As it becomes increasingly necessary for the housing industry to adapt to a more challenging operating environment, broaden capabilities, tighten budgets and improve processes, mergers have, especially in recent years, become a vehicle for a growing number of organisations to thrive, grow and evolve.
The prospect of a merger can instil anxiety into the most adept organisational leaders, and the process can be a very unsettling experience for the wider workforce to navigate. It also impacts on residents and customers, who can be impacted both positively and negatively by change. However, organisational restructure and mergers need not be such a daunting prospect if the groundwork is prepared properly, and those leading are able to present a clear joint vision from the outset coupled with staff and resident involvement throughout the process.
Navigating The Path Ahead
I’ve been talking to some of the UK’s key housing leaders and innovators, who have seen organisations through some of the most challenging mergers, and have agreed to share their experiences, insights and advice on steering and navigating effective organisational syntheses to see our housing organisations successfully flourish and evolve through the next decade.
In part one, we interview Elly Hoult, Programme Director at Notting Hill Genesis, and Integration Programme Lead throughout the Notting Hill Genesis merger, on the importance of getting the groundwork right, specifically, collective vision, values and ethos, and the importance of inclusion, organisational language and belonging.
The beginning of a restructuring process is often the most unsettling and unstable period for both employees of a merging housing organisation, as well as its end users. You’ve often emphasised the importance of strong collaborative values and communication at all levels as a crucial foundation to structural integration. How did you create a clear vision that both Notting Hill and Genesis felt aligned to, and what were the most important sets of values for both organisations to encompass?
“A strong vision is crucial to the success of any organisation; it is not something that can be rushed, and, in my view, it only succeeds if everybody gets behind it. To ensure that everyone bought into our new way of working, our people [staff and residents] needed to feel included in all aspects of the process, including the design of the new operating model. We took a co-creation approach so that all of our people were part of creating something new.”
Inevitably there will be emotional challenges as older practices and certain previous ways of doing things are found to be detrimental to the newly merging organisational structure. What advice would you give on addressing these challenges in a sensitive way and on creating new opportunities to drive forward better practice?
“It’s certainly tough letting go of something that you are familiar with, particularly if it’s something you were part of creating or are proud of. Even the smallest changes can create a real sense of loss for individuals, and nothing can be taken for granted. The best way to manage loss is to consistently talk to your people, don’t shy away from the reality that change is difficult. Get everything out on the table and deal with it openly, and encourage others to create something new that they believe in.”
You’ve mentioned that communication is key to ensuring openness and transparency can thrive when dealing with organisational change. How important is language and behaviour when implementing change throughout integration, process, culture and an inclusive workforce?
“It is really important that the leadership of the organisation role-model new behaviours and language to embed a new culture. It’s good to remember that the leadership are also going through change and need to adjust to a new culture, so this can take longer than you would like. It’s not enough to put words on paper and say “these are our new values” – you have to walk the walk, and critically you have to do this together, from the same place.
There is a huge drive currently across the sector to address disparities in workplace diversity and belonging. How can you ensure such a large merging organisation embeds diversity and inclusion effectively, whilst maintaining an individual sense of belonging?
“When bringing together two organisations you need to make sure people feel they belong, and this can be more complicated when you take into account the range of diversity that exists within each organisation. Quickly identifying and embracing diverse views, and, critically, the people that will challenge and support change, can help to develop “one culture”, whilst ensuring everybody feels they are an individual and that they belong.”
You mention in your blog that integration combined with digital transformation was akin to ‘rewiring an aircraft in flight’. How important would you say adaptability is and being open to new ideas from outside influences (such as residents), and has it improved, challenged or changed your relationships as a result?
“We involved our residents from the beginning, undertaking a large consultation before we agreed to go ahead with the merger. We developed a resident promise focusing on keeping business as usual to a high standard as well as bringing in improvements. It is certainly challenging to make changes whilst maintaining a good service but it’s important to keep talking and listening to residents throughout the process.”
You’ve spoken about the importance of retaining your passion throughout leading and implementing integration. How does the newly merged organisation encourage the combined workforce to follow their individual passions within their roles, and how has this affected their progress and sense of belonging within the organisation?
“Retaining passion during a merger can sometimes be tricky. We are very lucky at Notting Hill Genesis to have a passionate and caring workforce, who despite sometimes being tired and managing difficult change, have continued to push forward to achieve our shared goals. The key to maintaining passion is to focus on not just individual, but collective success, as well as what is ahead. It’s easy to get bogged down in what you have left to do, without looking back at what has already been achieved, both individually and as a team.”
Honesty, Integrity and Open Communication Are Key Drivers To Success
It’s clear there needs to be a solid collective vision to lead structural changes effectively, with the strength to address challenges openly and honestly, whilst having the sensitivity to understand, amalgamate and integrate a diverse range of opinions, ideas and belief systems. If we can understand what to look out for at the start of the journey, keep communication open and honest, and jointly commit to addressing the many common challenges, big and small, there is every probability of a successful outcome. The merger can become a welcome opportunity for organisations to not only adapt, release old methods, processes and behaviours that may have outgrown their shelf life, but actually create an organisation that is much stronger, better evolved to deal with the most current challenges facing the sector, whilst creating a truly diverse and inclusive environment in which to develop, retain, and support the collective workforce, some of whom will go on to oversee future mergers, challenges and opportunities for organisational growth. With special thanks to Elly Hoult for her contribution to this article. If you’d like to read more about Elly’s housing experiences, you can find her blogs page here.
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Alma Sheren is Head of Marketing and Communications for Greenacre Recruitment, and collaborates with the team and wider network on Leadership, Human Resources, Change Management issues and the challenges and transitions currently facing the UK housing sector.