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Victoria Hills, Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute

Victoria Hills, Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute

Tell us about your role?

I’m the Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, which effectively means that I’m the senior responsible officer.

We’re a charity and so we are regulated by the charity commissioner but ultimately the buck stops with myself and the Chair of the Board of Trustees. In terms of responsibilities, I look after the organisation, the staff, and all operational matters.

My role has always been much more focused on the member services and what we do with our members, but what’s changed with the immediate move to home working was a much more operational focus in the day to day. I was having to transform an organisation to a digital operation.

Our charity is 106 years old so we’re quite traditional and weren’t necessarily geared up for home working, and we didn’t have everything that we needed immediately. With that in mind, my role is very operationally focused and very centred on health and safety. As an organisation we always were about that factor but much more so in light of recent circumstances.

My role at the moment is about maintaining our relevance for members during this period of uncertainty. Because we’re a membership body, members pay to be chartered with us, and if we don’t remain relevant for them in this period of economic downturn, which the government has confirmed is the worst recession ever, there’s a real risk to us around our members going forward if we’re not there for them.

But also, we now need to realign or pivot what we’re doing by doing it in a different way whether that’s with our training, our events etc. Everything has had to go digital. It’s been a real challenging period over the last five months. It’s been a rollercoaster, but at the same time a fantastic opportunity to develop and move the organisation forward into the 21st century.

What was your key motivation for taking part in the AMOC leadership case study?

It’s been such a period of change in that everything that we thought we’d be doing this year is now very different, and I thought that having the opportunity to reflect on that and having the time and space to do it was so valuable.

But on the other hand, being able to share my experience, and then learn from others is so appealing. It’s such a unique period in time and hopefully the only pandemic that we’re ever going to live through in our lives and careers. To capture what it's like to actually run an organisation through this time felt monumental from a legacy perspective. To get those experiences locked down while they were fresh and to be able to share those with others felt like too good of an opportunity not to get involved. Even though I was incredibly busy I told myself that I had to capture all of this now while I could, so what AMOC are doing really did excite me.

How did you find out about the project?

AMOC contacted me via LinkedIn, where I have over 5,000 followers and promote a lot of the work that I do. My LinkedIn network goes beyond just the sector that I’m in, which is town planning - It’s a great tool for reaching out more broadly.

What are AMOC doing that’s different?

As people they speak with authenticity because they’ve lived it and breathed it themselves in industry and in different roles. They’ve been there. They’ve been the senior leader and they genuinely know what that’s like.

They’re doing this amazing developmental work to capture all of this stuff that’s going on during the pandemic which is incredibly unique. I’m not aware of anyone else that’s doing that. Not to capture this process would be missed opportunity and so it was a standout project in my eyes.

Karen and Lesley saw an opportunity to capture those challenges and responses and take learnings from it to support women as they come out of the pandemic and want to progress their careers.

They spotted early on that women are in fact going to be quite badly hit by this pandemic. The research is out there now to show that women are more likely to be furloughed, more likely to pick up extra responsibilities in the home and more likely to lose their job. Things are tough for women anyway in terms of breaking through those barriers in their career, but it just got a whole lot harder. I think that’s something that really attracted me to AMOC as I could resonate with their way of thinking when it comes to dealing with these issues.

Would you recommend the case study project?

I would recommend the leadership case study project with AMOC because it is hard to carve out the time to undertake a project like this, but the only way that we’re going to help women progress in their careers is by sharing that knowledge and those experiences that we have gained through thought leadership.

It’s a way to inspire women but also give them practical tips so I would encourage leaders to do this, leaders from all sorts of fields and walks of life. It’s such a great opportunity to be involved in something that encourages that cross industry collaboration.

What is it about the work that AMOC are doing that appeals to women specifically?

Their approach focusses on the very reality of what’s happening in the here and now; so, they’re having conversations with people that are leaders in this moment.

It’s not just some theoretical project or book; this is actually much more practical which I think is important. It’s relevant and it’s very of the moment which I think is very appealing to people, particularly to women who are perhaps considering undertaking an AMOC programme later down the line.

Lesley and Karen’s communication skills are very personable. Yes, they’ve been senior leaders, but they don’t come across in an ‘I know it all’ way at all. They come across as very authentic which appealing.

How has the leadership case study project helped you to reflect on the last few months?

It has helped me to frame my thoughts and put them in order amid this challenging situation. The conversations I’ve had have helped me realise that this situation has provided an opportunity to change things for the better in terms of how we do things as an organisation.

It’s been a real challenge to find the financial savings but we’ve had to, and in doing so that’s provided an opportunity to incorporate those changes for many years to come and actually come out of the pandemic as a better organisation than when we went in.

I would’ve reached that understanding myself in time, but having the support of AMOC and the project, including the reflective practices and conversations, has helped me refine that further in my mind. This pandemic has been an opportunity as well as a huge challenge and has meant that we’ve all had to fast track business transformation.

What areas of the business will benefit most from your learnings through the project?

It’s a chance to go back to basics, focusing on the purpose of our organisation and what we’re trying to do.

We probably spend too much money on back office administration that isn’t actually that relevant to our members, and being able to have a strategic review on that and thinking about how the organisation needs to become more agile has helped me to develop my thinking. I think it would be beneficial for us to work with smaller teams and bring in the additional resource as and when we need it.

Where our organisation will benefit will be that our members will see that we can do more for our budget. In our industry, the time isn’t normally there to step back and review something of this scale but AMOC have helped to make time for that.

A lot of the time I’m fire fighting and dealing with challenges so it’s actually good to be able to focus on the future and the positives of what we’re doing and that’s why this programmes been really great for me.

How important do you think it is to invest in female leaders of the future?

Support for women was needed before and it's needed even more now, particularly as women are going through furlough or are at risk of losing their jobs or may have even already lost their jobs. It will knock their self-confidence.

It’s bound to impact your confidence so having someone to metaphorically put an arm round you whether that’s through mentoring or coaching, during this particular time it’s probably more important than it has been for a long time.

How effective do you think that 1-2-1 or group coaching and mentoring is across all leadership levels, particularly for women? Is this something that you would invest in to develop and encourage women in your workplace?

Simply, you should invest into your biggest and most important resource, which is your people. The people are the organisation, not the structures and systems and buildings.

The organisations that will survive the pandemic are the ones that are able to navigate their way through these times and that does require investment.

Investing in your staff is maintenance. Nobody buys a house and then doesn’t spend a penny on it ever again. It’s about being strategic and seeing the bigger picture. If you’re not investing in your own talent and in particular female talent, then how can you expect to retain them? Investing into coaching gives you the best shot into navigating through the difficult months ahead.

It’s all about futureproofing. It sounds cliché but the next 12 months will be about survival of the fittest and there’s going to be a massive reordering of industry and society.

So many things will change off the back of this and so many companies are going to go. And the ones that survive are the ones that have been able to adapt.

It’s not their systems and processes that have survived, it’s their people that come up with the innovations. Having a support programme like AMOC’s Female Leadership programme to help provide them with that much needed time and space to think about these strategic things is like gold dust.

What is your own motivation for driving the women’s agenda?

Within my own industry I’m looking to see parity of gender in senior positions. We have parity coming into the profession, but we don’t have it at the top table. There are two main sectors that I deal with and the local authority public sector is doing much better than the private sector but there still aren’t enough senior leaders in local government running planning authorities.

When I took over this job, I wrote to the 15 largest planning consultancies in the UK and invited them to a round table and that was people at managing director or executive level. Not a single name was female.

So ideally, I would like to see half the planning consultancies in the UK run by women and half of local authorities with chief planning officers that are women.

That’s what I’m looking for and was the reason that I got into planning to begin with. I read a book called ‘Women in Planning’ over 20 years ago and it raised the question, ‘how can it be that half of the population are women and yet only a fraction of them have any influence over the built environment?” We need more diversity in the profession to enable better placemaking ultimately. If you have more diversity around the table, you get more collective and inclusive views.

What do you think women can expect to gain from the Female Leadership programmes?

I hope that they gain better wellbeing and confidence in your own ability. It’s important that women feel that they can give something a go and don’t take the societal barriers personally, but instead keep going.

At this moment in time, it’s all about providing support through what is being dubbed the worst recession ever. Women need confidence but also some experienced guidance. It might feel like the end of the world now, but it won’t always be like this.

These programmes by AMOC can offer reassurance through this challenging time. It’s valuable to have someone there who has some answers and can help you to see the bigger picture.

The inequality in certain workplaces is an unconscious bias and this will always be the case. This is a cultural issue and won’t change overnight. The bias is caused by the fact that women aren’t at the top table anyway so its easier to be a blind to the issue at senior level if there aren’t any females present to challenge it.

The work that AMOC are doing is also educational for men in the top tiers because it’s not always their fault that inequalities exist, it’s simply a blind spot. The programme should be aimed at male leaders as much as it is for women in some respects because you do need that genuine influence at the top table.

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