While organisations generally have good intentions in mind, there’s always room for improvement. The goal of a great people leader is to take what’s already good about a company and amplify it, and similarly to help them improve on any aspects currently holding it back from being the best and most effective version of itself. They also do this by helping the people of a company on the journey to being the best they could be.
Kitty Hadaway, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Fiona Deal, Executive Director of People, Digital, and Change at Golding Homes, about her methods for leaving an organisation better than she found it.
For the first fifteen years of my career, my focus was on being a good Human Resources (HR) manager and then director. My transition into the leadership space came in 2009 when I became part of the executive team at a large London-based housing association that was just emerging from regulatory supervision. They’d appointed a new chief executive who I’d worked with briefly and who asked if I’d be willing to join. I remember thinking “Why would I do that? Why would I leave a perfectly good team and join a place that was in such shambles?” And he said “Fiona, the only way is up,” and I’m so glad he did. Over the next three years, we turned that organisation around. I was part of a small leadership team of four, and what we realised collectively is that leadership creates culture, and that’s been the thread throughout my career since then. The person at the top’s beliefs and values trickle down throughout the culture of the entire organisation. And so whichever one I’m working in, I align my role with that of the chief executive. My role fundamentally is one of leadership, which is about values, belief, pride, and confidence, and trying to generate those things in the people who work in your organisation, so they believe there’s something to believe in, a prize worth fighting for, and that’s what excites me about my job.
I think the awards are the icing on the cake. It’s wonderful to get them, but it’s what they represent that’s more important. When I left my last organisation, the chief executive said to me in my leaving speech, “You left us better than you found us,” and that drives me. That’s what I want. Where can I add value? Where can I drive improvement? Where can I get a sense that people can engage and feel better about things? One of my mantras is “Happy colleagues equals happy customers”. Making your people feel valued, appreciated, and proud to work for you and therefore go that extra mile. That piece of goodwill makes all the difference between good and great performance. My job, alongside the executive team, is unlocking that goodwill. In housing associations, we work for some of the most vulnerable, disadvantaged people. Why wouldn’t we want to do the best for them? Having a safe, secure home is one of the fundamentals in terms of people living a healthy, happy life. The work our people do really is quite emotional and important work. We really make a difference in people’s lives and the better we can do that, and the more we can engage with our people in believing they can do that well, the better we will be. That’s what the awards represent: a recognition that our people have come on that journey and are giving of their best every day, because they want to do the best possible job for the people who live in our homes.
I run sessions, getting together with groups of people in their departments with their executive director and ask “What does great look like for whatever your function is? What would the best version of that be?” Then I give them a sheet with a blank circle with eight segments on it and have them choose the top eight characteristics of what great looks like for their function, and then they score each from one to ten to figure out how far away we are from a perfect score and what it would take to get us there. What’s getting in the way? Management? Processes? System? Lack of resources? Then we can plan, and build a program around those answers.
Inclusion—being able to be who you are at work and be accepted—is crucial. We’ve done a lot around bringing your whole self to work, and recognising you need to be resilient through change. If you’re trying to be something you’re not, you’re adding another layer of stress. Something I feel we’ve done really successfully compared to other offices is not mandating people back into the office post-pandemic with a certain number of days per week. The message from our chief executive is you come to the office with things you can’t do at home or where you feel you need or want in-person engagement. The result is that people have been choosing to come into the office more, and I think there’s a strong link to inclusion there, which, I think, is about feeling part of something that adds value alongside others.
Kitty: What is your key advice for anyone embarking on a career in people leadership?
Practise what you preach. Everyone talks about authenticity and credibility, but what does that mean? I think in the leadership space, you hope you can inspire, motivate, and engage because all of those are great leadership characteristics but fundamentally the most important part about being a good leader is being a good role model. Knowing what the values are, living and breathing them, and remembering that you’re on view all of the time. People are looking, judging, and taking their lead from you. If you want high standards, you have to model high standards.