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New CIPD Cumbria Chair tackles membership engagement

Reluctant isn’t a word often used to describe Melanie Kinsella, the new Chair at CIPD Cumbria. Every role in her career — from her beginnings at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, through to a Learning and Development role at Napier University in Edinburgh (the first job she applied for after deciding to move to Scotland) and now as HR Business Partner at the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency — she’s actively pursued with vigour, impressing upon potential employers a genuine hunger for supporting others’ learning. But when asked by outgoing Chair, Claire Dunn, if she’d consider stepping up to lead CIPD Cumbria’s committee, Melanie was uncharacteristically hesitant to jump right in:

“Becoming Chair wasn’t on my radar. Only a year had passed since attending my first committee meeting, and although I was enjoying participating in a sub-group looking at the skills gap in Cumbria and doing other small activities on the side, I didn’t know the first thing about what a Chair did or how I’d fit the role in around my other commitments. The position comes with lots of responsibility, it’s a big investment of time and, of course, it’s voluntary. It was completely outside of my comfort zone, and I took a few months to decide whether it was right for me.”

Melanie’s peers on the committee, though, were convinced she was the right person for the job. Impressed with her tenacity to get on and do things, as well as her strong opinions, organisational skills and ability to communicate and network with people at all levels, they unanimously voted her in as Chair in May 2017. And Melanie admits she was thrilled by the support and encouragement she received, yet the high of being appointed became short lived when she realised the challenge ahead. 

As well as creating CIPD Cumbria’s business plan, supporting committee members with event management, managing social media channels and attending CIPD and non-CIPD events and other networking opportunities, the Chair must also track the number of event bookings and respond to all emails across the branch’s three email addresses. During a settling in period, where Mel admits she stood back, got to grips with the role and fired lots of questions to CIPD HQ, she began reviewing past event data and discovered a worrying trend:

“Looking back at previous member participation over three years, attendance and engagement were going down and I couldn’t understand why. The Cumbrian CIPD had for the previous three years enjoyed strong leadership and an active committee. Those first few months it felt like I was starting from scratch, treating the brand, and the organisation itself, as a new entity.”

Communication, Melanie deduced, was key and by December 2017 she had a plan to re-engage the membership through heightened email marketing and social media activity. She also created a survey which was sent out in October 2017 to the branch’s 600+ members — the first-time they’d been surveyed for over three years — seeking suggestions for event content, as well as to find out how long it had been since people had attended an event and whereabouts in the region they were located.

With data collection underway, Melanie got backing from CIPD HQ to use Marketing Cloud for producing regular newsletters. The software enabled her to create colourful and engaging content using its bespoke templates. On social media, too, Melanie aimed to liven things up through sharing video content via Facebook Live of her speaking into a camera, updating members on future events and other projects — more attention grabbing, she noted, than posting a pre-prepared paragraph of text. Twitter was also commandeered to gain nominations for the branch’s inaugural student of the year award and interact with partners to promote forthcoming events.

Social media, she believes, is CIPD Cumbria’s future because, without it, the branch would never expand its influence, something Melanie hopes it will do despite being one of the smallest of the organisation’s 48 national affiliates. Moving away from “drip-fed” communications, to a consistent stream of information sharing and interaction with members via Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, she argues, is essential for improving engagement. Her message too is always clear: “I’m an HR professional like you, I’ve got a full-time job and an employer to satisfy, but I’m volunteering my time because I’m passionate about the development of HR and L&D professionals in Cumbria, making sure you get what you need from your membership.”

Her approach, she explained, is driven by an intrinsic awareness, through having lived and worked in Cumbria for the past decade, of the value Cumbrian people attribute to trust. Cumbria, she says, is a very trust-oriented place where the perceived quality of your product or service means little to people until you’ve “engaged with them, tried understanding their needs and allowed them to get to know the real you via personal communications, instead of storming in with generic unappealing content.”

Success wasn’t immediate, though. During the first few months, improvement in attendance numbers, social media engagement or in sign-ups to the newsletter wasn’t forthcoming. Despite this Melanie persevered, knowing that until members got to know her and became familiar with her style, there wouldn’t be much traction. By early 2018, however, a tipping point was achieved and she’s confident the branch is now moving in the right direction.

“My posts are reaching more people than before, and this activity is translating into event bookings — numbers are going up and there’s a usually spike the day after I’ve posted content via the social channels. Newsletters are resonating with people too and awareness of our existence is improving — I was even contacted by someone at Dumfries and Galloway Council interested in our programmes, and at a recent networking event, a delegate approached me and said, ‘You’re Mel from Cumbria, the one who does the videos.’ If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is.”

Chair Melanie Kinsella (left), with the newly appointed Vice Chair Michelle Leek (right).

The Chair is also measured on their ability to gain sponsorship for CIPD event, as well secure a variety of ‘high level’ speakers across a range of relevant topics. Melanie was delighted to confirm some recent wins including securing backing from Sellafield for CIPD Cumbria’s annual conference in 2019, as well as the services of CIPD CEO, Peter Cheese (who’s never been to Cumbria before), as the event’s keynote speaker. Other future events include collaborations with the charity Mind focusing on mental health; the apprenticeship levy two years on with case studies from employers who have ‘fast-tracked’ their apprentices, as well as an intimate session on influencing leaders with Sellafield’s Dorothy Gradden OBE, Nigel Crebbin from Burnetts Solicitors and durhamlane’s Alison Freer. Melanie confirmed all suggestions for the events came from member responses to her survey, and she wants members to have an active role in driving event content every year moving forward.

Building bridges with Cumbrian businesses remains a priority and Melanie explained how getting big employers such as Sellafield, as well as BAE, Storey Homes, Stobart Group, McVities and the University of Cumbria involved will help raise the branch’s profile across the region. More engagement with the community is certainly needed to get them on board, and the results of the survey which came back in February 2018, has fuelled Melanie’s resolve, revealing further avenues where she can broaden CIPD Cumbria’s reach.

Several survey respondents, it transpired, hadn’t attended an event for over three years and while some had within the last 6 to 12 months, those people were the clear minority. Communication (or lack of), Melanie was surprised to discover, wasn’t the primary cause of attendance decline either. Rather, location and cost were the main areas of improvement cited by members. The survey revealed that CIPD Cumbria members were spread right across the region and concentrated in five main areas — Carlisle, Whitehaven, Workington, Kendal and Penrith as well as a small community in Barrow. 

Evidence from the survey indicated the county is divided between North, East, West and South and bar some movement between Kendal and Barrow, it appeared people weren’t prepared to travel for events outside their area. It made sense to Melanie, who herself often makes the fifty-minute trip from Carlisle to Kendal, or even sometimes Barrow, which takes over an hour from Cumbria’s only city. “People vote with their feet” she says, and when adding in work and childcare commitments, the logistics of attending events that aren’t on your doorstep becomes impossible. “Cost too is an obvious issue when factoring in travel times,” she added. 

Other anecdotal feedback has informed Melanie’s thinking. A senior HR professional at Sellafield, for example, reinforced the travel time point by revealing how Sellafield employees typically leave home early to get on site and therefore don’t find evening events appealing. Opportunities to network and learn before work on the other hand, they said, would be more convenient. So, the solution is to offer more accessible events in different parts of the region, as well as experiment with event times, but Melanie is adamant that she can’t do this alone and will need active involvement from her committee to make changes happen and for them to become a success:

“An individual from BAE systems has agreed to organise events in the Barrow area, which has always been a bit of a ‘black spot’ for the branch. She has networks in the area and is confident she will gain attendees. It’s a big boost for members and I’m delighted it’s up and running, but we need more. I want the committee involved as much as possible as we ramp up our activities, attending a minimum of eight meetings and supporting at least two events per year. Following our recent Annual General Meeting in May 2018 we have filled the constitutional roles on the Committee, however we are always looking for members who wish to get involved in the activities of the branch so get in touch if you want to get involved more.”

Building networks around the county is an ongoing process for Melanie and her committee and she expects it will take a couple of years until there’s a broad awareness of the Cumbria branch and its programmes for supporting members’ development. Success, in her view, would be between 20-30 people at each event and a membership eager to see what’s next on the agenda. Meanwhile, she continues to play an active role in the wider CIPD community trying to expand the branch’s influence nationally as well as “banging the drum” for the Cumbrian region, through attendance at Northern Area Partnership meetings and CIPD formal council:

“It’s about championing Cumbria, reminding people where we are on the map and promoting the small, medium and large businesses and industries located here doing fantastic work. We’ve got a skill shortage — especially in nuclear, manufacturing and hospitality — and by getting people to sit up and take notice of the region, we can plug those gaps and leverage our talent to make a bigger national impact.”

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