Industry Leaders
Ocean Housing Group
Group Director of People and Culture

Nikki Forward

In a world where effective leadership and a commitment to fostering inclusion are paramount, the need for great people leaders in business continues to grow.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Nikki Forward, Group Director of People and Culture at Ocean Housing Group, sharing the story of her professional journey, her unwavering dedication to cultivating an inclusive work environment, and her insights into the power of change and continuous learning.

Nikki's Journey

Luke: Can you share the journey that led you to your current position?

Whilst at school, I found that the traditional educational system didn't suit me, so I eagerly entered the workforce. At that time, women were often channelled into roles like secretarial work, so I started as a PA. However, I soon realised I wanted to be more involved in decision-making and shaping businesses. This drove me to return to education while still working, to earn a business degree with a focus on marketing and HR.

Then, when I worked in London for a property developer and investment firm, a position opened up in the HR team. Over the next 20 years, I climbed the ladder within the HR field and eventually became the UK HR Manager. But after two decades in corporate life, I needed a change, and I went on a gap year.

Upon my return, I had a choice: settle in London or make a move. I chose the latter and relocated to Cornwall. That's when I stumbled upon the world of housing, a field I've been a part of for the past 16 years. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to join the executive team, marking another significant shift in my career. 

Luke: Speaking of your work at Ocean Housing, could you share the unique challenges and opportunities of working in the housing sector in Cornwall?

When it comes to working in the housing sector here, we need to be particularly attuned to the demographic trends of the region. Cornwall isn't the most diverse area in the UK, with a predominantly white population. However, we have unique challenges like an increasing elderly population, which has risen by 26% between the last two censuses, leading to a higher prevalence of disabilities.

We have a 64% male and 34% female workforce in our business, which is largely caused by a skew in gender representation in certain roles. To address this imbalance, we aim to encourage more females to enter fields like property development and construction.

That said, rather than trying to force a particular diversity metric, we concentrate on addressing issues that are relevant to our business and the local community. This approach has helped us focus on areas such as gender and disability representation, ensuring that our efforts align with our local context.

Luke: What strategies do you employ to engage everyone in the organisation around inclusion, especially when time and busy schedules can be a hurdle?

Engaging the entire organisation in DEI efforts can indeed be challenging, especially when people are busy. That's where we use a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. The leadership team, including the board, plays a crucial role in setting the tone from the top. Our board is genuinely committed to our people strategy and wellbeing initiatives. They actively participate in diversity and inclusion initiatives aiming to bring more diversity into our boardrooms.

In addition to this top-down commitment, we also employ a bottom-up approach by encouraging employee representative groups to participate in shaping our initiatives. By involving these groups, we ensure that the voices of our employees are heard, and their insights inform our strategies.

Moreover, we're implementing an associate board member program, where individuals from underrepresented groups are mentored and become observers at our board meetings. This program aims to bring more diversity into our leadership positions.

Luke: How has your background influenced your approach to getting people to buy into DEI initiatives over the long term?

One of the most critical aspects of driving long-term change and engagement in DEI initiatives is understanding the "What's in it for me?" perspective. People are inherently self-interested, and for them to embrace change, they need to see the benefits for themselves.

As leaders, we need to emphasise how DEI initiatives positively impact individuals and the organisation. We encourage our line managers to understand what motivates each member of their team and communicate how embracing DEI will benefit them individually. We believe that by showing individuals the personal advantages, we can inspire them to support these initiatives.

Repetition and communication are also crucial. Change doesn't happen overnight. We continually reinforce the message and ensure that DEI is integrated into our daily routines. It's similar to creating habits for personal change, like going to the gym or giving up unhealthy habits. For DEI, it's about embedding the practices into the fabric of our organisation, which takes time and commitment.

Luke: What behaviours or habits do you believe the best people leaders exhibit to unite their teams effectively?

The most successful people leaders understand that getting the people aspect right is the key to achieving their business objectives. It's not just about focusing on tasks; it's about creating an environment where employees feel valued, engaged, and trusted. High levels of emotional intelligence are essential, allowing leaders to empathise with their team members and build strong relationships based on trust.

Moreover, effective communication is critical. Leaders must convey their vision clearly and consistently, ensuring the team understands and feels motivated to work towards it. When people feel they have a purpose, they're willing to go the extra mile, so leaders need to create that sense of purpose.

Luke: How can organisations create a culture or framework that encourages ongoing learning and personal growth for all employees?

To foster a culture of continuous learning and development, organisations need to start with strong foundations. This begins with understanding where each employee is on their learning journey. Conducting skills analyses and 360 assessments and identifying individual and team development needs is critical.

Organisations should also emphasise the importance of a growth mindset, making it a part of their DNA. Encourage curiosity, innovation, and a commitment to continually improve. While nobody has perfected this, the goal is to build an environment where employees are driven to learn and grow. This involves providing tools and habits for personal and professional development and consistent reinforcement of the learning culture.

Luke: Could you share the best piece of advice you've received in your career and explain why it has stuck with you?

The best piece of advice I've received, and one that has remained with me throughout my HR career, is this: "There is no such thing as difficult people; there are people in difficulties." This perspective has shaped my approach to dealing with employees who may be facing challenges, displaying disengagement, or even resistance.

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