Industry Leaders
Flagship Group
Director of People & Workplaces

Lisa Collen

Building a culture of inclusion, customer excellence, and sustainable practices is something many leaders are focussed on, yet doing so for a wide variety of staff amidst the multitude of pressures organisations are facing can prove difficult.

Co-host of The Interview Luke James sat down with Lisa Collen, Director of People & Workplaces at Flagship Group, to discuss her journey into people and development leadership, what’s important when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace, and how to embed a culture of learning and growth.

Lisa's Journey

Luke: Can we start with an introduction to your organisation?

Flagship is a not-for-profit Housing Association in the East of England, covering East Anglia — an area the same size as Wales. We have over 32,000 homes, covering cities, towns, and villages, and have a mixture of property tenures — social housing, affordable homes, market rented, shared ownership and student accommodation. We also build new homes with our partner organisations, the profits from which are reinvested to provide homes and create sustainable communities.

Luke:  Turning to you, what did your journey to your current position look like?

 I fell into working in HR! I initially worked for the railway — when it was British Rail. At the time, the majority of staff outside of the typing pool and train announcers were men, so I worked in a male-dominated industry for thirteen years and was able to be part of the management team during it being privatised. The challenges and opportunities built my HR skills and enabled me to develop a commercial mindset towards HR. From this, I went into a range of different industries such as media, engineering and manufacturing; it was when I was working in a commercial HR role and travelling internationally and nationally that I got approached by Flagship, to help develop its culture and grow its business through its people.

Whilst I hadn’t ever thought of working in housing — I’d assumed it'd be more rule-bound and non-commercial— it was the right time in my life to spend more time near home. I took the leap for what I thought would be a few years, and now here I am ten years later — working in an organisation that truly invests and cares about the part people play in making the business a success.

Luke: How do you establish a sense of inclusion and belonging across the whole organisation?

If you deal with Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) as a standalone, individual project it doesn’t blend into everything else you do. So I’m always very conscious to ensure that it’s never just a single initiative. We start with our leadership — our thinking, ways of working, approach to issues, how we empower, engage and listen to our tenants, customers and staff, and so on. Creating a sense of inclusivity for all is about our mindset, the active thought, and awareness — understanding what it might feel like to be somebody else who is different to you.

We set up an initiative called ‘This is Me’, to help people understand more about each other’s challenges and perspectives and how things can vary in people’s lives over time. This helps us understand what feeling included means and feels to everyone and anyone, and helps people be less judgemental and more inquisitive. It also helps people be treated as individuals, with more context-specific working practices and support frameworks.

Luke: What do you do to enable busy staff to engage with these topics?

It’s worth noting that some people don’t want to be involved, which you’ve got to be okay with. For leadership and managers, it’s crucial that we appreciate that a focus on creating inclusive environments and ways of working is part of their day job. By asking your teams what they want and what support they need, you learn about what matters most to your people and what sort of programmes and initiatives will resonate best with them. Our people have created support teams to focus on things like transitioning, return to work from maternity, paternity and long-term absence and various other support groups for people with shared experiences to give more choice and support to others. Inclusivity also fits into our newly launched values-in-practice initiatives.

Luke: At the organisational level, what are the key things to get right to embed a culture of learning and growth?

It’s about listening to what people are experiencing. Over one trillion dollars is spent worldwide in plotting the customer journey, yet less than a tenth of that is spent in plotting the employee journey. If we pay attention to the employee journey — what it’s like working for us, what they’re encountering each day, where the blockers are — then they’ll stay with us, learn more, and our customer outcomes will improve. We focus on the employee journey, to enable people to input and shape the systems they use in the work as that will help them grow and deliver better customer and tenant services. A simple equation of happy employees equals happy customers, which equals a happy business. 

Luke: What would you say is the best piece of advice you’ve had in your career, and why?

I’m not sure there has been one key piece of career advice, however I have had a number of managers, colleagues and friends say to me: go for it, give it a try — what’s the worst that can happen? That’s been a common theme throughout my career; that has certainly helped us create a great place to work and enable great people to do great things at Flagship Group. That's certainly sound advice so far!

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