I was recently asked to speak on the evolving role of future senior leaders. . . here are some of my reflections.
Agility: It would be remiss to talk about leadership without talking about the pace of change. Our residents rightly expect modern services, personalised interactions and connected experiences across channels. The recent pandemic is a real example of the sector’s ability to adapt and be agile; we need to build on this. Leaders need the ability to adapt, focus on the future, be nimble, resilient and tackle difficult problems as they arise.
Social purpose: In the recent past the focus of organisations was on prioritising profit for shareholders; whilst this may not have been the case for housing associations with the reduction in grant, we have had to become more commercial. It’s hard to overestimate how much the public’s attitude to this has changed. There is now a clear mandate that if a company only focuses on profit, they will lose public support. Society has a much higher expectation on organisations to behave ethically, the focus on ESG for investors supports this. Future leaders are being asked to think beyond their boundaries and think not just about the here and now, but about how their organisation addresses global issues such as climate change and fair trade.
People: People are our biggest asset. Not too long ago, issues that were predominantly addressed within a HR department now make their way to the board. The recent movement around black lives matter and gender inequality are risks that are discussed at all levels. It’s now widely understood that culture is a key factor to success or failure. Leaders will need different skills to ask the right questions of their people around engagement, productivity and wellbeing.
The penny seems to be dropping that not everyone in the world looks and thinks the same. Organisations don’t just need to reflect our communities but need to bring together different perspectives to develop new ideas and optimise performance. Future leaders need to put together teams of people with different backgrounds and with different skills and mindsets and galvanise them to work towards common goals.
Collaborative: Although “collaboration” has become a buzzword, it doesn’t mean that it’s an empty cliché. On the contrary, collaboration in the workplace is what makes teamwork successful. One of the best things about working collaboratively with people who bring different skill sets and backgrounds to the table, is learning from others’ experiences and generating new and exciting initiatives. I have seen first-hand how collaboration can contribute to the greater good. We recently launched a scheme with Plentific and partners to tackle the dearth of women tradespeople delivering repairs and maintenance to our homes. In modern society I do not believe that organisations can thrive without working collectively with others.
Authenticity: I don’t buy-in to the concept of “bringing your whole self to work” – believe me, the Elly who parties at the weekend would not make for a good leader! I do, however, believe in leading with my heart and not just my head. The pandemic affected all of us and it would have been pointless not discussing work without the context of one’s own circumstances and vulnerabilities. This didn’t mean that I shared the ins and outs of my life but that I was honest and empathised with people’s personal situations. Compassion and understanding are traits that I couldn’t have been without during the last 12 months; being aware of others’ wellbeing has been crucial, particularly given the increase in mental health issues.
Empowering: Management has moved on so much since I started my career. Future leaders must coach, motivate, engage and inspire their teams. I am sure we all remember how difficult it was at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were finding their way with the new way of working. It was critical that people felt motivated to enable us to continue to deliver an excellent service. This meant being creative, meeting with team members more regularly and celebrating team successes as they happened.
One of the biggest challenges we face is finding good future leaders, but from my perspective the solution is simple – grow your own. This may mean taking risks and pushing people into roles they haven’t delivered before, but how do you learn if you don’t try something new. In my view this is what has driven a lack of diversity at leadership across the sector, a focus on employing the same types of people. Times have moved on and its imperative we are giving people opportunities to develop to ensure we have a sustainable leadership into the future.