From ‘on the brink’ to ‘Britain’s best’: Why we can all learn from Julie Fadden’s miraculous resuscitation of SLH Group

This is the fourth consecutive year that South Liverpool Housing Group (SLH Group) has topped The Sunday Times ‘100 Best Not-For-Profit Companies to Work For’ list. If you’re tempted to click elsewhere after reading the words “Housing Group” and “Not-For-Profit”, we’d urge you to keep your cursor or finger exactly where it is. Twelve years ago, SLH Group was failing so badly that it faced closure, so this is an extraordinary tale of transformation. What’s more, the SLH Group story provides insight and inspiration for even the most ambitious profit-making firm – in fact for any organisation that wants to become more effective. It reveals how, under the right direction, companies on the brink can become shining examples, and it gives a compelling example of a spectacularly effective and highly motivated leader.

SLH Group chief executive Julie Fadden is that leader. In many ways, Julie’s story and her unstoppable drive to transform SLH Group from a failing organisation into the best in Britain was born many years ago on a rainy day in Liverpool, when she bumped into a sobbing old man. Julie used to work on the counters at the housing association, communicating with tenants face to face. Before long, she became a housing officer but had no ambition to climb the ladder any further – as she says: “All I was bothered about were the tenants; I wasn’t interested in becoming a manager.” But that changed one day when she saw a man coming out of her office in tears. She asked what the matter was, to which he replied: “Leave me girl, I’m going home to take some tablets and end it all.” She eventually coaxed him inside for a cup of tea and was lambasted by her manager for “treating the office like a café”.

After explaining the situation to her boss, Julie listened to the man – a world war veteran – as he told her that his wife had recently died after 60 years of marriage. He had come to Julie’s office to put his tenancy under a single name but the girl on the counter had refused because her records suggested he owed £80. “He told me he’d never owed any money in his life,” explains Julie, “and to him it was massive because he and his wife had made a commitment never to owe anything. But the girl on the counter had humiliated this bereaved man, told him he was in debt and that she couldn’t change his tenancy until it was paid. He was broken.” Julie looked into the man’s case there and then, and it turned out he was, in fact, owed money – £20. “I sorted it out and signed it off for him,” she says. “He finished his tea, took my hand and said, ‘God bless you girl, if you hadn’t stopped me I’d be dead’.”

This experience was the catalyst for Julie’s journey into management, and the treatment that nearly led to the man’s demise still smoulders at the front of her mind, fuelling every leadership decision she makes. “It’s why I became a leader,” she says. “That day I realised I’d never be able to influence my colleagues’ behaviour unless I went into management.”

When Julie arrived at the helm of SLH Group in 2005, she jumped aboard a ship that was leaking so badly that most expected it to sink. It was losing £2m a year and the audit commission had given it a zero rating, with no prospects for improvement. Not only that, there was a culture of blame and bullying, and tears in staff meetings were the norm. Yet despite all this, just seven years later SLH Group found itself atop the Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. And in 2016 it scored maximum points across all measures. That is a stunning turnaround. So how did it happen?

Julie began by focusing 100% on people – listening to problems, talking and getting everything out in the open. There were no management gimmicks or big speeches, just Julie sitting in her office with individuals, asking questions and listening, noting the issues on flipcharts and prioritising them. “I was never going to turn the organisation around without first getting alongside the people,” is how she puts it. “That first month was about absorbing all the hurt and interviewing the leaders. My first port of call was everyone who had someone reporting in to them. I needed to be sure the managers were competent and, if not, find a way to train it into them or move them on.”

Again, past experience played a large part in Julie’s approach: “Years ago when I worked in housing management, I realised people hide behind their front doors and problems mount up. I found you could often change a life by knocking on a door and listening.” Just as Julie helped her old tenants via direct, sympathetic but firm face-to-face interaction, she was now doing the same with her staff. She says: “I listened to what people needed. If they needed counselling, that’s what they got. If they needed training, they got it. It was about listening to the individual and providing what they needed to be the best that they could be.”

During the meetings, two major problems came to light. First, people were often being paid different salaries to do the same job; second, in many cases managers had been promoted not due to aptitude but simply because they had been at SLH Group for a long time. In both cases, Julie addressed the issues head on, equalising salaries, offering training, performance management and promotion.

Throughout this challenging exercise, clarity of purpose – as opposed to the stroking of egos – was paramount. “So often, egos get in the way,” Julie says. “The biggest part of my job is dealing with egos. It’s not about us. This job is lent to us based on what we do for the people for whom we are responsible– our clients, the tenants.”

In order to transform SLH Group, a fundamental culture change was needed. One of the most effective ways Julie achieved this was by equalising the status of all parts of the organisation. “When I arrived, the environmental team, who looked after the properties, were seen as the lowest of the low,” she says. “The culture didn’t give them any credibility.” Julie was determined to address this imbalance. “On my second day, I told my environmental team that it was going to be different from now on,” she says. “I was naïve: I turned up with bacon butties and thought I was going to change the world! They said they’d heard it all before. Big lesson: don’t try to buy people with bacon butties!” However, Julie did work closely with them, using her leadership to set the tone and slowly but surely give them the value they deserved, thereby curing a sickness that was infecting the whole culture. She introduced ‘Walkabout Wednesdays’ where, in order to get closer to the tenants, all staff walk around SLH Group’s estates, led by the environmental team. “The previous culture had made us too detached from our customers. The environmental team are our most powerful link to those customers: they are on the front line keeping our estate looking fantastic and removing graffiti, mess, ice and snow. They are our gladiators. They are now the life and soul of SLH Group.”

The second way Julie fundamentally altered SLH Group’s culture was by “stamping out internal politics”. To those wondering how that’s possible in any workplace, Julie says this: “The biggest problem in corporate organisations is internal politics. I just don’t stand for it. If I find out it’s going on I tell those involved that they need to sort their heads out because it doesn’t belong here. If it carries on then, they have to go. There’s no point harbouring the qualities that are going to pull your organisation down.”

She continues: “Big egos breed internal politics because they need to be surrounded by people who tell them how good they are. I say: look in the mirror every morning and make your own decision as to how good you are based on whether you’ve done a good job the day before.”

These quotations are evidence of Julie’s steely yet soft approach. She’s prepared to listen sympathetically, coach and give the benefit of the doubt twice, but never three times.

Here’s further insight: “I divide my team into ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ players,” says Julie. “The ‘A’s are the ones who get the culture and perform. The ‘B’s get the culture but aren’t quite performing. The ‘D’s don’t get the culture and don’t perform, and they are dead easy to get out of the organisation. It’s the ‘C’s who are the hardest to deal with – they consistently perform but don’t get the culture. So they might always hit business targets but the level of wreckage they leave behind damages the organisation. To get up that Sunday Times list you can’t just focus on performance, you have to focus on the way that performance is achieved.” The ‘C’ players are often bullies, Julie points out, and in 2007, she was forced to move out a swathe of senior management in order to create a culture that would not only perform but also perform in the right way.

When Julie first entered SLH Group into the Sunday Times ‘100 Best’ Awards in 2006, she did so to get feedback – to see how bad things were and to get a baseline to work from. She says that reaching the top never crossed her mind, and, given the appalling state of SLH Group back then, that’s not surprising. However, SLH Group did – miraculously – eventually reach the top and has stayed there ever since, winning Julie a Sunday Times Best Leader Award in the process. How? Thanks to a burning determination to improve, certainly. But much more than that, too. The key is where that determination comes from and how it is applied. Julie is supremely motivated – not by money or power but by the need to create the best possible organisation to serve its clients, the tenants. The only way to do this, she believes wholeheartedly, is to create a company that harbours no internal injustice: everyone has equal status, and hard work and talent, rather than long service or other spurious measures, are rewarded. A happy, healthy, positive working environment is also essential, which is why at SLH Group you will see full fruit bowls on the desks, smoothie and soup-makers in the kitchens, a bright colour scheme and a ‘living room’ where people can chill out. But strip all this away and it always comes back to the same thing: serving the tenants in the best possible way and creating a housing group that makes the lives of bereaved old men – and women – happier and better. Julie’s clarity of purpose and the way she has implemented it is inspirational. Other organisations and their leaders, whatever sector they inhabit, surely have much to learn from her incredible transformation of SLH Group.