Industry Leaders
Caledonia Housing Group 
Director of People

Barry Johnstone

As businesses increasingly recognise the value of diversity and inclusion, the spotlight has turned to the pivotal role played by leaders and managers. Positive leadership has become the cornerstone upon which organisations build a culture where every voice is heard and every individual feels they truly belong.

Luke James, co-host of The Interview, sat down with Barry Johnstone, Director of People at Caledonia Housing Association, to discuss everything from the rise of flexible working to the importance of a growth mindset in personal and organisational development.

Barry's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with a quick introduction to yourself and your current organisation. 

I’m the Director of People for the Caledonia Housing Association. We’re a registered charity and a  social landlord which provides affordable housing, support and development for over 6,000 tenants across Scotland. We also offer a factoring service to approximately 2,000 homeowners and shared owners. We employ around 200 staff and I’m responsible for people development and culture in line with our business strategy.

Luke: How has your journey led you to become the Director of People at Caledonia?

I’ve worked in housing associations for the majority of my career. So, I didn’t take the traditional path to become Director of People. Prior to taking up this position, I was working across Operations and General Manager roles. However, a few years ago, Caledonia undertook an organisational redesign, creating the new Director of People role. I was already an executive at Caledonia in an operations role, but the Board felt it was important to have someone who understood the business priorities of this new role. So, I took a lateral move to become Director of People. Though I had some trepidation initially, I’ve loved every minute of it. Because of that wider business experience, I’m not always looking at challenges and opportunities through an HR lens. Instead, I’m able to accelerate the innovation and evolution of our people functions to drive business success. 

Luke: It can be difficult to embed a culture of inclusion and belonging across a whole organisation. What are the most important things to get right?

For me, the crucial role is management.t. Being a manager is an incredibly challenging position, but it can have such a huge impact on attraction, retention, well-being and productivity. It’s been especially difficult over the last few years, with the pandemic, the move towards hybrid working and the cost of living crisis. You need to manage relationships up, down, and across the entire organisation. If we invest in our managers and give them the skills and tools they need, then their teams will flourish and drive our business success. At Caledonia, our culture is underpinned by a new, “Agile For Everyone” model. In essence, it’s about providing employees with flexibility about where and how they work. We want people to flourish both inside and outside of work. In terms of attraction, retention and job satisfaction, our people have told us that the new working arrangements are helping them to thrive. It’s still an ongoing process, and we haven’t quite optimised the balance between structured flexibility and the need for in-person connections, but it’s working well so far. 

Luke: In the housing sector, employees often have different working practices and schedules from their colleagues. What measures can you take to help build a common sense of belonging?

For me, it needs to come from the top. There needs to be visible leadership from the senior management to intentionally create a culture where people feel valued, respected and included. That needs to be underpinned by effective two-way communication between the leaders and the wider workforce. Our senior management really works hard to listen and involve everyone in the business. At Caledonia, we do that through regular engagement surveys, senior management being visible and a regular presence at team meetings and Q&A sessions with the CEO. As part of that two-way communication, people need to feel empowered to disagree: good decision-making is guided by listening to different opinions. As Director of People, I actively encourage different views. I like to say “It’s okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to be disagreeable.” 

Luke: These days, employees seem to be busier than ever. How can we make sure to engage with everyone when it comes to issues like diversity and inclusion? 

Again, it’s a huge challenge, especially with new ways of working. We’ve trialled a number of initiatives: some have been successful, others have not, and we make sure to learn from those too. It’s crucial to lead with purpose: managers need to connect each employee with the social purpose of their work. We exist to provide homes and services which make people’s lives better. We need to ensure that everyone, from the back office to the front line, understands how their day-to-day work impacts tenants’ lives. Relationships are key to what we do, so we make sure to invest in our leaders and managers. During Covid, we found our managers really stepped up for their teams, but the links between teams suffered. So we need to look beyond that and build those cross-team relationships. The data has shown us that building positive, constructive relationships across teams increases job satisfaction, reduces stress and drives productivity and business performance. 

Luke: You’ve spoken about the importance of intentional leadership. What traits and habits are needed to become a successful people leader? 

For me, there are a few fundamentals. I’ve talked about leading with purpose, but it’s also necessary to build accountability. Managers need to have the skills to have those difficult conversations and learn from their team about how to improve things. We need to invest in our people so that they feel empowered to take responsibility and are motivated to be the best that they can be. We want our managers to be coaches, not bosses: that skill helps people not only to grow professionally but also to make sound business decisions. Finally, leaders should shine a light on the people who display the values which underpin our culture. 

Luke: What do you think is the key to fostering a culture of learning and growth?

At Caledonia, our culture is underpinned by a growth mindset. We’ve worked intentionally to make sure that growth mindset is central to our organisational values. In particular, Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset really helped to guide our approach. 

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career? 

It’s hard to think of just one! But someone once told me, “You need to run your own race.” That means focus on being your best: it’s okay to be inspired by others, but don’t constantly compare yourself with them. Celebrate your achievements and successes, and when things go wrong, don’t be too hard on yourself. Instead, see it as a learning opportunity. 

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Luke James
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