He will never make it

I am often asked how a poor, working class kid from the council estates of Leicester got to be the chief executive of one of the largest housing associations in the U.K.


The simple answer is I don’t know. As I look back at my career I often think that I have been very lucky. That is true but there is probably a bit more to it than just luck.

Some say I was driven. Certainly in my earlier career I was very ambitious and competitive. This was a hangover from my sporting career. I always hated to lose.

I was so competitive that I am still suspended “sine die” by the Leicester FA for persistent violent conduct. One thing I learned quite early in my career was to control this.

A great friend taught me that, when entering a room, the best leaders leave their egos by the door. The housing sector is full of egos. I often think it is one of the reasons we are losing our social purpose.

Being true to our social purpose has been at the heart of my career. “This above all things to thine own self be true” Polonius said to his son. Leaders need to be honest with themselves. One of the main reasons for leadership failure is believing your own publicity.

Understanding yourself, self-awareness is essential. Look in the mirror and reflect. This will reveal things we don’t like and things we do. Understand and deal with both.

Using other people that you trust, be they friend, colleague, mentor or coach, to give honest feedback is an important part of this process.

Learning was an important part of my career. I had no formal education in housing or leadership but I went on many courses. These were useful but I learned more from doing the job. In my early career I moved around. I wanted to know all aspects of the housing business.

So I spent time in housing management, development, supported housing and maintenance. I even spent some time working for our trade body, the National Housing Federation.

This gave me a privileged view of senior leadership and national housing policy. The only thing I did not do was finance. I did, however, spend two boring years as a trainee cost accountant when I left school at 16.

One thing I have found useful is to ask a number of questions after finishing any task. I still do it. The questions are:

How do you feel?

Understanding your feelings and those of other people is essential. I think it is known as emotional intelligence. I have always shown how I feel. I am passionate about what we do and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I look for this in others. But recognise that people may show it in different ways.

What went well?

It is important to understand this and where appropriate celebrate it.

What didn’t go well?

Probably a more important question as long as it is used to learn and not to beat yourself up.

What have you learned?

Learning is essential if we are to improve our performance.

What will you do different next time?

It is no good just reflecting on our performance unless we use it to change. Be a thermostat not a thermometer.

There is much talk today about creating your own brand. I am not sure if I have done this. I do know that it is important to be known for something. For many years I was known in the housing sector for my work on race and diversity.

It is still the single thing that I am most proud of. Even though I think the sector has gone backwards on this in recent years.

In the last few years I have become known for my stance on social housing. In between these two periods I was known as a chief executive and leader. In all three roles I was the same person.

There is no single or simple path to leadership and I would never suggest that my career is a template. We all must find our own way.

I applied for many jobs before obtaining my first executive role. I even applied for some that I had no chance of getting. It was all good experience.

I had some awful interviews and some good ones. Feedback was an important part of this process. I had many knock backs. We all need to learn from them and be resilient. The ability to bounce back is an essential part of leadership.

It is also important to find a voice. Communication is part of the job.

Communicating in a way people can understand is even more important. We tend to overcomplicate most things in life. The best leaders seek to find a simpler and better way.

The best communicators do this also. I am not a great networker. I have to work hard to do it. I have always felt an outsider.

I find it difficult to be in a room full of people. Yet I have never found it difficult to speak to a room full of people. Speak with passion and keep it simple and people will understand you and maybe even follow you. I believe in story telling as a means of getting a message across. I rarely use any visual aids. I find they get in the way between you and the audience. They mask your real self.

Take opportunities when they appear but be clear about your motivation. Be prepared to fail as well. I made one disastrous career move where I followed my ego rather than my passion.

It took five years to recover from this. I have also failed to adapt to the circumstances of different roles. In my first senior executive role I found it difficult to do this and was eventually asked to leave. I was never bitter about it. In fact it led to my first chief executive role.

I have always believed that, in success or failure, dignity and integrity are essential. Integrity, humility and passion are the things I look for most in any leader.

I have worked with some great and some poor leaders. I learned from all of them. My leadership style is influenced by them all, in the things I do and the things I don’t do. In the end you can only be yourself.

If you try to be someone else, people will see through you. The reason I found it relatively easy to move on from my chief executive role was that I never fully identified myself by it.

I always thought that there was more to life. I enjoyed the privilege of being a chief executive but I always knew that it was only temporary. We should be judged by the ease with which we can give things up more than by the trappings of success.

I still don’t know how I became a leader. When I left my secondary modern school with a handful of O levels at 16, no one envisaged that it would happen.

Even in my first housing jobs I was not always identified as leadership material. One chief executive once told me this to my face, when I left his employ. I must admit to feeling a little pleasure when I eventually succeeded him as the chief executive of a midland housing association some years later.

However, I became a leader, I hope that I have never forgotten that it is a privilege for a short time to have the responsibility to lead and help others.

I hope I have used that responsibility wisely. I hope that one day you will have the opportunity and privilege of doing so too.