Leading Through Uncertainty With Chyrel Brown

For our final Leadership Masterclass of 2021, we were joined by Chyrel Brown, Chief Operating Officer at One Housing and Board Member of Barnsbury Housing Association and St Martins of Tours.

Chyrel, like many others, started out on a completely different career pathway to housing, and after completing her degree in textiles at St Martins, was directed by her mother to ‘get a proper job’, which led her to working in youth services with Southwark Council. Chyrel was recommended to take part in a programme with Brent Council, for underrepresented groups, particularly women, to get into middle and senior management roles with the local authority. This cemented her passion for working in housing, and she realised she could make a real difference to residents’ lives, whilst also focusing on building her career.

Who have been some of your role models?

“I’ve worked for many of the big landlords across London and every single one of them has given me the opportunity to do something different and to be inspired. Maggie Rafalowicz was a female leader overseeing a male team, and she really was able to get things that we needed done and get things over the line. I then moved to Asra, and Steve Douglas, along with Atul Patel, helped me to visualise myself in a senior position. I saw myself in Diversity and Leadership for the first time, and I realised there were many senior career pathways within the sector, which I hadn’t thought about before.

The big change for me came when I arrived at L&Q. They taught me to unlearn all of the not-so-useful things I had been holding on to from the start of my career, and I completed a degree in Urban Regeneration and Social Politics at Southbank University through the organisation. I had a mentor, Jerome Geoghegan, who was the director of the development team. He was blunt, but also kind, and pushed me to find my own solutions. I then had Jackie Ashton, who was really great at supporting me with my coursework, encouraging and understanding me, as well as teaching me about the legal and other aspects of housing that made up the day job.

Then I worked under the infamous Carol Carter. I was so in awe of Carol, she was a really ‘out there’ character, but was also clear about what she wanted and was able to speak for herself. I’ve just been surrounded with really good people, but one of those who really challenged was David Gannicott . At L&Q, I’d made my way up to Team Leader and felt I was really immersing myself as  ‘part of the team’. One day David took me aside and said “Chyrel, I was walking past the office, and I couldn’t work out who was leading it or who was in charge. In leadership you need to be able sometimes to stand out a give direction and show others the obvious direction of travel.” This took me on another journey, where I ended up doing a CIPD course on people and leadership. So many people have touched my career in many different places along with way.

Top tip: If you see somebody who is really great at leadership, interact with them. I’ve put myself out there to go and speak to leaders, and you always think they will never speak to you, but they always do. People are really kind and encouraging, so if there is anyone you admire, please do broker a conversation with them.”

When it came to your decision to become a leader, was this deliberate, or did it happen by accident?

“I think a bit of both. I’m really clear in my mind about problem solving and am continually trying to make things better for our residents and for the organisation. I never thought right from the start ‘I want to be the Chief Operating Officer’, but I wanted to get beyond housing officer and team leader, so that I could influence the choices being made that affect our residents and my organisation.

Authenticity in leadership is the thing that makes the difference. When people see that you are genuine, that you care, that you have flaws and can hold your hands up and say, “I don’t know”, these are the things that help you to really progress into that leadership space.

How did you develop the confidence to feel comfortable being you and your authentic self?

Through many tears! I realised I had to be comfortable being me and recognising that I have something unique and different to offer. And that comes from having mentors and coaches. I was constantly absorbing information and trying to finesse myself.

Top tip: when people try to help you by asking you to try a different way to lead, don’t forget the things you possess already that are assets to the way you lead. I used to chase the deficits, instead of retaining focus on all the things I already possessed that were my strengths.

I had to come from a place of accepting that there are things I’m not so great at, but actually there are lots of things I am really great at, and showing this with authenticity. For example, I may not be the best strategist, but I’m a really good communicator, I’m really good at networking, I’m really good at motivating people. I’m also quite self-deprecating rather than self-rewarding, so if you are like me, you have to learn to praise, reward and recognise the good things that you do.

Top tip: along the way, always update your CV, because once you start your job, you forget what you’re good at and all the things that you do! Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the week, and I’ll write a list of all the things I’ve learnt and done. Because these are the things that reinforce to you how you are improving as a leader. This then creates the positivity you need to springboard how you start talking about your strengths, rather than focusing on things that you are not so great at.”

Were you ever worried about moving from organisation to organisation? Were you always looking forward to the next step or did it just naturally progress? (Participant question)

“I was scared witless! But the worst that can happen is you gain more experience. I learnt through my mentoring that through the other side of your discomfort is the stretch that you need. When you’re comfortable, you are not necessarily stretching your ambitions.”

Participants discussed their own experiences about stepping outside their comfort zone and feeling confident to challenge themselves as leaders in supported environments, particularly within their housing organisation,. that they hadn’t experienced elsewhere Many get a sense of fulfilment in being able to help make a difference to the lives of others.

“And that’s the thing, when you see the real difference you are making to people’s lives. Sometimes it’s  hard and things are not always perfect, but when everything does line up and you can create such an impact, you realise just how lucky you are to be in this job, doing something that you love so much.”

What are the skills and behaviours you have had to develop based on some of the challenges you have faced in you role at One Housing?

Like everybody, over the last 15 months we have all had to learn new things and even when you think you know something, you end up having to learn a new skill. I’ve had to learn different ways to not only keep myself motivated, but others too. We all talk about resilience, and I’ve really had to find different ways to top up my own resilience, perhaps by doing different activities, making sure I go for a walk and being disciplined about when I work and when I don’t.

I’ve also made sure I am dialling in on peers. Creating, being a part of  and maintaining a peer communication group is a skill in itself when it comes to being in these senior roles. Carrying that authenticity through is also really important in this setting too, and having that confidence to say, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘can you explain that to me’ or ‘today is not a good day for me.’

As a leader, I’ve also had to learn about the use of technology. And Covid has taught us that although it’s good to plan ahead, sometimes it’s possible to move faster than you think you can, and sometimes you have to. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes, as long as you learn from them, and have the right intention as you go along. So acting fast and acting at scale has been another important thing I have learnt to do over the past fifteen months.

You talked about your network. How important has this been for you throughout your career?

I’m here because of my network! I have met so many people by brokering a conversation and saying “I’m Chyrel Brown, you work in Development and I’m really curious to know what you do, and what your day job entails”, or “I’m Chyrel Brown, you work in Finance, I need to find out a bit more about X, Yor Z.” My network has grown into a valuable commodity. And because I have been gracious in my appreciation and demonstrated how I have taken this knowledge and applied it; people love this. People love hearing feedback about how they have helped you progress and how you have paid it forward. I’m actually a natural introvert, but I’ve learnt to dial up that extra version of myself in order to be brave enough to make those important connections, because I know how valuable they are.”

How do you do this?

“People give me confidence, and I get energy from other people. I used to be so nervous before going into meetings, but one day my coach told me “Chyrel, see yourself like an athlete. The meeting is the race, what are you doing to warm up before the meeting?” If you get there early, and make a tea or coffee and start asking someone about their journey, you’ll already be connected to one person before the meeting has even begun.”

When it comes to networking in the virtual world, how have you managed to translate this?

“I will always try to find something that’s relatable to somebody, for instance, before joining this call today, I looked up all the people attending and realised there are people who know people I know and work with. I will always look for things that connect with me before entering a room, be that real or virtual. A little bit of background research gives me the feeling that I’m not walking into a room full of strangers. And I always create time. Time to connect with people, or to have a virtual coffee, to connect on LinkedIn, to really ask questions and talk to people about what it is that they do and what I can learn from them.

Participants recounted their own relatable experiences, particularly around how when a contracted or niche area job is complete, many people walk away without feeling connected to the team they have just worked with, which can deplete valuable connections and information sharing, and how important it is to make the effort to create and maintain connections, where real feedback, creativity and innovation can occur.

Looking to the future, what do you see on the horizon as a key area of focus, specifically as a leader?

The world has changed, and customers’ expectations have completely changed, in fact everybody’s expectations have changed in terms of what’s really important and what isn’t. The focus will still be on being able to respond quickly, being agile, being digitally enabled, and managing change.

Mental resilience will be key. Everyone has had a hard fifteen months, and we need to focus on succession, mentoring and personal development, in order to feed and nurture resilience. These will play a big part in my leadership priorities over the next year.

With all of this going on, how do you keep people engaged in their work?

Not one single thing works, and we all respond and engage differently. For me, it about keeping the connection and keeping the conversation going, and to let people know that I am open to a conversation, whether people agree or disagree, or even feel mutual about what we’ve got to say, or what I’m going to be doing. People need to be able to bring their best authentic self to work, and my number one priority is to create a space where they can do that, which will cement what we are trying to achieve and the strengths we are trying to harness as an organisation.

When you think about the next year or eighteen months ahead, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges and opportunities?

There are opportunities ahead in terms of the organisational merger, as you learn a lot of things from each other and each organisation has valuable experiences to share, as well as key individual strengths from their people. There will be geographical opportunities, as Riverside Group are based in Liverpool and One Housing are based in London. Being part of a large organisation, I’m mindfully aware of the perception that they can lose sight of the individual, so a lot of my planning and thought process is around being able to talk about the importance of a home, in the context of being part of an organisation with 75K homes, or what we call ‘units.’ So my priority is the 135K people that are the residents of the homes we provide and create and come together for.

I’m always about doing more, so we also do a lot of ‘move on’ work and addressing rough sleeping or care and support. Doing my job well creates the capacity to do the stuff which is harder and more complicated and costly. If I can do my bit in these important areas that would be amazing. The last year and half has solidified how important it is for people to have safe, solid accommodation, and I want my day job to remind me that there is still more to do.

What is it that helps you to prioritise and ensure you are staying focused on the right things?

Being kind to myself is number one. You can’t do everything yourself and so you have to be able to work as a team. You have to be completely honest with yourself about what you can actually deliver and how to prioritise these things. When you commit to something you really have to do it so its important to make time to do it. I often say to people, “It’s fantastic and brave that your diary is packed full, but you need to ask yourself, how productive are you actually being?”

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