To successfully manage people, it is important to demonstrate a leadership style that feels accessible and authentic, and it’s also essential to meet people where they’re at. Management styles need to adapt to every colleague because every person is different.
Jamie Ratcliff, Executive Director of People, Partnerships, and Sustainability at Network Homes (Now SNG), sat down with Co-host of The Interview Luke James to discuss his style of leadership, how to instil psychological safety in an organisation, and his career so far.
I’m Jamie Ratcliff, the Executive Director of People, Partnerships, and Sustainability at Network Homes. Network is a small-big housing association based in Wembley. My role is quite strange and unique in terms of its breadth. I am responsible for most of the organisation’s corporate functions - apart from Finance and governance, including our people and culture, learning and development, and IT functions, as well as a range of others like complaints, resident engagement, and the work we’re doing to understand the homes we own, making them sustainable. I like variety, and I have a lot of that in my role.
Like many people, I fell into housing, which I don’t think is a negative thing. It is essential that people believe in what we’re doing, understand its purpose, and that if you don’t have a safe and secure home, it will hold you back in all sorts of things. I fundamentally believe that we are providing a foundation for people to transform their lives. I have seen this in various places, including volunteering in Ethiopia, which I found incredibly powerful.
I did a law degree, mainly because I liked arguing with people, but didn’t enjoy the practice of law until I did a year abroad in Belgium and got stuck into human rights law. I needed practical experience to get involved in human rights, so worked in homelessness in the local council and saw what kind of difference I could make. I worked for a national agency for funding affordable homes, which I joined on the day the Lehman Brothers collapsed, and worked to maintain housing supply during the global financial crisis. I then worked for the current and previous Mayor of London, and then I joined Network just over four years ago.
This is the first housing association that I have worked for, but it is the best job I have had so far. I think that’s down to the passion, and commitment that our colleagues have to what we do. Our role is to provide reliable, cost-effective services to residents as efficiently as possible so we can reinvest more money into building more affordable homes and helping more people.
Firstly, our leadership became even more visible. We did fortnightly Q&As with all colleagues, which have continued as monthly sessions that are very open and allow enough time for every question to be answered head-on. Establishing visibility and trust is important. Seeing our humanity with people working at home was important too. Leaders need to present themselves as rounded individuals, not just a narrow part exclusively for their professional role. People need to be able to relate to you and see where you’re coming from.
The government got in trouble by putting in place a series of complicated rules and then breaking them. Whereas at Network we made a conscious decision to trust colleagues to work their own way through the rules and stressed the importance of wellbeing and mental health —our offices were open and Covid safe for almost all of the pandemic. We put our effort into explaining the national rules and were clear it was for individuals to decide how they applied to them. We didn’t require people to get permission from their manager, director or mum! Some people have said how beneficial this approach was for their wellbeing and mental health. There was a lot of isolation and everyone experienced a different pandemic, but we believed our people would do what was safe and appropriate.
This is something I feel passionately about, and driven different aspects in many previous roles. What I would reflect upon is that there is great merit in knowing who you are and what challenges you’re facing as an organisation. Not simply picking something off the shelf.
In Network, almost exactly half our colleagues are from diverse ethnicities, which is quite similar to London as a whole, and just over half are women. So we don’t have a challenge in terms of recruitment. But the organisation becomes less diverse as we go through the organisation, so our challenge is clearly enabling career progression and accepting that it will take time because senior roles don’t open up quickly.
You also need to think about your organisation’s aims. Fairness, access, having the broadest talent pool possible, and helping people progress are all essential. For me, I want us to be effective as an organisation, and strongly believe that the only way you do that is by enabling a truly diverse set of perspectives to challenge and hone your ideas to make you better. Psychological safety is a great concept. People need to know that it is safe for them to speak up and challenge others. Everyone is a different individual and will have different ways of working, which can be hugely beneficial.
It is a challenge. It can’t just be the thing you do on a Friday afternoon once you’ve finished everything else; it needs to be central to your role. In some ways, that’s the powerful thing about the psychological safety concept, because in order to secure that, all of our processes must be as effective as possible.
We now have a dedicated EDI role, which is called a facilitator. We don’t want a role that makes it seem like all EDI work is their responsibility; it’s everyone’s responsibility.
I wouldn’t claim that we have all the answers. I think some of the most important stuff we have done is about psychological safety, inclusive leadership and culture, and rolling it out through different leaders who can become ambassadors for it across the organisation. Broadly, the ten-point plan fits into three different areas. Internally focused things, which are about making sure that our processes and policies are fair and helping people—and ensuring that we have data that can objectively prove that. A range of things around the services we’re offering to our residents as well, doing the same thing there. And a bit of ambassadorial work, partly to support our employer brand and ensure that people can be proud of the work Network is doing, but also to engage with a range of people across this and other sectors to gather new ideas and improve the way we’re working overall.
I think you have to be careful of saying there are set successful characteristics, because different people work in different ways. I always caution people against trying to put across a superwoman or superman style of leadership, where they seem perfectly capable of everything. This can be disempowering to colleagues who don’t think they can live up to that standard, and is probably unrealistic. It makes people think that there is only one way of leading. Everyone needs to find their own way.
More broadly, good building blocks are clear communication, having a commitment to transparency and clarity. You can never be too good at communication. Collaboration is another useful skill. Knowing that you don’t have all the answers and empowering others to seek them for themselves. Being curious about what is happening in your organisation and achieving the sense that you are much more powerful together than you ever would be alone.
I’ll give you two. The first one is the worst piece of advice I was ever given, which if you turn it around is powerful. When I first became a manager I was told to manage people the way I would like to be managed. That is actually terrible advice because everyone is different. What we need is to know the kind of management other people need and adapt to them.
The other thing is: don’t think about your next role, think about your next role but one. One reason for this is to stretch yourself. You need ambition. Look at a role that is two away from what you want to do now, and then ask why you can’t do it right now. And then if you find you’re not lacking key aspects of the role requirements, you have set your sights too low - so push yourself further. And if you are, then you have a clear set of skills and experience to build in order to get there. There’ll undoubtedly be multiple routes to gaining those skills and experience which should allow you to think more broadly about future opportunities.