Succession Planning

Last month I attended the CIH Housing Festival in Cardiff. It was really good. It was different. I also attended the HQN annual conference in London the following week which was also good, but more in the format you would expect conference to be.

At both of these conferences I spoke about succession planning in the sector. In Cardiff, I put myself forward for the Soapbox session, which was basically a self indulgent rant. I was invited to speak at the HQN conference due to winning the CIH Rising Stars competition last year.

I know nothing about succession planning aside from my own personal experience and of those around me. So this is my experience, my thoughts and specifically my opinion (enter disclaimer here).
It’s well known in the sector that a significant proportion our upper tier of leaders will be retiring within the next 5 – 10 years. Are we doing enough to impart their skills and knowledge onto the next generation of leaders? I don’t think we are.

Let me ask you a question or two….

How many managers do you know that have been in their jobs for more than 10 years with no interest of progressing themselves or their careers?
How many people do you know that are quite open about waiting for retirement (regardless of age)?
How many people do you know are really passionate to achieve but are never given the opportunity?
How many people have been promoted due to being the safe option?

For the first two questions, there are two possible answers in my opinion. The first is a positive. We need stable, strong and reliable people to make a business successful. These are the people that are the cogs of the machine, the survivors. The ones that give more of a toss about their own time, their hobbies, their families. They work to live. And I wish I was like this – so badly.

This reminds me of something my Grandad has said on several occasions. He recently retired from his engineering job at the age of 76. He was one of the bosses for a site owned by the biggest oil company in the world, and he worked damn hard to get there. He always used to talk about the ticket man at Wareham train station. My Grandad knew him from when he first moved to Dorset as a teenager to when that ticket man retired. He had that job the whole of his working life. He would go to work, man the ticket desk then go home. The same thing every day. But the ticket man was the happiest man that my Grandad knew and he always said that he was envious of how such a simple existence made this man so content with his life.

The second answer is more concerning. I mentioned the Peter Principle in my rant at the Housing Festival. This is where people are promoted based on their ability in their current role, not the potential they have to carry out a role at the next level. They stop being promoted once they reach a level where they an no longer perform effectively and they stay there. This happens absolutely everywhere. But can the housing sector afford this to happen when the challenges are becoming so complex?

We need innovation and strong leadership, so there are barriers already in place for those that have the skills and desire to progress. This isn’t the rule of course, there are many great and inspiring leaders in posts around the country.

I’m going to skip a question for the moment and go onto the one about people being promoted as the safe option. We’ve all known it to happen. They may be an employee that doesn’t necessarily set the world on fire, but they’re reliable and knowledgeable. Sometimes, especially with internal roles, it’s on time served within the organisation or the cultural mentality of “we’ve always done it this way” this person fits.

Another story on this point. My husband had a conversation with a Director about the recruitment of a new Quality Manager in their organisation. After being with me every step of the way on my career journey so far, he asked them; “what was the thinking behind the recruitment of this role?”. The Director honestly responded (this is obviously not verbatim as it is second hand, but for the purpose of making it more interesting, pretend that the following words come from an extremely good and successful Director of a large international company):

“After the interviews we were down to two people to decide between. One was a man who had worked as a Quality Manager for several decades for another company and had been made redundant. He was pleasant and knowledgeable and knew the industry. The second was newly qualified. He had put himself through his education and did all the extra curricular activities you could think of to gain as much experience as possible. He was so passionate and keen, but he hadn’t had much experience of working in engineering, due to his age and us being qualified. If he was given the opportunity, there was no doubt in my mind that within a year or so he would have been a fantastic Quality Manager and an asset to our company. However, we went with the more experienced guy. We needed someone who was going to come in and hit the ground running with minimal training as we needed stability and reliability, of which this guy proved he had on paper.” True story.

It quickly transpired that the guy that was taken on had reached his level of incompetency in his previous role and did not last his probation period in the new company(his choice).

Would you have chosen differently? Who’s to say. But this happens so often. I wonder how that younger guy felt being rejected despite doing absolutely everything he could to be given an opportunity? I don’t have to because I know.

Which brings me onto the next question – how many people do you know are like the newly qualified Quality Manager?

Aside from myself, I know a few. I read a book recently called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It was a good book which studied success, to a point. The conclusion was that luck and opportunity played a equal if not more of a part as to whether someone is successful or not.

This is true in the wider context of income for example, with poorer people having less opportunities than wealthier people. A crude example I know so forgive me.

As a sector we need to actively make these opportunities. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it stops people like me whinging. In seriousness though, how many organisations lose staff because they are not maximising their potential? Not to make it too personal, but I struggled to find anything but entry level roles when I first moved to Wales. I was happy to do that of course, but I was getting rejected over and over again. I was applying for managers roles and getting shortlisted then not getting the role due to not having enough management experience (even though I volunteered in my spare time and did two successful secondments managing teams – both were redundant due to the rent reduction). I then applied for Housing Officer roles but wasn’t getting those either, despite being fully qualified, having over a decade of experience, being the CIH rising star and having outstanding references.

When I got my current job, I was so shocked. My current manager even said that he would make the most of me while I was there as I wouldn’t be there long. I don’t quite believe him due to my shattered confidence and the horrific impostor syndrome that I’ve developed. I’m working on that though, I’m back on Twitter and applying to join a board.

I’ve tried to be like the ticket man but it’s just not me. And it’s not just selfish reasons, I promise. I want to change the bloody world and make a difference to as many people as possible. It’s satisfying changing one life at a time but how many more lives can you change if you had a say in the direction of the sector?

Phew, that got personal!

I think the point that I’m trying to make is it prudent to take a chance on someone. It could be the best decision you make.

Secondly, there are some people that just have less opportunities in society that could and would be an absolute asset to a sector that requires such diverse skill sets. We as a sector are not representative of our customers when it comes to BME for example. I don’t know the answer to this but we need ideas as to how to make the sector more diverse.

There is a change coming with things like the CIH Futures panel and the passionate people in the sector that are in it to make a difference. But this needs to be harnessed and encouraged by our current leaders to ensure that these people do not become jaded.

We’re the next generation and most of us work in housing with a social heart but commercial knowledge and realistic expectations. It’s what we need to ensure that there is still social housing when our children (or future children) grow up.


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