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Carol Matthews is the Chief Executive of the Riverside Group, a charitable housing association and one of the country’s largest providers of affordable housing, care and regeneration services. They manage over 55,000 homes, housing over 90,000 people. The National Leadership Centre spoke to Carol in September 2020, and this interview reflects her experience at that moment.

What has been the biggest change to your role since the start of the pandemic? 

My Mum used to frequently describe me as a “woman with a suitcase”, always sitting on a train or on the M62. My time was spent seeing our services, local teams, customers and regional networks from all across the nation. But now, since lockdown, I’ve gone from being completely mobile to completely stationary. 

The work has still got done however, because the work always needs to be done. 

I was still speaking at conferences online. What I was missing was the networking and the bumping into people. All the little bits of the jigsaw and chit chat that all start to make things come together. Or a left field or a right field thing that makes you go, “oh what’s that about?”

It’s been the small chat, not the big chat that I’ve missed. I am missing all those water-cooler moments. I’m starting to feel like I don’t have the intelligence or insight that I went into the crisis with. I’m missing the layer of intelligence. 

In an office meeting, somebody’s usually late, somebody spills a coffee, or there’s a little bit of chit chat. And you get all of this stuff that’s the organisational oxygen. It means that you have a different level of sight.

As a leader, one aspect of my job is foresight, oversight, and insight. Some of that glue and gossip has gone, and I am starting to feel the loss of them. 

What have those changes meant for your organisation on a day-to-day level? Has there been quite a shift away from business as usual?

The people I really want to call out are my colleagues in registered care services. They have been heroic. Some of them gave up their own home lives to not be bridges for the virus into the care services. And they didn’t make a big deal about it – I didn’t even know about it at the beginning!

And people in our repair service – which had largely been closed down unless it was an emergency repair – they volunteered to become logistical support for us and for local authorities across the country. Loads of colleagues did that. We still had around 1,000 people on the front line in care, support, and homeless services.

They just did what was right.

For me that’s one of the things I want to come through from this – leadership isn’t about the people at the top; leadership is all the way through organisations. It’s about people making choices in relation to what they think is in their control.

We improved the way things worked for us as well. My organisation hadn’t done remote working very well previously. So when we went into lockdown, we didn’t have any way of doing meetings.

The IT team, alongside the logistical support teams, kitted a thousand people out, at home, in eight days. And that was by IT working 24/7 and by the team that are used to doing repairs putting hardware and kit in their wee vans and driving all over the country. It has felt very Dunkirk-ish. People have just done what needed to be done. 

It’s been an extraordinary moment in terms of seeing the very best of the people that I’m privileged to call my colleagues. And very little of that leadership had to come from the top.

What was your role at the beginning of the crisis?

I made a conscious decision, partly as a result of the National Leadership Centre programme, that I shouldn’t be gold commander. I should sit above the crisis so that firstly I could be objective, but secondly so I could do a lot of the outward facing stuff. For example, facing out to the board, external stakeholders like the regulators, the Care Quality Commission and all the rest of it.

I delegated to the lead on business continuity and his number two, who is another Director in care and support, the control of the incident response team. That’s had the most positive impact on the team, because it sent a message of trust – that I trust two people in my team to actually run the response to the crisis and run the business continuity.

I took a step away. If in an incident response meeting, they felt that they needed to delegate up to me and the rest of the Executive Team, that was their call. Again that empowered them and the speed of decision making. But also, they became clear very quickly what things they wanted to bring to the top team. 

It would often be big dilemmas such as shall we close that service down. I had no idea how positive and profound it would be for the two members of my team to be trusted to run that team. 

How has it felt being a leader during this period?

Across the sector, there was lots of texting, lots of phone calls where people were saying, “what are you doing about PPE?” or “what are you doing about sick leave?” There was a lot of generosity with people sharing stuff. 

There has been emotional support from that, because it can be quite lonely to be a Chief Executive. I hope for some people, they have friendships that have developed and that will sustain them afterwards as well. 

In some places, relationships have definitely got stronger. My experience is that when you’ve gone through quite big crises with people, there and ever after you will always go the extra mile for them. 

What would you like your organisation to really take forward since the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’m keen that we do not retreat from the use of technology. As a national organisation, we would drag people to Liverpool and elsewhere because they had to be in the room when they didn’t need to be. 

I think – and I hope – that what we’ve now cracked is that people will feel confident and assertive about saying: “that is not good value for Riverside’s budget or my time to do that amount of travel for that amount of output”. 

Now when we bring big groups together, it has got to be worth the bacon. 

We’ve also got to take the gains and really apply it to customer service. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, we did health and wellbeing calls to our customers, and people were so delighted that we were ringing them just to check that they were ok, instead of saying that “you haven’t paid your rent” or “I’m sorry there’s a problem with your repair” or calling about antisocial behaviour. We were just ringing and saying, “hi, are you ok?”

I don’t remember at which point anybody decided to take empathy outside of the housing model or the customer service model. 

But some of the downsides of all the IT and process re-engineering is that we’ve become so transactional that we forgot about empathy and people relationships. So for me, that’s been a really big wake up call. 

We have to design in the empathetic parts of our relationship, especially when you are in a contract with somebody who is paying you a fee for a home that they might rent or might be buying off you.

Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Susan Lea · Wayne Bowcock · Helen Bailey

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022