As I embark on my new life as an ‘independent’ in our wonderful housing world, I have had the luxury of being able to take time out to contemplate what it’s all about. Partly because I wanted to work out how I can help organisations improve the experience of their tenants, without competing with all the brilliant consultancy organisations already out there. But also, having been involved in our fabulous housing sector for almost 30 years (yikes) I wanted to take learning from my own career journey and share this to hopefully get people thinking, talking, agreeing and of course, disagreeing.
So, you may be asking, what did Simone come up with in her quest to find (in the words of Douglas Adams) “The answer to the great question...of Life, the Universe and Everything...”? – and, in particular, what on earth have weeds got to do with it?
So, here’s the thing. I have always seen myself as an open, approachable and collaborative leader. I always had an ‘open door’ policy for people in my teams, regardless of where they sat within the great corporate landscape. I would invite all new starters for a coffee and a chat and one thing I would always say is ‘come and talk to me about how we can improve the way we do things round here’. I would organise staff awaydays to get people talking and sharing about their ‘sweet spots’ and areas for improvement. And I would take time out to wander round offices for a chat with my people, to check in and at the same time, try to get a feel for what’s happening on the ground.
So hopefully you are now beginning to get what the weeds reference is all about. The fact is that no matter how open and collaborative leaders are, how can they really be sure what is happening on the ground, or out there on the front line, or however you wish to phrase it?
I believe the answer is that mostly, it is difficult. It’s not for the want of trying. But there are always other priorities, those high level matters which leaders are there to deal with. So, organisations hire the best people they can, support and trust them to keep the operational ship afloat. It’s called delegation.
But I have concluded that to be an effective leader we need to have our own clear insight about what is happening out there. Leaders somehow need to be in the weeds, and not just when there are major problems or complaints that warrant direct involvement. I guess you could liken it to having your own internal proactive regulation (to coin the words of the Regulator), that goes beyond formal internal audit arrangements.
Leaders need to find a way to give employees the confidence to be really open with them. And then to find a method of triangulating honest employee feedback with the views of tenants, contractors, partners. Not via performance reports that find their way up to board or council committee meetings or get published in annual reports. Nor even via staff conferences, or ‘all singing, all dancing’ reporting frameworks.
I believe that as a sector we owe this to customers. And with the regulator ‘knocking on the door’ with the new consumer standards and the accompanying proactive approach to regulating them, along with the ‘naming and shaming’ in the media and now regular publication of ombudsman findings, it really is the time for action, for re-thinking how we can do this.
In fact, recently I attended a webinar focusing on the new tenant satisfaction measures soon to be launched. One of the messages shared by the Director of Consumer Regulation was… you guessed it - the importance of executives and Boards having a clear understanding of what’s happening out there, on the front line. Or, as I call it ‘down there in the weeds’. So, clearly, I am not alone in this thinking.
Gladly my period of self-indulgent reflection has not been in vain!