Social housing: high level talent shortage calls for strategic skills development

Social housing: high level talent shortage calls for strategic skills development

Action is required to address a talent gap that has emerged between the most senior people in the affordable housing sector and the next tier of individuals coming through, says our Partner, Housing, Suresh Lal.

One of the myriad challenges facing the affordable housing sector right now is a talent gap at the level just below the executive leadership team. It’s a state of affairs that urgently needs to be rectified because demanding new challenges lie around the corner, which if handled inadequately could cause serious problems for your business.   

Nine times out of 10, the interim briefs I’m asked to fulfil relate to requirements of far greater complexity than a simple stopgap appointment. Often there is a difficult issue to address or something has gone wrong.

This calls for candidates with a twin skillset. First, they need to be a strategic lead capable of holding the hand of the Board/Chief Executive in a stressful scenario. It may be that jobs are at risk due to a failure of some kind. In such difficult situations, talented interims have the ability to break challenges down and identify what needs to be fixed – and set to work on a programme to help the organisation overcome its problems over a timeframe of, say, six to nine months.

Alongside these strategic capabilities, granular expertise is also necessary to pinpoint why things failed in the first place. For instance, was the organisation lacking a particular specialism or skillset?

Good candidates must therefore be adept at holding strategic conversations with the CEO and other senior leaders and have the skills to deliver the required solutions, which may entail finding and mentoring the right people in the business to fix things. The problem is, such candidates are currently as rare as hens’ teeth. Finding someone who fits the bill and is available to start at executive level when you need them, often at short notice, can be a very big ask. I don’t like to use the word ‘impossible’ (it’s two letters too long) but it is definitely becoming harder to find and retain those with this skillset in the sector.

Yet it’s not as if there aren’t talented people rising through the management ranks. There are a lot of directors in the market at the moment who are excellent at being collaborative and analysing the internal workings of a business to fix things.

However, they sometimes lack experience of the difficult strategic conversations. Of helping a board or executive team through a tricky period where risk & reward need careful analysis and the wrong decision could cause serious governance issues long term. They are unlikely to have acquired the communications skills and political antenna needed if the situation becomes a controversial hot potato and makes frontpage headlines.

Individuals able to meet such challenges cannot be grown overnight. Across the housing sector, we need to do more to nurture this tier of future leaders – a significant proportion of whom will doubtless deliver their skills on an interim basis at some point in their careers.

One way to do this is by tapping into senior heavy hitters such as retired CEO/CFOs in a consultancy capacity. They can mentor people at director or assistant director level for a short period of time, helping them develop the strategic skills they and we need.

This sort of approach is already in evidence with respect to Governance where there is a huge gap between what is wanted and what is available, a situation exacerbated by the rising importance of Governance within organisations over the last two to three years. As a consequence, responsibility for Governance has ascended ever closer to executive team level.

It’s vital for the sector that we see more mentoring and strategic development in Governance and across other key functions. That way, if you are ever in a tight spot and need an interim solution, there will be a strategically richer talent pool to draw from to get your business back on track.  

For more information, please contact Suresh Lal.

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