Leadership isn't merely about steering a company towards success; it's about creating an inclusive workplace where everyone can reach their full potential. In his role as Chief Executive Officer for Brighton Housing Trust, David Chaffey has overseen his organisation’s efforts to promote diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
In today’s conversation, David sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to talk over topics including the importance of cultivating a culture of inclusion and belonging, creating a sense of togetherness in the era of hybrid working, and the importance of effective communication in strategic leadership.
I’m the Chief Executive of BHT Sussex and I’ve worked in the housing sector for 37 years, so I hope I’m fairly well-versed in the industry though there is always something new to learn. I’ve been with BHT Sussex for seven years now: I served six years as the Director of Housing and Property Services before taking over as Chief Executive last year. BHT Sussex was founded 55 years ago to tackle homelessness and then went on to provide affordable housing in the City. Over time we’ve developed nine or ten different enterprises under one umbrella: we manage about 450 properties and also specialise in homelessness, addiction, advice and mental health services. We have a specialist project in Hastings to provide housing and wraparound services for young people, as well as three specialist housing advice centres in Brighton, Eastbourne, and Hastings. As our name would suggest, we operate right across the county of Sussex.
We’ve just held our first staff conference for six years, bringing together nearly 300 colleagues. It was a real pleasure to see everyone in person, as we haven’t managed to do that since before Covid. For more than half of our people, it was their first Conference. We didn’t want the conference to just focus on strategy, finances, and key performance indicators: instead, we wanted to shine a spotlight on staff wellbeing. In our line of work, you spend a lot of time supporting other people but we also want to make sure people are looking after themselves and coming to work feeling healthy. So we ran eight different wellness sessions, including a workshop focusing on gratitude and affirmations — that allowed people to leave positive feedback about their colleagues and share their feedback. It was quite moving to hear what our people mean to each other. Instead of a traditional awards ceremony, we based our awards categories around key values such as kindness, teamwork, and the environment. Everybody got involved, and more than 120 people came forward to nominate a co-worker. That very act made me think we’re doing something right: the people here really care about their colleagues and feel valued by the organisation.
That’s a very good question, especially in the light of Covid. Like many organisations, we’ve developed a system of hybrid working, and we take quite a hands-off approach to determining what that might look like as long as service to our clients and tenants remains up to standard. There are some people who come in every day, and there are some who work from home, and we try not to be too prescriptive about that. Aside from our Conference, we’ve also held a number of staff forums, which are open to everybody. We’re fortunate to have a highly engaged board, and every month, we do something called a project visit. For example, our November project was based around our Homes for Ukraine service, which helps match British families to house refugees from Ukraine. Those initiatives really help people feel like they are part of something bigger. I also made sure to sit in on team meetings for every one of our services in my first year. As Chief Executive, I am a great believer in “walking the talk”, so I make sure to come into the office as much as possible.
In my previous role at Affinity Sutton, I was one of twelve people selected to go on a management training course. It was a very intensive 18 months, and we needed to work hard, but it helped me learn more about presenting myself and developing my leadership style. For me, there are three key aspects to being a leader. Firstly, you need to be your authentic self. It’s not something you can pretend. Being authentic helps you build trust with the people around you. Second, you need to have credibility. That’s something you need to earn. Finally, you need to be honest. Sometimes there are things you can’t talk about, but you should always be straight with people. Honesty also means owning up to your mistakes-and learning from them- that’s the key to creating trust.
Over the course of my career I’ve worked under a lot of managers and I’ve learned something valuable from each of them. The best advice I ever heard was when I was applying to become CEO. My mentor, who was previously the CEO of Affinity Sutton, told me that if I got the job, I would always need to have an opinion on everything going on with the business. If you don’t speak up, it creates a vacuum but equally you should never have a knee-jerk reaction to an issue; instead you need to create a clear sense of direction and put forward your ideas coherently.