Beckerman has all the qualities we connect with a manager from the Big
Apple-she’s forthright,lively and very focussed. Now she’s based in Preston at
The People for Places Group. Stephanie Sparrow asked her to compare styles and
trends from across the pond and found out about her role as head of quality and
development with the Lancashire-based social housing giant
I didn’t take this job to sit down," laughs Natalie Beckerman,
referring to her busy 10 months as head of quality and people development at
The Places for People Group.
This is a typical lively comment from the former member of the US hockey
squad, who rarely pauses for breath, let alone sitting down.
Beckerman was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey, but after eight
years in the UK, finds herself based in the North West of England, where she
holds a multi-faceted role at The Places for People Group.
The Places for People Group was formed two years ago from the North British
Housing Group. It provides housing and regeneration solutions across the UK and
has assets in excess of £1.6bn. Its companies include Bristol Churches Housing
Association, New Leaf supporting independence, a charitable arm which manages
care and supported housing, and Emblem homes, which focuses on developing homes
for outright sale.
The broad remit of this rapidly-expanding group is reflected in Beckerman’s
role, which knits together customer service and employee development issues.
"What this title means is that my job is about the tools and techniques
for developing staff. The quality side is very much about the customer
delivery, the service quality issues and dealing both internally and externally
with customers and internal relationships," she explains. "But I see
the two going completely hand-in-hand. Every time you do something with the
customer externally, you have got to have the developed staff. It’s not easy
but it’s quite a similar job title to anyone who’s trying to move both aspects
of an organisation together."
The job title was designed by the chief executive. "I buy into it
totally," she says. And she is working hard at moving quality from a
conceptual area into one of action and delivery. "I think people within
the group already understand staff development but the quality side of it has
never been exhibited and that needs to be developed because there was little
action there before."
Beckerman was appointed in October 2001 to a role which is a new one for the
group – her predecessor was charged with simply producing courses. "The
key difference with this new job and why I feel so strongly about the way we
work is to be completely in line with what the business is actually trying to
do," she says.
"Everybody in my team who has responsibilities for the businesses and
the functional angle will hopefully get inside those and know them better than
the businesses themselves. It’s not just about delivering training," she
says. "It’s about delivering the right solutions for the business."
Her ambition is to get her team of seven, which has only been in post since July,
"to be able to talk in the language of the business, so that when they are
sitting in meetings, they understand how to speak; they understand the big
issues facing housing and they can talk the language".
As the group has expanded throughout the past two years, declared aims for
leadership and people development have been written into the Group Strategy for
2002/2003, again endorsing her role and integrating it with the business. It is
up to Beckerman to ensure these come into fruition for the close on 2,000
employees, who work in many diverse areas from management to maintenance, care
work to customer contact centres. "I’m basically responsible for the group
as a whole in staff development and working with the companies, which is not
always easy because they want some autonomy," she admits. However, there
is little time for elaborate deliberating on culture across such a broad group.
"If I had started with a fresh sheet, that would be something that I
would have tackled, but the needs of the group in terms of training, the
mandatory requirements, changing aspects of the group, and the real move to a
business culture, has forced us to go into a development programme very
quickly," she says.
Beckerman has done some thorough ground work and designed and offered a core
training programme for all staff. This is no mean feat considering the breadth
of jobs available at Places for People, but she admits to thinking of the first
handbook of core programmes which resulted ‘as a first stab’ and is far happier
with the work she has done on competencies and individual learning plans for
every staff member, in which the learning and development team will make sure
that employees are meeting their learning requirements.
"What we have for the very first time is individual learning plans –
something we are managing as a team." These are grown from appraisals.
"From the appraisal, we’ll be working with those plans to service the
businesses, the companies, the different [job] areas to come up with more targeted
Beckerman is enforcing this strategy by asking her team to play a support
role in working with the managers to meet staff development needs. This is
further backed up by a leadership programme which she kicked off in February. From
the target of top 100 senior managers, 60 managers have been through it so far.
"For the first time, what we are trying to do is to get managers to
understand a little bit about themselves, and their own behaviour," she
Beckerman has worked with focus groups to identify a number of values and
key leadership practices, such as integrity and respect which managers are
being assessed upon. She worked as a facilitator on the project, run with a
consultancy called the Vector Group – "They deserve a plug," laughs
Beckerman. "They have helped us to lead it from our business objectives.
They’ve been superb."
Two-day leadership centres have been followed-up with personal development
plans, which Beckerman is seeing though with continuous development for each of
the managers and tailored three-hour programmes called express courses,
covering subjects such as effective support and challenge, and coaching skills.
Feedback from the leadership centres is also contributing to a group profile
of senior managers, including the top team – the group executive board and
chief executive are going through the centres. Having got this far in 10
months, Beckerman is determined to maintain the momentum. Group action plans to
follow-up feedback from the development centres are planned, as is a leadership
conference for April 2003.
Beckerman has to push through change but she has to do it quickly as the
group is expanding rapidly. "The biggest thing here is that the business
is going 100 miles an hour – its growing fast. The chief executive is very
clear about his vision to grow and be the best, both in terms of [social]
housing, and because the commercial side of the group is winning commercial and
regeneration bids over major builders. So we’ve got to move and think like a
commercial organisation, one which is a big difference for some of the
Working at this level requires thorough evaluation. "Because we work
directly with the businesses, we can do one-to-one evaluation. We’ll be able to
measure the individual learning plans – have they been achieved? Most of this
is direct evaluation. The other area in evaluation is to look at our
operational performance targets in relation to the training and support that
those managers have received."
Beckerman’s role sounds fairly unique, but then so is her background, which
pulls together expertise in sport and psychology. This must leave her
well-placed to contribute to the current coaching debate in UK training circles
– particularly as she has just taken-up monthly meetings with a business coach
"I think coaching is key, although people require different things from
coaching and I’m not just going to sit here and say everybody needs a coach.
"I’ve just started working with one and for me its about having someone
completely outside the business to come in and look at what I do. I have a huge
amount of work to do and I am incredibly achievement-orientated and I find that
a business coach can help me get things into perspective."
Coaching will play its part in the leadership programme. "We’re looking
at both internal and external coaching and some cross-company mentoring. We
will find people within the company that feel they would like to speak to
somebody from another company inside the group or completely externally, such
as the private sector. We’re waiting until the final development centre in
September to deliver that – we’ve got a group of people who are from the
leadership programme have found it would help them," she says. Beckerman
is also keen to work internally to get other senior managers to help each other
and to implement mentoring.
Beckerman is very good at visualising how she wants to move projects forward
and has a time chart for the positive outcomes of the leadership programme. She
also has an informal deadline for her department. "By April 2003, we will
have proven our existence," she says. "By then, I’d like to see the
team of people I have recruited making a difference to the group and see that
learning and development as a function is integral to any movement of this
group and respected."
It sounds tough, so where can she seek comfort and inspiration?
"Do I really want to be hated?" she laughs. "I just love
reading management books by Jack Welch."
According to Beckerman, the biggest difference between the US
and UK’s attitudes to people development is in a hesitancy to get things
moving. "I really picked up on this at an international leadership
conference," she says. "In the UK, you’ve got business cases that
have to be written and developed as opposed to just doing it. I think the
American approach is ‘just do it’, in other words, just deliver it, whereas in
the UK the approach is more along the lines of ‘just tell me if this is going
to work… do I need to change it’ – there’s almost a bit more scepticism."
She believes the UK is actually more training focussed than the
US, although the UK is less pioneering than it thinks in the leadership debate.
"I think the question of leadership is much bigger than it
is here in the UK. And if you do an MBA in the US, you will be developed as a
leader, whereas leadership still hasn’t broken into many of the UK Masters
programmes," she says – although ironically she undertook her
international MBA in the UK.
But the biggest difference is in approaches to team-work.
"That is the real key one for me. In the ability to work closely as a team
to deliver corporate objectives, I think the US is ahead of the game. Some
people might disagree but my personal experience tells me otherwise. My view
could come from my personal experience of competing but I find that in
businesses in the UK, the development of teamwork is something that is very
behind. I’m not referring to teambuilding, but teamwork, which is being held
back by the UK’s healthy cynicism."
2001 (October) Head of quality and development, The Places for
2001 (February) Relationship manager, ABN AMRO Bank NV
1998 Senior development manager
1995 Regional development manager, Sport England
1994 Regional development manager, Bristol City Council and
1991 Academic adviser, Michigan State University
1989 Research associate, Northwestern University, Illinois