Bryn Ellis, Business Services Director at Grŵp Cynefin, discusses why the North Wales housing association is taking forward a systems leadership approach to culture change across the organisation.
Leadership has always been important to Grŵp Cynefin. When our Investors in People appraisal in 2016 highlighted further developing leadership skills across the group as an action to help support our development as an organisation, we knew we wanted to take a different approach.
Many of our senior management team had already been on a range of management and leadership courses over the years. However, with the increasingly difficult external environment that many housing associations and other services continue to face, we knew it was important to look at leadership development from a new perspective to help us navigate these challenges.
Through our involvement in the 2025 Movement in North Wales, a social movement of over 300 people and organisations from across the region that are working together in a different way to tackle avoidable health inequalities, we heard about the work that Do-Well had been developing with Wrexham Glyndwr University around systems leadership.
What was really important to us was that the leadership course we chose was bespoke to Grŵp Cynefin, not just an off the shelf course that is replicated across any company and that many of us had done before already.
This was central to Do-Well’s approach. We worked together to set out the context for Grŵp Cynefin in terms of our legacy, our current culture climate and the issues that we were facing and from this, Do-Well shaped the systems leadership course around our needs and what really mattered to us.
Theory and practice
What really set this course apart from others was the balance between theory and practice. We wanted something that we could use in the workplace, that we could take away as a group of leaders and use to influence others in the organisation and take forward our vision for a new culture.
Many of us had previously done heavily theory-based courses that involved lots of text book reading and assessments but that couldn’t be easily translated back into the workplace. This course couldn’t have been more different.
While the content was based on systems leadership theory, everything we learnt was really clear about how we could use it in our organisation to lead better together.
The difference between leadership and management
This was a hugely important part of our learning. We talked about how we can deal with some of the wicked issues many in our sector face, and the tendency to go straight to management solutions, particularly in times of uncertainty. A big shift in our thinking was being taught that true leadership is above that and the need to accept this uncertainty, something which we all developed a greater understanding of.
The course culminated in everyone, all 25 senior leaders and managers, delivering our own public narratives around a wicked issue that mattered to us, using the concept of head, heart and hands.
While delivering a narrative to camera in front of our peers was terrifying at first, the benefits that we all gained from doing this have been significant.
It involved a huge amount of self-reflection. Previous courses have involved an element of sharing thoughts and values, but this course is completely different to any other because it encourages you to look deeply into yourself.
On a personal level I found an enormous amount of benefit in that. As a group of leaders it helped us all understand each other better, our motivations and what drives certain behaviours, and it developed greater trust between us all.
It also brought out some of the common goals that we wanted to tackle as an organisation and how together we can drive forward a stronger culture where we understand how others are feeling, support any barriers that people face, and where people feel safe in their work environment, respected and empowered to better enable us to deliver for our customers.
This idea of working together to achieve common goals was one of the key things about systems leadership that stood out for me.
Taking learning back to the workplace
While we are still very much at the beginning of developing a different approach to leadership, we are already looking at how we can take what we’ve learnt forward and how we can work and lead better together.
Practically we’ve introduced some initial changes from taking different approaches to meetings that involves more time for discussion and sharing of views, to a shift in how we communicate as a group.
Longer term our learning will inform everything from how we develop our corporate objectives, to how we work together to deliver services in the communities we serve.
This course was not just about a different kind of leadership, but a different kind of learning, and it's motivated all of us in the senior team to ensure that it forms part of a new leadership culture for our organisation.