Eastern Leaders 2021 – Leading with Trust – A Conversation with Aileen Evans

For the first session in our 2021 Masterclass series we were joined by Aileen Evans, Group Chief Executive at Grand Union Housing Group and current President of the Chartered Institute of Housing.

With a career that has spanned over 30 years in the Housing Sector, when you reflect on your journey, what are some of the experiences you’ve had in your career that have really helped shape who you are as a leader?

“For me, firstly it was about the breadth of the training and support I was offered, and it was a condition of my traineeship that I became a CIH member, which gave me a really great grounding.

I started at Nottingham City Council, and there was a great visionary there called Arthur Oscroft, who was their Housing Director. He wasn’t a ‘typical’ housing person as he’d come from Development, however the morals and ethics he brought gave me an opportunity to understand the right way to lead an organisation. I learnt about history and culture and where housing sat, not just in the work of a local authority, but how fundamental the work was to people’s lives. From that young age, Oscroft gave me a really solid example of how to lead, which translated itself through the way he led the organisation with an emphasis on young people as the future.”

You clearly had a good role model to help you think about who you wanted to be and how you wanted to behave as a leader!

“Yes, although I don’t think I valued it until much later. It has set me up for life, not just in terms of the practical skills and knowledge he gave me, but also in thinking about a way of leading and ‘being’. Arthur was universally respected, he was very wise, and he would always listen to all points of view. There is a view that leaders have to know all the answers, but actually I don’t think we need to know any of them. What we need to do is create environments for people to flourish.”

One thing that can be really difficult is having the confidence to be ourselves and to show our vulnerabilities as a leader. How have you managed to develop your confidence?

“I think you will only build trust in people if you are resolutely and completely and totally yourself. People can spot when you are being fake. Not just at Grand Union, but nationally, I now talk about the challenges and struggles I’ve had with my own mental health. Because one in four of us at any one time will suffer from mental health issues. 67% of us have Covid-related anxiety, and it’s normal to have these feelings. At Grand Union we have a place where people can go and feel that it’s normal to seek support.”

In terms of your development, what’s something that you’ve done that’s really had a significant impact on you?

“I’m a Neurolinguistic Programme Master Practitioner, which has helped me to understand the way I think and has helped me understand how to communicate better with people who think differently to me. This is a wonderful skill to have now as a parent because my children think completely differently to me, and it has helped me to build a way of understanding and being understood better.

Probably the biggest journey I’ve ever been on was when I did my coaching training. It was a journey of self-discovery and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The learning you get from really understanding who you are and how you can create the space for others to understand themselves is invaluable and life changing.”

What has leading an organisation through a pandemic taught you and your team about Trust?

“People need to understand who they are being led by. Everybody at Grand Union is a leader because everyone in Grand Union can influence somebody. By creating that environment whereby each individual can know themselves and do that positively means that it isn’t just about my leadership or the Executive leadership or our Directors, but about seeing us all as leaders and people who can influence the way we operate. Someone once said to me “if you are a leader you better behave well because people will copy you.” In other words, if you want to see good behaviour in your organisation, then behave well because whichever way you behave, that behaviour will be emulated.

Through the pandemic we had to find a new way of doing these things. I’ve been doing a regular video to my teams for instance. Our Comms Manager jokingly told me off because I don’t talk about work in these videos, but about my personal life, saying “we’ve heard enough about your cheese addiction and your next-door neighbour’s chainsaw!” But actually these are things most people comment on and can relate to.

You also lead by allowing your faults to show and allowing people to have fun. They take the mickey out of my parking all the time at Grand Union. We have a thing called Gus points, which you can give to other people by being kind. One of our development team once took a photograph of the fact I had managed to park within the lines of my parking space and awarded me 5 Gus points for the achievement. It’s important to have fun and to not be above having the mickey taken, because people know that you care about them and respect them and you have created a culture where you can be honest.”

What are some of the behaviours that other people demonstrate to you that makes you trust them?

“The ability to ask great questions such as this one! And to be direct. You need to work somewhere where the organisation is greater than the sum of its parts because everybody is able to be themselves, say how they feel and give you an honest opinion.”

How do you make people feel safe to be able to have those types of conversations, particularly when they are talking to someone much more senior to them, for example?

There is no shortage of people willing to give you their opinion at Grand Union, and that’s because it’s about trust and respect and knowing you will be heard. It’s also about creating a level of understanding and context and being clear about what you are trying to achieve. It’s not about always saying yes as a leader, but about listening, really hearing everyone’s opinions and communicating why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made, even if it’s not what people may want. As a leader you are taking ultimate responsibility. And when you support teams to take responsibility for their own decisions it’s important that they know they can come to you for support. We don’t have a blame culture and that builds trust. “

It’s Mental health Awareness Week which is a topic very close to your heart. What do you do to role model positive mental health, and to look after yourself?

“I make sure I get regular breaks during the day, I exercise regularly now, I drag the kids out for walks in the fresh air come rain or shine, and these are the best times for talking and just being together. I regularly post my gardening failures on my videos. I cook with my children, and each weekend we pair up and compete for marks out of ten on our dishes, I read…and I’ve been watching Line of Duty! Nature and being outside is very important, especially with blended work and home life, you really need that separation. It’s important to not always be online and ‘connected’, and I’ve got better at that lately. It’s important to have things to look forward to. I bought loads of concert tickets last year which I am looking forward to using up! I really miss my brother too…these are the things I will make more space for coming out of the pandemic.

You mention that you keep each other accountable in your organsation. What are some of the things you’ve noticed that mentally healthy organsations do within their cultures?

There’s a real openness about them. We use a tool called FormScore at Grand Union, where you can give yourself a score for how you’re feeling each day on different criteria and give yourself an average. I tell people what my average is and am honest about how I’m feeling and so do the rest of the team. Lots of leaders think they should bottle up how they are feeling and not show it, but people know, and they can tell. It best to be clear about it because you stop people worrying then. Our daily scores have now become shorthand for showing each other how we are mentally, and normalises being honest about our mental health.”

Moving gradually forward into the future as we come out of the pandemic, what do you think are the must-have skills and behaviours that leaders need to be able to demonstrate?

The ability to listen, make connections, and communicate. It’s also important to be able to say ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t have the answer right at that time, and to be able to create and encourage important conversations.

It’s been much more difficult to keep the connections in a remote environment but it’s really important to find ways to do so. You can’t just drop yourself on someone’s desk and have a conversation with them, so you have to create different ways to connect. It’s about having agility and the ability to listen, and to create different ways of communicating.”

What are some of the ways that you have communicated remotely that have been different?

“We have a wonderful intranet on a platform called Jostle where you can update your status and see other people’s, a bit like Facebook, but it also has discussions boards. One of the discussion boards we created was for home-schoolers. And this communicated to people that we were aware people had pressures with home-schooling and we created a place where people could share some tips and support each other. We acted on a suggestion that we break up some leave time into two-hour sections so people could have small pockets of time here and there to get stuff done, and people felt they wanted this because they didn’t want to feel they were taking the mickey by taking time off. And even though we really weren’t bothered about people taking that time anyway, nobody has taken the mickey at all, because we all started from a place of trust.

We also created a ‘wall of kindness’. I felt people needed hope, and what gives us hope is sharing good stories. So many things have happened throughout the pandemic and people have been sharing stories about doing someone’s shopping for them or cleaning neighbours gardens for them, washing cars, all sorts of things, and this includes board members too. It’s another way of creating opportunities for connection. We’ve done this through the intranet portal, teams calls and other methods. It’s all about the power of connection and creating every opportunity within an organisation to make that happen.”

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

“That’s really easy, and its two words: Worry less! Worry just eats you up. If there is something that you need to do something about, or you have a feeling that something isn’t quite right, my advice would be do something about it and then stop worrying. I used to brood for days and it would stop me from sleeping and would consume me, and looking back I can’t actually remember any of the things that I brooded about now, and no disasters have happened!

How have you managed worry less?

It’s taken practice! I’ve had to unlearn a whole load of patterns and the NLP and coaching has really helped with this. I’ve learned to question myself. Is this a good thing to worry about? Is it worth losing a night’s sleep over? Most of the time the answer is no, and when you get into the habit of continually asking yourself these questions you then get into the habit of worrying less. It’s about understanding your patterns and challenging yourself.

Vicki thanked Aileen for sharing her journey, her stories, advice and experiences, and finished with a final, very important question:

Did you like the line of Duty finale?

“I did! I thought it was realistic and left the door open for another series… I reckon the Chief Constable’s bent and they’re going to catch him next time! I felt the writing was very clever and thought provoking and a parable for our times. Some may feel it was  bit self-indulgent, but I think it has some similarities in how we live right now, which may feel uncomfortable, but that’s as it should be.”

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