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Why maturity doesn’t always come with age
Mature people management practice hinges on what you do, not how long you’ve been doing it. And it starts with values.
When we think about a mature person, we usually imagine someone who has learned from experience over many years. But when we apply the word to people management, it doesn’t always work like that. It’s perfectly possible for long-established businesses to get stuck in an entrenched mindset where development, change and ‘enlightened’ thinking are simply not on the agenda. On the other hand, there are relatively young organisations out there that have embedded a set of values into their development strategy, demonstrating a truly mature approach to people management.
Values for identity, quality and purpose
A west of England community-based social enterprise providing housing management, care and support, maintenance, and green energy solutions, Alliance Homes Group is a great example of this.
In 2006, it had just split away from the Local Authority, where it had been a directorate merged with Adult Social Services. As an organisation now standing on its own, the Alliance Homes Group team faced a great many challenges, including how to change their culture from one dependent on the public purse to an independent, energetic and enterprising service provider with its own recognisable brand.
One advantage Alliance Homes Group had was the enlightened thinking of the Chief Executive, Clive Bodley, and his senior team. Their primary focus was on customers and service users, so a great deal of work went into developing a set of customer service values, with some high-quality training to support this. Cleverly, they made these values applicable to Alliance Homes Group as an employer as well. Through facilitated staff events, they involved their people in creating and expressing a set of words they could apply internally as well as externally.
With those values and commitments in place, published and owned by everyone, they had a solid foundation from which to develop. And develop they did. Strategic planning, role descriptions, appraisals, training and communications have all been planned and implemented with explicit links being made back to the values.
Surveys and employee voices shaping improvement
One demonstration of how their exemplary approach to HR is working is how the employee survey has come to be treated by departments like HR, Finance and IT as a customer satisfaction measure. They agree improvements to the service they provide internally in just the same way as the customer-facing teams do in response to the survey results they receive.
From here, Alliance Homes Group decided to consult on a five-year corporate plan and put in place their own systems to implement it. They formed a Performance Management Group to oversee the whole process at corporate, team and individual levels. This group recognised the need to evaluate as they went along, and invited me to carry out an internal perception-gathering exercise.
An online appraisal system was designed, with ratings against a comprehensive list of competencies. But there were issues. Although there were many performance metrics in place, people weren’t making the best use of the information these provided. So we streamlined the process into a crystal-clear traffic light report approach, published to both customers and staff.
Another issue Alliance Homes Group faced was people not being clear about the role of managers, and having an inconsistent understanding of what was expected of them. To address this, Alliance Homes Group rolled out a modular management development programme with additional coaching elements, which, over time, led to a real change in managers’ behaviour. One of the administration team told me, “I feel inspired – my manager supports me and is willing to share his knowledge and experience to help me progress.”
To accreditation and beyond
In 2010, Alliance Homes Group felt it was ready for Investors in People accreditation, invited the assessor in and achieved Bronze on its first go. But as with many businesses where people management excellence is embedded in everything they do, the improvement didn’t stop there.
Despite a major restructure, which led to a lot of pressure on Alliance Homes Group’s HR team, the organisation continued in its commitment to developing its culture and its people.
“We were due to be re-assessed at the end of 2013, so 12 months before that Lance carried out an informal audit for us to benchmark where we were,” explains Amanda Strange, Assistant Director of HR at Alliance Homes Group. “Following the audit, Lance identified the areas where we needed to focus our efforts, including evaluation systems, all-staff communications about strategy and values, team meeting agendas and developing a people policy, all of which we worked through.”
The shift from local authority department to independent organisation may have been difficult, but it enabled Alliance Homes Group to decide what sort of business it wanted to be and to create a workplace culture that reflected that. Much of what they do now would have been far less likely in their former guise. They are open and transparent within their team. As one employee explained, “It’s amazing that we’re given all the information about figures – we’ve never had that before”.
They delegate measurement and reporting across their team to create a sense of ownership. They hold regular team meetings, inviting guest speakers from different teams to talk about what they do, to improve cross team understanding. What’s more, they invest in skills for the long term and think innovatively about learning solutions, with options including job shadowing mentoring and on-the-job coaching. “I prefer learning practically rather than in a ‘chalk and talk’ situation,” explains one team member. “The shadowing opportunities have been great for this.”
These achievements have been made possible because of the all-important values. If there’s an atmosphere of trust, then so much more can happen. People share more, challenge what needs to be improved, and come into work with smiles on their faces. Faith in human nature becomes a virtuous circle. That’s got to be good for customers, surely?
Time served vs. maturity
To talk about mature people management is to talk about values and the atmosphere they create. Shaping your values with your team and embedding them in your business is the first step to maturity, because it breeds a workforce that is more engaged, responsive and committed – which in itself can take your business to new heights. And you don’t have to have been around for decades to do it. You just need to mean it, and follow it up with actions that bring those values to life. Just like Alliance Homes Group did.
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Find out more about how to get started on the road to people management maturity, with our How To guides on creating the right workplace culture and developing your creative vision and values.
Lance Cross is a practitioner with Investors in People South of England. He specialises in facilitation, strategy, skills training and team building.