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Management and Leadership with guest, Ffrancon Williams

  • Are leadership and management the same thing?

  • Can great leaders be great managers?

  • What are the traits that you need to be great at both?

Ffrancon Williams is the Chief Executive of Adra, the largest Housing Association in North Wales with approximately 6,400 homes in management. He has a wealth of experience in management across a range of industries from Local Government sectors to manufacturing and infrastructure management sectors. So, who better to join Graham to delve deeper into this important topic?

Ffrancon Williams

Chief Executive

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Graham: Our subject today is all about management and leadership. I am joined today by Ffrancon Williams, the Chief Executive of Adra - a very leadership housing association in North Wales, but less about him from me and more about him from him. Ffrancon, could you tell the audience all about yourself, please?

Ffrancon: Hi everybody. I'm the Chief Executive of Adra, which is the largest housing association in North Wales. I'll tell you a little bit about myself and how I ended up as chief Executive. because I think it gives you some good context. I started life as an electronic engineer but didn't like that. So, I sought something different to do and I ended up in manufacturing, which I really enjoyed. I had a number of jobs in manufacturing. I started off with British Standards on their accreditation schemes - I would go around lots of factories and check that the goods were being produced to the right standards, and then that factory would be accredited by BSI.

I then went to work for an optical fibre manufacturer, which was a 24-7 operation, which I thoroughly loved, and that got me initially into management because then I started managing staff. Then, I did a fellowship in manufacturing management at university, which was my stepping stone, if you like, into senior management and leadership.

Then the call of home kicked in - I am a passionate Welshman. I'm a fully bilingual Welshman. I ended up back home in Bangor and Caernarfon in North Wales, working for the local authority. I became an assistant director there - I was well and truly in the senior tier. That was interesting moving into a political environment from a hard manufacturing background. I was responsible for all the housing services, including the maintenance of the stock, and the stock was in poor condition. I then applied to become the chief executive of the organisation, which is Adra as we currently know it. That was about 13 years ago now. The journey of massive change with Adra began and I'm very pleased with where we have ended up 13 years down the line. It's quite a large organisation; we manage about 7,000 homes. We build about 250 new homes and we provide a wide range of services to lots of different individuals, some vulnerable individuals dealing with a lot of poverty issues. Mine is a very, very rewarding position. And I suppose the final thing I'll say about Adra, which I'm very proud about, is that we're a fully bilingual organisation, so our business language is Welsh - about 70% of our tenants are Welsh speaking as their first language.

Graham: I think it's fabulous to hear all about that Ffrancon. I think it not only contextualises your experience, I think it does a bit more than that - it validates it. When we get into the detail of what we're going to talk about, it's not something you read in a book or you study, it's much more than that. It's hands-on cultural change. A leadership change from an authority to an independent body will have been challenging.

We often talk about leadership and management in the same sentence. In your mind, are they different? Do you think of them as two separate subjects? Two separate skill sets?

Ffrancon: Good question. To dig deeper into that, one has to recognise that there's a lot of debate around this particular question, isn't there? I do see the two things as different. I see management as different to leadership. I guess how I would contextualise it is that in management you are set - you've got a set of objectives which are set for you, or some targets that are set for you, and you are required to manage your resources to achieve those outcomes. You know what the targets are, what the activity is, how it's done, and how it can be constrained. I view that as management.

I think the difference for me between management and leadership is that leadership is a little bit more visionary. Where are we going? What risks do we face? It's forward-thinking, and the skillset around that is quite different to managing.

Graham: Yes, Being very simplistic, I think of leadership as being the vision that identifies what needs to be done, and management is the skillset that gets it done. Clearly, constraints and problems are the baby-wick of a great manager.

If you are a leader, you're someone who is visionary, someone who can identify and motivate and inspire people to follow that vision. Do they also need to be able to manage? Or is it such a different skill set that it's not important, do you think?

Ffrancon: That's a great question, Graham. I think it helps if you have experience in management. I think it enhances your leadership skillset. But I would say also, and we probably recognise quite a few people out there who are very, very good leaders, but who aren't necessarily particularly skilled in the management set.

You can get great leaders who are very visionary and have an affinity that people want to follow naturally, and yet they perhaps wouldn't be very good at delivering a budget or managing staff or complex organisational structures. I think you can be a good leader without necessarily being able to manage.

As I said, I think it helps if you have that experience in managing, because if you manage a group of individuals, or had to deliver a particular service to a prescribed set of targets, then you have empathy for those involved. And if you are setting an exciting vision, then you need to succeed as a leader - you need individuals to buy into that and to follow that vision. So empathy with those in management, I think helps. That's just a personal view, Graham.

Graham: I concur with that as a coach, I often see people who are really, really good leaders, people who actually can inspire others with a charismatic interpretation of opportunity, and yet couldn't organise a bus quite frankly, and as they say often where I live, couldn't run a bath. But nonetheless, that's still a really important function. And you know, the reverse is true. I see people who are fantastic managers, people who achieve amazing things but need to be led. They are dependent upon someone pointing them in the right direction, but they'll get there if pointed.

What I find interesting is that I think the size of the organisation and indeed the type of organisation affects this. If you are in a small business, it's very difficult not to be the one doing the vision and doing the doing. You know, there aren't enough of you around. The second thing is often entrepreneurs have gotten into self-employment, running a business, or creating something because they have a vision, whatever that is, and then they've got to find ways of turning that into a reality. And they either do that themselves or employ people to do that. As a coach, I see these differences in action and they are quite different skills and in quite different modes. And as I say, in different organisations, you might get different mixes of what gets done by whom.

As someone who has led through an enormous business change. What are the sorts of challenges - leadership challenges - that you've seen and tackled?

Ffrancon: Numerous I think is the answer! I'll just give you a flavour of a few of them. You mentioned the transition from a local authority setting into a housing association involved enormous change. A local authority setting obviously is a political decision-making body and that brings with it a way of working that those involved with that way of working are not always in charge of their own destiny or their services destiny, but they remain responsible for it.

We carried across 150 individuals from that local authority setting - where there had been very low turnover as well - so for those individuals, it was a massive, massive change. Some only knew the local authority and hadn't worked for others. I think one of the things that we worked very hard at was communicating with staff and to try and alleviate as many fears as we could because without the staff, nothing happens. We've always been fortunate with the quality of the staff that we've had, but nonetheless, those staff then needed to align to a different way of working in a different direction, and that wasn't comfortable for many staff. We needed, we needed to support, but also we were required to deliver on the promises that we'd given our tenants. The transfer occurred because they wanted to see change, and there were some prescribed outcomes that we were to achieve, some of them extremely challenging.

We needed to upgrade the stock, for example, bring them up to a much, much higher standard within a very short time period. We had about £136 million in investment, which we'd secured by private funding, that needed to be delivered within a five-year period. And we did achieve a huge challenge that then in terms of we'd sold the vision of where we wanted to go. Then we had to lead the individuals to deliver it - all the structures that need setting up, the procurements and that sort of activity.

In the leadership sense, we wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do things differently. One of the things I wanted to do was to make sure that from that massive investment, that we maximise the impact of that investment on our communities here in North Wales. So through our leadership and through the advice that we'd received on procurement, we did things slightly differently so that we could maximise more of that investment than you would do by just appointing one of the big multinational contractors. Then naturally through change, not everybody's comfortable with it, and there are times when you need to change things and do the more difficult side of things. Perhaps falls into the management more than the leadership where you had to change things and perhaps, sadly, change some individuals, but also keep your sight on where you wanted to go despite some of the turbulence along the way.

Graham: When you look back and you compare the early stage Adra to the mature Adra that it is now, in your mind, can you see the difference? Can you feel the difference?

Ffrancon: Yes, definitely. It's 13 years this year since we transferred, so there has been a natural change in the staff anyway, but like myself, I was one of the originals. I was there from day one, but we still have many of those dedicated people with us. And they would say that it's a very, very different organisation now. I think probably to a man and to a woman, would rather work for this type of setup than the political one because I think they achieve more and I think they recognise that culturally we've changed.

We wanted people to be empowered and more empowered than clearly they were in the local authority. And also more empowered than in our early days. We had big promises to deliver on and there was a lot of pressure on individuals and performance management was a very strong part of our leadership at that time, and that can bring some elements of negativity, which impacts culture if not handled correctly and we suffered a bit with that. Whereas now I think we've got the balance, culturally, in the right place. Perhaps that's not surprising after a long period of time, but it's been a very long journey.

Culturally, I think that we have set a workplace which is a comfortable place to work and open where people can speak their minds and they feel that they can influence decisions that impact the sphere of operation and wider. We listen to what our staff and our stakeholders tell us and we try - as the sailing analogy goes - we try and adjust the sail as we go along. We've got a clear idea of where we want to go. We've got a clear picture of what impact we want to make on our communities and our tenants, and we want to be a leading housing association and everybody in the organisation plays a part in that. That's the culture we've tried to set. We deliver on, if you like, the collective view of where everybody wants to take the organisation.

Graham: I can see the leadership aspect of that. You touched on some aspects of the management in terms of performance management and so on, in terms of what worked and what didn't work. Were there any other management lessons that you found during the transition that are worth sharing?

Ffrancon: A housing association is quite a complicated organisation. We manage properties, we manage the tendencies, but there's a whole raft of services, support services and frontline services that provide those services and support to the vulnerable; financial advice, rent collection, and antisocial behaviour - it's fascinating. Each of those activities is managed by teams and managers and there's a performance management structure around it. I think one of the management difficulties at times is that you get sort of silos - you can get individual management units that referred to themselves as performing very, very well and delivering to a set of prescribed targets, but perhaps are operating in isolation of other parts of the organisation. And that creates difficulties across departments and can create some tensions among others. Staff can have an impact on the culture that you're trying to lead in the organisation. The culture of the organisation can be adversely affected by everybody being effective in their management spheres, but by operating in silos. So we work quite hard at trying to bring people with us to avoid a silo way of working. I wouldn't say that we've cracked it all. It's a constant journey, but we have our eyes on the fact that that's not what we want. We work very hard amongst the teams and across the teams and with our leadership teams just to try and move things along so it doesn't happen.

Graham: We talked about leaders being charismatic, visionary, and the person who identifies perhaps what the North Star is that you are all marching towards. Do you think leaders are born or can they be taught?

Ffrancon: I think both would be my interpretation. I think that some people are born leaders. I have a 17-year-old son and a 20-year-old son, and it's very difficult that they haven't been born knowing what they want to do, but some people are born aren't they? And those that are born, knowing what they want to do and where they want to go, are blessed I think because that brings with it a huge amount of drive.

Similarly, lots of people are born, I believe, with those inherent leadership skills that people warm to; they are truly visionary in that people can stand back and say 'that resonates with me, and I'll follow that individual'. But equally, I think that, and I speak as a modest Welshman, who doesn't naturally blow his own trumpet - I have learned how to lead. I would say I wasn't a born leader, but I've taken advantage of opportunities and I have an interest naturally in leadership and management. I probably wouldn't be where I am unless I had that, and I would say that I've honed my skills, not perfectly, by continuously learning.

Your own attitude needs to be to absorb skills and learn along the way. I believe that if you have that drive and interest to learn and you're prepared to adapt your own behaviours so that you achieve those that are more akin to a leader, that individuals will follow, you can become a leader - you don't have to be born into it is my view.

Graham: I concur with that. I think that's what my experience both personally and with other people that I work with is. I think you can be a leader just because you have passion for a thing. You want something to happen, and that drive, that energy is just passed onto other people, and it generates momentum. That might be very unskilled. It may be really quite crude in many ways, but it will. Energy and drive - I think that's one aspect. I think the other aspect is waking up and saying it is down to me, this, this is my role. If I don't do this, if I don't point the way, if I don't identify the path, Nobody else is going to, and we're gonna be stuck literally where we are.

I think as a senior manager, as a business leader, whatever that position is, you can find yourself in a situation where you take that responsibility, and it's down to you. And it's not something that you're born with, and it's not something you've necessarily chased. It's just, it's happened, that's what you need to do because that's your role.

You mentioned something, which I really want to come back to; You mentioned learning and absorbing. Were there big areas that you turned to, or experiences that you got that added to your learning in both leadership and management?

Ffrancon: Yes, I think I've been blessed in my career that I've invested myself in my own development, but I've also been given the opportunity to develop through most of the employers that I've worked with. I think a couple of things spring to mind. I recall attending a negotiation course when I was beginning to become a senior manager, and I had a very good boss at the time who thought sent me on the course. That was one, which to this day I've still got the notes - and what that opened my eyes to was that it's all about people really. Good negotiation is how your people skills and your understanding of who you're negotiating with and what type of person and what drives them and what's important to them comes into this fear of that activity. And that was a light bulb moment for me because up until that, you go through all the management courses and the initial strata as you're going along your career and you get a lot of performance management advice; you read the theories; textbook-type stuff. You get a lot of that along your way. This negotiation course was my light bulb moment. And actually, a lot of what goes on is, is about how those individuals interact and how to negotiate. You can achieve a win-win. And that doesn't have to be a single winner, because sometimes, you have the wrong idea that there needs to be a winner out of a negotiation, but a successful negotiation would be a win-win one could argue.

Then I have an interest in people. I enjoy people's company. I enjoy people's variety and yet, as we know, we're the most complicated people on the planet, aren't we? Another light bulb moment was when I attended an NLP coaching activity which was a value and belief system that was being taught and learned a lot about how the brain works, but fundamentally that the idea behind that course was that everybody has a set of values and everybody has a set of beliefs and the values you are born with, or there are life events that set what's important to you as an individual. So that was really interesting. I never thought about that before. And, then you reflect on that to yourself - and there's some psychological profiling that goes on on yourself and others in the group - you think this is accurate.

Some of them are limiting beliefs, but the processes and your experiences over time have formed some of your beliefs and some of those beliefs can be limiting because of the experiences that you've had. They may be holding you back or your thinking is in a certain way which has a negative on how others perceive you or how you carry on your activity. It helped enormously then with what I was struggling with at the time in my leadership role which was how do you influence and change within an organisation of the size of Adra?

On a personal basis, the final light bulb moment which I've benefited from enormously is the positive intelligence learning package - it builds on a lot of what I've just described, similar to values and beliefs, but actually, it helps you more on a personal basis. I think it gives you an understanding of what drives negative thoughts within as an individual and gives you a set of techniques that helps you understand them and to try and limit their impact on how you're feeling - your negative feelings - so that you can reduce that negative feeling so that the positive feeling, the way that you want to feel, wins over. That's had a massive impact on me as an individual. It's reduced my anxiety. I'm a big bit of a worrier, and it's helped me recognise when these negative feelings are taking over and give me a set of techniques that help me to limit those and make me more relaxed. When you are relaxed, I believe you're more efficient.

Graham: It's really interesting to observe what you said; you've clearly had a long and successful managerial profession, but the three things you picked on as light bulb moments are all about people, yourself and others, and the interface between people and when you are a manager, and indeed, when you are a leader, it doesn't work if you don't connect with others. If you're a leader, but you don't connect to other people it's ineffective leadership. If you are a manager, you have to persuade people to do stuff - you want willing people, not conscripts. So it's really interesting that they floated to the top for me. They floated to the top for you as your main learning points and I think that's really insightful.

Ffrancon: Just as, as you were talking there I thought about Covid times - we've benefited from the online and stuff like zoom, and that's been fantastic and it's transformed the workplace, hasn't it? You get a connection online with people, but it's a different connection to when you interact socially, face-to-face. I think that one of the things I'm struggling with personally is where that's going to end up. For all the reasons that have probably come out here - people are important to me, and I like being around people. I think people are your success, and to read people then you don't get to read the entire book online. There's a lot more stuff that you pick up when you're physically in someone's presence. I'm sure lots of books will be written on that in due course.

Graham: I think it's really interesting because obviously, we are recording this on a video conferencing facility and what the audience won't know is that you are wearing your Bermuda shorts as we speak! I'm not telling you what I'm wearing because that's a secret!

Now, Ffrancon, you're coming to the end of your time with Adra after 13 years because you want to move on and do something new. I know when we've talked separately that one of those things you want to do is to work in the non-executive area. What is it that attracts you to that and what sort of organisation do you think you'd like to be part of in that capacity?

Ffrancon: Yeah, it is a big for me as I come to the end of my time, at Adra - I'm seeking a change. Being a senior leader is demanding. I also think it's a healthy thing to change and to do different things. I just felt it was the right time for me and the right time for the business, I would say as well. Everybody can bring a certain amount to a business, and I feel that I've contributed what I can to Adra as it is now. I'm quite excited now about the big decision I've taken to step down. I will continue to work, but I am looking forward to some new challenges.

The non-exec positions are appealing to me because I feel that I can bring my experiences to the table of those organisations who seek a non-exec, and at the same time, I will learn and adapt myself to what I learn from that organisation and the change in set-up of an organisation is something that really attracts me.

I have operated, if you like, as a non-exec - I have been a board member. I've been a school governor and chair of governors and stuff like that in the past. I'm not going into that sector news, so I understand the changes and it's a challenging role to be a non-exec because you are not effectively the chief exec of that organisation anymore. But through your influencing, through your experience and through your communication to a group of individuals, however many others, skilled individuals around the table, you need to use your skill set to move that organisation forward without diving in with both feet and thinking that you're still running it. I fully recognise that, and that does interest and excite me. It's not all about the pounds, figures, and profit - it's about what difference you make and I think you can make a difference in all sorts of industries and sectors. So I have a very open mind in seeking a change.

Graham: Thanks for sharing that. I'm going to bring this chat to a close now, Frfrancon. Thank you very much for sharing everything that you have shared in this edition of The Coaching Conversation. If anybody wants to make contact with you, perhaps to seek your advice or talk to you about a non-exec role, how can they find you?

Ffrancon: I'm on LinkedIn as Ffrancon Williams and from there, by all the usual channels.

Graham: See you again next time. Bye.


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