Not many companies can say their HR strategy stayed the same for well over 100 years, but Leek United Building Society can.

For 156 of its 157 years in business, the society’s HR department cut a peripheral and unloved figure in the 200-employee organisation, leading not only to serious shortcomings in areas like retention and diversity, but to the absence of a coherent people strategy linked with wider business objectives.

In 2018 retention was at just 58 per cent, with key losses including two consecutive finance directors, the pivotal head of mortgage operations and two HR managers. According to staff surveys, the office environment was “like stepping back in time”, “old”, “tired”, “scruffy” and “cluttered”. Some meeting rooms were deemed “embarrassing” to use when meeting external visitors.

To put the former status of HR in perspective, Leek’s 2018 strategic plan saw just one of 94 pages devoted to HR. For a company so rooted in its ways, getting up to speed was going to be no mean feat.

Against this backdrop, then, the dramatic transformation it did achieve led judges to laud it as one of the best they’ve ever seen. The team’s comprehensive, well-planned and executed approach strategically driven by the senior leadership team ensured they came out of the ‘dark ages’ and signaled a new era for the society.

The appointment of a CIPD-qualified CEO and HR director in 2019 was key to this turnaround. They saw HR elevated to the executive committee table for the very first time and the implementation of a dynamic and transformational people strategy. After more than a century, the bedrock relevance of the function was recognised through virtually every page of business strategy and activity as being fundamental to lasting organisational success.

An exhaustive programme of 53 separate workshops, as well as multiple pulse surveys, were held, which found that employees didn’t feel listened to. Performance management effectiveness was rated at just 45 per cent, and only marginally more than half of all staff felt they were treated fairly, with just one-third saying they were treated equally.

A detailed people strategy outlining the society’s vision, values and purpose containing a structured series of actions to address the findings was devised. It was communicated to staff via a wide range of central and local presentations and Q&A sessions, involving the CEO, executives and all line managers.

Values workshops were conducted for all staff and a programme of activities to enhance and embed the society’s culture implemented. The performance and development review process was completely redesigned, greater emphasis put on day-to-day feedback and engagement, and all line managers received detailed training. Recruitment, induction and development processes were overhauled, the working environment was upgraded, a new equality and diversity policy was implemented, as was a wellness support programme for employees.

Since the “outstanding” transformation, 86 per cent of staff are proud to work for Leek United, 84 per cent firmly believe in the society’s plans and 85 per cent believe the organisation is run on strong values. Retention of key employees has improved from 58 per cent to 100 per cent.