Working at The Reader

Zoe Gilling and Anna Wells discuss their work at The Reader.

  • Names: Zoe Gilling; Anna Wells
  • Current positions: Director of People and Shared Reading Programmes; Head of People
  • Organisation: Tate
  • Date of interview: June 2020
Headshot of Zoe Gilling.
Headshot of Anna Wells.

Can you tell us a little about your organisation? 

Zoe: The Reader is a charity and social enterprise that has formally existed since 2008. We use great literature to bring people together. 

We do that through what we call shared reading which involves small groups (2 or more) of adults or children getting together to read good quality literature and using that literature to have meaningful conversations. Good literature provides people with an opportunity to discuss things that are quite personal and meaningful in quite an anonymous way. 

Shared reading has lots of benefits but the two we really focus on are improving wellbeing (mild to moderate mental health) and improving social isolation. It’s a great way for people to meet others and in our groups, people tend to meet people that they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise meet in their normal life. 

We’re running these groups across the UK – and internationally – working in various settings from community centres and libraries to acute mental health wards, prisons and care homes. 

Our head office is in Liverpool in Calderstones mansion house, our international centre for health and wellbeing. It’s an exemplar of shared reading. We opened in September 2019 and we run about 25 shared reading groups from there, along with a variety of other wellbeing activities. 

That’s also where our social enterprises are which generate income for the charity. We have an ice cream parlour and a café, we have tenants in our building and lots of lovely spaces that people can hire. 

And everything we do at the mansion house has what we call a golden thread of literature running through it. 
We have about 1,000 volunteers who support us in our mission and about 140 staff. We have a really mixed bag of staff and types of roles as we carry out a variety of activities that. We have a lot of full-time staff, part-time staff and a lot of staff on particular contracts delivering specific pieces of work. 

Could you tell us about your organisational structure? 

Zoe: We structure ourselves in terms of support (all the standard support structures you’d expect to have in any organisation like HR, finance, comms, IT that sort of thing). 

Then we have our shared reading programmes directorate, the teams that are responsible for running the shared reading activity, making sure it runs well, making sure it’s good quality, making sure it meets funder requirements, and of course all of our core functions support that work. Then we have another directorate which is our social enterprises – the business and the activity in the mansion.

Have you ever hired a former postdoc? 

Zoe: Yes we have two – and there may be others. This is in part because we’ve been lucky to have a relationship with the University of Liverpool. That’s really helped us to attract those two postdocs. The Reader actually started life in the English department of the University and the University were good enough to give us rent free accommodation in the very early days.

What are the key challenges for your organisation at the moment? 

Zoe: Apart from the more obvious things like succession planning and talent management, one thing we grapple with is needing specific skills in the organisation e.g. we need brilliant readers, qualified accountants and we need people with CIPD qualifications. 

However, while there are some roles you have to have the right skills and experience for, there are other roles where showing that you share our values and are willing to learn on the job are more important. We’ve got brilliant staff and we can all learn a lot from each other. If you have the fundamental characteristics – sharing our values, can make things happen and can work in what is often an uncertain environment – then there’s probably a role that would suit you somewhere at The Reader. Although finding people with all these characteristics is a challenge, isn’t it, Anna? 

Anna: It is a challenge because I do think The Reader can be quite an uncertain and fast-changing environment. I think that you have got to be quite comfortable dealing with ambiguity to work here. I’d say that the challenges that we’re facing at the moment aren’t the same as the challenges we were facing three months ago. 

The current situation has presented us with a new set of challenges that we hadn’t envisioned when we were doing our people strategy at the start of the year. Zoe and I put lots of work into a people strategy and obviously we’ve had to re-plan and reprioritise everything in light of what’s happened. 

I think our main challenge at the moment is how do we build a successful organisation to meet the challenges of this new environment. 

Zoe: Yes, Covid has presented new challenges because when we were talking about an uncertain environment, it’s uncertain for everybody at the moment isn’t it? 

The voluntary sector is already very uncertain because of the nature of the funding and often The Reader’s ambition makes things uncertain because we are in the middle of a growth strategy and that means we are continually testing new ways of working and looking at tweaking our products. 

This all presents uncertainty and you have to be ok with working in that. Anna is right that is our biggest challenge at the moment. 

One of our other challenges is about integrating our workforce when they (and their roles) are so diverse. We want to ensure an employee working in our café on a Saturday integrates well with our Director of Development who is responsible for fundraising huge amounts of money. We want to ensure that they both share the same values and that the organisation doesn’t segregate employees off into their different functions. 

Could you describe The Reader’s workplace culture? 

Anna: It is quite a unique culture. I joined The Reader last September and I’ve worked for a variety of organisations before, some of them quite corporate. If you’ve been in a corporate organisation, culturally The Reader is a big change. 

I’d say our culture is very collaborative, we try and listen to the employee voice as much as we can. I think we’ve got a very individual culture that is apparent in all of our branding and corporate language. We’ve definitely got our own voice and our own specific ethos. 

I think one thing that sets The Reader apart from other organisations is that our values are actually meaningful to us. I’ve worked in organisations where they had corporate values but they didn’t mean anything and no-one stuck to them whereas our values are the thread that guides us through the decisions we take and how we interact with our employees. Our culture is also very informal and non-hierarchical. 

Do you still have Think Days? 

Anna: We typically have Think Days twice a year and they usually last two days and are structured around a theme. Our employees are based all over the country from those working in our criminal justice teams who work in prisons and aren’t based in Liverpool, to our teams in London, Somerset and Wales. 

Think Days give us an opportunity to bring everyone together at the mansion house. Staff really appreciate the chance to spend time with their colleagues and have meetings and discussions around the particular theme of the Think Day. We usually have some relevant external speakers as well. 

The theme of the latest Think Day (which was cancelled due to Covid) was going to be diversity because that’s something that we’re really focussing on at the moment. Feedback from staff suggests that they find Think Days really useful and are great for engagement. Think Days bring us closer together as an organisation. 

Zoe: Part of the purpose of Think Days is dispersing information to employees and getting organisational messages across. We use Think Days for collaboration, to work on a piece of thinking and/or to gather information on organisational processes. We bring volunteers to our Think Days too, and have done some cocreation work with them.

What does diversity mean in your organisation?

Anna: As an Arts Council Portfolio Organisation we need to report on diversity. We’ve separated our diversity action plan into workforce and recruitment, programmes, engagement, and board and governance. The workforce and recruitment strand of the plan is very much looking at our policy, our recruitment processes, how we’re attracting a diverse range of candidates, what our literature looks like and how we speak to people. 

We’ve been looking at a lot of guidance on how the language you use in application forms and job specs can exclude certain applicants because they can’t relate to your corporate literature. We’re doing a big review of our application process based on this guidance. 

We’re also doing a huge review of all of our texts and our anthologies to make sure that we’re incorporating a diverse range of texts into our shared reading activities making them more accessible. 

Diversity has been discussed a lot in HR the last year with discussions on how to make work more inclusive to everyone. It’s a massive challenge and a huge conversation. We’ve found that no one knows quite how to tackle it but everyone knows they’ve got to start doing something to change. Change is gradual and we’ve found it to be a process of trial and error. 

Does decolonise the curriculum movement come up at all? 

Zoe: Not really as we try to steer clear of the curriculum. We’re always looking for new diverse material not just work that’s included in the curriculum. We mostly care about how good literature makes you feel. We know what works and we have lots of tried and tested literature. 

We think the good thing about literature is that it brings diverse people together, we’re looking for work that enables our participants to talk about, and share, the human experience. 

Could you say a bit about the volunteer model? 

Zoe: We’re currently investing in a volunteering kitemark. Volunteering for The Reader started off reasonably straightforward, but we’ve since expanded and now there are several ways to get involved. I think there are now 10 different types of volunteer role. 

There are a number of things you can do at the mansion house, ranging from a receptionist to a gardener. There are also volunteer roles that centre around the shared reading model including leading shared reading sessions. 

The volunteer model has been through a number of transitions over the years. Our shared reading programme used to be entirely staff-led, but we’ve now moved to a volunteer-led model. We’ve also got a team of support volunteers helping those volunteer-led reading groups around the UK. 

We have really committed volunteers who actually undertake to recruit and support other volunteers, and together they support a shared reading community.

As an organisation, do you use self-assessment tools or discussions of your values as a team?

Anna: We definitely use discussions of our values as a team, though I’m not sure we use self-assessment tools as such. 

Zoe: Our values are still relatively new and we put them together with our staff. It was a massive collaborative piece of work, with a consultant helping us. We had 12 and more recently refined them to 5. Those values, though, are very much alive in what we do, they’re threaded through our policies and embedded in the language we use in day-to-day work. 

Our values are also a big part of our Think Days. We have an awards programme called Values in Action where staff nominate each other when they can see that someone has really championed our values, or employed them. 

We don’t tend to go for very many prescribed tests. We did once use a Mental Toughness Questionnaire, but really what we’re looking for is emotional resilience in candidates. That goes back to the pace of the work and also needing to have boundaries when you’re working with vulnerable people. 

Can you tell us about the coaching culture you’re thinking of implementing?

Zoe: Yes, we are committed to building a culture of coaching within the organisation. It is in our People Strategy and is really important for us. Not only to make good relationships but also to improve ways of working. 

We’ve noticed with staff that, because of the pace, sometimes if you’re not careful – despite the time and effort we put into our development review process – relationships between managers and staff can easily become quite transactional because you’re trying to get through a lot of stuff all the time. 

We’re trying to make sure that, along with our commitment to develop people and promoting from within, we are really coaching and helping people through their work and enabling them to progress. 

Sitting alongside that, we’re also committed to developing our volunteers. Sometimes we see people progress from being a group member to a volunteer. We know that lots of people could make that leap from being a volunteer to being a supporter of volunteers, but our staff can find it difficult to make that ask of volunteers, even though they can see they’ve got the skills.

When volunteers do take that step up, we have great training available but you then need to move into that more mentor/coach relationship to support volunteers rather than just putting in a training intervention. 

It’s also worth saying that team meetings at The Reader begin with shared reading, to avoid relationships becoming too transactional. Starting a meeting like this puts your head in a different place. In fact, some of our funders – Nesta and the National Lottery – have said “we’ve seen your model and we’re doing a session on this. Can you give us something to read at the beginning?” 

Anna: If you’re having a really stressful day with back-to-back meetings, just that twenty minutes of shared reading allows you to pause and reset. Since going into lockdown, doing shared reading with some of my colleagues has definitely helped. Everyone has been feeling lots of different things and it’s helped us to talk about what we’re struggling with. 

Mentally, it’s really useful and it connects colleagues as well because you end up talking to them about things you wouldn’t have done beforehand. 

What’s the developmental structure like within your staff?

Zoe: It’s a real challenge for us. There is some formal and required training we use for development but we have tried over the years to develop different career developmental pathways. We don’t tend to buy in standard development, so we wouldn’t send someone on a generic leadership course, for instance. We think we could actually do a better job of that ourselves, using really good literature and our workforce experience. 

A lot of our internal learning, we try to develop ourselves. We’re just relaunching a programme called ‘The Revolution Begins at Home’, which is a series of staff development sessions, again using literature. So say if assertiveness was the theme, one of our staff would go away and find a short extract to read that would give you insights into assertiveness to build on. 

We’ve tried to formalise pathways, but we haven’t quite nailed it yet, to be honest. We try to expose people to lots of on-the-job learning, often asking ‘who would like to work on this?’ or ‘could you take on a little bit more responsibility?’, letting people have a go and building from there. 

Anna: Our challenge is that we haven’t got the resources to send people on extensive training programmes, because we’re limited by our budget. Also, due to the size of The Reader, there’s not always the possibility for people to progress because sometimes the roles aren’t there. 

However, in everyone’s individual development planning we do talk a lot about where people are at the moment, what they’ve learned, and where they’d want to go in the future – whether at The Reader, or elsewhere, or personally. So it’s not just about what they want to do at The Reader, but what they want to do with their life generally. 

I think that employees do feel they can talk to us about where they want to be. If they, for instance, wanted to move into another department or there was an opportunity that came up that they would like to try, we encourage them to tell us. Even if they don’t necessarily have the skills for that role, we would develop and train them in order to be able to move across to that role. 

There’s definitely the scope to move between departments at The Reader. You might start out doing one role and end up in a completely different department based on the opportunities that arise, your skillset and what you want to do.

What values, skills mindsets are the right fit for The Reader? 

Zoe: Dealing with uncertainty and a willingness to learn. I know that sounds like a cliché but I think within that is a real need to be able to ask for help, admit when you’ve made a mistake and not feel the need (even in a senior role) to always be the expert. 

Sometimes you have to be the expert but often it’s ok not to be as long as you can learn from mistakes. This is very much like our shared reading model in that the person facilitating the group isn’t necessarily the expert on a text, they’re just the guide. 

One of our values is to be kind but bold. It’s recognising that we must be kind to one another but also have the ability to be able to have really open, honest and frank conversations to improve our work and work well together. That’s easier said than done for some people. 

Anna: I’ve worked in organisations where there’s been quite a strong blame culture but at The Reader I think we place the emphasise more on ‘ We are going to make mistakes but what can we learn from them? What can we do differently? This is much better than blaming someone if something has gone wrong. We use mistake-making as a learning tool to reflect and improve. 

Zoe: There’s also something about working at pace and having ambition. Work at The Reader is quite fast paced. We’re ambitious and take on a lot with limited resources so that puts pressure on people and means you have to work at pace. 

This is not to say that there’s not a place for those who are very thorough and diligent because we need them as well. 

What about research skills?

Zoe: We are interested in research skills, yes. Monitoring and evaluating and showing the impact of our work is key. We have external stuff still going on with the University of Liverpool and others. We’ve just had a massive piece of research done into our criminal justice work with the University of Cambridge (we’ve just had a first draft through), so hopefully there’ll be a good bit of comms around that. 

Interestingly, we had some money from the Big Lottery Fund to run a randomised control trial, that we had to shelve because we had fifty grand and it wasn’t enough – there are some really difficult issues around doing that well. We’ve had to postpone that, but it’s still on the agenda. 

Also, given the extent of our provision, given the mansion and all its activities, we’ve got a lot more evaluation challenges. We’ve done a lot on the benefits of shared reading, but now we need to look at the benefits of the wider offer (lots of monitoring stuff on footfall, etc. which is new to us). 

We’ve had some help from the Audience Agency and a couple of other external people but there’s a lot of evaluation work to be done in the future, and the team is very small and will need to grow. 

Could you talk a little about the recruitment process at your organisation?

Anna: We have a number of volunteering roles advertised online, so people would fill in an Expression of Interest (EoI) form online where they’d explain why they’re interested in a particular role. We respond to those EoIs accordingly. 

If they’re going to run a shared reading group then we would get them on a Read to Lead training course, which is a 3-day training course where we train people to be Reader Leaders and run shared reading groups. If they’re going to work in the mansion house, they have an induction specific to their role. 

When recruiting for paid staff we have a values-led approach. There’s an online application form, where you would write a profile of yourself outlining your interest in, and suitability for, the role, in line with what’s on the job description. 

Then we also have a part of the application form where you write about our values. We ask candidates to pick one specific value and explain why that would be applicable to the role they’re applying for. However, we are currently reviewing our application process with a view to diversity, in case our language could inadvertently be a deterrent to some people. 

Zoe: We do still tend to stick with a standard interview model, but we have tried to innovate. Exposing candidates to some shared reading is a fairly standard part of the process for us because it helps us to see what people are like and how they respond. 

Anna: When we interview, we tailor the questions we ask to draw out the behaviours we’re looking for in applicants. We’ll tailor the questions to the role, so that’s about analysing the job description beforehand. 

Are there any things which really make a candidate stand out and what are the common pitfalls?

Zoe: In keeping with our values and behaviours, we always ask something around ‘Tell us about a really bad mistake you’ve made and learned from.’ Just anecdotally, some people can’t answer that, or aren’t prepared to answer that honestly in an interview situation. While I understand [it], it gives you a really good insight into whether that person is going to be able to learn from a mistake in the workplace. 

Anna: With the shared reading at interview, if you make fun of the process obviously you’re not the right fit for us. Shared reading is a core activity for us. Some people say that they use their instincts when recruiting, but I don’t think that’s right because when you look into it deeply, it’s your biases that are driving what you think is your instinct. 

It’s a difficult question to answer! What would make us appoint someone? It’s understanding our values and behaviours, understanding what we do, sharing our ethos and having the right skills for the role. 

How do you assess emotional resilience?  

Zoe: In an interview we would ask people about a very challenging time they’ve experienced and what it was like, what strategies they developed within themselves, or what tools they drew on when times were tough. This gives us an indication of what they would be like in our workplace. There’s a lot of self-awareness in emotional resilience. 

Anna: It’s using interview techniques that are evidence-based, so asking questions like ‘Tell us about a time when…’, ‘How did you feel?’, ‘How did you react?’, ‘What did you learn from it?’ We ask the candidates really open questions about their experience. 

Zoe: And while we do run quite a standard interview process, what the behavioural questioning does is forces people to be personal in their interview. A lot of interviews tend to be about your skills and experience and what you can offer an organisation, don’t they? And we need that. 

But we’re also asking people to dig a bit deeper. Some people are more comfortable with that than others. With the ‘big mistake’ question I mentioned earlier, responses range from the very personal to very small work-based things (like putting a meeting in the wrong person’s calendar, for instance). It gets personal when you’re talking about emotional resilience. We need to see some of the person, as well as what they can do. 

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