Philippa Ward: Why are Global Action Plan’s staff so happy?

In: BlogDate: Nov 22, 2016By: Claire Lickman

Global Action Plan is another top performer in our internal staff surveys – but how do they do it? In this 15 minute talk from the 2016 Happy Workplaces Conference, Philippa Ward explains her top tips for creating a happier workplace – particularly in times of change.

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Philippa Ward: Why are Global Action Plan’s staff so happy?

So a bit about me and a bit about Global Action Plan, and I think the reason that’s important is because three years ago we moved from a traditional structure of having a Chief Executive, our Founder, to having a partnership structure, where five partners run the organisation, so I’ll talk a bit about that in a minute. Then I’ve got five top tips, so things I’ve learnt along the way in this journey, which hopefully will be useful to you, and then I suppose the harvest and the challenges from the process of transformation, and hopefully having a happy organisation.

So just a little bit about us – so we create change by equipping people to act on the environment. So we do a lot of face-to-face work, we do a lot of training, a lot of engagement, so not only are our people and our staff (there are 35 people) absolutely essential to the work we do, but we’re working with people everyday – so really, people are fundamental to what we do everyday.

What we do is, we find change agents who can make a difference, and then we use behaviour change psychology to encourage them and equip them to make change. So we have quite a young workforce, which is probably relevant, I’ve read quite a lot about millennials. Well I’ve been doing research and the leadership are all in their 30s and 40s, and a lot of the staff are in their 20s.

So these are the first monkey pictures – I especially love the middle one!

I think that change comes from when we bring our individual skills together, and that’s true whether you’re trying to act on something like the environment or whether you’re trying to create a fantastic organisation – which for 20 years was run by a very strong-minded entrepreneur, and then we needed to transition to a situation where we were able to take to it forward, continue to fundraise, and continue to thrive ourselves.

Everyone loves an Obama quote so I thought I’d throw one in, but for me this really resonates!

Because at the time when we were moved to a partnership, I wasn’t in charge of People Excellence particularly. I tried to do a lot of things internally, but I had a Business Management and Development role, and then increasingly I realised that if we wanted to make the culture really strong in the organisation and hold onto all the things that were great about it under the person who’d set it up, but also build on that, then I needed to start and think about how to make that happen and also engage the other people who wanted to do that.

So just a little bit about why we are a partnership, because I think it’s important. It allowed us to have a greater impact than we would have done under a typical Chief Executive structure. Now what that means in practice is there are five of us who run the organisation, we’re a flat structure, there’s one person who reports in to the Board of Trustees, but then under that we have layers, so there is some hierarchy, but we don’t have teams. We have project teams which are agile, which come together, deliver projects and then break up, and we have coaches to support people within that. It brings its own challenges, but it means that there is an awful lot of dialogue and flow in the organisation, and it’s allowed us to do some things differently.

It also meant we had to find new ways of working, because instead of just one person trying to carry the stick, there were five of us. And I was talking to someone in the break about how do you change a culture, or how do you unlock things or start to try new things, and I actually think just by just changing one thing, quite a significant change, but changing one thing, it allowed us to unpack lots of other things and try lots of other things and experiment a bit. Some of those didn’t work out but I think sometimes one significant change allows you to roll other things into it.

So my top tips:

I think the first one was to name the niggles. So quite often at the beginning of trying to make some change, we were trying to solve the problems ourselves, or we were worrying about the things that people were discussing and complaining about. Then we actually had a day facilitated initially by a Happy trainer, where we just said ok, what are the top five problems in the organisation and let’s get them out on the table – which is scary because you’re asking people to complain, and then let’s come up with solutions, break into groups and come up with solutions. We now do that every year because what happens is it means that half those problems turn up to not be problems at all, they’re a problem for just one person in the organisation, and as soon as you discuss it you realise it’s very simple to solve, or it means everyone owns the issue and starts trying to solve it. So that’s been a real learning [curve].
We have a development group and we just do a quick health check and that allows us to work out if there’s things we should be picking up on or if there’s things we should do differently.

And also, another really helpful thing is that in project teams or in other meetings, we just go round and ask people to rate 1 – 10 about how they’re feeling, either how they’re feeling about the project or how they’re feeling more generally. That allows us to get out all kind of risks out on the table, it gets a sense of which teams might not be feeling so great. They don’t have to say why, they can just say “I’m a 4 at the moment”, but it’s just another way with all these routes to start discussions and to start a place where people CAN say “I’m not feeling so great” or “I’m worried,” whatever it may be.

The second one, is giving time and thanks. So as I said we have a coaching structure, rather than a line management structure, which means the conversations are hopefully much more supportive, pro-active. We’ve had situations where people have come to us and said “I’m thinking of looking for another job, but I wanted to have a conversation with you first” to their coach. It allows them to talk about what they aspire to, that maybe in five years they want to do something completely different, but how can they be helped towards that and stay within the organisation rather than leaving, and it also means that we can develop them as a whole person rather than just ‘how can you do your job better?’

Just a few small things – we have a thank you board, a big black board in the office where people thank each other, which really serves as soon as people join as the organisation that we’re a supportive organisation and we’re a friendly organisation where we value each other. We also do things like Easter Egg hunts, Christmas vouchers – just small things that constantly say that we’re really glad that we work here and that you work here.

We also keep in touch with people who used to work with us, so we do an Alumni event once a year in the pub where people come back, and the thing a lot of people say they miss most about Global Action Plan is the people and the way that we work together, so we try and hang onto that.

The third thing? (I couldn’t find a monkey for this one so we’ve got puppies!) so the small things add up. And I think that as with the thank you board, having constant reminders that this is the place where people want to be and where they can bring their whole self to work.

So we don’t unfortunately have office dogs, so it’s not that we own dogs ourselves!, but people bring their dogs into the office. So it just means that people who might otherwise struggle to get care for those or get a dog can do that and it makes a huge difference to their lives.

We do something called the “GAP creep”, which is where they’ll be working away and suddenly the whole office is gathered around them holding cakes – normally freaks people out quite a lot but it’s very memorable! So I guess it’s that ‘shared experience’ piece.

And then things like ‘office amazification’ – we’re a charity, we don’t have a big budget. People were complaining about the state the office was in, so a group of people said “can we just get some budget to buy some paint and buy some things and just use our volunteer day to do the office up?”, and we said “well yeah, sure, as long as it looks nice at the end then go ahead!” So we’ve got a completely refreshed office that mirrors the taste that those people have, and they even bought on-brand paint! So I thought that was quite impressive.

And then just fun things like ping pong and rounders that again, are just as suggested by the younger and newer members of staff to just spend time together that’s not in the pub.

And then the final thing is that not knowing is OK. (I don’t know what that bug is on the right hand side, but I really like it!)

A lot of the things that we’ve not known about, like how to hang onto people and give them development pathways, we’ve tried a few different things, we tried how to make everything uniform, we’ve given people a separate technical measure. We’re still experimenting with delegation – as easy as it always sounds in the Happy booklet, letting go is hard – but we’re doing a lot of work around that at the moment.

And then I think one of the big unknowns that’s also been one of our big successes is we signed up for some social investment which allows us to employ five unemployed young people every year, so we train thirty, and of those we take on five on for one year and we’ve got a five year programme. So taking quite a different cohort than we’d normally have, and in a 35 person organisation, five people are quite a lot, but trusting that our culture was strong enough that we could do that. And then from that, it’s opened up so many things, and we’ve got a Talent Manager, Secondiv, from British Gas because of it, and a whole new way of thinking about culture that we can then transfer and coaching that we can then transfer to the rest of the organisation.

So I suppose it goes back to my first point about the partnership, that making sometimes quite a big step will then unpack lots of things that makes other things possible.

So, I think the harvest is that thing about possibility – more brains = more ideas. And we’ve got a model that in the charitable sector at the time we did it was unique, we went to research other people that were doing it and no one was. I now know of one other interesting environmental organisation that are doing it. I think it’s created a shared responsibility to fix what is broken.

And the last point is my job is fun and creative because of it, and as part of all the changes and the freedom that we’ve had to redefine things, my job’s completely shifted to fit in much better with my talents and my skills – so now as Henry says I’m responsible for internal excellence, and everything – people, operations, marketing, etcetera.

And the challenges?

Explaining our structure to people who might say partners? What’s that? What does that mean? Do you get paid more? Do you have shares in the charity?

A big [challenge] with ‘recruiting for attitude’ is finding people who are comfortable with creating their own reality. So for some people, arriving somewhere like Global Action Plan, it takes them a while to understand that if they want something, they can ask for it, and that they can create and are part of the culture that maybe they’re not used to.
Getting the learning and development right, because I think that putting the value on our people, their skills and their range of skills, especially their people skills, has become more important.

Embedding trust and control and what I’ve called ‘not getting distracted by shiny things’ – when anything’s possible and you can introduce a whole range of things, and just really being focused still on you know, I have KPIs, I have outcomes, we do measure things, we do keep track of things to make sure that we’re not thinking ‘oh, I have to get someone in who can get us all singing’ or whatever the next thing is.

So, finishing with some questions for you, if you could break into your tables, so I’d be interested to hear – what would be the scariest thing to try in your organisation? Either something I’ve talked about, or something you’ve heard today (not everyone can say the singing!) And what would be the most exciting thing that you could try?

Q: So you said you had five partners – so how do you make decisions, do you make decisions, and then how do you filter those down, are the rest of the staff underneath you or do they all get a say?

So there a five of us who make decisions. So what we’ve tried to do is be quite clear on accountabilities, so we make decisions that affect the whole of the organisation, but as much as possible we cascade things down. So at the moment a big piece of work we’re doing is empowering the next level down, to decouple us from decisions that aren’t going to affect the whole organisation but might be really significant for different portfolios or different project teams, and then going down and down.

Q: How many levels do you have?


Q: Out of 35 people?

Yes. And each of those levels have their own team meetings, where they can say “this is a problem for us, how can we solve it?” and suggest things, and we normally sign them off, or look for something else.

Q: You’ve got five partners at the moment, can someone move up to partnership level from within the organisation, and what’s the mechanism, how does that process occur?

[So we’re actually] looking at how to make that track really clear at the moment, but basically I’m the internally focused partner, and the others do business development mainly. So in a sense anyone who can bring in half a million pounds can become a partner, if anyone wants to join!, but then looking at how we can make that leadership track clear, and we’re trying to empower the layers below as much as possible and we’ve been doing some facilitation workshops and things like that to help us have those conversations.

Would you like your own staff survey to benchmark your staff’s happiness? Visit Happy’s website for details, and to measure both how happy your people are, how well they understand your organisation’s values, and receive valuable and measurable feedback.

Click here to download Philippa’s PowerPoint slides.

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Claire Lickman

Claire is Head of Marketing at Happy. She has worked at Happy since 2016, and is responsible for Happy's marketing strategy, website, social media and more. Claire first heard about Happy in 2012 when she attended a mix of IT and personal development courses. These courses were life-changing and she has been a fan of Happy ever since. She has a personal blog at

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