Trusted Executive Foundation Interview with Brendan Sarsfield, CEO of the Peabody Group

As CEO of the Peabody Group, Brendan heads up an organisation that draws on 150 years of history to provide good quality affordable homes, working with communities and promoting well-being to more than 111,000 residents and 17,000 care and support customers in London and the south east, putting the most vulnerable in society first. Following a merger with Family Mosaic in 2017, the group has £6bn in assets and has a turnover of £600m.

In this interview, Brendan talks about the role of trust in an organisation whose purpose is to achieve social good through excellent commercial business practice.

On the importance of trust:

‘It’s huge, but it’s different to other organisations that you are perhaps talking to. The first thing to say is that my customers lack choice. If my tenants don’t trust me they can’t walk away from me. If I’ve lost their trust, I’ve still got to serve them. Our relationships with our customers are long term and we’re together, often for life. They don’t have the choice because there isn’t alternative housing for them elsewhere. They haven’t got mobility like other people. That makes trust critically important. The second thing is that a lot of our customers are very vulnerable and trust is a key thing when you’re dealing with vulnerability. There are huge responsibilities for us at an organisational level but we’re only as good as the 1-to-1 relationship our member of staff has with the vulnerable person. There are safeguarding issues. There are financial issues. There are kindness issues. There are mental health issues. There are so many things that are tied up in that relationship that affect that person’s life, and we, as an organisation, have to be very careful how we deal with that trust.’

On building a high trust culture:

‘I’ve been a chief executive for a long time. I became a chief executive in 2001 and you actually learn on the way that leadership is more about authenticity and values than it is about results and innovation, etc. People accept you make mistakes, but if you’re authentic and people can read you, then you can survive most mistakes and grow trust. I said earlier that I work in a sector where the power balance is unequal. A lot of the power is on the side of the landlord, and if you are in care it’s on the side of the care provider. You’ve got to make sure as the leader you’re on the side of the customer to try and balance up that relationship. I also have a huge loyalty to my staff, so I’ve got to have mechanisms within the business for making my relationships with staff and customers more equal without upsetting either party.’

‘Every CEO is looking for authenticity. They may not know it, but they are. Some are looking for it through charisma and personality, pushing the boundaries and innovation etc. and some great leaders have found authenticity through that route. I found my authenticity by backing my values. Once I felt comfortable expressing my values, and sticking to my guns on what was important to our business, I felt more comfortable and I realised people followed me more.’

On measuring trust:

‘This is one of the hardest things to do. It’s hard because we don’t unpack trust. We look to things like happiness and satisfaction to gauge how our employees are feeling. How do they feel about trust? In answer to that question, it’s not one thing, it’s lots of little things that touch on different parts of what we do that help us to measure trust. Our quarterly employee survey unpacks some of that. There’s also the regular feedback we get from our customers and the ‘WOW Awards’ that they put us forward for. One of our values is about being ‘reliably good’, so being consistent is important to us and it is one thing we can measure. We’re also looking for people to be human and kind, and we listen with our staff to the calls they make to our customers to discover how consistently they are being human and kind. We use the complaints system and the learning loop that provides for us. We measure trust through examples like these.’

The Nine Habits of Trust:

The Nine Habits of Trust Model

It is reassuring to discover that the habits associated with the pillars of integrity and benevolence are alive and well at Peabody. It is a working model of an ethical business and commercial practice delivering social good with trust at its heart. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s the habits of choosing to be consistent (habit no.2) and choosing to coach (habit no.3) that are ‘works in progress’ for Brendan and his organisation, 18 months after the merger of Family Mosaic and Peabody. True to his authentic leadership style, Brendan chose to become qualified in coaching and to share his human experience of developing this habit. This has prompted him to be more open and show vulnerability by discussing how he has failed often and yet has always got back up to try again (habit no.5). This example serves to underline the importance of the chief executive being a role model to people throughout the organisation in developing the nine habits of trust.

Our thanks to Brendan for his time and for allowing us to share his insights from the interview.

For more information on the Trusted Executive Foundation please refer to this short introductory video

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