Growing Housing's Commercial Brain
One of the issues that Social Housing’s conscience has wrestled in recent times is the drive for commercial efficiencies and how that affects its original social mission. Funding cutbacks and rising expectations from all angles have meant great reflection has been necessary. One common conclusion was that a greater amount of private sector, commercial expertise was required. At board level people have been appointed from PLC backgrounds, banks, accountancy firms and law firms, bringing a rich flow of new ideas to housing associations and driving interesting new innovations, particularly in the areas of funding generation and customer standards.
As a recruiter I have managed a high proportion of roles in the last five years where non-housing experience has been seen as a positive. There has, at times, been the belief that those candidates offered higher customer service expertise, sharper mathematical minds, and in some cases, stronger work ethic. Of course sometimes this is true. The best representatives of the private sector offer fantastic qualities, and can easily be trained to pick up knowledge of the housing sector. They offer new perspectives and drive up standards. The largest housing associations measure their asset portfolios in billions of pounds, so competent commercial understanding is an essential part of any leader’s skillset.
The shift in balance has been interesting and is already more towards the commercial end than housing’s public image suggests. We recently appointed a candidate, from a private sector background, who was surprised at interview to find a panel that had every bit as much private sector experience as he did. He found this encouraging, reinforcing his belief that the shift in sectors would be the right decision for him.
The negative side of the push for private sector experience has at times been the belief that those already in the housing sector were unable to think commercially. Of course, in some cases, this has been true. However, if applied universally, there is a risk that pushing private sector skillsets could result in losing some truly exceptional staff, who completely understands how a housing association needs to operate under new market conditions. It is this group of staff that learning and development functions need to identify and help to develop. A staff member who has worked in housing for twenty years may not, on paper at least, come across as commercially astute, but that doesn’t mean they won’t easily develop those skills. They just need to be offered the right tools.
One of the encouraging things about the housing sector in recent times has been how keen organisations are to develop from within, and that keenness needs to continue to grow. Identifying and nurturing talent is a key part of really successful organisations and something the housing sector is improving at. A balanced approach is the answer, the best private sector talent can adapt, but so can the best housing sector talent. It’s just different approaches are needed to attract and develop them.
What do you think? Does the housing sector place a premium on private sector experience? Has your organisation recognised the importance of developing the commercial skills of those with public sector backgrounds? I’d be interested to hear your perspective.
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Learn more about Paul and the team at Retinue Solutions by visiting our Social Housing Page.