Briefing 1 – The Challenge for a diverse Board of Directors

Long established housing associations often suffer from a problem that leads to dysfunctional senior management teams, and has its roots in history. I’ve helped to raise this issue and help senior management teams move through it over recent years, but it requires “Naming” and confronting honestly. Even more recently established housing associations and trusts can suffer from this problem. It’s a problem of dysfunctional diversity.

Boards are often made up of people who have been either promoted from within, recruited from outside, and even head hunted from outside.

I’m going to characterise some of these as “types” and though the types are stereotypical, I only use this to help identify the potential roots of why senior teams often “don’t get on” and become blockages to joined up leadership.

The Types

First we have the historical pioneers. These are leaders who were there are the very start, when their was a missionary zeal, rooted in the cooperative movement, even the squatter movement. These are people who point back to some values they want to maintain and often believe have been lost or diluted. This was about making housing affordable, about occupying empty buildings, about an ethos that had a distaste for public sector bureaucracy, and an even greater distaste for capitalism, especially where it impinged on the human right of a roof over one’s head. The historical pioneers abhor the use of the term “customer”, dislike bureaucracy and the commercialisation of the sector. On the positive side they are ‘salt of the earth’ flag bearers of respect for the tenant, of involvement of tenants and of creating organisations that have a collaborative ethos.  Performance is all about fairness, satisfaction and sticking to an ethos that is essentially a successful social reaction through housing to the “market”. They are in favour of flatter structures and many will champion the reduction of waste. On the negative side they will not get on with those pushing for ‘corporatisation’ and the forces of marketing and commercialisation. They will often see branding exercises as a waste of money and time. Historical pioneers often believe the organisation has got too big, and become too detached from its roots.

Secondly we have public sector officionados. These may or may not have also been there at the “start”. They have a career history in local government. They may have been civil servants or simply worked in local council services. They have often been recruited for their ability to manage issues such as risk management, quality and inspection, contract and service delivery specifications. They may have worked in local government housing services. On the positive side they have the ability to think in terms of systems and subsystems. They are at home with documentation and the pressures of regulation and governance coming from the public sector and government. Performance is all about compliance.  They are good at internal politicking. On the negative side they can become bureaucracy junkies, overfocused on systems and procedures. Tenants are at the end of a contractual process that is a line of online and physical paperwork and they will inhibit vision and change that might compromise the paper trail. They can be enemies of simplicity and find it hard to connect with the concept of tenant as customer.


Thirdly, we have the Commerce Champions. They have often been recruited in from outside the sector, though they may also have cut their teeth for a while in the public sector. They have MBAs, and see social housing as a commercial sector with “growth” and “profit” potential. They are champions of housing projects being part funded by market value property development and management. They see tenants as customers. They see tenants collectively as being in a market place. Branding and performance measures are key to profitability and market share. But growth is often the main aim. Performance is all about reducing cost, maximising profit and “customer care”. On the positive side they bring challenge, a restlessness for performance improvement, innovation, and focus on customer service. On the negative side, they can pay lip service to the deeper values of the association or trust  that were its original reason for being. They can undermine the softer values and behaviours and can lose patience with some of the necessary “costly” systems that uphold the ethos and maintain quality. In my own experience, they see the sector is immature underdeveloped and not “hitting its potential”.

There are, of course, people who are hybrids of these three types, but I have often seen these types polarised – often public sector ranged against commercial, public sector against pioneer and pioneer against commercial

How to Dysfunctions Reveal Themselves

When the pioneer and public sector types clash at senior management team meetings, they accuse each other of different things. The historical pioneer accuses the public sector officionado of trying to drown the organisation in bureaucracy and paperwork. They accuse them of taking the organisation away from its grass roots through dehumanising the system. The public sector officionados accuse the historical pioneers of being politically biased, of being out of touch and of undermining critical procedures and raising risk.

When the public sector officionados clash with the commerce champions they accuse them of too much change, of prioritising precious resources towards commercial ends when they should be focused on maintaining proper governance and quality systems. They find customer care charters unreasonable and unrealistic. They see commerce champions as naive and unable to understand how the organisation really works. The commerce champions accuse the public sector officionados of over-resourcing and overcomplicating systems, of being against necessary change, of slowing up the organisations need to change and of putting systems before customers/tenants.

When historical pioneers clash with commerce champions it can really get fiery! Pioneers accuse commerce champions of anything from corruption to greed, from being more interested in external stakeholders than tenants, in destroying or undermining the ethos and replacing it with a corporate agenda that is against the interests of tenants. They accuse them of focusing on superficial branding instead of core values and of create new configurations such as market value properties funding socially focused builds and diluting the pure values of the organisation in the process. They mistrust the commerce champions and their motives. Commerce champions often wonder how and why the pioneer got onto the senior management team. They see them as dinosaurs, out of touch, and agitators against any chance that might make the organisation leaner and more “competitive.”.

Now of course, the fire doesn’t usually erupt into a major blaze at senior management team meetings. But what I have found are many instances of quiet undermining, regular disagreement, polarisation at meetings, resistance to change, slow decision-making, diluted decision making, and this can result in an unnamed “sluggishness” at the top. There are also examples of  “agreement in public, criticism in private” behaviours from the different types. In many housing trusts and associations the commercial champions often have the upper hand but in often unsackable cultures, other senior managers become grudging compliers and find “below the radar” ways to undermine change. Staff miss meetings, don’t read documentation, absent themselves from training sessions, minimise at board meetings. They disagree politely, slow things down, or ensure their own teams only have one version of what has been agreed higher up.

Often people lower down end up talking of their senior managers as a bit of a joke, saying “we get things done here, in spite of and not because of them”. Too often people attending my workshops and course from further down the organisation ask “why aren’t our managers doing this as well”? Organisations engage in expensive rebranding exercises making all kinds of “answer the phone in 5 rings” promises that the rest of the organisation laughs at. Tenants are often looked after by some staff in informal, improvised, and often excellent ways, even at a time when the organisation has published standard customer care procedures that bear little relation to what happens on the ground.

What to do

So, what is to be done? If you are honest with yourself and recognise any of the above, what can be done about it? In my view it may be time for a dose of honesty at the top. It may be time to break the collusion of mediocrity. A well facilitated  away day or two where we “have it out”, name the differences and make some final and real decisions about what kind of organisation we are and really want to be. It may be time for some to move on. It may be time to really explore authentic consensus at the top, which is not all about agreeing, but which is about not allowing disagreement to hinder progress and innovation, but making grown-up debate a tool for moving forwards. It is time to name the organisation properly and allow each of the three types of come out into the open, express themselves, and then to have a big and valuable argument about how to make the best of all of the virtues at the senior management table. Actually, not doing that is a form of collective incompetence, and your tenants and staff deserve better.


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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