It’s not you, it’s us – The lack of commercial hires in Housing and what to do about it

Author: Nathan Minnighan Published: 16 June 2017

“Ideally we’d like someone from out of sector”.  An enduring request at the briefing stages of many an assignment in Housing. Never more so than in a property search.

I can understand why. Diversified business models, new tenure mixes, products and funding arrangements necessitate a search for those who can deliver against one if not all future challenges a Housing Association will face.

However, all too often during the search process, a new maxim appears. “Someone who understands housing” becomes far more important, and the riskier non-sector hire is kept in their box, still unwrapped, for another occasion.

The breadth of technical skills, market insight, cultural and organisational change required from today’s Property Director is on a scale never before seen. To give them a fighting chance of success, this makes on boarding property hires at senior management and executive level far more time intensive than their peers. 

Perhaps it’s just the time needed to bring someone up to speed that puts the sector off, but this short termism could be the biggest risk to achieving lasting successful change – particularly in addressing the UK’s Housing crisis.  

Whilst the sector has made great strides in hiring non-sector corporate & customer service experts, senior property appointments lag behind.  

Why? Here’s my two cents:

  1. Speed of Success – other Exec team hires can illicit tangible results relatively fast. From better websites to increased customer engagement, their impact can be both swift and wide reaching. Results in property can take longer. From newly procured maintenance solutions, to increased build capacity, the finished product can take years not months to deliver. In the high octane world of Housing, battered by regulatory change and government tinkering, these big spending, longer term outputs can jar against a sector that is pressured to show immediate success. 
  2. Legacy – an achilles heel for social housing development; a new hire may spend years unpicking the mistakes of the past. Focus on the present day is essential, but the reality is that it’s regularly marred by historic decisions that new hires are called upon to resolve.  
  3. Communication – Whether in the quality of narrative expressed to candidates, or promoting the merits of a new hire internally,  the consistency of messaging could be greatly improved.
  4. Assumptions - A fault on both sides is that assumptions are too easily made. How much a non-sector candidate really understands Housing, or the innate subtext behind interview questions lost on those yet to meet an Area Manager from the GLA. These are small oversights that can have a huge impact on the views formed of candidates by HA’s and vice versa. 
  5. Leadership – almost ubiquitous now in a senior property appointment is a wholesale redesign of the property function. From creating new roles to reviewing pay & rewards, the strategic remit of this hire has doubled in recent years. Demonstrating thought leadership, emotional intelligence and confidence to deliver existing and future commitments with an evolving team has become one of the biggest challenges a new hire will face. 
  6. Board Capacity – the risk appetite from the board on high profile areas of spending like housebuilding and repairs is often low and they will often err on the side of caution over innovation. However a non-sector hire’s ability to add value will depend greatly on the board’s willingness to listen to new ideas. Without this openness, the Chief Executive’s mandate for innovation and change from their team will encounter energy sapping opposition. 

Sunny Side Up 

Enough doom and gloom, taking the above into account, there are changes any HA can make to widen the realistic playing field when hiring from out of sector.

  • Housing 101 – whether from a housebuilder, consultancy or contractor, there are too many assumptions made about the Housing sector that prevent talented individuals considering this as a career move. A short explanation of your business model, jargon free, combined with key outputs for their role, will ensure the candidate receives an informed and clear narrative based on business aims, not buzzwords. No two HA’s the same, so why should the markets perception be?
  • On Boarding – sensitive appointments notwithstanding, a lot of the internal communication regarding a new hire can be done before an appointment is made. This allows their eventual peer group, direct staff and wider stakeholders to prepare for what will likely be an appointment that impacts on their own priorities. Admittedly this is far easier said than done, but your largest salesforce can be the staff within your own business if they are inspired by what you want to achieve. Think presidential campaigning, but more Obama than Trump. 
  • Honesty –A clear run down of the complexities/ issues a candidate may face, including Housing specific issues, will give them time to think about their approach. This space to generate new perspectives on age old issues could add significant value during the process itself. 
  • Visible Support – often the hiring process can miss out the candidate’s biggest day to day stakeholders. Involving, HR, Comms, Marketing, Housing, IT and Finance in the hiring and on boarding process will help the new hire to quickly gain a picture of the world they are about to inhabit. 
    • Support can also manifest itself in being able to ask these stakeholders’ questions that offer frank answers before they start. Pay and flexibility of organisational change, for example, are big factors that will be linked to a new appointment’s ability to succeed. 
    • Finally, additional interim support can allow the business to compartmentalise legacy issues, giving your new hire a fair chance of building the momentum needed for change.

As advisors to your business, it’s also incumbent upon us to ensure we are providing the right level of insight at the start, including being honest about the trickier side of hiring. 

We face a serious shortage of talent within the UK when it comes to real estate, but working together with you on the above will ensure we not only attract, but retain talented property professionals that unlock the value our sector sorely needs. 

Nathan Minnighan specialises in recruiting senior leadership and management positions across the Housing sector

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