In a hybrid working world with ever evolving customer needs and regulatory requirements, creating an inclusive and high performing culture that is receptive to change is something that many business leaders are focused on achieving.
Co-host of The Interview Luke James sat down with Donna Cezair, Chief Executive at Worthing Homes, to discuss her journey in housing leadership and how she approaches building an inclusive and growth-oriented culture for her staff.
I’m Donna Cezair, Chief Exec at Worthing Homes. We’re a not-for-profit organisation set up 24 years ago that provides social housing via the 4,000 properties we manage in the Worthing area. We work with the local authority and homeless charities, we build around 100 new homes every year, and we also do a lot of community development work with our community trust.
I’ve been in housing for over 30 years, having worked for lots of different associations across the country. I became an exec director in 1993, so have worked at a senior leadership level for a long time, though for most of the 2000s I was self-employed and worked as a change agent, whilst doing a masters degree in organisational development. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve really been focussed on leading change and transformation, and lots of work around culture.
For me, it’s really important to create an organisation where people feel at ease. Where they can come to work and not have to leave any part of themselves at the door. At the moment, we’ve been working through an inclusion survey with all colleagues, helping us understand what the barriers might be — meaning we can equip managers with insights on how to best support and enable their teams. Our annual engagement survey also helps us put together plans with our managers on what they need to do to improve the environment in each of their teams. We’re also updating our people strategy, to better support various ways of working, particularly as hybrid working is much more common in today’s world.
It’s really important to have a very clear sense of purpose, and a clear vision shared across the organisation. Every 90 days, we have company updates, which share context on what’s going on across the organisation — creating that sense of one team. People want to feel a part of the journey; as leaders, it’s on us to create conditions that give our people the chance to feel involved, and to thrive. Through that, we need to create a two-way dialogue, and ensure there’s a high level of trust — which certainly helps people feel a genuine part of the team. When things go wrong, people also know they can raise it without fear of a blame culture.
These days, people need a lot of courage — this idea of ‘dare to lead’. It’s also about authenticity; leaders need to model the right behaviours, to live the company’s values, and to demonstrate the right behaviours. Communication is also critical — ensuring we find the best ways to communicate certain information via the right channel, such as social channels as well as more formal channels. This also gives the chance to share more candid information, to treat people like adults regarding where things are going well and things aren’t going so well. Lastly, leaders need to be really attuned to the pressure that colleagues are under — both at work and at home — and to make time for people.
It’s something you do have to really work at. One thing I do is to get out and about around the business — and I encourage all my senior leaders to do that — so that we can start every monthly business meeting with feedback from what we’ve seen and heard from across the business.
Recently, we’ve introduced a culture workshop. It starts from the top — where do you want to get to as an organisation? For us: ‘We want to be the home of brilliance’. From that, what do you want your customers to feel and do? Our answer: we want them to feel safe in their homes, we want them to enjoy living in their homes and to look after them. So what are the drivers to create the conditions for your customers to do that? Looking after our homes, maintaining them proactively, and caring for them. From this, what do you need your teams to do? To show you care, to try something new, to see the positives — those sorts of things. And in order to get that from our teams, we have to create the right environment — to create that great place to work. That shows the link very clearly.
It’s a really good question as, you’re right, at the beginning everyone’s really excited and energised, but then people can get exhausted and lose sight of the progress being made. One thing we’ve done here, which felt quite radical at the time, is that we’ve moved to a 90-day cycle of tracking our progress and our targets, and we’ve done away with the annual appraisal. To underpin this, we’ve created three very clear corporate objectives: having a customer-focused culture; a well run business; and a great place to work. Each area of the business has 90 day goals set against these objectives, which then get reviewed at our company-wide update every 90 days. This includes highlighting what we have achieved and delivered, so people can see the progress we’re making.
It’s all about the environment we create — encouraging people to be really curious, and to have easy access to tools and learning. One of the things the pandemic has created is a plethora of information, which we leverage to make a lot of resources available to staff. We also have some very formal learning, for instance there are two programmes this year for our managers and leaders. First is around EPP — Effective Personal Productivity. How to stay focussed, how to ensure you’re not losing time being distracted, and how to prioritise effectively. The other is on digital leadership — how to better leverage the tools and systems now at our disposal in today’s world. For wider colleagues, we have a very active digital champions group, who help us all with how to better utilise and leverage things, as well as foundations of success — based on time management, focus, and approaching your working day.
In my first executive director post, my very Maverick leader wrote me a three-page letter of advice. One thing that stuck out — ‘be a chameleon’. You need to be really adaptive and flexible as a leader, at all different levels and in all kinds of situations.