Something that comes up a great deal in this series is the concept of how great people leaders lead by example. Workers model the behaviour of their leaders so it’s important to always keep that in mind. Even beyond that, however, a great leader should also realise that they’re themselves part of the whole. They help set and keep standards and expectations but, at the same time, shouldn’t behave as superior to anyone who works under them. After all, a leader is no one without the organisation behind them.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Graeme Anderson, CEO at Bromsgrove District Housing Trust (BDHT), about how to best lead with humility, grace, and an understanding of everyone’s importance, bottom to top.
If you ask most people in social housing how they got into it, they don’t really know. I did it through redundancy, actually. I did a degree in IT and started working for Boots on their graduate scheme. Then, I worked in various places, went to GKN Automotive as an IT manager, and was made redundant. There was a housing association in Wolverhampton that needed an IT manager, and I got the job. Afterwards, I moved to BDHT 20 years ago, starting there as their IT guy. Different jobs and opportunities came along during my time there, leading up to being CEO two years ago.
As social housing providers, we represent and look after a diverse range of people, and therefore, our workforce needs to reflect that diversity. You get better decisions and better initiatives from people from different backgrounds and life experiences. We try really hard from the recruitment process through to the culture of the organisation to make sure that people feel welcome and comfortable, and that they play important roles in the business. In recent years, we’ve also actively promoted ourselves to communities and people who traditionally haven’t necessarily gone for those jobs, from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds to people with disabilities. We’ve also done things around trans issues; all of our preferred pronouns are at the bottom of our email signatures, which people have told us has made them apply for jobs because they feel welcome. Fundamentally, it’s about the culture of the organisation and whether people feel comfortable in it.
Every six weeks, we have a whole staff meeting, and because we’re basically just one office, we manage to get everyone together, and I think that’s really important. I think you can share messages then. Emails just don’t work in terms of corporate culture. You can’t just send them out and expect everyone to have read and understood them. I think you’ve got to get those messages across, and you’ve got to have a strong senior leadership and management culture to ensure everyone has the same fundamental beliefs. That doesn’t necessarily mean they agree all the time but have the same set of cultural beliefs, and I think that filters down. But you can’t do that without regular contact.
People will mirror your behaviour. As a senior leader, the way you behave gives licence for others to behave exactly like you, so if that’s negative, people will repeat those traits. Equally, if you treat people with respect, listen to different positions, and act in a collaborative way, people will think that’s normal. So you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk, and demonstrate those things all the time. True leadership is about taking people with you. It isn’t just about giving instructions and expecting people to follow in line. I think people, especially now, want to feel part of it. There was a coach I saw recently who wanted a team photo. All the players came out. He said, ‘No, I want a team photo’, and he got everyone from the training ground—cooks, coaches, physios, people who do the laundry, the receptionist…That’s a leadership model. That’s what we try to do at BDHT. Everyone recognises they play a part, whether it’s big strategic goals or little team targets.
I fundamentally believe that the link between a corporate machine that does really well and people feeling as though they’re included, welcome, and can be the best version of themselves are two sides of the same coin. I’ve never believed that the best organisations are ruthless and cutthroat. I think we’re fundamentally a caring organisation to our customers. We’re expected to look after them in the best way that we can. If we didn’t do that with our staff, then we wouldn’t be holding ourselves to account. And our performance stats back that up.
I had a boss who told me, ‘Don’t believe your own hype’. When you’re CEO, people naturally put you on a pedestal and, if you’re not careful, you can very quickly get to a place where no one tells you when you’ve got it wrong. I’ve made sure that our executive team has a culture of being honest with each other, and if I muck up or say something or do something they think is wrong, then they tell me. If I believed my own hype, I wouldn’t allow that to happen. It also extends to doing every job in the organisation if I need to. I sit on reception; I answer phones when necessary. I’ll never have a named car park space. I’ll never ask people to make my drinks for me. If you want a culture of inclusivity, you can’t be seen to be someone who doesn't follow the same rules as everyone else.