Interview With Edel Harris, CEO of Cornerstone
01 February 2018
This week we had a chat with Edel Harris, CEO of Cornerstone and Scotland’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 to discuss her fascinating career, perceptions of disability in the workplace and cultivating a positive future for the health and social care sector.
Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background?
I haven’t had a very traditional route to becoming a Chief Executive. Growing up I lived in a family where going to university wasn’t discussed and therefore it never really occurred to me that this was an option. I left home at seventeen and joined the police cadets and worked for eleven years in the Metropolitan Police in London. I left my job 18 months after my eldest son was born. Ross has a disability and working full time as a police officer with the erratic hours and responsibilities was challenging enough but caring for a child with a disability added a different dimension. We decided as a family that I would give up work to care for my son. I didn’t do any paid work for five years and since I had always regretted not having the opportunity to go to university, I decided to do an Open University degree in Health and Social Care. When my children went to school I worked initially part time for NHS Grampian in the health promotion team. I worked there for a number of years in various roles and when I left I was the Workplace Team Programme Manager. I went from there to become the Deputy CEO at Aberdeen Foyer; a youth homelessness charity.
Cornerstone provides care and support to children and adults with a disability and also provides advice and support to families and other people with support needs such as those living with Dementia. Cornerstone is also a social landlord having designed and built homes for life for people with a disability. Where did your passion for care and social enterprise first develop?
My passion for wanting to improve things within the health and social care sector came initially from my experience of looking after a child with a disability. I had always had an interest in the delivery of good public service from working both in the police and within the NHS and over the years I grew a particular interest in what services were available for people who needed additional support and how people with disabilities were generally treated in society. At the end of my police career I was working in child protection; the more social side of policing. I realised I had a flair and talent for that type of work. So it was the combination of my professional and my personal life that made me interested in health and social care.
My talent for developing successful social enterprises began whilst working in the NHS. Health Promotions was based in Aberdeen where the Workplace Team came into contact with a lot of oil and gas companies. We had a commercial arm that sold health promotion services to the companies we worked with; from providing offshore medicals to helping companies develop drug and alcohol policies. Because we were selling services commercially, in addition to the NHS public funded work I developed a passion for social business, balancing commercial thinking with the notion of ‘business for good’.
What do you find most rewarding about your current work?
The difference Cornerstone makes to the lives of thousands of people. I spend as much time as I can out visiting people we support and their families, spending time with colleagues who are working in communities across Scotland. Those are the days that I enjoy the most.
When it comes to the general public and their perception of people with disabilities and support needs, what kind of things do you think the public needs to recognize or accommodate, for example, in the workplace?
The most important thing is to think of anybody with a disability or any other type of condition or illness as a person first. Consider what they can do not what they are unable to do and look at what attributes they have to offer. We all benefit from more diverse workplaces and businesses. Including people with a disability in your workforce can be a real asset, it shouldn’t be seen as a burden.
Congrats for winning the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award last year, what did it mean to you to get that type of recognition?
It was a wonderful experience and totally and genuinely unexpected. I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable about personal awards, because I am only as good as all the people around me. Cornerstone’s success is a real team effort. However, to be recognized in this way, particularly in amongst some outstanding businesses, did two things. One, it put Cornerstone on the map and secondly it gave me a platform to talk about social care as a valued, rewarding and wonderful career. In addition, as the first female to ever win the overall Scotland award I hope in some small way that I have inspired some younger women to see what is possible.
How do you see the future of social care developing over the coming five years, whether for Cornerstone or in general?
We are doing something pretty exciting and transformational at Cornerstone at the moment. We’re introducing a new model of social care, which we call ‘Local Cornerstone’. We want to continue to provide high quality person-centered care through our up skilled and genuinely valued workforce. Social care is often not a job that is particularly valued in society. At the heart of Local Cornerstone we see a network of self-organising teams of up skilled social care practitioners delivery care and support in local communities. We are on this journey in partnership with the commissioners of our services, with the Care Inspectorate, the Scottish Social Services Council and the Scottish Government and others. We are hoping that by telling our stories we can inspire others to change.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a similar career path as you?
If you are ambitious and you have leadership capabilities the advice I would give is to take every opportunity that comes your way, and believe in yourself.
Keep up to date with Cornerstone’s life-changing work by following them on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also follow Edel on Twitter here.