Most people-focused CEO: Roy Williams

With a real understanding of HR issues and as an utterly approachable leader, it’s no surprise Roy Williams was voted Most people-focused CEO at the HR Excellence Awards

“I’d consider myself to have failed if our employees said they didn’t like working for the organisation. I’d consider myself to have failed if our customers said they didn’t like dealing with us. And I’d consider myself to have failed if the regulators or any other partner said we weren’t providing good services, or doing a good job, or doing what we say we do.”

This is the mantra that Roy Williams, CEO of The Sovini Group, lives by as a leader and that stands as the driving force behind the company’s successes and mammoth transformation over the past decade.

Much has changed since 2006 when housing association One Vision Housing was born following a stock transfer from Sefton Council, a service that at the time was falling short of meeting the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Staff satisfaction stood at 62% and sickness absence at more than 8%. By 2011 a group structure had been formed under new name The Sovini Group and it had begun to insource a range of services.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the property development and management company now boasts record turnover for the 2017/18 financial year, 12 companies and circa 650 employees, not to mention staff satisfaction levels above 90% and sickness below 2%. It reads like an organisational fairy tale. So what’s Williams’ secret to success?

“I think my leadership style is one of collaboration and co-operation, as well as being decisive when necessary,” he muses. “People place their faith in me as CEO so I need to make sure I act on this responsibility sincerely and genuinely, so that I can go home and look my family in the eyes and think ‘I’ve been honest, and I’ve worked hard, and I’ve done the right thing today’.”

But Williams isn’t alone in this commitment and – as he repeatedly points out – hasn’t been alone in bringing home the group’s successes. “The secret to our success is all the people who work for us. If we didn’t have these people then we wouldn’t deliver on our goals,” he says.

Which is perhaps why the organisation was the first ever to achieve consecutive first places in The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For lists in 2013 and 2014, won the Great Place to Work UK’s Best Large Workplace 2018 and ranked fourth Best Large Workplace in Europe 2018. And it’s why Williams was named the Most people-focused CEO of the year at this year’s HR Excellence Awards. HR magazine caught up with Williams to hear firsthand how he’s led the firm to where it is today.

Community spirit

“We want to be more than just a landlord – we want to be part of the community,” Williams explains of The Sovini Group’s take on the housing sector. “So the approach has always been how we can stand out from other businesses and make a positive difference in the community, change people’s lives, and create jobs and training opportunities.”

Having worked in the housing sector since the 1980s, when he started out as a clerical officer in the council housing department for Liverpool City Council, Williams is no stranger to the importance of community spirit. But it’s perhaps further back to his personal roots that this spirit can really be traced. “I was brought up on a council estate in Liverpool and my parents had a good work ethic. They instilled in me that you have to work hard for things and, above all else, be honest and discharge the faith others put in you with honesty and sincerity,” he says.

“Sovini works in some of the most deprived communities out there – we must be sincere in what we do and how we do it.”

It’s a commitment Williams expects of all employees, with a number of initiatives in place to help staff get out into the communities they serve. Notable examples include going into local schools to “talk about the world of work”, customers being invited into offices to talk about their experiences and views, and staff members who receive a customer compliment being recognised with a personal letter of appreciation from Williams. “Some customers get to know us so much that they or their families then go on to get jobs with us,” Williams adds.

Working for each other

To foster such commitment from employees, Williams explains, it’s necessary to build a “philosophy where we all work for each other”.

“Everyone should feel that Sovini is their organisation; not that they are working for someone else.” This means empowering employees up and down the organisation to take ownership and have a voice in its running.

“Every year every employee is brought into a room with me in groups of 20 to do a SWOT on the business and share ideas for change,” he explains. Throughout the rest of the year there’s a monthly staff group where people can voice suggestions for improving the business, the customer experience or the employee experience, and “see them come to fruition”.

“A number of staff volunteer to give up their Christmas days to provide Christmas dinner and a party for housing residents who would normally be on their own,” says Williams. “I wish I could take credit for that but it came out of the staff group and we’ve been doing it now for about five years.”

Williams is keen to point out that the fact Sovini operates across multiple locations mustn’t stand in the way of this empowerment and voice. Senior managers from the different sites come together every week, and every manager across the business comes together for the managers’ forum every six weeks to share successes, challenges or issues. “It’s the notion that two heads are better than one so if one MD has a problem we can tackle it together,” he says.

A personal presence

Then there’s the less formal side to listening to employees. “I joke that people can come into my office and shout, scream, kick the chairs and challenge me – as long as they don’t kick me,” he says.“I don’t have the monopoly on good ideas,” he adds.

For Williams a CEO should maintain that open-door personable touch regardless of how big the organisation grows.

“Any organisation is a reflection of the senior management and the CEO so it’s important employees think I’m accessible and that they know me personally,” he says. “I’m just another employee alongside everyone else.”

The seemingly-simple things can be the most effective in creating this culture. “I make sure to meet with every new starter irrespective of their role or seniority so we can build the right relationship from the beginning,” he adds.

Couple this with Williams’ daily presence in the company bistro at lunch and it’s clear this is a leader who wants to break down hierarchies. “I want people to know my name so it’s only right that I get to know all of theirs,” he asserts.

Striking a balance

Flattening the hierarchy is just one aspect of Williams’ wider commitment to people management. He points to employees supporting each other’s professional development, flexible working opportunities, health and wellbeing initiatives, and child-friendly policies as also paramount to the firm’s success.

Much of these centre around the importance of work/life balance. “If people have pressures at home as a consequence of work or because of anything else then they won’t be able to give us as much,” says Williams, adding that this recognition led to the creation of a strict email policy.

“I, among others, was in the habit of emailing staff outside of work hours, not expecting a response. But it came to my attention that people felt obliged to respond and this then affects their home life,” he explains. “So we introduced a policy that we’re not to send emails or respond to them out of our usual work hours or at weekends. It relieves pressure and allows people to spend quality time outside of work – and if they do get an email from me or someone else they know they can ignore it ‘til they’re back at work!”

Finding this balance is also for Williams about instilling a work hard, play hard mentality. “Friday nights we have curry nights, we have competitions like quizzes, the Sovini Games, even a competition to see who can eat the hottest chilli,” he says. “When we talk about working hard and playing hard it’s an extension of the way we operate as an organisation.”