Fostering a culture of support, inclusion, and customer excellence is something that many Housing Sector executives are focused on achieving, yet doing so in a manner that energises and includes everyone in the organisation often proves a challenge.
Co-host of The Interview Max Webber sat down with Carole Richardson, Executive Director of People and Culture at North Star Housing Group, to discuss what Carole’s learnt from her career so far, and the approach the senior team at North Star takes towards its culture, people, and inclusion.
I’m Carole Richardson, Exec Director for People and Culture — which makes me sound like something out of Harry Potter! — and I’ve worked for North Star Housing Association for 20 years. I’ve done several roles here, and the one thing they have in common is a focus on people, culture, and making a difference.
I started off as a Housing Officer with Middlesbrough local authority, working with the homeless in East Middlesbrough, which was really meaningful work. One project’s goal was to stop the revolving door of homelessness for women, where their behaviour made it difficult to place them in temporary accommodation. This was where my work with Endeavour North Star Housing (as it was called at the time) started — as a partner in finding a solution for this very high risk project. This was when I knew I wanted to work for this organisation and, since joining, the leadership team’s focus on people and development led me to working in my current role.
When we properly started our cultural journey 13 years ago, we had strong customer satisfaction; we’d just been awarded three stars through Best Companies; and staff seemed happy on the face of it. Yet we had stubborn levels of sickness, at around 6%, and 30% of sick days were related to stress.
When we brought a consultant in to help us assess and benchmark, we were told we’re in the top 25% for stress management at work, which felt at odds with what our data. So we decided to go deeper, giving everyone in the organisation one-to-one time with a consultant, holding focus groups, and ultimately realising that we had significant improvements to make regarding clarity of the direction we’re going in, consistency across management, and giving staff more say in what’s going on.
This exercise culminated in an all-staff offsite, focussed on our future and the new cultural attributes we’d defined based on what people had told us, after which we got 93% alignment from staff with our plans moving forward. Since then, ensuring we have a ‘mandate’ from our people by virtue of alignment with our clearly communicated plans has been a consistent feature.
We’ve got great relationships with the communities we operate in, which helps us build up a lot of trust and ensure we focus on what matters. For example, we were the first organisation to set up a scheme for Asian Elders in Middlesbrough.
Through the senior team making more connections across the sector, to broaden our perspectives, we realised we’ve been initiatives-heavy and strategy-light. This needs to be owned at a board and senior team level. How do you diversify and get more difference into the workforce, and into leadership teams? When the data is clearly showing that we were lacking on several fronts.
So we started working with a group of other housing associations and Housing Diversity Network (HDN) to set up a board diversity apprenticeship program — to help build a pipeline for greater board representation across the sector through training of future leaders from a diverse range of backgrounds. We’re also working with HDN to see how we can bring the learnings from this into workplace initiatives, to help achieve our workplace diversity targets.
It’s really about having staff aligned to the organisation’s culture — about having a mandate from staff that helps ensure buy-in, and enables us to give each team flexibility regarding how they fit it in. Leading by example is critical, too; without this, cultural ambitions are inauthentic. Beyond that, it’s about ensuring that our culture is well understood to people before they join the organisation, to better recruit people who will buy-in to our collective culture.
Be yourself, and be curious. Volunteer for things, and put yourself forward - it’ll take you to many interesting places.