Transformational Leaders: Paul Harris, Executive Director of Curo Group

Transformational Leaders: Paul Harris, Executive Director of Curo Group
Published: 22 February 2021

It is fair to say that the social housing sector has undertaken a period of significant change. Over the past year Housing Associations have invested heavily in digital transformation to ensure the majority of the workforce have been able to work effectively from home.

As we move out of the pandemic, executive boards are discussing new ways of working to enhance their services allowing them to meet the demands of customers and colleagues. In our latest ‘Transformational Leaders’, Tom Neely talks to Paul Harris, Executive Director of Customer Experience at Curo Group about their plans to go fully agile and what an ‘agile approach’ will mean to Curo.

Whilst we move out of the pandemic, why has Curo decided to implement agile working?

We were actually planning this just before lockdown, and in fact secured approval from our Board to start piloting some activity at the end of April 2020. Launching ‘Agile’ in a largely digital context has had its challenges, but we’re very pleased with progress so far.

The main reasons we turned to Agile were that we were regularly failing to derive the expected benefits from our change initiatives in previous years, and we were looking at making changes to our operating model which we wanted to make sure landed properly.

What does agile mean to Curo?

We have deliberately not focused obsessively on the Agile framework itself, although we are using much of it. We are instead interested in the changes the frameworks demand in terms of leadership, culture and mindset. To us, Agile means empowering our people, working collaboratively, focusing on value for the customer and being curious about how we can improve.

How can agile thinking deliver more than just change?

Some of the concepts in the Agile frameworks are things we have been trying to progress in other ways – for example decentralised decision-making, which encourages people closer to the work to be empowered to make decisions and not have to waste time waiting for senior managers to grant their approval. This, and other Agile concepts, can be absorbed and used by organisations and their teams outside of major change initiatives. We have provided all our managers and plenty of more junior colleagues with some introductory training and encouraged them to just try stuff out. As such, we’re starting to see the impact of Agile from the bottom up, in all areas of our business, and that is in addition to the progress we are making with more structured, Agile change initiatives.

As we have seen over the past 12 months, leaders have had to adapt and change their leadership styles. What does effective leadership look like for agile working?

Agile demands and depends upon a different style of leadership, which is why it is something which must be role-modelled by the senior team. If your C-suite don’t want to empower their teams or drive collaboration and innovation – in a slightly scary non-bureaucratic way – then don’t pursue Agile at all.

Agile frameworks talk about authenticity, emotional intelligence, lifelong learning and a growth mindset – all corporate buzzwords, yes, but all completely pivotal to embedding what is effectively a change of mindset more than anything else. For senior leaders, the most difficult thing can be stopping yourself from providing (what you think is) the answer.

How do you intend to engage, develop and retain your emerging talent in the organisation?

We have a very strong record on engagement, but development and retention are areas where we can definitely do more. We try to give talented people opportunities to grow and demonstrate their skills, and we advertise all our vacancies internally first to encourage these development opportunities. We have also just launched our leadership development programme for the level below senior management and want to make this available further down the business over time.

Housing Associations tend to attract people who want to help those who are less fortunate, and we benefit from a strong sense of belonging connected to our social purpose, but we need to make sure we aren’t reliant on this to retain our top performers.

One challenge of working from home, is staying focussed and productive but it is also easy to overwork and burnout – how does Curo intend to create healthy boundaries?

Colleague wellbeing has been our most important focus this last year. We’ve always had roles that can be trying, complex and emotionally draining, and this will only become more so as the general population (and more particularly, our customer base) suffers more from mental ill health and poverty.

We look for resilience in new joiners and prize this above many other facets, but we also create a safe environment where our people know they can tell us if they’re struggling, for whatever reason, and we will do what we can to help.

For the last six months we have offered a ‘Ways of Wellbeing’ calendar of activities to all our colleagues, including things like drop-in cafes for a natter, forums with our in-house mental health first aiders, ‘desk yoga’, finance life hacks, ‘soul spas’ and regular online sessions with Executive Directors to connect and hear stories.

Additionally, we block out space in diaries before 9am and after 5pm, we have recently implemented a ‘no meeting Wednesdays’ where people are encouraged to spend each Wednesday afternoon catching up with emails or calling their colleagues and having a break from video conferencing.

Tom Neely is focused on recruiting senior management and leadership roles across Social Housing providers.

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