Governing by example – a fresh challenge for housing association boards

Joanne Tilley
Joanne Tilley

Joanne Tilley, 04 December 2020

It’s a well-known saying that ‘leaders get the teams they deserve’. Perhaps we need to turn this around, and ask whether boards get the organisational culture they deserve?

The newly published National Housing Federation Code of Governance 2020 places a welcome fresh emphasis on the central role board leadership plays in ensuring an organisation’s culture and behaviours are aligned with its mission and values. Importantly, the new code also calls upon board members to lead by example, and to spend time each year assessing how effective this role modelling has been.

On the face of it, this does not seem to be a particularly new or onerous requirement. Of course boards should do this. However, in practice, how easy a task is it to lead by example? Most boards only meet a few times a year (often now remotely). Their interaction with employees is probably limited – many staff, if asked, would struggle to articulate the role of the board let alone know the names or behaviours of its members, or see them as role models.

In adopting the new Code of Governance, housing associations are required to identify and record evidence that they comply with its requirements, or to give a reasoned explanation as to why not. This has given me some food for thought. How can we go about demonstrating to stakeholders the cultural impact of our boards? This is something that we’ll be exploring with our boards at emh group, including:

  • Defining what matters – revisiting our mission, vision and values in the context of organisational transformation, and ensuring our Human Resources Strategy and Leadership Development programmes are truly aligned with our business plan and targets.
  • Walking the walk – reassessing our board appraisal system to ensure there is an appropriate focus on behaviours and values. Exploring whether the targets we are setting are driving the behaviours as well as the outcomes that we want. Considering if there are unintended consequences stemming from what we are measuring (or not) that may have a cultural impact.
  • Seeking assurance – is our board receiving sufficient assurance in relation to the health of our culture? Are our whistleblowing arrangements robust and promoted to stakeholders and is there a clear line of sight to and from the board? Do board members know enough about customer complaints and how we really handle them? What are the nature and outcomes of any grievances raised by employees?
  • Measuring cultural alignment – We’ve started some work on this already. We have just completed a @ValuesCentre cultural survey, involving 600+ staff. This has provided a wealth of powerful data for measuring and managing our current and desired culture. Importantly, the survey findings will also serve to provide robust independent assurance to our board about what values our staff see within their teams and across the business, and how close our behaviours are (or otherwise) from what staff and our board would like them to be.

Boards might not be able, in a practical sense, to have a day-to-day influence on the culture of organisations they lead. But they can create a vitally important cultural influence on the organisation by how they behave, what they value, and the questions they ask.

I’d love to learn what your boards are doing to set an example and promote a healthy culture. Let’s get a conversation going!

Code of Governance 2020

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