Social Housing, the hidden sector in the UK economy?

I’ve worked for the last 6 years almost exclusively in the Social Housing and Development Sectors across the North of England and Scotland. I’ve seen the sector, and the skillsets required in senior leaders change radically even over this relatively short timeframe.

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Changing requirements

The unexpected rent cut in 2015 sparked a number of mergers and acquisitions in the North East.  I’ve worked with several organisations post-merger; my key observation from this experience is that when a business rapidly doubles in size it is not a given that the senior leaders will naturally grow with it; Chief Executives often find themselves left with considerable skill gaps.  We are regularly asked for advice on attracting senior candidates with exposure to scale and complexity in the key areas of digital, finance, customer services and development.

A higher profile required?

Having interviewed many hundreds of highly qualified and experienced people, often leaders in their respective fields, my conclusion is that the Social Housing Sector is almost invisible to the wider public.  Many people will recognise the organisations brand name (nearly always from them seeing vans driving around) but this rarely translates into any real knowledge or understanding of the sector.  If organisations are to grow their employer brands they need to be crossing over into mainstream public consciousness.  CEOs should be asking themselves how well recognised is their organisation and does the employer brand help or hinder when trying to attract talent?

Hiring from outside of the Sector, risk or opportunity? 

Housing is a professional and highly collegiate sector with strong internal networks, often going back years within a region; these networks can be both an advantage and a hindrance when hiring.  In my experience, the sector isn’t great at engaging with or promoting itself with organisations and individuals outside of its own sphere of influence.  The net result can be a narrowly focussed hiring policy and a tendency to gravitate towards a small pool of “known” candidates from within the sector for every role.

Recruiting close to home offers an easy solution as the individual should be able to move quickly into the organisation and pick up the reins of their predecessor, however, you might be missing an opportunity.  When engaged by a client we try to deliberately challenge your thinking; should you be using the opportunity to redefine the role?  Does a quick fix hire from a virtually identical neighbour really offer you the opportunity to grow or develop or might you be missing out on hiring someone with new, innovative and diverse ideas and experiences?

Our shortlists will often include candidates you are not already aware of from different backgrounds and industries; providing you the opportunity to properly benchmark your role and really compare and contrast the available talent.

How will someone from outside of the Housing sector fit in and adapt?  Will they “Get us?”

I was privileged to attend an inspiring talk a few years ago given by Dame Sarah Story.  If you are not familiar with Sarah, she is a Para-Olympian who has won gold medals in two very different disciplines.

Sarah won in the pool in the 92 Barcelona Olympics but was forced to give up swimming early in her career after suffering a year of chronic ear infections.  She certainly wasn’t finished and still had an enormous will to win so switched to cycling.  A swimmer and cyclists physiology differ significantly; simply put swimmers have big shoulders, cyclists have big legs.  Sarah wasn’t a cyclist but came to the new sport with the knowledge and experience of how to train, listen, learn, work as part of a team and ultimately win at the highest level.  She thrived in her new environment and the rest is history, winning gold in the 2008 Olympics and four golds at the 2012 London games.

I’ve never forgotten meeting Sarah and her ability to change discipline is something that I always consider when recruiting.  I’ve seen that if an individual has sufficient motivation towards our sector and can demonstrate achievement in their previous roles they will invariably do well.  I look for the candidate who has programmed themselves to succeed and I will prioritise the passionate person with a track record of adapting over the individual who might tick every box on the specification but perhaps lacks original ideas and drive.

Anyone who knows and has worked with me over the years will have sat in one of my long-list meetings where, upon first glance at the CV I appear to be trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.  Rest assured, I’m not doing this just to annoy you; I’m doing it because I’ve seen something in this individual that the other candidates in the shortlist might lack and I will champion their cause knowing that they have the transferable skills and the correct ideals to match your organisation and brief.

The lesson I’ve learnt is don’t go for the obvious replica when there could be a new more exciting prospect around the corner. You might find someone who will not only make that role a success but will take it in a new direction and bring the skills and infectious energy to encourage further growth.

 

Jim Allcroft is an expert in recruiting into the Social Housing, Infrastructure and Property Sectors in the UK. If you would like to speak to Jim regarding the sector please get in touch at jim@dixonwalter.co.uk

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