5 March 2020

Mission statements. Vision statements. Values. Behaviours. All are meaningless ‘business talk’ that get dragged out from under the desk to be bandied about come performance review season, like some kind of motivational saviour. Or so I thought.

I started my professional career as a primary school teacher, looking after a classroom full of hungry, energetic and fast learners. Most of the time there’s no space for long term strategic thinking or cultural transformation, as the classroom is volatile and as a teacher, you must adapt. However a change of career saw me over the last five or so years working in social housing, now in construction instead of the classroom, but still with very much the same defined social purpose and potential for large positive impact for those in need.

I was lucky enough to win a place at the 2019 NHF Future leaders conference, given the opportunity to compete against my peers by submitting an infographic, detailing why I would benefit from the event. It basically said ‘I’ve never really been in a leadership role, and this is uncomfortable for me, but if I want to make that jump, I have to just jump.’

I’ve attended several conferences before, but none had really left me with the enduring impact that the Future Leaders conference had. But how? Well of course there were several really inspirational speakers. Speakers who had started off in the same mindset as me, wanting to make a difference, but unsure about leadership, part of a machine rather than leading it. Speakers who spoke honestly, speakers who promoted self-care and mentorship, who told us to embrace our perceived shortcomings and business performance.

Supplementing the entrée of inspirational talks, there was also the main course, the ‘Battle Room Scenarios’. The second day of the conference saw me wake to a cocktail of anxiety, apprehensiveness and excitement. But the attitude from the first day’s talks spurred me on.

Just jump.

And jump I did, straight into the Battle Room Scenario. The task, a leadership simulation where a group would take on the roles of those in a leadership team (Chief Exec, finance, comms, HR etc) and then create a fictional housing association, with specialisms, size and location information. The real task began when we were given a short period of time to develop an influential proposal to an imaginary board, to respond to a national housing issue, such as homelessness, stigma, housing shortage, fire safety and so on. What begins as a harmless discussion about our fictional association slowly turns serious when facing the proposal. Each group member representing different aspects of the business, leading to some rather difficult compromise.

The session taught me a valuable lesson about how we each contain leadership traits within ourselves, but that leadership is not about making decisions, it’s about making difficult choices. Which brings me back to values, mission statements and behaviours. This exercise showed me the importance of vision and mission, reflecting your aspirations as an organisation. Vision and Mission, if built from the resident and staff upwards, can be a powerful tool for streamlining process and clarity within business. It all started to make sense.

NHF Future Leaders left me thirsty for more. Since the September conference I’ve led on the organising committee for our annual staff conference, at which we ran our own Battle Rooms Scenarios, sharing the experience and a taste of the drama I felt during the conference. I find myself in a fortunate situation where I work at Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association. I have the opportunity to see the importance of having a strong and clear vision. Working with a passionate and forward-thinking leadership team, I’m given opportunity to try new ideas and having the support to fail. I won’t fear the next jump.

Aaron Dohnt

Aaron is Customer Insight Manager at Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association.

Aaron is Customer Insight Manager at Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association.

Make the jump