Gina is a veteran of the housing industry with over 30 years’ experience, and almost 18 years as Chief Executive of Inquilab. This gives her considerable insight into how her organisation, and the sector overall, has moved on positively and where it still needs to make greater strides. Her passion and enthusiasm for the sector are palpable, as is her commitment to achieving the right culture both within Inquilab and for the residents and other groups she represents in her non-executive capacity. For Gina, inclusivity in all its forms is at the heart of her approach and ultimately she believes it central to the success of any organisation that is to thrive in the future.
How would you describe the organisational culture you’ve tried to shape at Inquilab and how has it evolved over the years?
I have been here for almost 18 years and when I first started it was a very small organisation with less than 500 units. We had a small turnover and faced some problems with governance, finance and staffing. It felt like no-one was really taking us seriously as an organisation and for me it was a challenge to see if we could turn it around.
When I came into the business, the culture was quite autocratic and not hugely collaborative between staff, executive and the board. It was a culture that was needed at that time and this was sustained partly whilst we got the right infrastructure in place.
Today, 18 years on, we have grown by three times and have a turnover of £10 million per annum. We are now financially stable and more highly regarded in the sector. It really feels like a completely new organisation.
Looking at where we are now, we have redefined our culture very much in collaboration with our staff, which I believe is fundamental to the organisation’s success. We have established what we call a ‘clan culture’. This essentially is a family-style culture which is friendly and fun, where we listen to our staff and allow them to be innovative and creative. We want staff to be empowered and feel they have a stake in the business. We aren’t John Lewis & Partners, but we do want staff to feel like they are in a type of partnership and therefore empowered to make change and have an impact.
To make that culture work, staff need to understand the purpose and vision of the organisation. They must have a clear view of why they are here and how they have had an input into making the business the way it is. Every five years we review our vision and we closely involve staff in that process: we need to know if the values we espouse to are being lived throughout our organisation.
We also encourage openness and transparency right through from operational to board level, and every year we host a board/staff dinner where they meet and have a chance to discuss issues, giving staff exposure to board members and a real opportunity for input at a strategic and governance level.
We also encourage mentoring which is delivered in a variety of different formats. I chair the collaborative BME London group of 14 organisations and the participating CEOs mentor people across other organisations, from middle management upwards. It has been very successful and rewarding for both mentors and mentees.
In your experience what must leaders get right and what blockers may they face when shaping organisational culture?
One of the most fundamental things is to get managers and employees on the same page, as much as possible. As leaders, we should be creating and shaping an organisational culture that benefits all members of staff, with no-one feeling marginalised. If you have groups that do feel marginalised, it can have a negative impact and can seriously impact culture and morale. It is important that as leaders we are alive to this and act on it positively to embrace inclusivity.
There needs to be diversity throughout an organisation – top, middle and bottom – so that all staff from a broad variety of backgrounds can be heard. We are making progress in this area, but more needs to be done. Not only does it make it a better, more fair place to work, but it makes an organisation far more interesting and creative which ultimately impacts positively on the business.
For me, the ability to maximise creativity is fundamental. As a business leader I am not on the ground every day and so I really encourage staff to develop their creativity and strategic thinking, inviting them to come and have a discussion with me and the senior team about what we should be doing. I can easily sit in my office and make policies and set about making change, but I need to listen to what my staff are saying and how they believe we can be shaping our business approach and improving our culture and purpose.
Resistance to change is very counter-cultural and in my experience is one of the biggest blockers. Cultural change can be really challenging, particularly for staff that have worked in an organisation for a long time and not had to face much evolution of culture or systems. We recently faced challenges in this area through the implementation of new IT systems. We tried a range of different activities to engage staff but there were those who just were not able or did not want to embrace the change and that created a natural division and ultimately a parting of ways.
Organisational culture is not just an internally-focused item, it can also be both positively and adversely affected by external factors. For example, when the government made sweeping changes after 2015 and the sector had to reduce rents, we were all left slightly reeling. We had to bring in considerable efficiencies, make staff and service changes and introduce new technologies. It was an external factor that really impacted our core business streams and in turn our culture.
Kate Henderson wrote recently that by “investing in a culture of accountability and respect, housing associations can provide an example to other sectors”. How far do you believe the sector has to travel to set that sort of example?
I think the sector needs to strike a balance between respect and accountability. Organisations must make sure that there are shared values between all staff, from the front line to the business executives, and that they are able to fulfil their commitments.
Our leaders in this sector are starting to take responsibility and are working to create opportunities to ensure its future health. We are all seeing that working in siloes doesn’t help and that all parts of the machine need to move in the same direction.
It is sad that it has really only been post-Grenfell that we have seen the lack of trust that was apparent between some of the housing association sector and its customers. This is one area that is very clear in the Government Green Paper: we need to focus on how we build this trust up again. Somewhere along the line I think we lost sight of that amidst the pressure on efficiencies, more development and more homes needed. I think we can go as far as saying that in some areas we had lost the trust of contact with our core group and we need to rebuild that.
As a sector we need to create the environment to get the right outcomes and higher performance across the board. If you implement higher KPIs and give staff more tools to deliver, they need to be accountable for it. As managers and leaders, it is important that we lead by example and create a culture of ownership within our organisations.
We need to improve both the accountability for and respect towards our customers. We are doing that now, but we do need to do more. If we get it right then we will be an example to others, and I believe that we do have the infrastructure to do it quicker and more effectively than some other sectors. Ultimately it boils down to our customers and we need them to like and trust us. If they don’t feel like that we might as well not exist.
Overall, I am very proud of this sector. We are embracing the need for change and are moving forward positively.
You’ve been part of some important collaborations including BME London and Leadership 2025. What role does inclusivity and culture have to play in supporting more partnership building and collaboration in the housing space?
Inclusivity is pivotal to all organisations and should be central to the work of any leader. We are a London-based organisation and this city is one of the most, if not the most, diverse in the world. If we are not alive to the fact that our businesses need to be inclusive, then we really have a problem.
If my staff and my customers are of completely different races and cultures there is an assumption, rightly or wrongly, that there is a disconnect. The external engagement that we have with our residents is so important and we need to ensure diversity exists within our staff base. We need partners and suppliers who understand the importance of having a diverse workforce. For example, our maintenance contract is under renewal currently and we need to be sure that those who are delivering the work for us deal with our customers respectfully and appropriately. There may be religious, racial or cultural sensitivities when carrying out work in people’s homes and communities, and our chosen supplier will need to be aware of that as much as possible.
One pivotal area that needs to be encouraged and embraced is diversity of thought. The impact this has on culture is significant, bringing in people with lots of different ideas to the table. I think for some organisations this is where we are going wrong and we need to be encouraging it as much as possible.
Greater levels of collaboration are also essential for this sector as it will help support cross-sector thinking and help to drive forward best practice. Much of the work that we are doing with BME London is around collaboration. We have various workstreams around employment and procurement for example, and it is proving very beneficial to work together. It is a model that others are looking to replicate. People have asked me what the secret with BME London is: for me it is having a common purpose, being honest and leaving egos back in the office.
Housing associations need to balance strong commercial performance with social purpose. What challenge does this pose for those shaping the culture within housing associations?
Our job is as landlords and developers, and as businesses we need to be commercially aware or we wouldn’t exist. We are also social enterprises that support our communities and that is where our social purpose comes in. Any surpluses gained from our activities are put back into the business to offer support functions to the communities and our residents helping with health care needs or supporting with managing finances, for example.
I see very much that commercial and social activities are connected and are fundamental to the purpose and vision of housing associations. We want to ensure that our residents are living in homes that are suitable and safe, in communities where they feel supported and want to remain. We are dealing with a lot of tenants who come from challenging backgrounds, financially, culturally or socially.
We have a culture of support in Inquilab and of people wanting our communities to thrive and live in harmony. We want to contribute to community cohesion and that is absolutely at the core of our culture and is in the passionate and committed approach of our staff, board and partners throughout our organisation.
Gina has worked in housing for over 30 years, starting her career as a housing officer. Gina joined Inquilab in 2001 as Chief Executive.
Before joining Inquilab, Gina was Director of Housing, overseeing the transformation of service delivery and strategic responsibility for front line services including Housing Management, Customer Services, Income Management, Leasehold Management, Community Development, asset management, repairs and maintenance.
She is Chair of BME London – a group of 14 small and medium housing associations that work in collaboration to deliver support and services to their customers and communities.
A Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Gina also holds an MBA and is a Member of the Homes for Londoners Board.
Gina was named in the top 50 Power Players in 2018 and is the founder of the Leadership 2025 project, an initiative with a long-term ambition of supporting the creation of a housing sector that is vibrant and diverse at all levels, with better representation of individuals who are from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds at leadership levels.