A story of change: Managing mental health in a time of transformation

Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) is a Community Interest Company (CIC) which means it is asset locked and it reinvests its profits back in to the company’s social objective –  to increase the mental health literacy of England’s population. MHFA came to England in 2006 but the training was first launched in Australia in 2001 by the movement’s founder, Betty Kitchener.  MHFA now exists in 23 countries and in England we have trained over 85,000 MHFAiders.

The company has faced many strategic challenges since establishing as a CIC. The first challenge being the transition from a Department of Health programme to a company limited by guarantee in 2009. At that point we had three employees and a fragile organisational structure with a small profile. MHFA successfully faced that challenge and now stands as a medium size Social Enterprise, employing 12 members of staff, with a significant team of self-employed associates and trainers underpinning the organisation. Through the ongoing investments of our profits, we have also been able to create systems and processes which provide credibility to the MHFA product and brand.  Evidence of its brand presence can be seen in the media, with a recent feature on the BBC describing MHFA as a ‘growing force’.

In order to reach the size of company that we are now, change has been needed. Anyone that knows about organisational change will be familiar with Fisher’s transition model. As a leader, my job is to facilitate change in a way that grows sustainable business, supporting all staff (including myself) throughout the process, with minimum disruption to the day-to-day operation. Most change management case studies in recent times have been about efficiency and savings. We are in the privileged position of growth but the growing pains are still very real. Change, whether positive or negative, will impact on the people that make up the organisation and I think I can speak for us all in saying that we have certainly felt the impact! However, I believe the values of our company for example those of empowering, innovating and caring, create the culture of our organisation and have given us the platform from which to successfully implement change.

The first significant change process started in January 2014 with us commissioning an independent review, where every member of the organisation was interviewed. The purpose of the review was to identify the gaps in the business and highlight any capacity issues.  I used this review to develop a 90 day transition plan, scoped over 18 months.

In recognition of the fact that people are our most important asset and with the foresight of Fisher’s transition model, I introduced and adopted the curve as a reference point for all of us as individuals and collectively as an organisation. The team agreed that we would take three months to move through the curve individually (although some took a lot more time). Every week we measured ourselves on the curve and discussed what support we needed. It was a fascinating process in that it assumed that all of us would hit the dip and as a team we identified what we could do to buffer our journey when we hit the bottom.  One member of our team was so relieved when she understood the process and said ‘in my 26 year career I have never worked in a more supportive organisation where failure and feeling de-skilled is recognised as a normal part of developing. It is refreshing, liberating and energising even when I feel totally out of my depth I feel in control.’ 

I believe the power of transparency and encouraging collective risk taking is an essential corner stone of any business development. Using the transition curve to identify support mechanisms created an objective way for everyone to air the challenges they were facing and allowed team members to discuss and problem solve together. I also identified affordable coaching and invited everyone in our team to take up a year’s worth of coaching support. The feedback from one colleague was that this allowed them to self-reflect and explore the opportunities and risks the growth of the company presented for them and identify how they themselves can fulfil their potential within MHFA.

This year we face a new set of challenges as the company embarks on a second major transition. As the demand for MHFA grows, so does the need for our company to expand and this will require us to explore how we become a business of scale.  The key objective for us in growing the business successfully is that we are still capable of achieving our social objective of increasing mental health literacy, without compromising the systematic quality assured foundation of MHFA.  I am looking forward to what can be achieved in 2015.