Learning isn't just a means to an end; it's the foundation upon which successful organisations are built. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Sara Sheard, Executive Director of Business Operations at Incommunities, who has worked tirelessly to foster a culture of learning and growth which benefits both customers and colleagues.
Sara sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss topics including the traits and habits of successful people leaders, fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging, and the necessity of open and honest leadership.
I’m the Executive Director of Business Operations for Incommunities. I have a broad remit which includes comms and marketing, the IT team, and the governance and legal team. I’ve also set up a new Strategic Business Change team, which manages the change program of the whole organisation.
I started on the people side, but over the course of my career, I have moved more into the change and transformation space. Prior to my current role, I worked at Mencap, a charity for people with learning disabilities. After ten or eleven years, I started looking for a new opportunity, which is when I took up my current role.
We’ve done a lot of work on culture, and that started before I even arrived. We carried out a huge listening exercise with some of our long-standing colleagues to get a snapshot of what our culture looked like. From that, we decided to focus on building the employee voice and making sure everyone feels seen and heard. A lot of that work has been around EDI, and we’ve formed a new set of values and behaviours based on a colleague co-creation model. Inclusion is central to those values, and we especially want to think about it from a customer perspective. Being based in Bradford, we work in a highly diverse area in terms of ethnicity, and we deal both with elderly residents and a younger demographic that’s starting to come through. We’re trying to use our inclusion values to drive the direct customer experience as well as colleague wellbeing and what it feels like to work here.
That’s a really good question. Firstly, you need a great EDI lead. We’re lucky to have a fantastic one in Marianne Cuthbertson who brings energy and enthusiasm to the role. We’ve worked together to think about how to be really authentic when talking about inclusion and diversity. We want to get beyond the surface and think about how inclusion can address the big problems facing our business. It shouldn’t feel like an add-on: if you concentrate on inclusion and how people feel valued, it will lead to better business outcomes and customer benefits. For example, we’ve run some workshops with our senior leaders on inclusive leadership, and they’ve gained a lot from that. I think it works better when you have a pull instead of a push: if you have the right hook to start a conversation, you can encourage leaders to think about these issues and make real changes for their teams.
When we did our work around values and behaviours, we made sure to describe them from a leadership context. We took a core value such as inclusion, and talked about how what was expected from team members might differ from the responsibilities of a leader. We’ve put a lot of effort into building up trust, as there was concern about how things were done previously. In particular, there used to be a focus on command and control leadership, and people didn’t feel like their voices were being heard. When I joined, we’d just appointed a new CEO, and there was a focus on creating open and honest leadership. You can’t just choose to hear the good news: you need to be willing to hear about the problems and challenges people are facing. That also translates to our customers, and we really value their honest, constructive feedback. We’re always thinking about what kind of organisation we want to be, and I think that can best be described as a learning organisation. We want to cultivate a mindset of trying to always be better.
We’re trying to focus not just on what we do, but how we do things, and there are a few different ways we’re driving that. I’ve been working closely with the people team to focus more closely on the experience side and create a more agile mindset. It’s about involving colleagues and customers in co-creating and collaborating together to solve problems. We’re trying to bring those agile concepts into a human-centred design so people feel like they have agency in the organisation and that their voices really do matter.
Communication is key. That helps you to define your priorities and manage expectations. If you’re making big changes, you need to break that down into more manageable objectives. People will be more likely to buy in if they can see evidence of incremental change.
Be humble. You’ll never know everything, but if you really listen to people, it goes a long way. It’s important to put yourself in other people’s shoes. I don’t like to be hierarchical, and I like to go out and have conversations with everyone in the organisation, whether it’s the arborist team or our neighbourhood housing officers. That helps you understand what’s really important to people.