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Cutting half its staff provided a renewed focus for LifeSkills

It takes a brave leader to make half their employees redundant and slash turnover, but that’s exactly what LifeSkills boss Spencer Fearn has done.

When it comes to certain services, bigger is not always necessarily better. However, you sometimes need to go on an occasionally-fraught journey to realise that.

When Spencer Fearn launched LifeSkills, a company that gives disadvantaged young people the skills to get the jobs they want, it was 2003. He was 27 then and wanted to build a “monster” of a training company, the biggest in the country.

By 2011, however, a little older and wiser, Fearn could see that the organisation – which had opened centres in Leeds, Peckham, Basildon, Lowestoft and Rotherham, had 150 staff and worked with 30 different external partners to deliver a sprawling range of apprenticeships – was running away with itself.

“The business was turning into something I wasn’t comfortable with,” he says. “I’d be dealing with major corporations, and could see how enormous they were, and how completely disorganised, and I just thought – I don’t want that for LifeSkills.”

Fearn soon hit upon the alternative: he would focus on the quality of the provision, not the quantity. Within a year, he let go of half the company’s staff and chopped £3m off its turnover. He also severed relationships with his outsourcing partners, many of which, he says, didn’t always extend the same level of care to the learners.

“We decided to look after everything ourselves in-house,” he says, “because that’s where the trust was – in our staff. We come to work every day with purpose, not just to earn money. People are here to do something worthwhile: to make a difference to thousands of young learners.”

To make this new model really fly, Fearn knew he’d have to invest more in motivating his team, which now numbered closer to 70.

If quality of care was to serve as the cornerstone of his more streamlined approach, his team would have to feel even more supported and motivated than ever before.

Rewarding people with more than money

Fearn set to work truly bolstering employee engagement. He introduced private healthcare packages for all staff and their dependents, which included chiropody, dental cover and, in acknowledgement of the challenging nature of some of the work, even counselling.

“The provision probably costs us £10,000-£12,000 a year,” he added. “That’s fine, if it leads to the staff and the learners feeling more comfortable. When you think about it, £10 per person per month is not a huge amount of money.”

He also introduced a part-time counsellor in one particularly challenging centre, alongside access to a financial adviser for staff to discuss mortgages and pensions with.

People would also no longer have to work on their birthday. That was on top of 28 days minimum annual leave. Anyone who stayed with the company for ten years would automatically earn a month off. On a day-to-day level, everyone would finish work at 5.30pm, with no one taking work home at the end of the day.

Fearn then launched a bi-monthly fund for social activities, and held company parties, including hiring a boat on the Thames last year to celebrate LifeSkills’ 15th anniversary. There was also a chance to give back to the local community: every member of the team gets two paid days a year to work for a charity of their choice.

“It all helps forge friendships outside of work,” says Fearn. “When we’re at work, everything is 100 miles an hour, and it’s very hard work. This is about looking after staff in the best way you possibly can – making sure they’re happy and that they enjoy the work, almost creating a second family for people.”

Motivating through development

Fearn was keen to highlight how Nick Bailey, his deputy MD who joined LifeSkills as a work placement officer a year after its foundation, had worked his way through centre manager and regional manager on his way to his current post. Most of LifeSkills’ senior managers have enjoyed a similar trajectory.

“The management team has to be very, very strong,” says Fearn. “Most here have been tutors and had to deal with everything themselves, so they understand the many complex needs of the staff and our learners. We’re very keen on promoting from within where possible.”

To that end, the company invests heavily in career progression, bringing Ofsted inspectors in to provide additional training, and giving each member of staff an extensive personal development program. “Some people may develop here and then go off elsewhere and get a better job on more money,” says Spencer. “But that’s just one of those things. Our job is to make sure our staff are the most qualified they possibly can be, so we then give a great service to our learners.”

Giving the team a voice

He’s also willing to listen to his team. Many of the measures that LifeSkills has introduced to boost engagement have come from the staff themselves, through annual staff surveys, in which the team get to comment – anonymously if they prefer – on all aspects of the company.

“We encourage everyone to be involved in ideas, so it’s not just the managers managing down, it’s bottom-up as well,” says Fearn. “That’s very valuable. We do an annual strategic plan as well. Everybody, from me to a junior administrator, has a voice as to what we need to improve upon. We really do listen to our employees. We have to – they’ll generally have better ideas than we will. That’s why LifeSkills has been a success – because we have a culture that listens.”

According to Fearn, the results are conclusive, with staff reporting an increase in happiness and sense of value over the last three years. Last year’s survey was one of the best the company has ever had.

The success has not just been recognised internally – in its most recent report, Ofsted commended LifeSkills for its “outstanding” care and support, advice and guidance, while the company has become a fixture on The Times list of best small companies to work for.

The entrepreneur and his team are now embarking on a crucial annual task: reading up on every other company in The Times’ latest list to scout for any methods that may be applicable to LifeSkills. “Some of the best ideas are already being used by others,” revealed Fearn.

If you’re interested in techniques to better motivate staff then utilise our benchmarking tool. We’ve also got some helpful quick tips below.

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