Boldly Going into the Beyond

Hi everyone, my name is Aisha and I work for Poplar HARCA, a housing association in East London. I was asked to share my experiences and what I have done beyond the HDN Mentoring programme.

The idea of public speaking is something that can really put the most confident person on edge. I used to be one of those people but then I had a job that involved going into schools and speaking to 16-18 year olds about donating their blood, organs, and bone marrow. With a topic like that it was not unheard of to have a fainter in the audience, something I am confident will not happen today.

Also, 16-18 year olds have what I like to call ‘the face’. They have this uncanny ability to sit there completely expressionless, you have no idea what they are thinking, are they bored, are they interested, maybe just thinking about lunch? Either way, once you have presented to 600 students all looking at you with ‘the face’ you learn not to worry and to enjoy the experience.

So let me tell you a bit about me, I have an undergraduate degree in English and masters in Human Rights. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career when I started university and that was pretty much the case when I left.

All I did know was that I wanted to ‘do good’. So naturally I gravitated towards working in the not for profit sector and found myself working in volunteer management.

I really enjoyed working with volunteers but as is often the case with working in charities, a lot of the opportunities were for short contracts and the lack of security really bothered me. Just after my masters I joined the board of a local East London charity called Leaders in Community and quickly became the chair of the board.

This was how I was introduced to Poplar HARCA who worked closely with the charity. I always liked what I saw and the people that I met at Poplar HARCA so when an opportunity came up to work for them I had to apply. To my devastation I was not successful in getting the role of volunteer coordinator, a role I literally thought I was perfect for. HR suggested I call one of the panel for feedback, something I was loathe to do, who really wants to be told why they weren’t good enough?

I kept putting it off, so much so that someone actually phoned me. It turned out they really liked me and felt I fit the company but someone else had more experience, would I be interested in other roles? A few months later I jointed the Resident Empowerment and Support Team, REST for short.

This was my first role in housing, before that I did not even know that housing was a sector. I found myself really enjoying the company and the people I was working with. But the world of housing was really confusing to me, the politics, the terminology, everything.

Including rent cuts which saw a lot of fear amongst colleagues as we anticipated restructures and job losses. So, when the opportunity to get a space on the HDN mentoring programme came up I jumped at it.

I was actually starting to debate my future at Poplar HARCA because our Communities & Neighbourhoods directorate, which I was part of was exploring separating from the housing association and forming its own charity. So, I started the HDN programme feeling very unsure about the housing sector and my future in it.

My mentor, Michael, was amazing. He was completely different from me, the Director of Home Ownership at Amicus Horizon, now called Optivio. He was really confident, on the day I met him at the mentor meet and greet we were trying to decide the best place to meet for our meetings and he walked over to another mentor from the National Housing Federation and said, her office is in East London and mine is in South London, how about we meet in the Federation’s office instead? We held all of our meetings in one of their meeting rooms.

Thinking back to my time with Michael one of the things I am so grateful for and miss from the programme is being able to speak to someone more senior to me and be able to ask anything, no matter how small or stupid it may seem. That isn’t a luxury we are afforded very often and as I have progressed in my career and become the person others look to for guidance I really miss having that safe space to seek advice and ask that stupid question.

The combination of one to one meetings with my mentor and group sessions with the wonderful Juliet facilitating are one of the main factors to HDN’s success in my opinion. I got so much out of meeting other people, working with them in the group session and reflecting with my mentor on what we had done.

One of my favourite sessions was when we looked the results of the PPI test.

How many of you when you first read your report were happy what it said?

How many of you were not so happy?

Well when I first got the report I read it once and stuck in the back of a drawer I was so taken aback by what it said. Some of it was great, apparently I am a driving and forceful individual. Sounds good right?

But then it went on to tell me I am suspicious of change and have a need to feel secure. The killer for me, Not at all empathetic Aisha is happier dealing with things and facts rather than emotions and so may appear disinterested in people.

For someone who had worked with volunteers and now residents this was not pleasant to read. I was not looking forward to the group session.

And yet it turned out to be my favourite as it helped me to understand the report, my natural strengths and the areas that I have to work a bit harder on. We got split into groups based on our results and it made complete sense, yes I am very procedure and compliance driven and no I am not the bubbly person on the phone who is comfortable speaking to people all day. One of the main things I took from that session and still think about today is how we are all different. What motivates you may not be the same as what motivates me.

One of the things my mentor encouraged me to do was to be bold when asking questions and be honest with my superiors.

I still remember standing in my office, just me and my director and telling him, I am not sure there is a future for me in this potential charity you want to create and I am considering looking for a new job.

Unbeknownst to me, my telling him that set a ball rolling that ended with me being invited to apply for the role of Head of Corporate Governance & Company Secretary. This happened towards the end of my time on the HDN programme and my mentor supported me with my application and even met with me on the day of my interview.

Now, I barely understood half of the job description when I applied and when they first asked me to apply I just thought, no way. This role would put me above my current manager, I’d be jumping from a coordinator position to a head of role and it is in finance. Finance, for the girl that can barely count it is not where I pictured my future.

My mentor and this programme helped me to be bold and take a chance with the application and I am happy to say I was successful. It has been over 2 years since I took on the role and there is no looking back.

A year into the role I decided to do the boldest thing I could think of. Something that filled me with terror and I had never done before. I decided to ask for more money.

I told my friends what I was planning and there was a lot of surprise, it isn’t really done amongst the people I know and the industries we work in. I wasn’t sure how it would go or how I would be perceived. Was I being cheeky? After all, it had only been a year since the company put its faith in me and my salary had already shifted dramatically from what I was being paid as a coordinator in REST.

I came in prepared with evidence of what I had achieved and what I had planned to do moving forward and managed my expectations, if they said no, that is ok, it is the act of asking that is the big challenge for me here. And to my great surprise my pay rise was approved.

Some of the other things I have done since HDN include taking part in an internal leadership programme which gave me the opportunity to meet colleagues from around the business and build strong professional relationships with people I don’t get to interact with on a regular basis. This has been invaluable to me, being able to pick up the phone to someone, say in our technical department and say, Hey I don’t know who I need to speak to about this can you help me? Is so much easier when you have built a relationship.

I also applied to attend the Eurhonet Junior Academy in Germany. This is a weeklong event for housing professionals across Europe on sustainable portfolio management strategies, something I knew nothing about. It was one of the most challenging things I have done since I joined Poplar HARCA. I encourage you all to look them up and see if your housing association is a member.

By taking part in the HDN programme I have been inspired to keep moving forward into the unknown, remembering to build my network, online (feel free to find me on linkedin) and also day to day in my company developing relationship with colleagues that prove so valuable as time goes on and to try to always say yes to an opportunity, even if I have no idea where it will lead.

Aisha Lalloo, Head of Corporate Governance & Company Secretary

Poplar HARCA