What’s becoming clear in today’s increasingly complex world is that things aren’t black and white, and furthermore, people don’t all fit neatly into boxes. You can’t determine a person’s personality based on the broad strokes of their cultural makeup. People leaders instead need to get to know their employees as individuals in order to determine what each can best bring to the team and how they can each complement one another.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Alan Keers, CEO at Twenty11, a new type of affordable housing provider, about how to build a team that best takes advantage of everyone’s strengths in order to bolster each other’s weaknesses.
I find myself in my 37th year in the sector, during that time I’ve worked in a wide range of roles including in local authorities, contracting, consulting, registered providers and group subsidiaries. It all started off from a technical apprenticeship years ago in a local authority. Through that, I got practical-application learning, as well as the opportunity to go to college, then university. Over the years, I moved between public and private sectors but always centred on affordable housing. I worked my way through the ranks up to the principal officer level and then into managing director roles within the public sector before I went off to head up a chartered consultancy for a period of time, then moved into executive director roles, particularly within the registered provider sector.
A background in the public sector, although it’s often perceived as being less dynamic than the registered provider sector or commercial consultancy, gives you a solid background in mastering a role. That supported being fortunate enough to study under some individual lecturers who were really focused on professionalising individuals and making sure that anybody who qualified under their name was ready to work in the sector. I was pushed not only to grasp the basics but learn and master the activities and roles before being considered for progression. I think that’s something that has been missing for a while within the sector. We now have a career culture where people want to progress quickly but don’t get the needed expertise to back up that progression.
Firstly, your organisation needs a clear sense of direction or people won’t buy into it. They need to know where the organisation is going. That’s the foundation for everything else. You can then create a culture based on your values and recruit people who share those same values and purpose. Having something tangible that people can see and understand is absolutely vital. Then applying a level of consistency to that across the business. People need to see an inherent fairness in the way that you operate. But you also need to avoid labelling people and segmenting them into boxes and characteristics, because that reinforces stereotypes and creates a framework of bias. People are individuals, and if you tailor the way you operate around individuals you’ll build a base of strength from which you can succeed rather than assuming that everyone who hits a certain profile is going to think, act the same way, and have the same potential.
I think there’s a little secret here. People are going to form teams regardless of whether a leader’s there or not. Leaders are there to identify the strengths and weaknesses within that team, including their own, and find a way to deal with them to get the best outcomes and help people reach their potential. In a number of teams I’ve led, I’ve spent time looking at what people’s strengths and character traits are. If you can eke out the best trait within people and say “I’d like you to be the person with that strength in this team”, it can really help them come into it with a clear sense of purpose in their role.
A leader can also set a team up to fail if they’re not aware of their own weaknesses, so understanding your own blind spots is also key. It can be hard to identify your own prejudices, biases, and weaknesses. People tend to associate in environments where everyone says they’re wonderful or they only hear the same views and opinions as their own. You’ve got to break that cycle. Understanding your blindspots or lack of knowledge in certain areas, and not being afraid to ask your people to fill in those gaps and support you, helps everyone. What you think isn’t always the right course of action. Show your people that you trust their judgement, and they’ll often tell you if you’re going down the wrong path and trust you more for being willing to put yourself in that position.
I think everyone needs to get a handle on this, as it’s important for the next generation of employees. Expectations are at a high now. People expect to develop and grow in a much quicker timeframe, often driven by perceptions derived from social media. This has an adverse effect on the ability to master a role and gain expertise. You need to be in a role long enough to make lots of mistakes and learn from them in order to do that. If we can develop a culture that requires more professional qualifications in the long term, I think that will reverse the trend of damage that’s been done in the past couple of decades where there hasn’t been enough focus on training people properly.
The world isn’t black and white. Live in the grey area, because that’s the only way you’ll see things for how they really are.