Here, Paul describes how joining SJOG was a positive decision, despite the charity being near to closure when he arrived.
The only way is up
The charity had been very successful and at its peak it provided 47 services across the country, employed 1,100 members of staff and achieved a turnover of £25m a year. It was a big, successful and forward-thinking charity and then it lost its way. By 2018, it had lost services and 450 employees remained, working in 30 services. The loss of services meant that income had slumped to £15m, but costs were at £17m. The charity had repeatedly covered the difference out of reserves, but these were now all gone. It was only because of a generous donation the charity didn’t go ‘pop’.
When there is a problem, it’s not usually isolated to one area and it wasn’t just financial issues, but there were also issues with quality and with staff turnover. The Care Quality Commission (CQC) rated 52% of areas as being ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’ and the turnover for employees in 2018 ran at 42%.
The day that I arrived I was told that we would be losing another two services; they were being transferred to other providers. It was clear to me that we couldn’t carry on like this and there was a need to stem the losses from the charity, both in terms of the experience that we had walking out of the door and the £35,000 that we were losing every week.
The charity found itself in a bit of a pickle. The choices were to either wind up this 140-year-old charity and find new homes for all of the services – this was something that Imelda Redmond had done when winding up 4Children – or to try and make the charity sustainable.
Changing the narrative
The narrative that the leadership team had been sharing was that SJOG was in decline because the sector was in decline. I had a different view and went on a tour to visit every remaining service to talk with frontline colleagues, to share what the position was, that it couldn’t stay like this and to ask for their help in saving the charity.
My frontline colleagues were brilliant. They could point to what worked really well, they were honest about their frustrations and they spoke openly about the challenges in getting maintenance done and the pressure because bills were being unpaid. We talk in the charity about the genius of our colleagues, and they really demonstrated this attribute. It is their ideas and their focus that turned the charity around.
The visits gave me the opportunity to find out what was going on at service level and I found that generally the level of care and support was really good, which didn’t reflect the ratings given by CQC. The issue was that there wasn’t evidence to show what was being done well. We couldn’t prove how good we were, that we weren’t just ‘warehousing’ people but that we were making a positive difference in their lives.
Back to basics
Next came a restructure, a reduction in back-office roles and the recruitment of a new senior team, all important steps in the transformation of SJOG. The new senior team were fantastic and having a team leading the work meant that the transformation happened faster – and it needed to. Our new Chief Finance Officer started on reducing our supplier costs and training our frontline managers so that they could better negotiate for a fair rate for care – in many cases we were still being paid rates agreed years before because the charity had neglected to ask for increases as needs changed.
Our new Chief Operating Officer focused on monthly quality audits and building an outcomes framework which meant that we could better demonstrate that we were having a positive impact on the lives of the people we are here to support.
Our new Director of Opportunities started to build partnerships and talk about what comes next, providing our frontline colleagues with the skills and the support to develop something new. He also saw the creation of a fundraising department that in their first nine months brought in £16 for every £1 that was spent on them.
A year to remember
Looking back at our transformation in 2019, there are four moments that I would call totemic:
Within two months we had a new brand and a new website. I know these are the most popular things for a new Chief Executive to do; but it was important to signal that we were evolving from what had gone before, and not losing our heritage. Websites are our ‘shop window’ to the world but for us, we were focussed on targeting the messaging internally and this was the point where we stopped referring to ‘employees’ and started referring to ‘colleagues’.
In the February, we gathered our colleagues together for a conference and it focussed not on the doom and gloom of what had gone before, or what we were still going through, but on all that was great within the charity and the great things that were planned. Listening to our colleagues on this day was the point at which I knew we were going to be alright.
In April 2019, SJOG opened two new services, one in Oxford, the other in Middlesbrough. These were the first services that had been opened by the charity in 12 years. It set the ambition for the charity to be of more help to more people and since then, a further 15 services have opened. Finally, in the June, SJOG posted its first monthly surplus. It was only small, but it was the last piece of the puzzle. The charity finished 2019 with a surplus and a really successful 2020 means that reserves have been rebuilt to a sensible level.
Along the way a new strategy was developed that captured the voices of the people who live and work in SJOG. The strategy’s name came from a conversation in the early days that I had with a colleague who had listed a whole series of woes. When with some sympathy I asked her, ’Why do you stay?’, she replied, ‘We’re here to help’.
Leading by example
The charity was always a gem. It just needed uncovering and people given a bit of support and co-ordination to make the best of their efforts. It took a lot of hard work by all of our colleagues, but what I’m most proud of is that our senior team is known across the charity. They make regular visits to services and have conversations with the people doing the work at the sharp end. I’d like to think that because we talk to each other we have a community that makes better decisions and understands what our common purpose is. None of this complicated; it’s paying attention, having conversations, and valuing your colleagues, and capturing their genius. It’s thanks to their hard work that SJOG is
still here to help.