Q&A: Lucy Humphrey and Tony Carr, social care worker co-op Leading Lives

The model gives employees the chance to take greater responsibility for the running and development of their enterprise

This month, to mark International Workers Day, and the centenary of the International Labour Organization, Co-op News is looking at the workers in the co-op movement. This includes a look at the difference between worker co-ops and employee owned models, and the ways the put people at the heart of their thinking. Here, we speak to Lucy Humphrey and Tony Carr, social care workers from Leading Lives Co-op.

How are worker co-ops different from other enterprises?

They provide a unique opportunity for employees / shareholder members to take greater responsibility in and having greater influence over the running and development of their enterprise. Shareholder members within Leading Lives not only elect board members but also get to vote / decide on other key issues. We also have a shareholder council that feeds views and thoughts to the board and are consulted by the board on key topics.

When was Leading Lives set up? How?

Leading Lives was registered as a new company in November 2011 in readiness to start trading in July 2012. The company was formed as part of a ‘spin-out’ from Suffolk County Council.  A small group of council staff registered as founder members of the new enterprise and set about building the business / getting things ready for transfer.  Leading Lives set up as a registered society – a employee owned social care cooperative and social enterprise.

How are employees involved?

The board is made up totally of employees (shareholder members) elected by their peers (there are five locality board members and four general board members. Additionally, there is a staff forum whereby staff can be elected to be locality representatives on a staff stakeholder/council forum which reports into the board. Shareholder members get to vote on various issues periodically.

What were the main challenges faced when setting up? Have you received support from any organisations?

The main challenges when setting up were:

  • Establishing a new £11m social care company from a standing start with no history (trading, financial etc) and no money in the bank (cashflow, safety net etc)
  • Lack of experience in the independent sector (our 390 employees were all transferred from Suffolk County Council – public sector)
  • Culture – staff used to operating in the public sector
  • Managing the concerns and anxieties of our customers (we support some of Suffolk’s most vulnerable adults), their family carers and our staff – the transfer followed a number of years where we had had to make savings (austerity measures) and closed a number of services. Some people saw moving out of the county council as losing the ‘security’ we enjoyed within
  • Gaining new business / customers whilst retaining existing ones
  • Establishing the infra-structure required to run a business of this size
  • Imbedding a culture of employee ownership and the co-operative principles into such a large organisation rather than growing it organically in a smaller emerging group.

We have received support from local companies (i.e. legal, finance, HR and IT) plus Co-ops UK, Social Enterprise UK and Employee Owned Association (we are members of all).

How does your co-op work with the wider co-operative sector?

We have representation on the Co-operatives UK Worker Co-op Council, which has enabled us to develop links and contacts with other worker co-ops, as well as discuss and explore the challenges we face as a large worker co-op. we have used links from the council to sound out ideas around engagement, changes to governance, processes and shareholder involvement. We have a representation on the Co-ops East regional co-operative council that is helping us to develop links and relationships with our local cooperative as well as gain an understanding of the local challenges and drives around cooperative business.

Cooperatives UK is a contact that we refer to when we need to sound out ideas with other co-ops or on developments we want to explore within our co-op, they link us to other similar co-ops who have or are experiencing similar challenges or developments.

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