Life at the Top: Thrills, Spills and a Few Bellyaches
One of the most enjoyable things about my job is meeting some inspiring leaders and gaining great insight to the inner workings of our social housing sector. Firmly included in that category is a recent meeting with Boris Worrall, Chief Executive of Rooftop Housing Group. He has just celebrated his two-year anniversary in what is his first chief executive role.
Before moving to the housing sector ten years ago he began his early career as a journalist then worked in communications roles for the Home Office. His career has seen him undertake the role of director of strategy and communication at Accord, the Midlands-based housing association, before moving to Orbit Housing Group to take on stints as director of strategy & external affairs and executive director of futures at the 40,000-home landlord.
I spent some time talking to Boris about his experience as a new chief executive and what advice he would give others. Here are some of his top tips:
1. Don’t be afraid to apply!
This wasn’t Boris’ first attempt at becoming a chief executive. We often see candidates landing their first chief executive role after five or six attempts, but Boris comparatively has a better than average hit rate. He clearly learnt from each experience, taken on-board feedback given after and during the hiring process, and shown tenacity.
Boards are often criticised of looking at a narrow skill set, often based on a candidate’s finance or governance experience, with those displaying different thinking and characteristics being overlooked. Boris’ appointment is evidence that there is a shift in thinking.
Being both confident in what you can bring to the table yet being very self-aware is key. Equally as important is perhaps having a board that know exactly what your strengths and gaps are from the outset as well.
2. Get used to feeling lonely
Boris is clearly in his element as a chief executive. However, he reflects on the reality of the role versus the expectation he had beforehand. He notes the typical headline expectations such as ‘being more visible’, the ‘importance of culture’ and the ‘feeling of loneliness’. All of these are true but in realty these are all far more important than you can ever imagine.
Boris advises the need to make yourself as visible as possible both internally and externally. One way he does this is via a live Facebook Q&A after each board meeting. He is also active on Twitter, allowing others a glimpse in to his personal life as well as his role as a chief executive.
He is particularly proud of what the organisation has so far achieved around improving culture and behaviours; “it’s the difference between good performance and really achieving potential.” Although he notes that this has not been an easy task and still has lots to do.
However, it is the feeling of loneliness that he highlights as something that he really underestimated. He notes the importance of having a good support structure around you and this includes the relationship you have with the board and Chair in particular; “it’s huge, you need to be aligned. I can’t imagine a worse job if that’s not right.”
3. Be humble and admit your weaknesses
We spent some time discussing the ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ prophecy and he states that he hasn’t met anyone in the sector that has got the job by luck or by faking it. Although Boris exudes confidence he recalls times where he has found himself out of his comfort zone including his first day as a chief executive. Suddenly sat at a new desk in new surroundings, with all eyes on him, he likened the experience of having a baby for the first time.
He notes the importance of really getting to know his executive team in his early days. He did this using different techniques including personality profiling tools such as Discovery Insights; “knowing how you complement each other is where you get really good collective decision making”. He admits he has learnt to love “the blue” and often finds his team talking in colours demonstrating an awareness of each other’s natural strengths and weaknesses, including his own.
4. Expect variability
Keeping calm in the face of variable feedback, both internally and externally, is very important as a chief executive. The role has tested his emotions far more than anticipated; “one week I’m being told that everything is broken and the next that everything is great, that’s sometimes hard to cope with.”
Boris tries to stick to advice given by Paul Tennent, his then chief executive at Orbit, to ‘always seem calm, measured and in control’. This is particularly true during testing times and even if you don’t necessarily feel that way.
He notes how he has learnt how much people feed off you and how important it is to keep yourself in check. He does this through his support network that includes other chief executives in the sector and utilising a personal coach that helps me think differently and practically about issues.
5. Use the honeymoon period to your advantage
Reflecting on what he would he would do differently if he could turn the clock back we discussed what effect a newly appointed chief executive has on his or her people. A change of this nature creates a certain nervousness about what lies ahead, and this is particularly true where an organisation has been operating in a certain way for a while. Boris’ predecessor at Rooftop was in post for 22 years.
During his first few months “everyone is nice and open” and in hindsight feels that he could have used this honeymoon period more to his advantage to gain quicker insight in to operations. To focus on creating an environment early on where people, both staff and residents, feel comfortable getting everything out on the table to identify where things either need to be fixed or refreshed.
Much has been made of the increasing turnover in housing association chief executives. Recent analysis published by Inside Housing revealed that 44 housing association chief executives have retired in the past three years taking a combined 511 years of experience with them. As opposed to being something that’s negative, this can of course be viewed as an opportunity to re-energise the sector with a new wave of fresh-thinking and more diverse leaders to meet the modern-day challenges of the housing crisis.