The youth of today…

…are the leaders of the future.

Earlier this week I joined about 75 other young leaders from a range of housing organisations in Warwick for the Young Leaders Experience 2014. I got a hell of a lot out of the two days (and way more than I expected to) so this blog is my way of recording and sharing what I learnt and will hopefully help keep the young leaders momentum going and encourage others to join the conversation.

The experience started with a session by Nick Atkin of Halton Housing Trust, most usually associated with all things digital and the occasional drone, but who had a lot of wise leadership words for us all. I was extremely pleased to hear someone in his position say that leadership is no longer about power, position or experience but about social influence and attitude. Throughout the two days I got the feeling that many of us already held this view of leadership but feel we are battling against some of those currently in ‘power’ who hold the opposite view. Nick encouraged us all to be more social and more visible: tweet, blog, build a brand, network, volunteer for projects, etc. He also warned us of getting sucked into the traditional way of doing things and implored us to never stop asking why or questioning the status quo. I think everyone there would agree he left us feeling immensely inspired and motivated, not only has he been there and done it (Nick became CEO of Halton in his mid-30s), he genuinely sees us as the leaders of future, he sees our potential and is desperate for us to believe in ourselves and achieve great things.

Hannah Allen had the difficult task of following Nick, and did so with an amazing, honest and personal presentation on what drives her, where she’s come from, where she’s going and her journey as the 2013 Young Leaders award winner. Hannah was very open and shared some of the things she has learnt in the last 18 months; one thing that particularly resonated with me was that career progression isn’t about moving as far and as fast as you can up the career ladder, it’s more important to enjoy the ride. Hannah is very clear on the importance of having values and staying true to them in everything you do, and this is one of her big drivers. Hannah challenged us all by asking ‘what do we want to be remembered for’ and recommended that we get a mentor, engage with social media as much as possible and to join the board of a local community organisation to gain director-decision-making experience.

Next on the agenda was a number of breakout sessions; I attended Creativity Matters and Get Fierce. The first focused on lateral thinking and gave lots of tips and techniques to think creatively, such as reverse brainstorming, exploring a problem through word association games and thinking like a superhero. I actually already knew a lot of the techniques that were discussed which made me realise just how much my organisation has invested in staff training, business improvement, creativity, etc. The second session was all about how to have those difficult conversations and the importance of honest conversations to your relationships and being a great leader.

Day one ended with a workshop by Bolt from the You, who explored what makes a great leader. Jo started with a great quote that I think everyone scribbled down: if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, become more, then you are a leader. Jo’s workshop then focused on three skills essential to leadership: self-awareness, flexibility and role modelling. The biggest lesson I took for this workshop was about the importance of emotional intelligence; Jo shared some research with us that placed emotional intelligence above technical competence as a key leadership quality. Again, this made me realise just how much my organisation has invested in staff training around leadership as I have completed 3 or 4 emotional intelligence workshops and profiling exercises in the last couple of years. But it also made me realised that there is still more to do, emotional intelligence is so important it clearly needs to be felt throughout the organisation on a daily basis, attending a couple of training sessions is not enough.

On the evening of day one, we all attended a dinner where we could network further and where the winner of the 2014 Young Leaders award was announced. This was a particularly nervous time as I was at the conference with a colleague who was in the final five of this award. Sadly, she didn’t take home the trophy, but she has such a lot to be proud of (not many could confidently give a presentation on the main stage at the NHF annual conference!) and I know she will continue her exciting journey as a young leader. As someone who was also a finalist in a national housing award, we talked a lot about winning, losing and everything in between and we came to the conclusion that the important thing is what you do with the opportunities that you get in life. Not winning might even be a bigger motivator and driver. I was given some great advice by a previous Rising Stars finalist to have the courage to go out there and get the same opportunities as the winner, if you want to shadow someone, just ask, if you want someone to be your mentor, just ask, if you want to get involved with a certain project, just ask, the worst anyone can say is no, but it’s highly likely they will say yes, because, for all the ills of our industry, one great thing about it is that everyone is super supportive and helpful.

For me, day two wasn’t quite as inspirational and informative as the first, but there were still plenty of useful insights. We began with a session on Unlocking Potential by the CEO of Slenky, a social network that connects businesses with young people to give them their shot. Cec told us many personal stories of the shots he had been given, but it did make me wonder, what if someone doesn’t give you a shot? What then? How can you go out and make it happen?

Next up was the former Marketing Director of London 2012, who gave us his leadership lessons from the Games. I really enjoyed hearing some anecdotes of what went well and not so well behind the scenes of The Greatest Show on Earth. The session also reminded me of the inspiring drive, determination and commitment of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, which I must remind myself of more often when I feel I’m working on something tough. Greg shared some advice given to him by a senior Apple employee: solve problems, get the basics right, add the magic second. He also said to never delegate the detail, learn to sell your ideas and echoed Nick’s views of ability over experience. He told us the importance of having a career plan, but warned against being too precise: ‘know that you want to land on the moon, but not precisely where’. This was quite reassuring, as I have sometimes worried that I don’t have enough of a plan, and whilst I still have more thinking to do on this, I’m happy for now that I have narrowed it down to a couple of possible moons.

The penultimate session was a choice of four workshops on topics suggested by attendees in advance of the experience, something I think more conferences should do. We heard feedback from each of the workshops before moving onto the last session of the day, and two things that hit a note with me were Boris Worrall telling us we must speak truth to power and Karen Armitage reinforcing the messages that career plans are not about hierarchy and high levels of detail. Day two then ended with a session of digital innovation and how it is being applied in various industries.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks very much for sticking with me, I wouldn’t normally write quite so much in one blog post! To round things off, I just want to summarise some of my keys thoughts, learning points and actions I plan to take:

  • We young leaders need to stick together and keep the conversation and support going, either online, or in person, or both. Bolt from the You have hinted they might be working on something, which I am definitely eager to know more about.
  • Many young leaders are willing and able to do more but there is a lack of opportunities, I think some current housing leaders need some gentle encouragement to give us our shot.
  • I need to nail down what I want to be remembered for.
  • I will continue searching for the right opportunity to join a board.
  • I should get a mentor, but I need to figure out why and who.
  • Whilst social media is an amazing tool for connecting and opening doors, leadership isn’t about shouting the loudest or being a sector celebrity, there’s a lot to be said for finding a job you love and quietly and brilliantly getting on with it. There must be so many fabulous leaders out there that we’ve never heard of, but who are doing great things for their staff and communities.
  • Don’t underestimate or forget the importance of emotional intelligence, ever.
  • When the time is right for me to move on, I must have the courage to go for opportunities on the strength of my ability, potential and attitude, and not worry too much about my previous experience of doing (or not doing) it.
  • Not to sweat the detail of my career plan.
  • It not about winning or losing, it’s what you do with the opportunity that counts.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Young Leaders Experience, whether you went this year or last year, attended virtually, if you want to go next year or if you’ve got any young leadership top tips you’d like to share :)


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