By Karuna Kumar
If an army of bankers marched into a local school and decided to run it for a day, the first impression one would draw is that of utter chaos or a callously designed PR campaign.
That was not the case when the retail HR team of Lloyds Banking Group decided to do just that. “Back to School” is what they called the initiative and the underlying purpose was to make a radical departure from regular conferences organized annually by the group.
“The idea was to take the people out of their comfort zone and show them what they are capable of. We felt it would equip the employees with the confidence to accept the changes that were coming through in the next 12 months. We wanted to engage and inspire them so that they feel proud of where they are working,” explains Janine Osborn, who worked with Russell Martin, Retail HR Director of Lloyds Banking Group.
From an idea to an event
While annual conferences are often the way companies choose to share their future strategy and apprise employees of the progress they have made in the past year, holding one in a school is rarely heard. Osborn recalls how the idea took shape:
“The idea initially came from the HR function of the Lloyds Banking Group who had signed to a school’s partnership program for charity. When someone visited my boss asking about the school partnership program, an idea struck him as to why we shouldn’t conduct the conference in a school this year.”
Soon a full-fledged event was in the works. Not only would the conference occupy the entire space of the school, the idea grew to actually running it for a day. The event involved senior managers of the Retail HR and Communication function who are essentially responsible for nearly 60,000 people across Lloyds.
Karen Sawyer, Head of Events for Retail at the financial institution, says, “This was ground breaking for us. It was the first time we had actually gone out to the school, taken it over for a day and worked with the community in that way.”
While the working title of the conference was “Back to School” for Lloyds employees, the title used for the students was “Be the Best You Can Be.”
Preparing for school
The Retail HR function at Lloyds Banking Group looked to leading events agency, drpgroup, to help them stage the event.
The first task at hand was choosing a school. However, this wasn’t going to be easy considering there were a few criteria to be filled. It was essential to find a school that required some support; whose management was willing to listen to new ideas; and one that had the facilities to accommodate an event of such a large scale.
Osborn says, “One of the reasons that events of this nature occur rarely is because it is difficult to find a school that meets all of the above criteria. I have to accept that it was purely through personal networking that I was able to get our feet into a school that fit our needs.”
St Mark’s Church of England Academy in Mitcham was the school that was finally chosen. It was visited by 180 of the banking group’s employees to lend an educative and inspiring experience to the children.
Dale Parmenter, Managing Director, drpgroup, remembers, “At first I don’t think it sunk it. I took the brief as though it was any other event. But the realisation actually sunk in at the first meeting with the school’s head teacher who asked me – ‘how many of these have you done before?’ I realized this was going to be different.”
Driven with passion and a genuine interest for making a difference in the lives of the school children, the team was committed to making the event a meaningful one. From choosing the lessons to deliver, to drawing the lesson plans and arranging for all the equipment, the preparations began with full steam.
Reaction of employees
When the initiative was introduced to employees, their reaction was one of sheer terror.
Sawyer points out, “To stand in front of 30 rowdy kids in a school that has had five head teachers in the past seven years is a difficult task. Everybody had his or her own assumptions about how it would be in reality. While the managers were supportive, they were unsure of what the outcome would be.”
Contrary to all the scepticism, with due support from the school’s Head of Art, Paul Osborn and Head of PE, Lee Cholewa, the team from the drpgroup – along with Osborn and Sawyer – managed to deliver a gripping show.
Osborn mentions that the support from Gresham Street was particularly encouraging:
“Angie Risley, Head of HR at the Lloyds Banking Group came down to the school to pay a visit. She spoke to our teams and was impressed by all the activities taking place around the school.”
“On the day of the conference, we started the morning with two large assemblies. Roger Black, the famous athlete-turned-motivational speaker conducted the first assembly while Steve Backley, retired British athlete and former world record holder for Javelin throwing, conducted the second one. We chose them because of the upcoming 2012 Olympics, which is a significant event and we wanted to bring in this element for the children.”
While the assemblies were going on, Sawyer and Russell Martin were briefing the HR professionals in the gym from the boxing ring. Strange as it was to hear managers giving instructions from a boxing ring, it held everyone in rapt attention.
Following the assemblies, the HR managers took over lessons, teaching and helping students across 5 year groups with work and life skills. The morning was purely devoted to delivering lessons that focused on reading, goal setting and work experience.
“The whole premise was to give them an insight into behaviour at the work place, which was especially relevant for the Year 11’s. I feel that while they were all confident young kids, they were lacking a worldwide knowledge about things, which is what we were there to share,” Osborn says.
Following a joint lunch the HR managers used the school hall for their traditional conference. While the day was filled with interesting sessions being delivered by the Lloyds employees, there were some fascinating activities planned for the afternoon.
“We had music, drumming, dancing, a fitness video, a fashion shoot, painting of banners and some phenomenal singing. There were pockets of activities taking place all over the school,” recalls Sawyer.
Following this, the drpteam had just 90 minutes to create a closing ceremony for the day featuring the 750 students; this included all the activities practiced in the afternoon session, weaved together to create one final show.
Not quite a piece of cake
“In the morning, everything was all quite calm. The realisation of how difficult it could get actually set in after lunch. One such situation occurred during the dancing activity we had organised. As I entered the room where the activity was taking place, I saw groups of kids who had dropped out of the activity and the choreographer was struggling. I stepped in at this moment and delivered a pep talk to motivate the kids and explain them the very reason behind it.”
“We had ten to twelve areas where all these activities were going on and just 90 minutes to make all this happen. The pressure was intense,” he adds.
For Osborn, the experience was truly amazing.
”We could not believe it, the crew could not believe it and the kids themselves could not believe it. I don’t think any of us could have envisaged the impact it would have on every single person involved. In particular, the closing ceremony was stunning. Afterwards, we got our people to line up from the school door to the gate and we clapped them all out.
They absolutely loved and the cheeky ones went three times around to get the applause.”
Making a difference
As the day wrapped up, the teachers and the employees – as one team – watched the moving flashback video which left salt water in everybody’s eyes.
In the end, the school’s Head teacher related an overwhelming story of how a girl who didn’t participate in the normal lessons and was also unwilling at the beginning of the event to participate in any of the activities was – at the end of the day – one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders:
“Now I can tell you that you made a difference.”
Both Osborn and Sawyer are going back to the School to help with their Sports Day and are keen to encourage an ongoing relationship.