Leadership Lockdown Lessons from Tom Woodman, Cornerstone CEO

Having spent some years as an executive director at a large south west HA, in February 2020 Tom Woodman took up the role of Chief Executive at Cornerstone HA (1,400 homes based in Exeter). Six weeks later we were in full lockdown, and Tom shares his experiences below:

Well it’s fair to say it’s been a bit of a learning curve… My experience is my own, and who knows if there is anything that anyone else can take from it, but for what it’s worth this is what I’ve found out about Cornerstone, leadership, and myself along the way.

The biggest point? Of course it’s communication, communication, communication.

I’ve tried to remember that people judge us on our actions, not on our intentions. What we intend to communicate doesn’t matter, it’s what other people are getting. And, at times like this, if it doesn’t feel like we’re over-communicating, then we probably aren’t communicating enough.

Part of this for me has been a “just do it” approach to communications. It’s better to just get several things out there 90% perfect, than spend ages agonising over the perfect turn of phrase that only sees the light of day when the moment has gone.

Weekly video blogs, email briefings, telephone calls to Cornerstone staff who are going the extra mile (pretty much all of them!), ‘thank-you’ postcards to everyone, daily 11am drop-in coffee calls on Zoom (furloughed or not, whether from people’s living rooms, gardens or their work vans) to talk about gin, pets, kids and the weather. It’s all about how we are making people feel.

Importantly, using video and Zoom etc has meant I can still come across as myself. New to Cornerstone, I think this has been really important in building relationships with people. Swapping stories, interpreting the news, trying to blend hope and realism, enabling a confident team.

It’s also been really important in empathising that some of the time life is pretty difficult. Yes, we have a lot of people pulling together, and great examples of communities  working together to help those in any sort of need. But, we also have some customers who are distressed, demanding, upset, vulnerable, and (a tiny minority) sometimes just difficult. I’ve made sure we reflect that in our conversations with our staff team, and that we’ve done our utmost to provide peer support (and other channels such as online training) to build resilience.

What else? Building our plans for the future.  I’ve done lots of strategy work with people in the past, asking them to think about what are the really important parts of a service or an organisation, what are the elements that we would want to keep going when all else failed. That’s all theory stuff, but this crisis has meant that we are doing it in real life. At Cornerstone there’s no doubt that it’s the people interactions that we’ve kept going at all costs, and that our focused size gives us line-of-sight to personal relationships with customers and staff at the sharp end.

More importantly, now more than ever we see values in action. How do we really behave when the chips are down? As a new Chief Executive, you’ve really got to have your antennae tuned in to culture. What’s really important to people, where are the supporting walls? Now we know. What do we want to change? When we’re out of this (and we can start the thinking now), who do we want to be? I started this role with the aim of increasing our flexibility, agility, outcome-focus and capacity for change – we are a lot further down that route now than I thought we would be.

The senior team is key. As well as a great Executive Team, who completely get the focus on outcomes and people, I’ve been fortunate to have a board and chair who are really grasping that critical ingredient of supportive challenge. Staying out of the operations, and keeping their eye on risk and the bigger picture. They’ve been on a journey since our IDA last year, and we are stronger for it together.

What happens next? I think the real test is still to come. Managing in the acute crisis we’ve been through is still potentially far easier than leading in what will be a continuing state of ambiguity and uncertainty for months to come.

Thus far, we’ve been able to rely on the government to make the big rules, and all of us have been happy to stay within some very bright lines for the greater good. Now, we have to bring people with us, explain to them why we are making some hard, discretionary, choices, lead them in a new world.

We had to furlough almost half our staff team (a big chunk of our direct labour team, and our development team too). That was difficult, but bringing them back to work is going to be even harder. The changes that have happened so far have been classic ‘burning platform’ stuff – with no need to make a real case for change because it’s been blindingly obvious. Now, in all organisations we will be working with inertia and optionality – and my hope and expectation is that at Cornerstone the personal relationships we’ve been building and strengthening with our teams will be fundamental to getting through that.

And what will ‘business as unusual’ look like? Who knows, but we’ve already challenged our beliefs on how much we can change and adapt together. One of the key things for me now is how we embed the lessons, and make sure we keep the good things that have happened (and there have been a lot, amidst the tragedy).

Let’s not just focus on getting back what we’ve lost (where we can), but also think about those things we’ve gained. Yes, video can have a narrow emotional bandwidth, and that makes it tough work over a day of calls. But it’s a million steps ahead of not having those authentic conversations at all. One thing I’ve noticed is that nowadays when we say “how are you?” we really mean it, and we want to listen to each other’s stories. Let’s keep that.