Scaling new heights
Think you’ve got what it takes to become a housing sector chief executive? Simon Brandon uncovers the golden rules to help you reach your career summit
Did you read last week’s chief executive salary survey and wonder how you could climb your way up the ladder to earn up to £331,250 a year?
Well wonder no more. We’ve spoken to some of housing’s chief executives and management experts to find out how to reach the top job. So, stick the ‘Rocky’ soundtrack on the stereo, digest the following ‘blue-sky thinking’, and above all, be prepared to ‘give 100 per cent’.
Take a Zen approach
As an old Buddhist master has probably never put it: ‘To become a good chief executive, you must first eliminate the desire to become one for the sake of the title.’ Do you work in housing for the love of the challenges and opportunities it presents, or is each position you take simply a stepping stone on your route to the top?
‘If you seek [the chief executive role] purely because of the promotion, it can be fraught with difficulty and danger - but if you have a vision about what you think your business or sector is about then you’re better positioned to lead an organisation from the top,’ says Liz Cross, founder of The Connectives, a social enterprise that aims to help businesses achieve positive social and commercial outcomes.
Ego-driven directors, in other words, do not tend to be great leaders. Both Jon Lord, chief executive of 18,000-home housing association Bolton at Home, and Debbie Griffiths, chief executive of 5,645-home Housing Plus, say they didn’t map out their careers, but rather progressed by taking the opportunities they found interesting and challenging. Naked ambition is not always a winning quality.
‘What shines out in people who get to the more senior positions is passion,’ says Ms Griffiths, who has led her organisation for the past eight years. ‘They are very enthusiastic - they volunteer for different projects, they live and breathe and enjoy what they do, and that translates into their work. If you haven’t got that buzz, how are you going to convince other people?’
To become a successful leader, you must understand yourself before you can motivate and inspire others. ‘You need self-awareness. You have to understand what makes you tick and where your weaknesses are, and not try to bluster through it all and hide it with ego,’ says Julie Fadden, chief executive of 3,500-home South Liverpool Housing Group.
A degree of humility will make your business function better, too. If you are aware of your own shortcomings, you can build a team around you to fill those gaps.
‘You’ve got to own up to your weaknesses so you can plug those, either with people on the board or other directors,’ says Mr Lord. ‘You’ve got to know yourself in order to manage the organisation because you need to know what compensations to make - it’s not a cult of personality, it’s a team.’
Knowing yourself means being realistic about your strengths too, as successful leaders will need to have certain qualities. Leadership itself is obviously vital. While aspects and styles of leadership can be learned and honed, the quality itself is innate, says Ms Fadden. ‘You can look at a class of under-fives and see who is taking the lead,’ she says. So ask yourself honestly whether you have that ‘leadership spark’ - and if you don’t, perhaps the top role isn’t going to be a great fit.
What other qualities should a chief executive possess? For Ms Fadden, the most important is emotional intelligence - in other words, the
ability to understand what motivates and inspires your staff and customers as well as yourself.
Ms Cross argues chief executives need ‘a good sense about what they want to see in the world’ - a vision for the future driven by solid entrepreneurial skills, ‘which is about knowing which risk to take for which reward’.
Resilience is also key, says Ms Griffiths: ‘You need to be able to take the failures as well as the successes.’ Mark Glinwood, chief executive of Insight HR, goes further here: ‘Don’t avoid difficult circumstances based on fear of failure,’ he says. ‘Seek them out, because they are the areas in which you develop the skills required for the future.’
A strong leader will possess a good degree of foresight too, in order to keep their business a few steps ahead. But that quality is also vital on a personal level, says Mr Glinwood, given the pace of change within the housing sector and in the wider world.
Customers and residents are demanding more, all within the context of wider upheaval within the sector - and tomorrow’s leaders should already be looking to the future. ‘Creativity, innovation and inspiration are things that leaders now and in the future need in abundance,’ Mr Glinwood says. ‘Leaders should be spending more time thinking about what their customers will need in 10 years’ time.’
What not to do
There are mistakes to avoid, too. Plotting your course to the top is one of them. ‘If you’ve got a structured career plan, you are likely to be disappointed,’ says Ms Griffiths. Talk to your managers about what the top job entails, she adds, and make sure you understand exactly what is involved in running a housing organisation before you decide to aim for that chief exec role.
And get over yourself. ‘Don’t believe your own hype,’ Mr Lord warns. ‘You’re only as good as your last complaint.’
The final suggestion for what not to do comes from Ms Fadden, and it is perhaps the golden rule for any aspiring chief executives. ‘If you believe in yourself and you believe this is the right thing for you, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,’ she says. ‘Do what you need to get there and enjoy it along the way.’