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5 top tips for better employee engagement by Antony Smith Head of Culture, Training and Development

Antony Smith

Employee engagement matters.

It really goes without saying that happy employees are more productive. But, as we all know, happiness is only one part of the equation. The other part, less commonly discussed, is engagement. People who are engaged or invested in their work are also not only more productive, but more likely to therefore BE happy at work. 

Recently we spoke to Antony Smith, Head of Culture, Training and Development at brighterkind to find out a little more about his role, what drives him and why he thinks that employee engagement should be on the top of any CEO's priority list. 




Can you tell us a little about yourself?

The time has flown…. I’ve been at brighterkind a little over four years now. Prior to my current role, I was Head of Culture and Development at Haven Holidays, leading a revolutionary change from a learning perspective in the way the teams worked and served their millions of loyal guests and holiday home owners. It was a job I loved and I had to think long and hard about leaving to come to brighterkind……however, I am happy I made the move!

I had previously worked as a consultant, working on cultural change and learning and development projects as part of a team. Over the years, I played a part in the cultural journeys of Holiday Inn (IHG) in the UK and overseas, Banco Santander UK (during their transition from Abbey), Scandic Hotels (in Scandinavia), Nationwide Building Society, Bright Horizons and Caring Daycare (the latter two being childcare providers), Alpha Tours (in the Middle East) and a hotel group in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, serving pilgrims to Mecca. I also did occasional overseas trips as a tour leader for Just You: holidays for single travellers. I also worked for two years at Warner Leisure Hotels as training manager.

Before all this, I was at Thomson Holidays (later TUI) for more than eleven years. I started as a holiday rep then moved to tour management and leadership roles until the opportunity to join the training team came up. I spent almost all that time overseas in Spain, Italy and Greece – with occasion trips elsewhere. My favourite place to live and work was Venice, where I spent three years, and it is still my favourite city in which to take a break; arriving in the city by boat still fills me with excitement!

I was born on the flats of the East Anglian fens but left home at 17 to travel through the heart of Spain, following the route of Laurie Lee in ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’, then I stayed for three years in Madrid, studying and doing part-time jobs including teaching English and singing. I now live in London and I feel very much a Londoner; I really enjoy the lighter days when I walk, cycle and travel around the city, visiting sights, museums, restaurants, parks and the occasional show. Sometimes I like to escape the city to the breath-taking landscapes of Scotland, enjoying a ‘wee dram’ by the fire at night, and the wonderful , wild coast of Cornwall. My partner is from the Philippines and I plan to spend the winter months there later in life. I am currently studying Tagalog (Filipino language) to add to my Spanish and Italian.


Antony enjoying the sights of London on his Boris Bike 


What does employee engagement mean to you?

I believe that proper team engagement can only take place in a flat-structured organisation. If the leadership team simply dictates what the business should do from a remote head office, the team may disregard – or even rebel against - the message; if they comply, it is likely a team of ‘robots’ is created, simply waiting for the next instruction, not taking responsibility for their actions nor offering suggestions for alternative ways of achieving objectives. I would recommend anyone read about, or listen to a podcast of, Sir John Timpson, CEO of the shoe repair chain, who says that good leadership is listening to the customer-facing people because they know far more about their needs – and what they are saying about the business – than a manager sitting in an office. Getting out and about to visit sites, not to check up but to ask questions, is the key to understanding the people who work for you and those paying all our wages: customers. I agree wholeheartedly with his approach: I have learned, and continue to learn every day, from our wonderfully dedicated team members in the homes, nursery and offices, who have great insight and offer ideas and suggestions all the time to make our business, and consequently, our residents’ lives, better.

True team engagement is creating an environment where the team members feel empowered to try new things and use all their skills and talents, not being pigeon-holed. By talking to our team members, I often find myself on a voyage of discovery where many of them have a great variety of life experience and have hopes and dreams for the future. My goal is to make their ambitions with brighterkind, at least, achievable.


Play is the best way to engage a team 


How does the care business compare to the other companies you have worked for from an engagement perspective? Are there any specific challenges you have faced and how have they been overcome?

This is a very good question! Throughout my career, I have heard the expression ‘well, it may work in hotels/ nurseries/ banks/ travel agents…(delete as appropriate) but it won’t work here.’ The one big thing I’ve learned in all of this is… one industry is ‘different’. True, there may be certain unique challenges, and opportunities, but people are still people.

Naturally, when I joined brighterkind, I expected the familiar mantra from some quarters of ‘it won’t work’ etc. and at the first home managers conference there were a few sceptics. Empowering your team, whatever their role, can bring surprises, ideas and results that can warm anyone’s heart – just let them try! If they choose to be, our carers, nurses, housekeeping team, kitchen assistants etc. could be our leadership team of Home Managers, Regional Managers etc. of the future and I believe we have a duty to facilitate it.

I guess the one challenge I find most frustrating is ‘CQC/ CI won’t allow….’. For a while I accepted this until I was able meet regulators in both England and Scotland and found that what they actually like to see is an engaged, empowered team who can talk to them and not run away. I carry around with me in my work bag a CQC report from Ross Court and a CI report from Colinton which refer to culture and values many times throughout this glowing commendation. So beware…..I am armed and dangerous!


Who has been the biggest influence during your career and why?

There have been several influences on me in my career: mostly positive and few not. My very first boss used to tell me constantly that I went to a rubbish school and would never get anywhere because of it. That made me absolutely determined to prove him wrong. I now credit him with my firm belief that anyone can do anything – just get out there, put yourself forward, and do it! I still have ambitions and dreams and I know I can achieve them with hard work and a clear vision. Another manager used to sit a desk and shout at us all and focus on everything we were doing wrong. It’s not hard to guess what happened there: high absenteeism, robotic and terrified workforce and, eventually, a drain of talent.

Prior to Haven, my inspirations were all female. Karen was my manager for a year at Thomson Holidays and she never gave me the answer to a question: however stressed I was, she would always send me off to have a coffee, think about the solution, come back and tell her how I thought I could deal with it. She would then coach me to a workable solution. I know this will sound time-consuming to some people but she realised that by investing time in me at an early stage, I learned quickly to think and take decisions for myself…..and her time was freed up later, and for good. I learnt more from her in a year than I had in all my career until then. She also genuinely cared about her team. When she caught me sleeping in my car, having been there all night, because I ‘didn’t have time’ to go home, she coached me to work out how to deal with my workload and then called me every day to see how I was (if I didn’t see her in person) – for months (we were based remotely in the Greek Islands)! She encouraged me to pursue my dream of being a trainer and gave me faith that I could do it. At the end of the season, she bought me a Greek ring which I have never taken off since because it reminds me to always try to be supportive, not autocratic….and always pursue the dream. Never listen to ‘you can’t’.

Later, my manager was a lady called Helen, Head of Learning and Development. When her predecessor hadn’t wanted to give me a chance, Helen not only took me on, but shortly afterwards put me in charge of a major project, designing a training programme for the overseas resorts that would impact 4 million guests. She gave me the parameters then left me to it, always telling me she was there for advice and support. Regular one-to-ones and coaching sessions helped me deliver it to the team and the golden moment was the first run-through when the feedback was really good and she said, ‘Of course it’s really good: I knew you could do it. Now you can do anything you like’. It’s no wonder that I believe in the Ernest Hemingway line, later adopted by Sir Alex Ferguson, ‘the best way to find out if you can trust someone is….trust them’.

At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I would have to add that our very own CEO, Jeremy, is pretty inspirational too!. I love the way he engages with all our team members, not just leadership. I’ve been out to homes with him and seen him sit and chat to team members in all roles as well as residents and he has a knack of making everyone feel at ease – a rarity for a CEO, in my experience. Always supportive, he truly embodies the caring leader. His honesty and ability to articulate a vision in an engaging way is a real gift, in my view.

Valentin and Corina with brighterkind's CEO Jeremy Richardson

Jeremy joining in the celebrations at Hungerford when two team members got married there


How do we measure employee engagement at brighterkind?

All businesses, by definition, have to produce business results, which usually means statistics. We can be very proud at brighterkind at our world-class resident and family engagement scores i.e. NPS, and I know we will get even better. Our team survey results are also moving up and an improvement of 23% in just two years is impressive. We can still get better by listening to our team members and making sure they get regular praise and recognition for good work. I would also like to see our team facilities better cared for.

The current appraisal document allows for anonymous feedback using the Gallup 12 as a framework; I would urge every line manager to use this as a tool to identify areas where he/she is providing good levels of guidance and support, and areas where they can get even better. By doing this regularly, the team members start to feel they have a voice and will, no doubt, perform to their best ability.

I often check the home’s key performance indicators and draw comparisons with the amount of cultural activity in the home. It is notable that, each and every time I study them, most – if not all – the top performing homes are the ones with active Pacesetters and, consequently, cultural activity. I am not saying that Pacesetters will automatically make the home more attractive to potential residents; rather, I think it is an overall indication that they are happy homes with motivated teams and I believe it is evident to all visitors to the home, just as much on a show round as to a visiting brighterkind team member, resident or family member of an existing resident. Culture is also about sharing the good things you are doing so while some say ‘we have a happy home already so we don’t need to have Pacesetters or deliver the training’, it’s about being part of the wider brighterkind family, helping and inspiring each other. With this in mind, the Pacesetters’ Facebook group is a great success. So far we have nearly 200 members who regularly submit stories, photos, videos and ideas to share with their colleagues all over the country. The Magic Moments Club Co-Ordinators also post exciting events and heart-warming articles. It is one of the great pleasures of my role to be able to look at these every day and affirm that our team members are doing amazing things for each other and our residents, all in the name of brighterkind. It certainly makes me very proud of our people.


brighterkind's engagement scores have risen consistently over the past years.  What have you and your team done specifically to drive this positive change?

I would have to say the Pacesetter initiative. These volunteers, who have a passion for brighterkind, our values and, of course, care, continue to generate excitement, energy, creativity and so much more. When I visit a home, I can feel their influence almost immediately: the team’s eye contact, smiles and fun is often a reflection of a positive values-led culture. Anyone who is lucky enough to join me on a Pacesetters’ ‘Train the Trainer’ will know they are a special force. I never drive away from an event without thinking ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ when remembering an idea or activity someone has thought of during the event. They are an inspiration to me and to many others. The annual Pacesetters’ Celebration shows that, not only are they dedicated, they know how to party and display their wealth of entertainment talent!

In the early days, there was some resistance to the initiative and some homes didn’t engage with it; rather than holding them up as poor examples, I prefer to champion those who do it really well and, little by little, others want to be part of it and come onboard.

Last Autumn Lorna Murphy and I did a roadshow around the country to ask Pacesetters what they saw as the next step. Interestingly, similar ideas came up in all locations, which is a great sign that they know what they want and how to do it! Sam Tasker, Culture and Development Adviser, and have worked with Pacesetters who volunteered via Facebook to redesign the ‘Love Every Day’ materials to make it even more fun, succinct and fresh.

Some of the Pacesetters on their training course


What are your five top tips for companies looking to drive engagement in their organisations?

  1. Listen and involve your team in decision-making
  2. Be clear about your vision – where are you heading and why?
  3. Never accept ‘we are different’ as an excuse not to engage – as Depeche Mode once sang, ‘people are people’
  4. Walk, don’t run. Driving engagement takes time for your team to trust any new approach and processes. Steady progress will yield long-term results rather than ‘boom and bust’
  5. Champion the champions; don’t waste energy on the nay-sayers. They will either decide to leave or come on board when they are ready. You can’t punish your way to engagement.


What do you feel are the biggest pitfalls that companies should avoid when executing their engagement strategy?

I would say avoid simply ‘cooking-up’ an engagement strategy then launching it onto a unsuspecting workforce without any vision or evidence as to why you need to do it in the first place. I was on a train to Wilmslow last week and I overheard a conversation nearby where a boss and three of his managers were talking about an engagement strategy: ‘We need values’ said the boss’. ‘Right’, replied one of the managers, ‘I’ll pull something together over the weekend, we can review them on Monday and then think how we put them out’ (and, yes, I did write it down – I was so appalled). I wanted to intervene and tell them that this is precisely NOT the way to start an engagement programme.

I would also advise against only asking questions that you know will bring a positive or a not-so-bad response: ask honest, clear questions to the team and be prepared for some tough answers: only then do you have a starting point. Once you have a line in the sand, you can work on a destination and you also have real measures from day one to track your progress as you go along. Being afraid of the answers mean you will likely phrase the questions in a way that gives you the answers you want. Think about the furore over the wording of the Brexit ballot questions: it went on for months, to establish a question that wouldn’t influence a decision either way. Whether they got the phrasing right is still a matter of debate.

Avoid expecting too much too soon: Jeremy Richardson our CEO was once asked by another CEO at the start of an engagement journey when he would see financial benefits – the same year? This is hard to call because it depends on how large and tough your journey is. The only thing I do know is that when it works, it does bring financial benefits as well as the obvious impact on team happiness and customer (in our case, resident) opinion and loyalty. The company in question exceeded its financial growth forecasts in just three years, at the same time increasing team and customer NPS and, as a result, sales.

Finally, I’d say avoid thinking that seniority means knowledge. Avoid assuming that people in leadership roles have all the answers. Virgin Atlantic (VA) have as part of their behavioural model (the equivalent of our balloon), ‘Everyday Pioneers’. This is exemplified by listening to their team members through in-house feedback schemes, social media, engagement surveys and appraisals, whatever their roles, and by letting them lead the way to innovation. Many of the unique aspects of the airline came from team inspiration. By the way, VA has an enviable record on team retention and engagement – I have two friends who work for the airline and they love the company because they feel part of its evolution: there is no ‘them and us’. I also know someone who works at BA and feels the opposite – check who’s doing better out of the two businesses for team engagement and passenger feedback.


Why do you think that brighterkind employees would recommend working for the company to others?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this, even though I have this conversation with team members all the time. After all I’ve said in this blog about listening to the team and giving them a voice, I can’t reply on their behalf. What I can do, however, is tell you what I feel.

Although I don’t come from a care background, I now know enough people across the sector to say with confidence that brighterkind offers something special in care: we are a company that is growing in innovation, offering our residents new experiences to enhance their lives: think ‘our brighterkind signatures’. We offer our team career prospects through learning – yes, we can get even better and we intend to; our journey is ongoing and I, for one, want to give more opportunities and help create an integrated system where our team members can learn and progress within a fair, open and honest framework. The exciting thing for me is that we can involve the people who work in the homes, nursery and offices in creating the next steps of our journey. Our Pacesetters are unique to the sector and we have seen how they can develop as individuals, growing in confidence and enhancing their own skills and, in some cases, their lives. Before I joined, I never thought I’d use the word ‘exciting’ to describe working for a care provider, but now it’s what I say all the time. I don’t know what lies ahead but I do know that we can be excited – just look what we’ve all achieved so far. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?


If you were to give one piece of advice to a first-time manager about engaging employees what would it be?

Put your heart into it – if you don’t, your team will see it easily. Listen, trust, treat everyone equally, keep your promises………and use the Gallup 12 to guide you!


You might also be interested in:

How an engaged team can positively impact the customer experience - our Customer Satisfaction Survey and brighterkind's recent Customer Satisfaction Survey results. 

A little more about our cultural champion training prograame -  Pacesetter Train the trainer programme