Raj Sarai, HR Manager at Steps to Work, signed up to the CIPD’s newly launched charity HR mentoring programme, established in response to COVID-19 to help charities navigate its impact.

Raj was matched with mentor Katie O’Sullivan, Recruitment Manager at Mitchells and Butlers, in June 2020.

Steps to Work, a Walsall-based charity with 70 employees, helps the hardest to reach people in deprived areas of the West Midlands and Staffordshire start their journey to employment. Often isolated and in some cases third generation unemployed, these local residents often need additional support with confidence, motivation and skills advice.

The charity celebrated its 21st year in 2020, an emotional occasion for Steps to Work. Its ‘coming of age’ in 2020 certainly reflected a move from one part of its life to another. With a new CEO in the past year, a programme to redefine and articulate the charity’s values and a desire to develop a more strategic HR approach, Raj was busy with many transitions. Then COVID-19 hit.

With health issues a growing reason for unemployment in the community, and the coronavirus pandemic only making the situation worse, Steps to Work’s role became increasingly important.

Much of Steps to Work’s funding comes from the European Social Fund, and the end of the Brexit transition period loomed. While funding was guaranteed to 2022, it was critical to reduce the charity’s financial vulnerability and dependence on grant funding. This would help it continue to fulfil its purpose of driving positive change within the communities it serves, by delivering innovative employability programmes and services.

Safety and support for its customers, employees and families were uppermost during the pandemic, and Steps to Work’s leadership team quickly put a risk strategy in place. This included ensuring staff could work from home successfully, as well as introducing counselling schemes, increased communication and furlough.

The charity was quick off the mark to ensure everything went as smoothly as possible. But Raj didn’t want to lose sight of the major HR initiatives on her ‘to-do’ list, in particular the HR Strategy, a Talent Management Strategy and Reward and Recognition Scheme. It was fortuitous when an email from the CIPD hit her inbox with details of a new charity HR mentoring programme. She signed up immediately.

'Our new CEO is a huge advocate of mentoring. It’s not something we have done in the organisation in the past, but he has a couple of mentors he talks to regularly and he encouraged us to seek out internal and external mentors. So the email came at exactly the right time for me,' Raj says.

It’s all about the customer

After filling in a form to indicate the areas she was interested in focusing on, Raj was matched with mentor Katie O’Sullivan. It was a good match, Raj says, because despite one working for a charity and the other a pub company they faced similar issues.

'Customers are at the heart of what we do and it’s a customer service environment for Katie as well. The issues in terms of trying to embed values within your organisation and trying to recruit people with the right values, these are very similar for both of us. And likewise, how you deal with people that haven't got the right behaviours are issues we had in common,' she explains.

Raj and Katie exchanged email addresses and fixed a time to chat over Zoom, as the UK was in lockdown. They decided to have weekly Zoom or WhatsApp calls but agreed to be flexible and to accommodate holidays. After the initial few months, the calls were every fortnight and the mentoring lasted for six months.

Crucial for Raj, who had worked for Steps to Work since 2002, was Katie’s support in helping embed the seven new values and behaviours into the organisation: client focus; continuous improvement; innovation and entrepreneurship; cost consciousness; relentless achievement; relationship orientation and managed risk.

'The new CEO had brought new values into the organisation. I was keen to get Katie’s ideas on embedding those values, the recruitment strategy to recruit staff with the right values and also advice on how to have conversations around behaviours - when an individual may be performing well but is not displaying the right behaviours,' she explains.

Katie was able to help by suggesting articles and books to read, as well as using her own knowledge and experience to guide Raj and help her look differently at ways of doing things.

'Katie gave me a really good technique called ACID, which I hadn't heard of before, but it was just one of those things that you think, wow, that just makes sense. It’s exactly what I needed to know. And it was so simple, but it just makes a huge difference. It was that exchange of ideas that really helped.

'I was able to implement the behaviours conversation into our performance guide for our managers and say, look, just follow this. So little golden nuggets like that make a big difference.'

Another area in which her mentor was able to help was reward. Katie suggested running workshops with all employees to get their feedback on what they wanted from a reward and recognition strategy, something Raj had not thought about previously.

As well as organisational benefits, Raj says having a mentor helped with her personal development. She found advice on how to ask for feedback particularly useful, especially in terms of being more specific about the feedback she asks for from her senior team.

'Mentoring is a sort of sounding board experience. Being able to talk to somebody about what is critical for me and being able to get their feedback and thoughts on it has been invaluable. It’s a really positive experience that has helped me to grow personally,' she says.

Learning from a large organisation

One of the key benefits of the experience has been learning from a large organisation in a different sector. Being able to transfer that knowledge into a small charity with few resources was helpful, says Raj. While she regularly watches webinars and reads information provided by the CIPD, this is something she would not have been able to access had it not been for the mentoring programme.

'As we're a charity, budget is always tight in terms of training. We just don’t have the money. And I'm a bit of a ‘one-man band’ on the HR side of things. There isn’t anyone else in the organisation for me to talk to about these HR issues.'

'Katie had a lot of knowledge and experience and brought that whole external perspective. When you are in an organisation you tend to just focus on doing things the way you do them. But there is so much else out there, so many different ways of doing things. It’s really important to always have that coming into your organisation, so you are continually improving. That’s what mentoring can do for the organisation. So as well as supporting the individual, I was able to bring in a lot of best practice and a lot of improvements to our working practice, thanks to Katie.'

Raj is now introducing mentoring throughout the organisation as part of the Talent Management Strategy, encouraging everyone to have an external or internal mentor to help with personal growth and development. She is putting together a mentoring guide for employees and managers, to help them establish a structure and ensure they get commitments from mentees to follow the guidance they give.

'Putting mentoring in place in my organisation will help others to take advantage of what I have learnt from having a mentor. The more employees talk to people outside the organisation, or even in different departments within the organisation, and use people as a mentor, the more they'll be able to improve things in their own departments,' she says.

On the back of her experience, Raj wholeheartedly recommends mentoring to other not-for-profits.

'Mentoring has helped me to help my organisation improve its working practices through gaining an external perspective and expertise without incurring costs that as a charity we would not have been able to absorb.'

'It helps your self-confidence; it helps you to get ideas that you can implement, and it helps you to benchmark. And, in my case, because of the guidance that I got from Katie, I was able to implement things in my organisation that were successful and that resulted in my receiving a lot of praise. Mentoring supported me to be successful in my working environment.'