Leadership is key to the future of social housing

Social housing supply in the UK is at an all-time low, while demand continues to escalate. Simon Wing calls for proactive leaders to solve the problem.

Public policy has always been perceived as a key determining factor in housing provision, but we know that the situation is far more complex. While public policy will undoubtedly play a role in solving the crisis (and there is certainly a wealth of opinion on how it can do so), in the current climate, it appears that the industry is having to create a solution for itself. As such, leaders of housing organisations play a fundamental role in meeting the UK’s housing needs.

The sector recognises that a new calibre of leader is required, one that will grab the bull by the horns and take ownership of the challenges facing their individual organisation. The sector has always been heavily influenced by centrally-led policy as well as regional and local politics. However, in these demanding times it is right that the best leaders are being more proactive and seizing the initiative.

So how can these leaders be unearthed? First and foremost, it requires housing organisations to establish a clear framework for recruiting leaders that can thrive in this increasingly challenging environment. This means the responsibility for identifying these leaders sits with either the organisation’s recruitment capability, or its assessment and development offering. In this article I will outline how these leaders can be delivered.

Starting from the top

There’s no doubting that executives for social housing organisations are well intentioned and able – many dedicate decades of service helping others secure a home. But to really address the challenges the sector faces, many boards are recognising the need to professionalise and modernise. Previously it might have been acceptable to believe that ‘business as usual’ is the safest mantra to adopt in the sector, but this will not take us forward. Dynamic and decisive leadership is key for these bodies achieve their goals in the short, medium and longer term.

This absolutely does not require the wholesale clearances of boards overnight: many organisations have individuals on the board who have valuable experience and are making excellent contributions. Nonetheless, these boards need to begin transitioning towards a more commercial and innovative mindset. They need to be better at setting goals and objectives, have more transparent and established governance structures, and most importantly are more open to more commercial opportunities.  Setting the right tone at board level plays a vital role in attracting the best talent and enabling them to thrive, particularly when it comes to recruiting from the public sector.

Commercial head and philanthropic heart

With the financial pressures facing government, and the increasingly fraught political climate, we know that housing grants are unlikely to figure too high up on the government’s agenda. So it’s increasingly likely already that the solutions to the problems will be determined those within the sector already, rather than extraneous local or central government policy.

Housing leaders therefore need to be equipped to take advantage of an opportunity as soon as it is presented to them, and to act decisively. This includes working with more developers, financial institutions and other suppliers to open up new ways of working. Overall, it requires a more commercial mindset, based on a related set of skills and ways of thinking which permit leaders to generate new funding models and envisage new opportunities. The most suitable candidates will require a diverse skillset that includes practical, commercial experience in all aspects of the housing industry, not just that drawn from handling a similar body or working elsewhere in the public sector.

The new breed of leader has hands on property development experience, asset management acumen, and expertise in revenue generation to ensure housing organisations remain financially viable while continuing to concentrate on improving housing provision in their key focus areas.  While it would be foolish to cast aside those with a more humanitarian approach to housing leadership, but they need to combine this with the commercial wherewithal to be successful in the future.

How do we find these leaders?

The process starts with establishing a framework for recruitment that includes desired behavioural characteristics. This will help create a clear picture of the kind of person the organisation wants to bring in from a cultural and performance perspective, and by extension help them to identify the exact traits they need to look for in prospective candidates. It also gives the incoming leader more accountability when they get their feet under the desk by providing them with a clear mandate to deliver change to the organisation, based on the terms of their recruitment.

It’s also extremely valuable to get an external perspective when recruiting individuals into your organisation. By bringing peers and colleagues who would not usually be involved into the process, their participation can provide a view on the candidate’s credibility and cultural fit which may not otherwise be obvious to those seeking to recruit an individual. This is particularly important to organisations that are looking for a style of leader they’ve not experienced previously.

Monetary concerns are also critical to finding and securing the successful candidate. When you’ve found a candidate who is the right fit, respect the market rate. Talent needs to be rewarded, and while many of the best leaders are willing to take a pay cut to work for a good cause, there is a limit. A leader that can transform your organisation and successfully creating new revenue opportunities will be worth the investment over the course of their tenure.

Trust in leadership

If the housing sector is going to address the challenges it faces on its own, rather than waiting for government assistance, leadership is crucial. Non-executive board members, trustees and senior leaders shape the direction of organisations and implement initiatives which can be adopted by all employees. They champion and creating a strong leadership model identifies new ways of thinking, and identify the skills they already possess in house, to help them to implement a new vision. Whether internal or external, the right talent is out there to help these organisations succeed, provided clear frameworks exist which lay the platform for success.

Simon Wing is a Partner at GatenbySanderson

Housing, Infrastructure & Transport Practice

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