Hidden behind a mountain of spreadsheets and endless employee requests, purpose can be elusive. Spending a career aligned to education and the non-profit sector however means for Corinne Mills at least, purpose certainly hasn’t been in short supply.
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Mills comes from a family of teachers which, she says, has made her predisposed to wanting to make a difference.
Since starting out as an HR trainee at Marks & Spencer, Mills has been led by cause, taking roles at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and The Learning Trust, a former education authority for Hackney.
Now director of people and organisational development at Alzheimer’s Society, Mills’ purpose has never been clearer.
“My urgency is we need to make huge improvements for people affected by dementia, and we’re not doing that quickly enough as a society,” she says. “It is definitely getting better with awareness but, more people now die in the UK from dementia than anything else.”
The charity’s vision is ‘a world without dementia,’ and Mills’ role is creating an environment in which staff can focus on working towards that vision. When Mills first joined, though, this focus was at risk.
In September 2019, Third Sector reported that a third (31%) of Alzheimer’s Society staff had a negative view of the organisation’s leadership – 15 percentage points lower than the sector benchmark.
Following that, in early 2020, the charity was harangued on Twitter by an anonymous account who claimed to have been bullied while working there. A complaint about alleged bullying and improper use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence staff was then picked up by The Guardian, which launched a probe into the charity.
Mills recalls: “It was probably one of the most challenging moments of my career but also the biggest opportunity.
“It was challenging because we never got to understand who the allegations were made by or to properly address them.”
As the press levelled toxic culture allegations against it, Mills says the charity felt pressure from all sides.
“Some of it was external, but some of it was also internal, particularly from the individuals the allegations were against, they found that difficult,” she says. “There were also pressures from our donors; we are a charity therefore people want to know that their money is being used to good effect.
“I had a lot of the conversations with major donors and celebrities, talking to them about the culture of the organisation and some of the things that we were doing.”
The Charity Commission cleared Alzheimer’s Society of wrongdoing over the use of NDAs in May 2020, but the charity’s HR team still had its work cut out picking up the pieces of that impact.
“The importance at that point was being open and transparent so that people could raise any concerns,” says Mills. “Really promoting our employee forum; enabling and developing leadership in our different locations to be really open and encourage people to talk about the experience; and enabling people to put forward their ideas about how we might do things differently.”
Policy underpins a culture of trust, Mills says, but role modelling from the top and having leaders talk openly about mistakes is critical.
Five things I can't live without
She’s called Cali and she’s huge – a Bernese Mountain dog, she looks like a fluffy teddy bear
To give me sanity
I absolutely love rugby; my team is Bath
A glass of wine
Red goes down very well
I’ve got three children, 23, 21 and 18
One of the measures HR introduced at the time was live Q&A sessions between staff and the executive leadership team (ELT), named ‘Ask ELT anything’. These proved so effective as sounding boards the charity still runs them monthly. Mills also reduced the ELT and worked on values with leaders.
She says: “Now our ELT and next level of leadership, a tier of associate directors – challenge each other and we’re really open to people at all levels challenging.”
It may not have been easy, but Mills is assured the scrutiny has meant the charity is recovering stronger than it was before.
She says: “I’m not sure at the time I had in my head ‘this is the best opportunity that we could have,’ but a new chief executive came in and we talked about the culture we wanted.”
Now, she attests: “We are without doubt one of the best charities in the sector to work for.”
Testament to this claim is how the organisation competes for talent, according to Mills. She says: “We still have challenges with some of our data, digital and tech roles, but on average we are having to consider closing adverts early.
"We’re having several people not just appointable but strong candidates for roles and we’ve had numerous instances where people have not got the job they applied for, but then they’ve come back to the organisation in a more junior role.”
As of 2022, 78% of Alzheimer’s Society employees responded positively to ‘I trust and respect the leadership group in this organisation,’ above the sector benchmark of 63%. The same percentage of employees said they recommend the society as a great place to work – up eight percentage points on 2021.
Staff dedication, the continued support of the public and high-profile celebrity endorsements also made 2021 a bumper year for the charity, raising a record £116.5 million, the largest sum since it was founded in 1979.
Mills says: “To go from the allegations of toxic culture, to Covid when we weren’t sure we would stay in place, to now having that financial stability and direct lines with government about making dementia a priority – having that level of influence is because we’ve got great people really behind the strategy and getting those messages out.”
Continuing to enhance employees’ working lives, one of the most recent changes Mills has made is a benefits review, including flexible bank holidays and increased annual leave.
As a charity dedicated to the care of those with and those caring for people with dementia, it has also advanced the support it offers to working carers [as explored in our cover story].
“Working carers need huge flexibility – in the hours in which they work as well as the roles and flexibility of where they work,” adds Mills. “So we provide carer’s leave, and we’ve recently changed it so people don’t have to take it in days, they can take it in hours.”
Dedication to the cause is threaded through other aspects of the employee experience too. In recruitment for example, new candidates have discussions with people affected by dementia as part of their interview, and people with dementia join internal employee, volunteer and leader conferences.
Though Mills has been dedicated to many causes throughout her career, she counts the transformation achieved at Alzheimer’s Society among her proudest achievements.
She says: “The change in the culture and the level of engagement that we’ve now got – I’ve never felt that somewhere else, or the quality of the people in the organisation committed to a particular cause.”
From her time at The Learning Trust, Mills realised the power leaders can have by believing in people and changing expectations. Every role she’s had, she says, has come with a complex challenge, which is what drives her, but throughout it all it’s this belief in others that gives her a sense of optimism.
“It’s really easy to go into a role and to have a conversation with the manager or someone and they’ll be blaming somebody else,” she says. “Actually, if you give people the tools and the support – if you believe in them and enable them – they’ll do an amazing job."