Industry Leaders

Stephen Hills

When it comes to creating a positive, inclusive work environment, the key ingredients are respect and empathy, and that starts from the top down. The social housing sector in particular needs leaders to care for and support its employees in order to learn from one another and grow. That in turn helps create a community not only within the workforce but amongst the tenants in the properties they manage. 

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Stephen Hills, CEO at Cambridge Housing Society (CHS) Group, about the symbiotic link between social housing company employees and the communities they maintain.

Stephen’s Journey

Luke: What was the journey that brought you to your current role?

I’ve been involved in affordable housing for thirty years now. I worked in different parts of the country and in different sectors. I’ve been a university lecturer, a housing consultant, and have worked for local authorities. In that time I came across and worked alongside CHS, and found the work they do in providing housing for the lowest income people so beneficial and inspiring, I was really pleased when six years ago they offered me a position as operations director. And, just under a year ago, I was appointed as chief executive!

Luke: What initiatives have you been taking to promote a sense of inclusion and belonging across your organisation?

The very first thing I did as chief exec was start a series of workshops with staff, tenants, and the board, revisiting and revising the visions and values of the organisation. I thought people might be really attached to the existing values, but they had lots of ideas. And I found that talking to them about something so core to CHS was a great way for everyone to get a sense of shared ownership of the organisation—that sense of belonging through participating and seeing your efforts reflected back in the shape the organisation is taking. It got people talking to each other as well, seeing they’re part of a shared endeavour, and supporting each other to deliver for our tenants and customers. 

We’ve been reviewing our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) strategy as well. We have a staff diversity advisory group and are about to launch a staff diversity champions network, who can embed those values in every aspect of the workplace. And we want our inclusion and belonging to extend to our tenants as well. They have to be front and centre of our thinking. Our work in this area is focused on how we can work better with our tenants, and understand who they are, what their needs are, and how our services impact them. 

Luke: What sort of traits, habits, and behaviours do the best people leaders exhibit?

It starts with respect for others. We all play our relative roles in the organisation. I treat everyone and want everyone to treat others with total respect as an individual doing their job, and make no assumptions on someone’s worth based on hierarchy. That needs to come from the top. As the chief exec, I want to embody that. Empathy and listening to others is also key. Being mindful of different needs and responding to that in a nuanced way rather than going in like a bulldozer. Delegation and empowerment of staff is important too. Ultimately, that’s based on trust and it goes back to a sense of belonging. If people feel they’re supported and trusted and respected, you start to generate a positive loop and set of behaviours that ripple throughout the organisation. 

Luke: How do you navigate making sure everyone across the organisation is engaging with EDI initiatives, especially given how busy people can be?

Firstly, it’s important to me that our workers maintain a work-life balance. I don’t want to hear that anyone is working 60 hours when they’re paid for 37. Empathy for others should extend to yourself and your own family. A supportive, nurturing environment needs to run right through, and if people are struggling with the hours regularly, we have to look at resources and stop and change what we’re doing, because that’s not sustainable. As far as getting people to buy into EDI, you can’t force it. You need to make opportunities available and accessible, and make sure no one is excluded due to disability or any other barriers. But it’s more about encouraging an overall environment of engagement and participation.

Luke: How do you articulate the link between EDI and work on wellbeing with that of the CHS’ higher-level strategic goals?

They absolutely do relate to each other inasmuch as you cannot deliver any of your commercial/organisational goals if you’ve got a demotivated, disengaged, unhappy workforce. You’ve got to have people who are happy at work, good at what they’re doing, and feeling supported to deliver. Do they link in an explicit way through a strategy? Not so obviously. Suppose we’re doing a new policy on anti-social behaviour. At one level, we’re not going to explicitly talk about the staff motivation, but sitting just behind it is a recognition that a lot of the work we do has an emotional strain on our staff. Our staff are seeing all sorts of difficult situations because the people we house are often with us because they’ve had all sorts of traumas and there are often on-going issues. We need to be mindful of that.

Luke: What is the best piece of advice that you have received over your career?

One of my managers said to me don’t let the pursuit of excellence be the enemy of the good— apparently, it comes from Voltaire—and it really struck a chord. Because it’s not saying don’t aim for excellence; just not to the point where you don’t deliver. Sometimes if you don’t do something when it's needed, you’ll be letting a lot of people down. Do the best you can for now, build that momentum, and improve later.

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Luke James
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