Meaningful management: How to find purpose as a leader

Line of light bulbs with one illuminated

A ‘lightbulb moment’ on my leadership journey

As a rookie local government manager, I’ve been trying to get a grasp of transitioning from getting meaning & purpose from operational outcomes to ones which come from being more strategic at work.

Without getting too deep about it all, I think I’ve been finding it difficult to find anything massively tangible so far.

This isn’t to say that I don’t feel like I’ve been making a (positive) impact, nor have I not been enjoying myself – I really have – but I think it’s more about recognising that the usual ways of finding purpose and meaning at work are changing for me.

I think the problem is, I’ve been looking for answers in the wrong places.

Focusing on others

The epiphany finally came when I listened to one of the cracking podcasts from the guys and girls at Slack. If you’ve not experimented with Slack as an internal collaboration tool I highly recommend it.

Find wellbeing through contributing towards other’s success

A particular segment of the podcast – or ‘single serving’ as Slack put it – features an interview with Tom Rath. Tom is an author and researcher who studies the role of human behaviour in business, health, and well-being.

In the interview, he talks about to how to find wellbeing through focusing more on the people your work is helping and contributing towards other’s success.

This could be by passing on knowledge, encouraging & supporting self-development or helping others to problem-solve rather than solving problems for them.

Encouraging disruption

I think it’s also about giving your team the space and confidence to experiment without fear of failure.

As Paul Taylor from Bromford in his latest blog succinctly puts it:

[It] isn’t about policies , systems and protocol. It’s letting people do what they do best — being brilliant as only THEY can be.

I really like Paul’s CEO’s attitude to actively encourage rule breaking in order to disrupt the very foundations of their organisation too.

There’s a massive opportunity working for a council to stand out and be different and I, with the rest of our team, want to take it.

Recognising what’s valuable

No longer is it about just finding purpose from completing work packages and through ticking off operational to-do lists.

It’s now more about smiling when you hear someone passing on a nugget of knowledge that you’ve previously shared with them, seeing the satisfaction on a team member’s face when they solve a complex problem and being proud when a piece of finely crafted reactionary content created by your colleagues gets the engagement it deserves.

All things that have happened in my time so far at Doncaster Council. Powerful, purposeful stuff.

Over to you – how do you find purpose and meaning at work?

White mug with the caption "I heart spreadsheets"

Why spreadsheets are your formula for failure

White mug with the caption "I heart spreadsheets"

Photo courtesy of Craig Chew-Moulding – https://www.flickr.com/photos/craigmoulding/

Imagine a world without spreadsheets.

OK, maybe your weekly/monthly/quarterly budgets might be a bit more tricky to manage but I thinking more along the lines of using spreadsheets for things without figures or finances. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dispute the fact that spreadsheet software is great for charting and accountancy – plus, with some VBA trickery you can do some rather clever stuff.

However, there must be a wealth of useful company information entrenched in spreadsheets, hidden deep within folder structures on already cluttered network drives. Sound familiar to you?

I simply don’t understand why so many people turn to age-old bookkeeping software for things like project management, planning, strategy or just simply as a way to present information in a table format. (*shudder*)

By locking information away in a single file, with slim to none collaboration potential, and not even hosting it on cloud storage so others can get to it just seems crazy these days.

To coin a phrase – there’s an app for that. Several in fact. You only have to Google the phrase “project management tools” to end up with a wealth of results, light years beyond the likes of Excel.

I’d be lost without web apps like Basecamp, Trello, Evernote & JIRA (and I’m trying to get into using Slack more as well).

Don’t get me wrong, I respect that people have workflows that suit them. But to me, continuing to use spreadsheets for team based project management is like trying to conduct research without an internet connection. Like trying to brush your teeth with charcoal. Like trying to cross an ocean on a rowing boat.

Sure, they can all be done and produce results but why make life harder than needs to be? With a wealth of tools now available to make you more productive, collaborative and responsive then perhaps there’s no excuse not to be more innovative too.

So here’s my rallying call: let’s release data from cellular bondage and do something good with it.

Over to you – could you live without spreadsheets or are they an essential part of your workflow? Would love to hear your thoughts.

In defence of #ukhousing comms professionals

I see Nick Atkin has provoked a few housing (comms) professionals over the last couple of days after some of his comments made during his workshop session for the recent NFA conference were published on Inside Housing (IH).

Before I continue, here are a couple of disclaimers – I wasn’t at Nick’s presentation so the following is based purely on the IH article…and I am a housing comms professional. This post is also not designed to pick everything he’s said to bits – I’ve met Nick a few times now and appreciate what him and his team at Halton are trying to do, particularly in advancing digital culture.

However, I’ve read the article a few times now and whilst I appreciate, through Nick’s own admission, that the session was designed to be provocative, I can’t help feel that one of the points made was below the belt. Not because it was necessarily inaccurate, but by the use of such a broad brush to paint a bleak picture of housing comms.

If you’ve read the article, and particularly if you’re a comms person, I’m sure you know the line I’m talking about:

“If you give your social media account to your comms people they will broadcast boring, staid, corporate glossy messages using words that mean absolutely nothing to anybody. So if you do nothing else, wrestle it away from the corporate comms people.”

Bit of a teeth-dryer this one. So the suggestion now is not only to open up social media beyond the comms teams but to actively “wrestle it away” from those trained professionals whose day job consists of PR, reputation management, creativity, brand development, innovation and writing human interest stories amongst many other tasks?

From some of the seminars and conferences I’ve been to over my last couple of years in housing, I don’t think I’ve actually met anyone in housing comms who has an active desire to broadcast boring corporate messages. Quite the opposite in fact. A lot of the problems still seem to stem from senior managers, executives or even boards who remain fearful of social media and won’t allow their increasingly frustrated comms teams to innovate. They have long recognised the power of social media, how it can add a human face to their company and encourage really useful discussion direct with customers, tenants, residents or whatever we’re calling them this week.

Paul Smith makes a valid point in the comments section of the IH article too about customers driving our social media agendas, not us “#commsheroes”. At North Lincolnshire Homes, whilst we’ve had a facebook page for a few years now, what it’s actually worked best for is providing a forum for customer service. By having a page, monitored by customer service advisors it’s allowed us to sort out their problems in the public arena. In return, said customers have remained loyal to the page and allowed us comms folk to share our boring, staid corporate glossy messages human, informal yet respectful messages with them and have some quite interesting discussions around bedroom tax, home security and other topics of interest to the tenants.

There are some other facts we can’t forget. Of course, social networks are a wonderful way to communicate with our tenants in quite a cost effective way. I had the pleasure of assessing the facebook presence of some 240 housing associations last year as part of the Connected Housing Index with Anne McCrossan and co at Visceral Business. It revealed some really great use of the platform and inevitably some dormant or poorly monitored pages littered with ignored comments from customers.

What was most surprising was though was that only a handful of housing associations had more than 1,000 page likes. So straight away, #ukhousing’s facebook presence is quite limited. Let’s add to this problem. We don’t have any control over what facebook does with the content we post on there, unless we start paying to promote or ‘boost’ posts.

It’s well documented that earlier this year facebook allegedly changed its algorithm which appeared to vastly reduce the reach of the average facebook post – by this I mean the amount of people who actually get to see the status you’ve posted.  Not only that but more and more brands and companies are trying to squeeze onto facebook timelines so it’s inevitable that more and more of our posts will drop off, unless it’s corking content that’s heavily engaged with.

So, in quite a long winded way, what I’m trying to say is whilst I agree with Nick’s sentiments that housing needs to embrace social media more, we’ve still got to be mindful of more traditional communication channels before we charge off into the light. In fact, it’s probably more useful to look at building our own online communities away from third party platforms, much like the Connected Housing Index and Thom Bartley endorsed earlier in the year.

Similarly, like Paul Kennedy points out in the IH article comments, there’s still an awful lot of work to be done with actually getting tenants online before we invest all our energy in improving our social media presence. But that’s a post in itself.

I’m not really bothered too much about the debate for or against social media, I think we can all agree that we need to do more with it but it does still need some form of control and monitoring to be done successfully. It’s all a balancing act really of empowering everyone to make the best use of it.

However, what I am bothered about is learning from you, fellow comms professional, about the trials and tribulations of creating engaging content. Do you find it easy? What do you find works for your tenants? What do they like to talk about? Is it photos that do it for them? Text statuses? Videos? Feel free to comment below.

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One final point that made me chuckle, soon after reading the IH article I received an email from a journalist asking for more information in relation to a social media post they’d read on one of our accounts about a recent drugs raid on our patch. Good job we had a press release ready to go…😉

How cancer can spread in the most positive of ways and why we should “be nice to animals”

I’ve wanted to write a blog post for a while after how well my last one was received back in January. Finally feel compelled to do so after a couple of experiences I’ve had over the last few days. Sorry it’s been so long.

The first experience I want to talk about is a fantastic example of the convergence of traditional broadcast media with social media. Ricky Gervais and co. really made me smile tonight with some simple but highly effective interactivity during the broadcast of their truly brilliant “mockumentary” Derek.

If you’ve not watched it before (make sure you do!), Derek is a charming character who helps out at his local care home, alongside a host of eccentric but equally endearing colleagues. Derek, to quote from Wikipedia is “quirky, goofy, and [his] often hare-brained personality is tempered by a tender, honest and brave spirit.” In essence, he sees the best in people (and animals) despite their misgivings which are frequently demonstrated in the programme.

The clever bit came part way through in a scene where Derek was talking to another of the care home’s staff Vicky about her mobile phone. She explained about a setting him up with a twitter account and quoted it in the dialogue as being “@MrDerekNoakes”. The discussion continued with Vicky asking Derek what he’d like to say, and they even decided upon a hashtag (HT) to use in the tweet of “#DerekSays”, before sending a message of “Be nice to animals”.

My natural reaction was to get my phone out on the off chance that the account existed. Sure enough, it did and the actual tweet that was discussed in the pre-recorded programme was sent out in real time as the show was being transmitted.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who found this rather spiffing, twitter came alive with retweets of @MrDerekNoakes’ tweet, and it wasn’t long before #DerekSays was the top trending HT in the UK. What was also impressive was this simulcast was backed up with further content shared by the show’s official twitter account with key quotes from the programme composited on screengrabs from said scenes.

Again, all simple stuff in the execution but it just shows you the level of planning a successful campaign needs to undergo. Bravo Mr. Gervais.

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My second experience was learning about Stephen’s Story. If you’ve not heard of Stephen Sutton, he’s a 19 year old chap from the West Midlands who’s been battling cancer over the last 4 years. He describes himself as “an ordinary teenager” but the deeper you dig into his story, the more you realise he’s far from ordinary.

I won’t repeat his story as I want you to go and read about him yourself but in a nutshell, after being diagnosed with cancer and learning a couple of years ago that it was incurable, he set about making the absolute best of his time and published his bucketlist on his facebook page. Understandably, a lot of these were goals you’ve probably also got on your own lists but over the last year or so, these goals have become incredibly selfless such as raising a shedload of cash for the Teenage Cancer Trust and supporting other cancer sufferers.

How do I know so much about all this? Because Stephen has made his story completely public. I don’t know the guy from Adam but I’ve found it incredible learning more about his experiences over the last few years, from simply reading his website, his donation page and his social network accounts including facebook and twitter. Unfortunately, over the last couple of days it appears he’s taken a turn for the worst and posted an incredibly poignant facebook status on Tuesday morning (it’s currently pinned to the top of his page).

What struck me more than anything with Stephen’s story was how willing he’s been to share his experiences so publically over social networks. It sounds like he’s barely had the strength to even tweet in recent days but has continued to do so regardless.

It’s been a stark reminder that when working in PR, marketing and communications it’s all too easy to get swept up in whether so-and-so “shouldn’t have tweeted something so controversial on their work twitter account” or how “facebook are destroying the network with reduced reach algorithms” or bitching about “the latest twitter update that means we have to change all our brand visuals to fix new dimensions”.

None of this mattered on Tuesday night. Social networks were used as a way to share Stephen’s story and helped him achieve fundraising for his charity well beyond his wildest dreams by smashing £1 million in donations as he lay on his hospital bed. Surely, this exactly what we should be using social networks for; publishing important stories, which were written by those who are experiencing them first hand and sharing them far and wide.

As I write this on Wednesday night I have no idea whether Stephen is still battling on to send his next tweet or whether he’s finally succumbed – his last message was 12 hours ago now. One thing I am certain of though is that we’ll probably hear it first online.

I guess there will be hundreds of blogs written by people who have been touched by Stephen’s story but on the off chance you get to read this Stephen I simply want to say, thank you for being such an inspirational human being.

Three questions on the back of the Connected Housing Index 2013

Finally found some time to pen my thoughts about the recent release of this year’s Connected Housing Index developed by @VisceralBiz

I was one of the contributors to the report alongside Brett Saddler, Deena Samani and Sean Wijesiri. I’m sure it was useful for Anne McCrossan and co at Visceral Business to share the load a bit this year and I know I found it beneficial to play my part in the research by looking at facebook use by over 200 housing associations.

It’s been great to read some of the initial buzz from the report with worthy blog posts already on the subject from Jayne Hilditch and Thom Bartley (if there are any more out there so far, I’d love you to share them with me).

Anne at Visceral Business held a Google Hangout on Monday which got a few of us together to discuss the findings of the report and to post three further questions. Here were some of my thoughts on these, in relation to social media:

1. What makes the best kind of housing provider in a connected social and commercial environment and how can digital and social help?

I’m not a Chief Exec or a Director so I’m perhaps not best to answer this one, however, I would suggest the best housing provider is one that’s open to change. We cannot afford, as a sector, to shun digital and ignore the social, cost and efficiency benefits of embracing it. There are of course numerous fundamental issues to resolve around digital inclusion (which is a blog post, nay, a website in itself) and connectivity first but there are plenty of opportunities available to us. The amount of money that can be saved around reducing printing and posting alone makes it worth looking into it more seriously to fund the shortfall in our digital strategies (cue Asif Choudry to champion the benefits of an integrated marketing campaign which still includes print😉 ).

Like Nick Atkin has presented on previously, there’s also an awful lot for us to learn from the commercial sector – there are so many great examples of online brand expression and customer service from the likes of Innocent, Argos & O2. Let’s get more of our personalities out on show for all to see. Digital is a great way to do this. Let’s also stop looking at each other and learn from outside instead.

2. Should housing organisations be aiming for a thin presence across all social media platforms or concentrating on just a few?  

For me this is quite a simple one – be where the majority of your customers are whilst keeping a keen ear to the ground. Aside from offline surveys and customer profiling, there are plenty of free or low-cost monitoring tools to hunt out what’s been said about your company online. Stuff like Social Mention is a great starting point to scour the web using keyword searches. Stick your HA’s name in there, you’d be amazed what people are saying about you and where they are saying it.

For those who are more mature with their social media strategy, analytical tools such as Google Analytics should help to show what’s working and what’s not in terms of referring traffic to your website (assuming that’s why we’re using social media…right?). Free social media dashboards are also worth installing on it to get a clear view of what’s going on. For example – over the last quarter, 15% of referrals to our North Lincolnshire Homes part of ongo website came from social media, and 78.5% of these come from our facebook page. We also know that we have a heck of a lot more customer enquiries through FB than Twitter. Therefore we are investing more time and energy into improving our facebook use at the moment.

Customers are savvy though and will post their comments or complaints on whatever platform that’s right for them. We can probably guide them to where we’d like them to be but we can’t force them. For us at ongo at the moment, it’s about following them. For others, it’s about starting their own online communities and trying to attract customers to use them. I’m yet to remain convinced on this one. For me, bespoke online communities are great in principle but it’s another level of commitment or involvement to ask of our customers. It’s hard enough keeping track of the amount of social networks we, as housing professionals and individuals use without introducing other communities to join, monitor and contribute too. Maybe once Thom Bartley has played his hand on his vision of an online community by next year’s report, I’ll be eating my words. I hope so. It’s exciting in theory.

To answer the question in short, I’d say rather than spreading thinly, it’s best to “land grab” a username on each of the major social networks but focus on the ones your customers are using first, whilst being open to trying out new social networks as they come on the scene. Thom Bartley recognises that #ukhousing needs to check out Instagram whilst Brett Sadler thinks this is the year Google+ will be big for us. I agree with both of these sentiments and I’m going to throw Snapchat into the ring as well as an exciting possibility for #ukhousing to embrace in 2014.

3. What’s the best way to become more customer & outcome driven and to develop deeper engagement with residents?

A toughy to answer but at times I don’t think as a sector we help ourselves with this one – through lack of resource, lack of skills or even fear. For example, a significant number of housing associations I looked at didn’t allow customers to post content to their company facebook walls so it’s unsurprising engagement and adoption is so low online. Worst case scenario, customers will set up their own online pressure groups in response. I’ve seen a few of these over the course of my research.

Yes, there are resource implications to successfully manage social networks but it’s a case of a channel shift rather than reinventing the wheel. Why can’t a telephone advisor perform the same role on facebook? It’s an easy mistake(?) to let the Comms team handle it on their own as it soon becomes unmanageable (we did it ourselves).Of course, it’s important to maintain a grip on reputation management but the capacity lies with the knowledgeable ones in the customer service team. Through positive customer service experiences online we’ve noticed and increase in engagement with other things online too. There are other problems to consider of course such as the integration of social media contacts with “woeful” housing management systems, to quote Liz Haworth at Helena.

Speaking of engagement…in the report I think there’s too much emphasis on number of likes or followers being an indication of engagement – these are completely different things in my opinion. More needs to be done in next year’s report around this. What do we actually class as engagement online? How do we actually measure this? How do we become more open about this? What do you think?

Jayne Hilditch has proposed we obtain more data around the use of online tenancy accounts through HAs being more transparent about their online service provision, this is a great idea and I think there’s a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t. There’s also a piece of work to be done around times of access by customers. This has been mentioned in brief in the past and I know Paul Taylor at Bromford has talked about the possibility of scrapping this idea of operating just 9-5 online.

All in all, I don’t think there’s a magic-bullet answer to this question but the report’s suggestion about HR departments encouraging digital skills training, staff becoming more confident online and Jayne’s proposal for a “‘futureologist’ who gets digital” at board level are all going to help with this.

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So there we have it. It’s been my first blog post in a long while so I look forward to hearing your responses to this. Thanks to Anne and the team at Visceral Business for the opportunity to contribute to a valued national study.

5 reasons #ukhousing should adopt Google+

I’m starting to like G+ more and more. Brett makes a good case for it here.

Brett Sadler

ImageFollowing my last post titled ‘Google+ and #ukhousing – is 2014 the year?’ I’ve continued to have lots of conversations with people about the ups and downs of using Google+. I’ve also continued using G+ to interact with other people and learn as much as possible about the platform.

Since my last post, I’ve had some further thoughts on Google+ and I’ve identified 5 reasons why I think #ukhousing should adopt Google+:

1. G+ will become more common place. We’ve all seen that Facebook numbers have started to reduce, but this trend was forecast some years ago. Well here’s another trend that’s been forecast, G+ membership is growing fast and will continue to do so. Whether you agree with Google’s continued plan to embed the platform in other Google products, it’s a fact that this will only increase G+ membership.

2. G+ Circles and Communities. I had…

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If I were to have a New Year’s Resolution…writing more blog posts would be it.

I think it’s about time I started to blog more again. This site has been woefully neglected over the last year or so so I’m going to commit to writing more of my thoughts down on here. Previously, this blog was called STEP (Society, Technology, Education and Politics). At the time, I was working in the education sector but now I’m in housing so I’ve got to come up with some sort of name change I guess. Not quite sure STHP works so well. Answers on a postcard (comments feed!) for a new name for the blog.