What it takes to be a people-focused CEO: RHP's David Done

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Joint winner of Most People-Focused CEO at the HR Excellence Awards 2016 David Done, talks purpose, being a visible leader and HR's role

“What’s always driven me is this sense of wanting to be brilliant. The biggest thing I fear is mediocrity.” So says Richmond Housing Partnership (RHP) chief executive David Done. This desire to be brilliant extends into people management, which is why Done was chosen as the joint winner (with Homeserve CEO Martin Bennett) of the Most People-Focused CEO award in this year’s HR Excellence Awards. He was recognised in large part for the unique culture he has created. One of our HR director judges even said of RHP: “I want to work here!” High praise indeed.

Done established RHP in 2000, after leaving his role as director of housing at Richmond Council and having the opportunity to buy up the council’s housing stock. He built the organisation from scratch. “We started off with nothing: no HR team, no IT systems, no management team,” he recalls. Sixteen years later RHP employs 250 people and has won multiple awards for customer service, organisational culture (it is the number one Best Place to Work in the medium-sized category in the Great Places to Work ranking), and innovation in the housing market.

Here Done shares some of what he’s learnt along the way – and what he is looking for from HR.

1 Find a simple purpose and stick to it

“The things we cared about 16 years ago are the same things we care about now,” says Done. The three central tenets are: a passion for customer service, a focus on employees, and “being the best we can be”. Done sees a clear link between employee engagement and organisational performance, and believes you cannot get one without the other.

RHP’s vision is simple: “to be an amazing service provider”. “We talk about [the vision] all the time,” Done says. “Housing organisations can be quite disparate, so we try to simplify and clarify. We are always trying to find that golden thread.” That means RHP has focused on providing great homes, and stopped other community engagement activities.

“In any business the job of a leader is to find purpose: that clarity of what we’re here to do, what we care about and to inject passion into it,” Done says. “We have clarity and a compelling vision. Then we find people who share that passion and do our best to lead, support and encourage them to do the best they can.” Simple…

2 Get out there

Done’s leadership style has “changed massively” over the years. “Sixteen years ago I thought being a CEO was about sitting in your office, writing business plans, and talking to the board,” he recalls. “It took me a while to figure out I needed to get close to the people who work here.”

As a “natural introvert” he needed to “force himself” to ‘“get out there” initially. “Now it feels more natural, and once you make yourself do it you start to love it,” he reflects. He spends most of his time sitting in RHP’s co-working space (the ‘touchdown zone’), talking to whoever happens to stop by. “It’s about spending as much time as you possibly can with people,” he adds. “There are only 250 people here. If I can’t be in regular contact there’s something wrong with me.”

And how can HR encourage CEOs to get out there? “Invite them to come and do things. In my early days I was desperate for people to invite me to their team meetings. Encourage [leaders] to go and see what other people are doing.” This should be both internal and external – Done says he has learnt a lot visiting other businesses from various sectors.

3 Think about the working environment

One of Done’s mantras is: “I want people to feel uplifted about coming to work, not drained of energy.” That’s why RHP has invested in its offices, creating a bright open working space with lots of co-working areas and quirky touches, such as a video recording booth and a meeting room based on an aviary.

“The working environment is incredibly important, and can cost money, but it’s worth the investment,” believes Done. “We are constantly trying to think of ways to make the building better.”

Right now he says the focus is on “opening up the organisation – trying to break down the culture of having meetings in closed rooms”.

While office environments take investment, Done points out “setting the right mindset costs nothing at all”. “We are a serious organisation doing serious things and wanting to deliver great results, but we have recognised you need to have this great dose of fun as part of that, and can’t take yourself too seriously.”

4 Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication is absolutely key at RHP, and Done says the association is always on the lookout for new ways of doing things: “We try to fill the organisation with opportunities to talk and have conversations.” Done himself commits to posting on Yammer (RHP’s internal social network) every day.

Other examples include the ‘Great place to debate’, where staff members debate topical issues (recently including Brexit) and a video booth where people can record instant feedback for the organisation, or share what they are working on.

The ‘Four at four’ concept allows four people from across the workforce to pitch their ideas for improving RHP for four minutes. The ideas are then voted on using Yammer and the winning ones are supported (and resourced) by the exec, and given a three-month trial period before being kept on or “killed off”.

5 HR sets the tone

In previous organisations Done has experienced cultures where “HR feels like the police force, totally disconnected, and you’re fighting against things”. At RHP things are very different and “HR is at the centre”.

“For me it’s about having an HR function that is aligned to your vision and values,” Done says. “It’s about the tone HR sets. It has the ability to create extraordinary organisations, or to turn them into awful ones very quickly. I’ve seen heavy-handed HR practices destroy a culture with clumsy policies. HR needs to be sensitive to the organisation and what it needs to succeed. We need to make sure people processes are aligned to our values, as it’s very easy for them to get out of line.”

He also wants HR to “give me a temperature check” of the association: “I think that’s the sign of a great HR team – they ought to know how people are feeling. [Leaders] should make HR integral to management teams,” he says.

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