How formalisation of Smile Together’s elected body has helped improve people’s understanding of their role as an employee owner

When the pandemic brought Smile Together’s Staff Council “even more sharply into focus”, the dental care provider decided to take the opportunity to relaunch this as its Shareholder Impact Board (SIB).

After discussions with colleagues and on the EO Hub platform’s forum with EOA members helped it make this decision, Smile Together recruited an additional three representatives to join the existing four that initially made up the elected body; revised its objectives; and produced a visual roadmap to outline its collective ambitions.

This formalisation, says Managing Director Paul Critchley, has “improved people’s understanding of not only their role as shareholder employees, but also how they use the governance that we’ve got to get views put forward”.

Smile Together, which became employee-owned in April 2016 and operates across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, provides a range of NHS dentistry, particularly for vulnerable and under-served groups and patients with complex health conditions, alongside competitively priced routine private care.

Smile Together's team of employee owners making a smiley face

Smile Together’s team of employee owners making a smiley face

With a mission to “tackle oral health inequality”, it is one of the South West’s largest NHS referral and emergency dental care providers, and functions as an employee-owned community interest company (CIC) and social enterprise with “clear rules about reinvesting 100% of our profits back into patient facilities, our community and environment”.

When it transitioned, key for the award-winning company was making that employee voice heard and “meaningful”, and Paul believes the change to SIB has had an impact on this.

“Certainly, if you look at our employee engagement survey results, colleagues understand more now what their Shareholder Impact Board is there to do, they know who their local elected reps are, and they understand the role in terms of looking after things like HR policies and procedures,” he says.

How ‘crossover of governance’ works at Smile Together

The change of name and “feel” for the elected body during the pandemic was designed to “give it more of an influential, strategic feel in the organisation”.

Three main board directors sit on the Shareholder Impact Board, while the SIB chair attends all board meetings, “so on a monthly basis we have that invaluable crossover of governance”.

“What we wanted was for our elected body to become, from a governance perspective, more integrated into some of our decision making, so it was re-named, we widened the number of elected representatives that could sit on it, and it assumed more formal responsibilities for the organisation,” adds Paul.

“So one, for instance, is developing and approving all of our HR policies, from annual leave right the way through to maternity allowances and sick pay, before they go to formal Board for ratification, because those are the things that most affect our employees.

“We wanted to further improve connectivity with the Smile Together Board so once a year we have a joint meeting between the main board of directors and the Shareholder Impact Board where we share all of the plans for the business, take joint decisions and look to the future.

“It’s all part of the evolution of finding out what it takes to become more engaged with your workforce and then, once you find that out, it’s a matter of governance to enshrine that in the way that the company is run.”

Example of the SIB becoming more integrated into decision making

Smile Together, which is currently working towards becoming B Corp certified, runs regular employee engagement surveys with the help of its Shareholder Impact Board.

The SIB also played a role in helping the company review its identity. At the end of 2019, Smile Together undertook a perception survey among its employees, as well as some of its patients and external stakeholders, to “assess perceptions of the company and how complex we were perceived to be”.

“At that point we traded under three different brands plus our Brighter Smiles oral health programme in addition to a number of other impact projects,” explains Tracy Wilson, Smile Together’s Head of Marketing and Communications and a standing member of the SIB.

“We wanted to get a feel for whether that was the right way to be trading, whether people understood where their care was coming from, and whether they understood the level of impact we had in their local communities.

“It was no surprise, actually, that the results came back indicating a real lack of understanding so we presented a paper to the Board, discussed this at SIB, and agreed to consolidate brands into just Smile Together, phasing out the other two brands that we previously had.

“SIB continued to play an invaluable role in our brand consolidation process, engaging with colleagues so they felt informed and helping to identify things that needed changing or introducing.”

As a follow-up to the presentation from Smile Together on leadership at the EOA’s virtual EO Boost event in 2020, MD Paul Critchley appears in Episode 3 of the EOA Podcast, which you can listen to by clicking here >>

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