The post COVID-19 landscape is inevitably set to bring significant changes for many organisations, including social housing. Increased regulation, financial pressures and mergers are just some of the challenges facing the sector over the coming months. As we take stock and look forward, organisations must not leave housing's future to chance; investing now in the skills needed for housing's future leaders.
In our latest edition of our ‘Five minutes with…’, we discuss, along with COVID-19, the topic of future leadership with Matthew Harrison, Chief Executive of Great Places Housing Group. For over twenty years Matthew has been passionate about developing future leaders, with many of his recruits now playing a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of Housing either with Great Places or in other nearby organisations.
We are in the midst of this pandemic, what has been the biggest challenges that you’ve faced operationally?
As an organisation, we moved quickly into crisis management mode which, at the start, was all consuming, but thankfully we started to implement our business continuity plans a couple of weeks prior to lockdown so the change was anticipated to some degree. We felt we moved relatively smoothly into the new working environment; however, the challenges were around workforce planning and getting everyone agile and at pace. We already had a number of colleagues working in an agile way already, so that was obviously very helpful. The key area of challenge was moving our contact centre into agile working whilst maintaining the same level of customer service which our customers are used to.
In addition, and in the background, we have been working through the merger with Equity Housing Group. Naturally, this presented its own challenges in this working environment but thankfully we got that over the line on deadline.
What have been the biggest learning points for the organisation during this crisis?
When we assembled our BCP Command Structure, we initially assumed it would be a small group; however, in reality, we ended up with quite a large senior team working together in the crisis management phase. In hindsight, this has worked well as we’ve had more leaders ‘visible’ on the more holistic conversations and it’s given them more exposure to these conversations.
Great Places, as an organisation, are well known to have a fantastic graduate programme which has seen a number of graduates become leaders of today. How did this come about and what core values/personalities do you look for?
The graduate programme began around 20 years ago, we saw an opportunity to help the ourselves and younger people by having a continual supply of talent coming through the organisation, particularly in development. We are proud to say that one of the first graduates we recruited was Alison Dean who has grown through the business to become Executive Director of People, Culture and Business Improvement.
We believe that producing home grown talent is the way forward, it gives the younger people an opportunity in their local area and we are able to instil the ’Great Places way’ at an early stage of their career. Upon reflection, it is great to see people both flourish through the organisation and also move on and succeed elsewhere in the sector whilst still maintaining those core values.
Over the years we’ve recruited a lot of graduates into Development, a difficult place to get the right talent. When we look to recruit these graduates, we are usually looking for them to have a place-based or geography degree. We are also looking for graduates who want to do something good for the community and have a desire to work for a values-based organisation. Our ‘sweet spot’ is a graduate who has a social purpose, an understanding of spatial-based work and has a sense of humour!
How do you engage and retain your future leaders?
In short, this is a constant battle and we do our very best to retain talent. However, if they do leave, its imperative that we continue to have the emerging talent from our graduate scheme to move into their role, where possible.
We do try and retain our future leaders with competitive terms and conditions. We are consistently ensuring that we are in line with the market leaders on this point.
Furthermore, we have developed several learning and development opportunities. We endeavour to develop our Heads of Service as a peer group, where they will work collaboratively on operational challenges and working with colleagues to prevent silo working.
We’ve also developed a new leadership programme ’Leading Greatness’ which is available to middle management as a cultural and leadership-based training. Our course strives to embed a high support, high challenge leadership style and also embed a high level of professionalism - something that we are extremely proud of.
Thinking about the landscape post-COVID, what do you think will change?
Firstly, some of the aspects of working from home I can see being the norm moving forward. However, I do feel that a lot people do forget that our work is in a community and that you get an awful lot of personal and professional support from working face to face. We’re human beings and by and large we like it! Whilst technology is an enabler to be more agile and flexible, there is a strong argument that the sense of community and the culture comes first.
Secondly, I believe there might be more stock rationalisation in the sector, with organisations focussing on their core geography in pursuit of efficiency and a commitment to support communities in what is likely to be a time of extreme hardship. In addition, it will be imperative that the financially strong Housing Associations drive us all through this crisis and make the most of opportunities that will arise as we come through. Supporting economic recovery is something we’ve done before and I’ve no doubt we’ll be called upon again, building the new homes the country needs and supporting the construction sector at the same time.