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Unprecedented with Clare Durnin

Published 22nd February 2023

At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to speak to Clare Durnin, the Executive Director (Corporate Resources) at Platform Housing Group, who spoke to us about her definition of leadership and how important company culture is to the success of a business. 

A background into you and your business

Platform Housing Group is one of the largest housing associations in the Midlands, with around 1,600 staff, over 120,000 customers and over 47,000 homes from Herefordshire in the West to the Lincolnshire coast in the East, and from the Derbyshire Dales in the North to the Cotswolds in the South. 

At the core of Platform lies our mission to build a better future by investing in affordable homes, services and communities. We recognise the importance of access to a safe, secure and affordable home in a community in which our customers feel most comfortable in, and we invest our surpluses into developing more affordable homes to enable communities to develop and thrive. 

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

Leadership to me is all about the impression you make and the influence you have at all levels of a business. It is about being trusted and setting a standard of behaviour that others look up to and, hopefully, want to replicate. It is about driving and embedding your organisational purpose and creating a culture that reflects and enhances this.

I feel very privileged to be a leader. It can be a great challenge at times but mostly brings great reward, particularly when you can see the positive impact you and your colleagues are having on others. As a leader in Housing, I understand and embrace our corporate responsibility to influence and have a positive impact on our customers' everyday lives and always strive to keep this at the heart of all my discussions and decisions. In the words of Uncle Ben in Spiderman, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be? 

I would like to feel that I have made a positive impact on an organisation, both in terms of the services and improvements that have been delivered during my tenure and also on the people who I have worked with. I would like people to say that I was fair, honest, and authentic and that they enjoyed working with me. 

What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?

Honesty to me is key – it is the bedrock of any relationship, and you need to be able to trust your leaders/colleagues (and they need to trust you too). Linked to this, I also believe that doing what you say you will do is also non-negotiable – if there is a chance you cannot do it or it may have to be done in a different way, then just be honest with the person and explain this. Never over-promise or under-deliver.  I also believe that compassion and empathy are key leadership behaviours which should be non-negotiable –people give far more if you show empathy and kindness. Finally, I think recognising the work of those around you is key – saying thank you and giving credit for a job well done.

What are the Unprecedented opportunities or challenges that you/your business are now facing? 

One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is customer satisfaction. The Housing Sector as a whole has seen an unprecedented increase in customer complaints since the pandemic. We ourselves have seen our complaints increase significantly over the past 12 months. ‘Our Customer’ is one of our key strategic themes, with several initiatives in place to improve the Platform customer experience and increase our satisfaction scores, so we are very committed to turning the dissatisfaction around.. We understand that the main drivers are around our repair processes and communication. This has been exacerbated by the resulting repairs backlog that was the Covid legacy and also the shortage of skilled tradespeople working in our sector.  

How important is culture to you? What have you done to maintain/enhance the culture since the pandemic?

As I have mentioned previously, being a leader is also about setting out a clear culture for an organisation. Without a clear and embedded culture, with a strong vision and values, an organisation will struggle to succeed. It is key to everyone pulling in one direction and having a shared set of objectives, values and behaviours.

Fast forward to 2050 .... what would you say to your future self… that you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.

Well, first of all, I hope I will have retired by then (that all depends on the Government’s decision regarding the state retirement age – it may be 100 by 2050!) but what I definitely learnt from 2020 was that clear communication is absolutely key – communication between the Executive Team (every night we would join a Teams call to discuss the daily Government briefing and what this meant for our teams and our customers), communication to our customers (on our website and on the IVR for calls), and daily communication to our people. 

We embraced the changes Covid brought, we made decisions quickly and we communicated these as soon as possible to give people reassurance.  I look back and still feel very proud of the decisions we made and the speed at which we made them.

Most business leaders are talking about the lack of available talent being the main inhibitor of growth (achieving their strategic goals) – what are your thoughts on this and what are you doing about it?

Like many organisations, we have seen some challenges in recruiting talent in some areas of the business. These have mostly been in our skilled trades but also in asset management and technology with a similar story across the housing sector. Whilst this is not stopping us from achieving our strategic goals, we recognise that we may not be able to deliver these to the original timelines. The external environment has changed so much since we launched our corporate strategy in April 2021 and is definitely more volatile and uncertain now, so it would be unrealistic to think we can just carry on and not have to make some changes to our timescales. We regularly review the delivery of our strategic goals and will have open and honest discussions with our Board where timescales may need to change. It is important to recognise and acknowledge that we have already delivered ahead of schedule on some goals, so it is not all doom and gloom.

In terms of the competitive talent market, we have had to keep a much closer eye on salaries for the hard-to-fill roles and just over a year ago had to make a significant investment into our trades salaries, as we recognised we had not kept up with the market. We already offer a generous package of other benefits and terms and conditions, but we are constantly looking at ways we can improve on this – for example, introducing a reward and recognition tool which we are currently rolling out. We have also looked to bring in an ‘introduce your friend’ finders fee for the difficult-to-recruit roles. However, I think in a challenging and competitive market, this is where culture can also really come into its own and it is about creating an environment where people want to work and are proud to recommend it to their friends and family.

The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives.  In what ways have you recalibrated your own personal priorities and goals?

My family and the families of my colleagues have always been important to me but I think that the pandemic really did place a bigger focus on this. Work is important but family is more important – getting the balance right is critical. I am pleased that the pandemic has allowed so many more people to realise that it is possible to work effectively from home and at the same time create space for some things that may not have been possible before. The flexibility it has created is amazing and I am thankful for the opportunities it has given me personally. The pandemic also reinforced to me what a great company I work for and what a great sector housing is – yes, it is not without its challenges but that is part of what makes it enjoyable.

Have you/your business done anything unique/innovative in order to recruit or retain talent? 

I am not sure if it is unique or innovative, but we have embraced flexible working, with no fixed days in the office for many of our colleagues – this has been a massive attraction and retention tool. We have also really invested in our apprenticeship programme – we have an ambitious target to have 10% of our workforce on an apprenticeship by 2026. We still have a way to go but are already at just over 4%, with plans to keep investing in this (particularly in the roles where we have been struggling to recruit). We have also put in place a robust well-being strategy ‘Our Five Pillars of Well-Being’ and really see this as being a positive part of our Corporate culture and something that we hope colleagues recognise as part of our Employee Value Proposition.

Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to yourself if you could leap back 20-25 years? 

Always learn about other areas of the business that you do not work in. Ask lots of questions and really try to understand what challenges and opportunities they face. Do not be afraid to be curious - you need to understand the business you work in so that you are able to fully contribute to its purpose and strategic goals. This will help give you focus and direction, and, if you want it, the right grounds to develop your career in line with your ambitions. 

Also, show enthusiasm and put yourself out there – volunteer to get involved in groups and projects, take on new tasks – this is another great way to get to know the business but also shows you are a team player, another key behaviour for a leader IMHO!

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about Clare and the Platform Housing Group, you can visit their website by clicking here. Alternatively, you can browse some of our other Unprecedented blogs,  here. 

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