Nowadays, change is the norm, rather than the exception. It is, therefore, essential that people leaders are agile, know how to manage projects in challenging environments, and marry their business knowledge with their people skills.
Amina Graham, Executive Director of People and Systems at Housing 21, spoke with Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, about her work as a people leader, her journey to where she is today, and the importance of respect.
I am the Executive Director of People and Systems at Housing 21, which is a housing association that specialises in supporting older people of modest means, through retirement living or extra care services. I have been here for two and a half years. We’re nationwide across England and have over 4,000 people working with us, invested in our purpose. It’s a great organisation.
I have had quite a mixed portfolio of roles in my career journey; less planned, more opportunistic. I started in retail and worked at Marks & Spencer in a variety of roles — from store management to commercial strategy to store development. I had a great understanding that people make a difference. If your employees are engaged, feel valued and supported to build their skillset, then you can really do amazing things. It has a direct impact on the success of the organisation. I have always been interested in how you can harmonise the power of people and technology to make your organisation better. Having a clear purpose and values that are embedded in how you do business, with a customer focus and respect for people, are what make a great organisation. I moved into different housing associations and built on change and transformation agendas, bringing that customer-focus into everything I do. Now, in Housing 21, we have a devolved model. We’re clear about our service offer and the importance of care. Although each organisation is unique, what makes them the same are the people, who truly make the difference.
All of us, in any business, need to be able to attract and retain a diverse workforce because that brings unique ideas to a workplace. When people join the workforce, we need to ensure that people then have a place to be themselves and bring their difference to their conversations and actions.
At the moment, Housing 21 is predominantly women. We recognise that employee retention in the care sector is really difficult. So, if you’re not a great place to work, then you will struggle. As an executive team, we wanted to be really transparent and set out what a good place to work looks like. So, we co-created with our people a Respect Inclusion Charter. It lays out our expectations of our people, residents and partners, when doing business at Housing 21. We took time to get input, test it, and refine and iterate it until we had a charter that reflected everyone’s voice. We wanted to give people the confidence to speak up when something happens that doesn’t align with our expectations. If you make sure that your agenda is reflective of your organisation and constantly develop it, then people will engage.
We think about our capacity, how we use it, and what is important to us. How do we invest our time? We create space for these things to happen — they are not just an add-on. We need to ensure that our employees have the right head space, which led us to introduce the nine-day fortnight. We already did quite a lot of work around flexibility, but this has been a game-changer. We are the only organisation in the sector to do that, but it supports people’s well-being. When planning, ensure that you prioritise things that matter, not just the day job. Agility, and having an iterative but planned approach ensure that people get involved.
I think we have got more to do in this space. Getting push-pull dynamics right is important. You need to have different delivery channels that suit people’s learning needs, and ensure that people have time to do training. More importantly, they also need time to practice what they have learned.
We talk about the 21 days needed to change a habit. So we need to ensure that any change is practised regularly and it becomes a way of working. Even if something is online, we need to make sure that it’s connected to our people and also to their work, so it is meaningful to them and their work.
Particularly for people leaders, it is about being a business leader with a people specialism. The value that we add is knowing the commerciality of a business, and working on how the people proposition can get there.
Nowadays, change is the norm rather than the exception. We must ensure we keep a commercial mindset; have a relentless focus on cultivating the culture and ensuring our businesses remain a great place to work ; and, we must be able to adapt and to lead and deliver projects and sustainable and embedded change. People truly do make the difference and are ultimately what make businesses thrive and succeed.