Jim Dennison

Chief Executive - Simon Community NI

Tell us a bit about your role?

I’m the Chief Executive of Simon Community, Northern Ireland’s largest homeless charity. Simon Community employs 300 staff, is spread across 22 regional sites, has an annual turnover of c. £10M and – most importantly – supports around 5,000 people each year.

What are the biggest issues facing leaders today?

Two of the biggest issues we face, particularly in the Third Sector, are poor morale and motivation. We operate against a backdrop of pay freezes, budget cuts, contract insecurity and political stalemate. That can be incredibly demoralising, especially when the workload seems to just get heavier. The challenge is to keep colleagues focused on the difference they make, give them opportunities to get involved in new initiatives and to recognise the brilliant work they do.

As organisations get larger there’s often a tendency toward dampening inspiration. How do you encourage creative thinking within your business?

It’s quite simple – I ask people what they think.

I’ve seen organisations where management think that they are responsible for all the creativity and innovation. Often the best ideas are much closer to the operation of the organisation.

I’m very keen on giving all staff a say on how the Simon Community develops as an organisation. We know the challenges – my encouragement is to come up with the solutions. And colleagues across the organisation – if asked – have some fantastic ideas. Unless they are encouraged to contribute, these brilliant ideas can get lost.

An example of this was when one of our frontline staff was asked ‘how do you help someone sleeping rough if you’re unsure whether to approach them?’ by a member of the public. She couldn’t answer. Then she thought about how an app could help and suggested to management that we consider it. So we ran with the idea of developing an app that could geo-locate people needing assistance and get help to them with just a few easy and anonymous clicks.

We won the UK-wide Tech4Good Community Impact Award for the app that year. Had she not been asked what issues she faced and how we could address them she wouldn’t have shared the idea. Moral of the story: Ask colleagues and clients what they think - you may get some unusual ideas, but you’ll also get some creative and canny ones. Just make sure to give the credit where it’s due!

If you had to name three characteristics of great leaders what would they be?

The ability to listen, tenacity, and being passionate about what you do.

What advice would you give someone going into leadership position for the first time?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

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