How can social purpose attract potential hires in a talent shortage?

How can social purpose attract potential hires in a talent shortage?

To attract high-calibre talent at any level to a sector driven by purpose, we have to be crystal clear about that purpose.

There is a term for businesses which are not exclusively focused on profit: social purpose natives. Think TOMS, the shoe company, which donates a pair of shoes for every pair they sell, or Timpson, the service retailer that hires solely on personality and actively promotes opportunities for ex-offenders. 

Finding social purpose and tying it to growth strategies is something all commercial entities are giving thought to, from big corporates to small and medium-sized enterprises. Consumers and potential employees increasingly expect businesses to have not just functional benefits, but a social purpose. As a result, companies are taking social stands in very visible ways.

Brands increasingly use social purpose to guide marketing communications, inform product innovation and steer investments towards social cause programmes. The Harvard Business Review has even undertaken a study which provides a framework to help companies find the right social purpose for their brands. 

The key difference for the housing sector is that we don’t need to go searching for social purpose. Everything registered providers do is driven by this; it is the reason they exist, which creates a huge opportunity for talent acquisition. 

The questions are: how do we communicate that purpose loudly and clearly enough to attract the right people, and how do we create the optimum conditions for entry to maximise success? 

I often ask myself, “Does the sector need an overarching value proposition which is simply and clearly articulated to the outside world and is consistent across all registered providers, irrespective of the unique differences they offer?”

While the sector regularly shares success stories at awards events, how often do these positive news stories reach the mainstream? 

I have spent the past 20 years working in partnership with the public and not-for-profit sectors. For much of that time, it has been my pleasure and privilege to work with housing associations.  

There has been a distinct shift in tone in behind-closed-doors conversations I have with chief executives across the country. Some of these bright, driven, purposeful individuals are becoming weary and disheartened. 

“There has been a rise in the number of chief executives attracted from outside the sector, expanding the gene pool”

While we cannot diminish the horrific events of the past six years, in particular, what I hear in my daily interactions with people working across registered providers is that the sector is focused on driving forward. It is focused on making positive changes, addressing inadequacies and innovating while grappling with the macro-economic climate of high interest rates, soaring development costs and huge remedial spends.

We all know that bad news sells. Many sectors grapple with issues that affect how they are perceived: child labour in the retail sector; soaring obesity rates for food and beverage providers. 

When housing associations are hit with a narrative from factions in the media and government intent on highlighting only the negative, some of these dedicated people are asking the question, “Is this still where I want to be?” Equally, prospective candidates considering the sector are questioning if it is the right next career move.

We need to alter the narrative and shift the dial in how registered providers are portrayed – from the top. There are so many good news stories to tell from a sector that provides a home for more than 20% of the population. The sector needs to back itself. There is strength in numbers and a unified voice to become a driving force in attracting a wide range of talent, from building site to boardroom. 

The sector can’t afford a ‘great resignation’, particularly from those in leadership positions. Neither can it survive by only hiring from within. So how do we keep these experienced individuals and at the same time attract and retain new talent?  

“There has been a distinct shift in tone: bright, driven, purposeful individuals are becoming weary and disheartened”

Attracting talent from different sectors requires careful planning. Creating the right culture and environment to enable change is crucial.  

With a new leadership appointment, it is vital to check in with the new hire regularly, ensuring they feel supported and enabled. Having an internal buddy system or mentoring scheme to help people get up to speed on the nuances of the sector is helpful. 

In our experience, across all business functions, bringing fresh perspectives is valued. Out-of-sector hires have translated most successfully in customer service. The digitisation and data-led journey many commercial businesses have gone through, coupled with the drive to create adult-to-adult customer relationships, has ensured many successful transitions, when supported by strong housing operations knowledge in the people around them. Sectors such as retail, consumer and utilities have through huge transformations in their operating models and have some valuable learnings to bring.

“Everything registered providers do is driven by social purpose; it is the reason they exist, which creates a huge opportunity for talent acquisition”

Within the asset management function, there is a big push to identify external hires to bring fresh perspectives to a sector rooted in tradition and to address the scarcity of home-grown talent required to meet current demands. Business services, facilities management and property services businesses bring obvious synergies and constitute a significant portion of the sector backgrounds of successful hires.

Equally, from a finance perspective, financial management and leadership skills travel well across sectors. Chief financial officers have been attracted from tangentially relevant organisations, including, for example, major asset-owning entities.  

Most interestingly perhaps, there has been a rise in the number of chief executives attracted from outside the sector: Places for People, Orbit, The Hyde Group and Notting Hill Genesis have all made recent hires, expanding the gene pool.

Challenges of remuneration notwithstanding, the ability to contribute to society coupled with the opportunity to lead organisations of scale and complexity, delivering frontline services, and impacting people’s lives are a compelling proposition.

Together with the intellectual challenge of balancing social purpose with commercial decision-making, we are seeing an increase in the flow of talent across sectors at both executive and non-executive level.  


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