ISSUE FIVE OCTOBER 2008
“Hearts and minds and people following the vision”
| October 08
Chan Dynasty Renowned for championing the ideals of positive mental attitude, focus and perseverance among its workforce, The Luminus Group’s ultra optimistic approach to work and life seems too good to be true. But its staff satisfaction levels and its place on the Sunday Times Top 100 Best Companies to Work For list say otherwise. 24housing’s James Evans pays a visit to find out.
ARRIVING in Cambridgeshire to spend a morning with The Luminus Group at their head offices in Huntingdon, I could best describe my mood as curious. I was a privileged invitee to the housing association’s monthly Staff Forum - a gathering of the company’s office-based employees, and a platform for enigmatic leader Chan Abraham. My plan was to squat just under the radar, relaying furiously to notepad and dictaphone what, from the outside at least, potentially appeared to be the ultimate blueprint for business success. And one that even comes with a clean social conscience. Things kicked off, and on what would have been an otherwise pretty nondescript Wednesday morning, I was greeted by fully-grown men in fancy dress, video clips of blockbuster film releases (with an accompanying cash quiz), the singing of Happy Birthday and huge Mexican waves. Oh, and great coffee. Had I stepped into a bad episode of The Simpsons, or was I at the HQ of a company who are proving to be a leading force not only in maintenance of social housing, but in the cultivation and harvesting of a truly inspired and dedicated workforce? Let’s be clear, the Luminus Group is no normal entity, and in founder and Chief Executive Chan Abraham, they have an unconventional leader who, whilst proving himself to be a great orator in front of a bevy of respectful followers, fits the mould of community statesman as much as businessman. A social enterprise created out of the thin dregs of government resourcelessness from the late 1990s, the company has developed an incredible influence around those who work for, or are beneficiaries of it. The intensity feels a little peculiar at first, but there is something very genuine going on here. “We often refer to Luminus as an extended family because, for anyone connected, there’s a genuine feeling that the organisation is looking after them,” begins Chan, who worked 18-hour days for 15 months in an attempt to secure the
“It’s about helping employees get on board so they know in which direction the bus is going.”
£95million funding needed to launch Luminus back in 1998. “It’s a ‘people’ business. I try and make sure I know everyone’s name and I always meet new staff. It’s about helping employees get on board so they know in which direction the bus is going.” That bus has been teasing impressive speeds out of its engine for a decade now, and while Chan may be the confident and efficacious conductor, the real mechanics behind the operation are the 320-strong workforce, both office-based and out on call. “Whilst overseeing the daily office operation, we recognise the fact that our tradesmen are central to productivity and perception, being the first line of defence and the public face for our 30,000
| October 08
“If the weekend is the best time of the week, it means that Monday to Friday is a strange kind of slow death. 5/7ths of our lives are being spent wishing time away, so what kind of existence is that?
residents, so we have deliberately avoided the use of contractors because they can’t follow our constant means of evolution and performance. “And because our external workers cannot easily attend the regular staff forums, we host a tradesmen’s breakfast every quarter in order to reinforce the fact they are at the core of the company, even though they might work outside of its walls.” The workforce has responded. Average days lost to sickness per employee sit at just 0.5 per month, while 2007 saw the company scoop eight individual awards in Housing Excellence, Recruitment Practice and Health & Safety. Staff are encouraged to share their problems - with the Chief Exec if necessary - but further down there is an entire support network whereby all 40 managers hold a strong competency to handle issues of any nature. “Luminus is a very unique place to work, and you feel you are part of a real community where people look out for one another as well as the business”, says Communications, Marketing and PR Manager Simon Leher. Meanwhile, other comments recorded in a recent internal staff survey celebrate the virtues of “fantastic working hours”, “great staff events” and “real stability even in these uncertain times”. But is this all a little too close? And did I hide my shaking pen when, in the staff forum, Chan proclaimed fiercely that everyone’s favourite day of the week should be Sunday, “because there’s only one more day before we get to go back to work”? For a second I feared that Matt Groening or Krusty The Clown would leap out from one of the huge cardboard stands emblazoned with the Luminus logo. But all this isn’t wordplay, it’s a genuine belief in happiness. “I have a great concern about British welfare,” Chan continues. “If the weekend is the best time of the week, it means that Monday to Friday is a strange kind of slow death. 5/7ths of our lives are being spent wishing time away, so what kind of existence is that? “As for what Luminus represents as an image, visitors from the business world often comment that they can sense the positive vibes present in the atmosphere. On the other side, to work here you’ve got to be open to change in a place where everyone can recite the core maxims of great attitude, clear focus and perseverance. If you have these then you have a job and a community in one.” And if you don’t, Chan will allow you a paid day
| October 08
“Most who really want to be great leaders have it within them. Where many will fall is because they’re not willing to put in the human quota. “Take the monthly forum. It may lose us hundreds of man-hours, but in terms of hearts and minds and people following the vision, its benefit is immense.“
off work so you can find a new job. No, really. Of course, there’s an inherent need to ensure that the company retains a dedicated workforce, but there’s also a notion of this representing social responsibility on a whole new scale. “We’re telling people we want them to make the most of life’s opportunities, and if people are energised, inspired and happy they are more likely to be effective in work.” While Chan finds his inspiration and energy from a higher source – the cross on his office wall and CD of Gregorian Chants are a clear reach for serenity – he holds a very strong philosophy about the role of Luminus and housing associations in general, of which a further four were featured in the Sunday Times’ list. “With faith comes a type of divine inspiration from which you can never escape, and so remain absolutely committed to doing the right thing. What unites many in this sector is a passionate sense of wanting to see the world change for the better. Defeat is not an option because there should be no losers.” So for Chan, who also runs Leadership International, the business is a metaphor for faith in action. And you get a sense that much more could be done across other industries if the notions of leadership were replicated somewhere closer to Luminus’ ideals. “Most who really want to be great leaders have it within them. Where many will fall is because they’re not willing to put in the human quota.
“We’re telling people we want them to make the most of life’s opportunities, and if people are energised, inspired and happy they are more likely to be effective in work.”
“With faith comes a type of divine inspiration from which you can never escape, and so remain absolutely committed to doing the right thing. What unites many in this sector is a passionate sense of wanting to see the world change for the better. Defeat is not an option because there should be no losers.”
“Take the monthly forum. It may lose us hundreds of man-hours, but in terms of hearts and minds and people following the vision, its benefit is immense. “The workplace has got to connect with people in a way that hits them at the back of the head and enables a belief in something. It’s a motivation to get out there and do it, and leaders have got to connect.” In absolute honesty, I saw very few loose connections during my short stay. Either this really is the ultimate social operation - both inside and out - and it truly does work for all involved, or they’re putting something they shouldn’t in that coffee.