In a world that is constantly changing, it’s incredibly important to know how to adapt and grow. Networking with people in different sectors is key to this learning — it gives one greater insight and opportunity.
Penny St Martin, Group HR Director at A2Dominion Group, sat with GoodCourse to give her insight on the importance of building connections, her career so far, and how her organisation has changed since Covid.
I’m Penny St Martin, and I’m the Group HR Director at A2Dominion Group. It’s a housing association; we provide affordable social housing, but we also have a commercial arm. We’re focused mainly in London and the south.
I started off in operational policing — I wasn’t in HR at all! After that, I went into witness protection, and it was there that I became interested in what makes people tick. I spent some time in the Met managing their grievance procedure, stress management procedures, and things like that. And then, I worked in a variety of roles at TFL.
It has given me a good appreciation for how services should be provided for people, and how different branches must be unified. I have a great working knowledge of this, which is useful in operational services. I know not to overcomplicate things.
The transition into HR was an interesting one because in my original role, if someone said something was urgent, then it was usually because someone was in danger. So I had to adjust my understanding of what ‘urgent’ meant — a paper being delayed is not the same as someone’s life being under threat! It means that I don’t panic in crises, which was useful during Covid.
Initially, my role centred around stepping up our well-being. We did a poll soon after lockdown, which had engagement through the roof. So organisationally, we just wanted to ensure that people felt safe to start.
Housing can be quite a traditional industry — it was amazing how many people pulled together to adapt to flexible working. We trusted in people, and they delivered. Externally, we redeployed people, phoned customers, and contacted the vulnerable ones so they knew support was there.
We have retained quite a lot of these changes. Right now, we’re downsizing our London offices and focusing on office time being interactive. We think people work best where they work best; it’s different for everyone and every team. We have embedded a lot of change and made a lot of our office collaborative in its setup.
When I joined housing, the EDI agenda was lower on the list of priorities than it had been at the Met or TFL. We were quite passive here. So the first thing I wanted to do was understand what our people were like and what their goals were. We have always had high staff engagement survey results, so I checked how people felt.
We also thought about what kind of organisation we wanted to be and developed our strategy around inclusion. Our ethos became: whoever you are and wherever you came from, you will have opportunities to develop here. Early on, I created an internal mentoring scheme. We have ambition statements sponsored by the executive team. There is no more dress code policy — people can dress according to what their role or day requires. Giving people more autonomy is great because people feel less boxed in. The G15 is a big housing association in London. Collectively, we do a lot with them too.
The dress code applies to everyone, but we have some people in care homes or building sites. It means that people can dress according to their roles. Because we’re a diverse business, we’re developing a programme called Access to Opportunities, which is as the name suggests. Everyone gets what’s right and fair for their role.
Recently we changed our flexible benefits offering because some teams said they would value supermarket vouchers. Not all teams have taken that up, but we tailor our services to what people need.
It sounds odd for a people person to say, but try to divorce emotion from commercial business. You must be commercial and consider what a business or a customer needs.
I have found my network really important. Especially when you’re working in the non-profit sector — networking events are incredibly useful. It’s social and great to have, but it also allows you to access so many different ideas and sectors.