Leadership versus ownership: Why decision-making at Middleton Hall Retirement Village more ‘considered and thoughtful’ since transition

The former owner of Middleton Hall Retirement Village says he had to adapt his leadership style after the business transitioned to employee ownership.

Middleton Hall, a premium retirement village based in Darlington, Co Durham, became employee-owned in April 2019 – although the impact of the pandemic hindered the start of this journey.

Jeremy Walford, the former owner who joined a then failing nursing home in 1996, had been the managing director for over two decades until Suzanne Graham was promoted to the role in January 2021.

During the EOA’s January Virtual Network Meeting for members, Jeremy was asked a question around ‘ownership versus leadership’ and what – as a former owner and leader – he had found to be different in his approach as a leader when he was no longer the owner after the business had moved to an employee ownership trust (EOT).

Jeremy, who is now Middleton Hall’s Executive Chair, said: “I would say that there shouldn’t be very much difference between being employed-owned and not.

“Good leadership is about all the good behaviours and the things we talk about with employee-owned businesses, but actually we didn’t think we needed the change at that point.

“I think the only real difference for me is that I found myself being a little less gung-ho, I was very prepared to take risky decisions as the leader of the organisation when I owned it because it was down to me.

“We have to be a little more considered and thoughtful about decisions because it’s no longer my business.

“We now make decisions based on having fully researched and understood what we are doing so that when we get asked by our trust board ‘how have we made that decision’, it’s not we thought it was a good idea at the time.

“I don’t think it makes us more risk averse, it should make the quality of our decision-making better and slightly more considered.”

Suzanne, who has been managing director for a year, says the company now “takes people on that journey of making decisions rather than it just coming from the top” and from “a much earlier stage” and that “really does work well”.

She says that can be “quite difficult” as Middleton Hall has 170 people on one site working different shifts as it’s a “24/7 business”, but it uses workshops and surveys to help with this, while its employee forum talks to all co-owners with feedback brought back “to one central place”.

Finding the right ‘fit’ to lead the business

As well as having 170 co-owners, Middleton Hall has a similar number of residents living on its 45-acre site.

Its employee ownership trust has five trustees, two of which are elected by the board and two elected by the co-owners, alongside an independent chair who has helped improve its governance as board meetings had previously been “quite informal”.

Jeremy opted for employee ownership because he didn’t want the retirement village to be sold to somebody else, adding: “Social care has a track record of very good values-driven businesses being sold to big companies and lots of things changing and after 25 years I didn’t want that to happen.”

Middleton had initially recruited an external managing director in 2019, but this move “didn’t really work because of fit more than anything else”, so Jeremy stepped back in as managing director.

Suzanne was promoted from finance manager to finance director in 2020 and Jeremy says when she was first recruited “it was fairly obvious she had real potential to grow and take on greater responsibility”.

Jeremy added: “Last January we appointed Susan as managing director and we worked together for about six months.

“I’ve now stepped back to be relatively part-time and very much handed over the running of the business now to her and that has gone terrifically well, despite the difficult circumstances she took over with.”

Pandemic meant ‘employee ownership had to go on the backburner’

These “difficult circumstances” refer to Middleton Hall having to operate at the “sharp end of the pandemic” not long after its transition.

“From an employee ownership point of view, we almost went backwards because we’ve been operating effectively in an emergency mode for the best part of two years and that meant a lot of top-down decision-making done very quickly,” added Jeremy.

“It was pretty full-on and, I have to be honest, it wasn’t good from an employee ownership point of view, because we didn’t have time to consult people.

“Frankly, employee ownership had to go on the backburner because we were operating a business trying to keep people alive at that stage.”

Middleton Hall’s response to Covid was recognised at the 2021 National Care Home Awards, but Suzanne insists it is “still feeling the ramifications of the last two years”.

She added: “We have quite a lot of work to do in terms of bringing everybody back into that co-ownership fold, but we’ve started that process and our trust and forum help our strategic decision-making.”

The EOA’s series of Virtual Network Meetings provide members with an opportunity to hear from other employee-owned businesses through case study presentations and Q&As, followed by the opportunity to network in smaller groups. To find out more and for a list of events click here.

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