Coffee with… Edel Harris, Cornerstone
For the latest in our series, Business Now caught up with Edel Harris, chief executive of Cornerstone, to discuss her passionate commitment to one of Scotland’s biggest charities.
Chief executive of Cornerstone since May 2008, Edel Harris took over the reins of the charity from its founder, Nick Baxter, nearly a decade ago and, although the organisation was well respected, there were challenges she had to face.
Edel explains: “When I took over from Nick Baxter, I certainly had big shoes to fill. Cornerstone was a well-regarded organisation and its rapid growth was testament to that. However, although I inherited a charity with strong values and a clear charitable purpose, the financial situation was bleak. My first challenge was to lead Cornerstone to operate more efficiently using some of my business skills whilst at the same time not losing our commitment to providing the very best care and support.”
Now, as Edel continues, there is a new focus: “Our main challenge today is in implementing our transformational change programme where we not only want to ensure Cornerstone is a sustainable business going forward, but we have an ambitious goal to transform the way social care is funded, commissioned, delivered and valued in the UK.”
Currently there are other wider issues, which Cornerstone also has to consider, for the social care sector in general.
As Edel comments: “There are many challenges and opportunities that have an impact on the social care sector today.
“There is a societal problem with the way social care is valued as a profession, which has a knock-on effect on how services are funded and commissioned, which in turn makes it a difficult profession to recruit into. Like other Scottish care providers we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to pay all adult social care workers as a minimum the Living Wage.
“However at Cornerstone we aspire to do more than that, to demonstrate that we genuinely value social care as a profession and to assist us in recruiting the very best people who see this profession as a vocation and not just a job to do.
“The ageing population, health and social care integration, increased regulation and the impact of Brexit on our workforce are some of the other issues we are grappling with at the moment.”
Having been at the helm of Cornerstone for almost ten years, there have been many achievements and highlights for Edel and the charity. We asked if any in particular stood out.
“Over the last nine years there have been many proud moments. Cornerstone enjoys a great reputation for providing excellent care and support across Scotland and we have many heart-warming stories to demonstrate how we meet our purpose – to enable the people we support to enjoy a valued life.
“However, if I had to pick one moment that encapsulates all that we stand for and are proud of, it was winning the Chairman’s Award at the Care Accolades in 2012. We were described as an outstanding organisation that consistently pioneers new approaches to social care, whilst maintaining our focus on person-centred care, ensuring the people we support can live the life they choose.”
This pioneering approach can be seen in the new model of care that Cornerstone is implementing, inspired by a system of nurse-led holistic care from the Netherlands.
Edel expands on this: “We have been inspired by our visit to Buurtzorg in the Netherlands and the time we spent with the founder, Jos De Blok. Taking some of the elements of the successful Buurtzorg approach we have launched our own model, which we are calling Local Cornerstone.
“The elements of the model include introducing neighbourhood teams of up-skilled social care practitioners in self-managing teams; reducing management layers; and introducing a flat structure based on the principles of empowerment and trust. Technology plays a key role in freeing up time to spend with the people we support and an improvement in our systems and processes cuts out unnecessary costs from the centre, which can be redirected into the communities in which we serve.
“We have also established the Cornerstone Foundation to raise funds so we can do some amazing things to ensure the people we support enjoy a valued life – a life they choose.
“It is an ambitious and transformational plan but we have been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement we have received from our key stakeholders and partners.”
In her time at Cornerstone, Edel has managed to achieve some firsts for women, such as becoming president of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce and winning EY Scotland Entrepreneur of the Year 2017. Does she view this as important for breaking the ‘glass ceiling’?
“I am very proud of all my achievements and being the first woman to achieve certain things does result in other women seeing that gender should not prevent anyone from achieving their goals.
“However, I feel uncomfortable about individual awards and accolades because I couldn’t achieve what I do without the support of my colleagues and my board. I was genuinely overwhelmed on receiving the overall Scottish EY Entrepreneur of the Year accolade recently, but I am very proud that Cornerstone is being recognised as entrepreneurial and pioneering. The award has shone a light on social care and the third sector – this can only be a good thing.”
It is clear when you speak to Edel that she is passionate about her work and the achievements at Cornerstone. What motivates her?
“I have a strong work ethic and am ambitious for Cornerstone and the social care sector as a whole. Visiting people we support and their families and hearing their stories is my main motivation – we are literally changing lives.
“I also have a son with a learning disability and therefore have some insight into the impact of a life-long condition such as Fragile X Syndrome on individuals and their families. My son recently got married and is certainly enjoying a valued life!”
In seeking to ensure Cornerstone’s clients have valued and fulfilled lives, we asked how Edel manages to the thorny issue of balancing work with her own life – the elusive work-life balance.
“I don’t think I should preach to anyone on work-life balance! As my job has a national remit I spend a lot of my time travelling and staying over in hotels. It is very rare to have a week where I am home every night.
“However, I really enjoy my work and knowing what a positive difference we are making to thousands of lives keeps me going. I do find time during the week to swim, and my holidays and family are important to me so I ensure I have time for them too.”
To round off our chat, we asked one final question: What does the future hold?
Edel says: “The implementation of our new model is scheduled to take us to 2020. There is so much interest from around the world in what we are trying to achieve that I imagine the future will consist of continuing to lead Cornerstone based on our values and charitable purpose, but also maybe offering our advice, support and training to others who may also want to see transformational change.”