Are non-profits leading high performance culture leadership?

- Leadership

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by Jennifer Riggins

We talk a lot about people making a difference at work — but what if your work makes a difference? We don’t talk enough about non-profits and we should. I spent this week at Spark the Change here in London, a conference for helping organizations reach their potential through their people. And while there were speakers from Spotify and an almost ridiculous amount of quoting of Daniel Pink’s Drive, one talk stood out because it came from a surprising source of inspiration and innovation — public housing. You know, the non-profit that helps place people in subsidized housing, with clients that don’t always have a great reputation (though much of that is just based on people’s own biases.)

The story Helena Moore offered was one of reinventing, rebranding, and innovating one of the most controversial and under-funded branches of the non-profit sector. And she and her team did it all from the ground up and from the inside out. Today I hope to share some of the ways she changed corporate culture and messaging as an example for every business to learn and make progressive organizational change and to build high performance cultural leadership.

How changing your company name could change its meaning

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But flargamuffin probably wouldn’t have made it into Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. That’s why Helena rebranded the Housing Association to Bromford and changed the tagline and mission:

@Bromford, our #purpose is to #inspire people to be the best they can be.

That’s certainly not your average definition of their sector, which, according to my Googling is “a non-profit organization that rents houses and flats to people on low incomes or with particular needs.”

Helena even went on to not even call it a non-profit but rather she positioned the company culture as “a social enterprise to inspire people to be themselves.”

This change in focus helped Bromford realize that getting people a stable roof over their heads is a bare minimum for success but that success will not only come from just that one place. Their website explains:

“We work with our customers to agree what it is they want to achieve in their life (it could be anything that makes them feel more in control of their future).”

They aren’t just focused on that roof but helping clients with things like:

  • courses to find work
  • money advice
  • skills coaches
  • home ownership advice
  • learning to become more independent
  • how to find learning opportunities

Of course working on these things helps keeps that roof on for generations, decreasing the needs for these services.

Changing your internal language can change your external focus

There’s no doubt what you say and how you say it matters.

Those of us in tech marketing have a slight aversion to jargon because we would rather people speak in a more common language. But with Brexit and the U.S. campaigns, we’ve learned that sometimes that “tell it to you straight” alleged “language of the people” can be entrenched in bias and over-simplifcation (to put it mildly). There’s no doubt the public housing industry and government’s jargon in general tends to veer toward the very stiff, clinical and impersonal.

Not surprisingly, not anymore at Bromford. They realized that in order to change the entire company culture, they had to change the way her 1,100-person team communicates internally and externally. That’s why they created their own list of banned ‘F’ words. These include:

  • tenant — these people are their ‘customers’
  • satisfied — satisfactory isn’t exactly aspirational, so try to ‘delight’ their customers
  • department — ‘teams’ or ‘crews’ sound much less silo-ed, encouraging cross-functional collaboration
  • agents — instead these folks are called ‘customer experience experts’
  • scripts — are called ‘service guides’, so personality seeps through each call or conversation
  • void — they remind everyone of their purpose by referring to them as ‘empty homes’

By changing the vocabulary the team uses and that everyone sees in pamphlets and websites, Bromford looks to combat the stereotypes that labeled tenants (or I should say customers) as “house trashers”. Everything they can do to end the Us vs. Them mentality. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help — even from seemingly random places

Back at the start of the millennia, when they began this culture transformation, Helena and other Bromford teammates started looking through The Times’ Top 100 Companies to Work for in the U.K., to reach out the companies to learn from.

What did they glean off these more corporate environments? Bromford shadowed and mimicked the hiring process of ASDA, looking to recruit first and foremost for great customer service skills. Helena said they “wanted to get people with great customer service skills — if you bring people for the right attitude, you can train the rest.”

Then, following suit of Rackspace, they welcomed these new teammates the right way, with celebrations, balloons and any other creative ways different teams went for.

Bromford now also makes it a priority that personality comes out through their processes, right down to encouraging fun out-of-office messages.

Finally, like all good companies, they are specifically focused on openness and transparency, right down to publishing their financial status.


Why is a great culture so important anyway?

Well of course we know a good, positive, welcoming culture is important for retaining employees and it encourages productivity, but particularly in the non-profit space, you need to build a great reputation to recruit great employees because you will never have high salaries to lure them in otherwise. Plus in order to better serve your customers, you need to believe in what you’re doing.

In the end, Helena said, “We’re not a housing organization anymore, we’re about helping to inspire people to invest in their potential.”

And remember that Top 100 list? They made #5!

How do you foster high performance and employee engagement in your workspace? How do you mimic the culture enrichment of other organizations? Tell us in the comments below!

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