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Tea and Empathy – The positive power of a cup of tea (amongst other things) on service delivery

I’m lucky enough to meet some incredible people in my work, one of whom is John Giesen. A passion that both John and I share is employee engagement and in particular, the positive feedthrough of highly engaged staff to the end-user customers; often called the employee engagement value chain.

tea laptop

John was CEO of B3 Living for 10 years. During this time, it held the accolade of a Sunday Times Top 10 Best Company to work for 5 years in a row. In 2016 they were 4th in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.

I spent some time talking to John about how he achieved this and more importantly how the current environment may present some challenges in emulating this in current times.


John, please can you give a brief overview to your leadership philosophy?

I believe that true leadership is about showing your team that you care. This does not mean ranting and raving or being the person that will leap on the table to show their passion. This is all very well if that is the real you but, if it isn’t then others will see through the pretence. I think that it is important to be yourself and for people to have a sense of ‘knowing you’ as a person.

So, for me when, in one of our early rounds of feedback from the ‘Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For’, some staff suggested everyone should have annual one to ones with me. I didn’t think well that won’t work because there were just too many people but not everyone would welcome sitting down with the CEO however friendly I thought I was! As an alternative, what I did was agree to introduce something we termed ‘Tea With…’ which was for small groups from across the organisation to have a cup of tea with me to discuss a specific topic. I found it hugely enjoyable and instructive to hear the conversation and the buzz to share their thoughts on subjects from ‘What makes this a great place to work…and What doesn’t?’ and so on. It meant that I actually met everyone two or three times a year but also that they met their colleagues from across the business. So, when someone in Finance asked for some information it was someone that others saw as a colleague rather than someone who might as well have lived on Mars. Equally those in Finance, or HR or IT got a far better understanding of what our business was all about.

I also believe that it is important for the leader of an organisation to demonstrate their passion and commitment to what is important. You cannot delegate this. If Equalities and Diversity is important, as surely it is, the leader must show their commitment. If the values of your organisation are important the leader must live the values. It is no good to simply expect others to do this if you are not prepared to do it yourself.

I also think it is important to have people around you who will think differently to you and challenge. Ideally people who are actually better than you. Too many leaders surround themselves with imitations of themselves fearing that someone will appear who is ‘better’ than them.

What values and behaviours did you expect from your leadership team? What did they do?

The key here is team. Each member of the team (and indeed everyone else) was expected to show their commitment to the values of the organisation. We introduced a performance appraisal process where the ‘how’ was as important as the ‘what’. Your assessment would not be successful if you did not demonstrate a commitment to the values that we had agreed however good your results were. We had agreed what this would mean across the company, for each level AND they applied to everyone!

So, for the leadership team there was an expectation that they would find their own way to demonstrate the values, not simply mimic me. And, as importantly, we were expected to behave as a team.

What was the impact of this on staff engagement and morale?

This approach led to some amazing things happening, but it wasn’t always like that. Early on we suffered from the malaise that had affected the organisation we came from; where there was a 33% per annum turnover and where people would not ‘put their head above the parapet for fear of it being shot at’. We used Best Companies as a way of assessing where we were and most importantly to find out how we could improve.

I’ve already mentioned the ‘Tea With…’ idea arising from staff feedback and I think that this learning approach was one of the keys to our success. Staff realised that they had as much right to express what they thought as anyone else and that we would try and implement ideas if we could. At the very least we would explain why we couldn’t do something.

One example of this commitment was when we rebranded and changed our name. Although staff had been involved, I underestimated their commitment to the original brand. In my mind the commitment would be to people rather than the badge, but I got that wrong. Once I realised this I used the beginning of each of the next round of ‘Tea Withs…’ to apologise and discuss what the new brand meant. Some staff were shocked that their CEO would apologise in this way, but it also served as an important lesson that we all sometimes get things wrong.

In terms of staff morale, during my last 5 years there, we were in the Top Ten Companies to work for and actually 3rd in 2016.

Was there any impact on the end-user customer?

I think that if we had only done this to have more engaged/happy staff it would only have been a limited success. I truly believe that happy staff makes for happy customers.

Our residents, communities and partners were positively impacted, and our services improved as a result. This meant that we could achieve so much more than would have otherwise been possible.

One or two highlights for me were:

  • Working with our residents to agree how the repairs service should be and agreeing to bring it in-house. This achieved more than £1million savings per annum, and also meant that there were other tangible benefits from having the tradesmen living the B3 values.
  • Working with the local Job Centre and Regional College to provide better opportunities for local people into work or better paid work.
  • Working with Olympic athletes to engage with some youngsters which led to one being selected as a possible future Olympian.

How does the broader political/economic/social landscape allow for this approach to staff and customers?

I think it is sad that with Government we have seen explicit moves to stop us doing the things that make a difference to tenants and communities. The drive has been solely to build more houses. I won’t say ‘homes’ as without the sort of support many landlords provide, many tenants live with their eyes towards the floor rather than raising them to what they can achieve. Many have stopped doing the things that make the difference both for staff, residents and communities. Fortunately, some have continued in despite the pressure to do otherwise, but sadly not all.

It is sad indeed that it has taken something like the tragedy of Grenfell Tower to make people question this. The Government has now praised social landlords for the work they do to help people into work and most recently a report has been commissioned to look at how this approach can work.

In the meantime, many associations have stopped working in this way and no longer have the staff or expertise necessary. They have as a result, and in my view, failed their residents and communities. How long will it take to redress this balance I don’t know but it is possible that it will have had a negative impact on a generation.

I am reminded of the old adage about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing


Since ‘retiring’ in January 2016, John has become Chair of Tpas England. He is also a Non-Executive Director on two Housing Association Boards

In addition, John is a consultant specialising in leadership, culture change, equality and diversity and organisational development. 


Sarah Stevenson leads the Social Housing practice at Interim Partners.

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