“Build a values-led culture where people can grow and thrive”

“Build a values-led culture where people can grow and thrive”

Posted Oct 14th, 2015 by Expedite | 0 comments

Carmel Millar - Surrey Council

Asking your staff to address what values they want their organisation to embody, might no longer be much of a ‘novel’ concept but it’s one that has paid dividends for Surrey County Council.

It was once categorised as a low performing council after failing an external inspection into its Children’s Services in 2008. Its culture back then was described as ‘Parent/Child’ and ‘Arrogant’, and staff sickness levels stood at 13.2 days per FTE; Surrey was second to bottom in the county council rankings on sickness absence.

Surrey is now one of the highest performing councils. Its sickness absence rate has halved and has just dipped below six days per FTE. It is now ranked second to top amongst county councils ranking on sickness absence. Surrey has received national awards for its procurement service, highways and Shared Services. Perhaps more importantly, the accolades come from their own staff and partners – the Council’s Peer Review of 2013 found strongly that the council had transformed its culture.  A Mori staff survey at the time found that Surrey scored higher than the Mori top ten companies on –  ‘I am treated with fairness and Respect’, ‘I have a say in how I do my work’, and ‘communications during change’.

Carmel Millar says the ‘broader indicators’ are that the public see them as an ‘innovative council’ but on a more micro level she believes staff within the organisation are ‘feeling well and feeling happier’.

So, what were the values that staff wanted to foster within their working culture?

  • Learning
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Responsibility


Again, these words may not resonate as being particularly ‘groundbreaking’ within the HR world and they can sometimes be words that get banded around without much gravitas behind them. However, since July 2009 when a new people-centric Chief Executive arrived (David McNulty), the council has put significant investment into ensuring these values are lived across the council for the 10,000 strong workforce, spread across 200 different work places in Surrey.

David’s first priority was to build a coaching culture at Surrey – six years later, the investment in leadership coaching, and what Surrey calls its High Performance Development Programme for leaders, has paid off. Carmel reflects that the three biggest levers of the culture shift in Surrey have been Leadership, Employee Engagement and fixing the basics (having the right equipment to do the job and pleasant work surroundings).

The council’s coaching ethos believes staunchly in a leadership culture of ‘ask, not tell’.  Carmel says: “Rather than give people the answers, we entrust our managers to ask the right questions that will help others develop and feel empowered to find solutions.”

She adds: “If you can build an atmosphere where people have permission to be themselves, with a supportive value-driven culture, it’s incredible what individuals can achieve.”

Carmel raises the example of one employee who has flourished within the council through the relatively new ‘career lattice’ scheme (rather than ‘career ladder’) that allows people to move laterally through different departments.

Carmel explains: “Where there may not be as many direct opportunities to rise up through the hierarchical structure, people have the opportunity to build a wide breadth of experience and gain exposure, and access, to different services while building new skills.”

She adds: “We haven’t always been able to do what we would really want on the pay front over the last five or six years but people are encouraged to stay when their talent is recognised and they’re given development opportunities to stretch themselves – this matters the most to people.”

In this particular case, the employee was able to move from the fire service, to democratic services and finally to children’s services, where her skills and qualities continue to be utilised. Interestingly, this individual was highlighted for their very strong ‘relationship building’ ability, as the key reason for their being in such demand.

Identifying and developing leaders is of course crucial to driving an organisation forward. The traditional ideas of what a leader actually is are of course changing, from the traditional view of a ‘Churchill’ or a ‘Maggie’ we so often associate with them.

Carmel says: “For me, true leadership is values driven and great leaders never waver from their values, even under the greatest pressure and risk.” She adds: “Very often others will see leadership in a person whether or not it’s in their job description”

Carmel Millar will discuss how to engage and ‘retain your top talent’, in further detail at The HR Innovation & Strategy Challenger Meeting - 17th and 18th November 2015.

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