At such a time, North Star Housing Group faced a stark choice between doing more of the same or taking a radical and risky step towards developing a very different approach to leadership.
North Star operates out of one of the most socially deprived environments in the North East of England. The Group comprises three not-for-profit Housing Associations, each providing affordable social housing, investing in communities, developing new homes and, in the words of the Angela Lockwood CEO, “not providing hope but enabling the environment in which hope can flourish”.
At the end of 2011, the UK was reeling from a series of riots in major cities fuelled, in part, by a serious economic recession. 2010 had seen the beginning of a fiscal policy which resulted in a coalition Government reducing public spending by £14.3bn, an unprecedented amount in political history.
The biggest cut, 60%, was to the Housing Capital budget, which resulted in the numbers of new builds of social housing declining from 40,000 in 2009/10 to less than 1,000 in 2015/16. People sleeping rough nearly trebled, homelessness increased year on year and a plethora of externally driven policies brought changes to the Social Benefits system which adversely affected the poorest in society. External UK governmental policies have a serious impact on North Star’s customers and subsequently on North Star itself.
From 2010 to 2017, Housing Associations were bombarded with complex policy changes, an uncertain income stream and increased scrutiny. New regulations required even greater vigilance over finance and governance. The following elements:
- social unrest
- vastly reduced resources
- amplified customer need and demand
- increased bureaucracy and scrutiny
triggered unprecedented levels of stress in a workforce already operating in very demanding circumstances.
Angela recognised that she and her Senior Team had limited influence on the external environment. With 30% of absences being attributed to work-based stress and 8.9% of total workforce time lost to the business, Angela and the Senior Team realised that the focus needed to shift to the internal world of North Star.
As the economic downturn hit even harder, many similar organisations reinforced their top down, directive leadership, with high levels of control the unquestioned modus operandi.
However, Angela knew that, as a relatively new CEO, the uncertainty and instability provided an invaluable opportunity for her to change both herself, in terms of her approach to life and leadership, and the way North Star was led.
The multiplicity of complexities facing the organisation provided an opportunity to dig beneath the skin and to raise truly challenging questions for which there were no easy answers:
- What is really required if North Star, on behalf of its customers, Board, staff and communities, is not only to survive but to truly thrive during a period of extreme austerity?
- What really needs to happen to ensure a stronger, healthier, more robust workforce, one that is better equipped to face and influence rapid internal and external change?
- How can the Board, staff, customers and other key stakeholders be as prepared as possible for working with increasing levels of unpredictability and uncertainty?
Together, the Senior Team agreed to pause and give real attention to these questions, rather than rushing to a solution.
Involving all members of staff in the development of its five-year vision heralded the beginning of a whole organisation cultural change process. One that fundamentally shifted the way in which North Star operates, away from traditional directive leadership and towards increasing levels of authentic collaboration. Issues of control, status and authority have been challenged, enabling people to see the power and strength, in such turbulent times, in stepping away from traditionally competitive silos and, instead, courageously collaborating together to ensure North Star thrives into the future.
The North Star Approach to Relational Leadership relies upon people bringing more of their Whole Selves to the workplace, physically, emotionally and intellectually, operating out of authentic relationship and collaboration. Not without its challenges, this innovative approach has brought and continues to bring real, bottom line, tangible benefits to the organisation and the people it serves.
Oasis’s relational approach fitted with what Angela was looking for. We began by gathering qualitative data, to better understand the challenge. 104 questionnaires were distributed with a return rate of 79%. To ensure the voices of staff were heard, a parallel process enabled staff to engage in one-to-one, confidential interviews.
Angela’s message was that she and the Senior Team needed to understand what was really going on for staff, anything less would simply be a tokenistic nod to consultation. As a result, there were no ‘no-go’ areas for the researchers; staff were invited to ‘speak their truth’, all functions were subject to detailed analysis, staff across the organisations were interviewed.
The findings did not make for easy reading. Recurring themes were an absence of a single, strategic vision, reliance on indirect communication, inconsistencies and gaps in communication, job insecurity, lack of trust and a blame culture. Managers were inconsistent at decision making and priorities frequently changed. There were calls to take on more and more without understanding the bigger picture, and an absence of creativity due to a fear of failing.
It appeared that staff, already reeling from the challenges from the external context, were also profoundly affected by the way in which the internal world was operating.
There were no readymade templates to apply, nor anywhere to turn to that was ahead of the game. This was a particularly challenging choice point, as Angela remarked, “I knew that experimenting with an organisation in turbulent times was a big, risky step for a small organisation and that my profile and reputation as a new CEO was on the line; how possible would it really be to take the Senior Team and the rest of the organisation with me?”
In a process co-designed and facilitated by Claire Maxwell, the Senior Team embarked on a process of discovery in which they faced challenging questions regarding their relationship to being more collaborative. Issues of trust, control, status and power were uncovered with nowhere to hide and nothing being left ‘under the table’.
The outcome was an agreement that the Managers of North Star would be invited to join the Senior Team in co-creating the vision for the organisation to 2018.
The Learning and Development Initiatives
That decision heralded one of the most productive and creative times in North Star’s history. Frustrating, exciting, demanding and, often exhausting, the Group co-created a five-year strategic vision that triggered an organisation wide cultural change.
Working with a process that mirrored the kind of culture wanted for the future, people learned to build strong, trusting relationships across traditional power divisions, allowing for a quality of consensus decision making that called for high levels of personal responsibility and mutual accountability.
Utilising every aspect of experiential learning, role modelling and up-to-the-minute thought leadership, the Group forged an approach to adult-to-adult relationships which gave permission for:
- Challenging dialogue.
- Increasing trust and decreasing bureaucracy.
- An emphasis on principles, not policies.
- Working with good quality questions.
- Listening to understand.
- The power of slowing down to speed up.
- Higher levels of authenticity and transparency.
- Bringing the whole self to work.
Between 2013 and 2017, a newly appointed Director of People and Culture intensively set about embedding the new way of operating into the organisation through:
- Bespoke Leadership Programmes
- Skills for Change programmes for all members of staff
- Regular development across the organisation, including Teams and Functions co-creating their own Purpose, Guiding Principles and performance goals aligned to the Leading and Growing Vision.
In 2017, it was agreed that a further iteration of the North Star vision was required to 2023, with a much more inclusive and radical approach to co-creating the future. To kick start the process, an Open Space event was held in which every member of staff had the chance to put forward views and recommendations for the future, aligned to key strategic headings identified by Board.
Watch the group presenting their draft vision to the Board of North Star:
The following figures have been gathered from a 2018 Investors in People Survey with an 88% response rate. Each section has a direct correlation back to the findings from the Health and Safety Executive Diagnostic.
Organisational Structure and Strategic Vision
- 95% felt that the leaders of the organisation clearly communicated the vision and objectives.
- 99% felt the organisation has a plan for the future to ensure continued success.
- 96% stated that they participated in decision making.
- 98% felt that North Star had a great future.
- 97% felt roles are structured to enable people to work well together.
In the same survey staff stated:
- 95% trusted their leaders (Line Managers).
- 98% felt trusted to make decisions.
- 95% felt trusted to try new approaches.
- 99% stated North Star values guide how they operate.
- 90% stated that values that do not reflect North Star are challenged.
- 95% of staff stated that their manager motivated them to deliver exceptional results.
- 95% stated that their manager helped them to improve their performance.
- 98% stated that they performance was reviewed regularly.
- 93% stated that their manager motivated them to deliver exceptional results.
- 98% felt encouraged to take the initiative in their role.
- 94% felt appreciated for the work that they do.
- 99% felt encouraged to achieve high performance.
- 96% stated that they set their objectives with their manager.
- 90% stated managers shared all the information they required with them.
- 95% stated that the leaders of the organisation clearly communicated the vision and objectives of the organisation.
- 99% felt that North Star has a plan for the future to ensure sustained success.
People, who would previously never have considered themselves capable of influencing the future of the organisation, have risen above and beyond their expectations and taken opportunities never previously considered. Many have gone on to take leadership positions within the organisation.
“It’s been a totally inspirational experience with so many visible results – from personal development, to fostering and strengthening relationships, to staff actually developing their careers because of it, and of course the creation of an impressive five-year vision. I’ve learnt just how strong, brave and totally gung-ho we are as an organisation – to hand over responsibility to staff in creating such a significant business driver is a bold move and requires a lot of trust in your staff. But the rewards have been insurmountable. It’s been overwhelming to see the commitment, passion and dedication of all the staff involved.”
Learning and Reflections
The whole process has been risky, challenging and joyous in equal measure and the learning has been profound for all of us. We now know that we cannot rely on what we once knew to guide us into the future, instead we must forge new pathways towards transformation, turning more towards each other if we are to find new ways of meeting the urgency of the times we are living in.
We now understand that real change comes first from within and painful questions of control, authority and status have to be raised and worked with if authentic collaboration is to have a chance of thriving. Whilst it is getting easier as the Relational Approach is embedded in North Star, little of the last ten years has been straightforward; people have left, often because they can’t cope with the freedom and responsibility of collaborative leadership. We now know that sometimes you have to make people be free and we understand that authentic collaboration is by no means the soft option.
There have been times of doubt, anger and denial but in equal measure there has been profound insight, inspiration and innovation and all of it has been worth it for the sake of the customers of North Star, knowing they are being served well by people who are in themselves are willing to be the change they want to see in the world.