Social housing leadership insights: What skills are required?

Keith Butler | 18 February 2024

Over the last decade the social housing sector has been impacted by a myriad of change, from organisational consolidation and a decline in homeownership to changing government policy and an evolving workforce. In our latest article on the essential skills and capabilities of today’s housing leaders, Keith Butler spoke to four senior professionals to get their insights


The four skills… being able to view matters through a customer lens, problem-solving, curiosity, financial acumen, and an ability to see the big picture all featured in our conversations.

A customer’s-eye-view

Nick Horne, Chief Executive Officer at Wythenshawe Community Housing Group, feels that one of the key attributes needed by social housing professionals was “the ability to look at things through the lens of the customer.”

Kathryn Price, Executive Director of Finance at Lincolnshire Housing Partnerships (LHP), agrees and shared how important it is for all leaders to “understand the importance of customer needs even if they don’t have direct responsibility for this area.” A small but impactful step LHP has taken to address this is to add ‘corporate’ to job descriptions to stress the need for a more holistic outlook and approach regardless of an individual’s job role.

Problem-solvers & curiosity

Kathryn Price shared that when she joined LHP, the leadership team tended to look inwards, but now they look externally for potential solutions to challenges – asking “how are other organisations and sectors dealing with an issue”.

As well as looking outside the housing sector for solutions, attracting talent from other industries is also key to bringing in the right skills and leadership development. When asked about whether there are advantages in bringing in leaders from outside of the sector, Nick Horne, who has a background in construction, said “the key is recruiting leaders with a challenging mindset”. The sector needs leaders who can analyse problems, decide which solution is the best, and take decisive action with an element of speed. He feels this agility doesn’t happen enough in the sector given we are operating in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment.

Duncan Short, Group Director of Resources at Vivid, talks about the importance of getting the balance right and not taking the blanket approach that “in sector is bad, out of sector is good” as there are some very good, rounded and commercially astute people in the social housing sector.

Kathryn also believes that some problems, such as how to address the damp and mould challenge, should be tackled collaboratively by the sector as a whole rather than by individual organisations.

John McGrail, who has recently left his role as Director of Finance and Resources at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing feels leaders should “be curious” and that attitude and positive challenge can, in certain roles, be as important as technical skills, which in most cases can be trained.

Financial acumen

Duncan Short feels that two key priorities for leaders in today’s housing sector world are driving out cost and managing change effectively.

Given the high inflationary backdrop, finances are even more important than ever and areas such as treasury are vital, so outside sector experience could be useful here. He emphasises that it is important to realise that “we don’t just sit in a bubble” and that housing is impacted by external pressures like other sectors.

Duncan stated that Vivid could do more around training for existing managers, but they have communicated with management across the business about the need to appreciate and understand external factors such as the impact of an increase in interest rates on the organisation.

One area that Duncan shares was interesting in attracting commercial experience from outside the housing sector, was that of customer service. Increasing customer satisfaction is usually not an end goal in the private sector, but “the means to the end”, with the actual end goal being higher sales, better margins or customer referrals. Obviously, this isn’t the case in the housing sector, so there needs to be a different approach and raises the question of why we put so much importance on measuring customer service compared to other KPIs such as repair response times, investment in properties and building safety, for example.

Ability to see the big picture

Nick Horne also feels that it’s important for leaders in the social housing sector to appreciate that they have a level of influence and should use this positively for the good of the community and the local area. Nick feels it is a privilege to work in the sector in the current environment and, as such, we need to be focussed on managing the property we own effectively to ensure carbon neutrality, for example.

Kathryn emphasises that, whilst bringing in external, more commercially focussed leaders can be beneficial, they need to appreciate the impact of the regulator on how they operate, which may not have been the case, at least not to the same extent, in their previous roles.

All four of the leaders we spoke to also pointed out that it is important to have the right level of technical skills and experience in the organisation and that getting the right balance across an organisation is vital for board and team effectiveness.

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