The Housing Collective: Facing the Challenges of Chief Executive Roles in the Housing Sector

6 min
Tom Neely

By Tom Neely

In this first post exploring our recent Housing Collective podcast with Charlie Norman, CEO of MSV Housing and chair of Greater Manchester Housing Providers, we discuss the challenges that a new Chief Executive might face when they come to the role and some strategies for tackling them.

In the fifth episode of our Housing Collective podcast, delivered in partnership with crowdfunding platform Beam, Neemar Search founder Tom Neely caught up with Charlie Norman, CEO of MSV Housing and chair of Greater Manchester Housing Providers, a coalition that brings together 24 of the major homebuilders, housing associations, and social housing providers in the region. 

Our first post on the podcast will explore Charlie’s comments on the challenges facing those entering Chief Executive roles within the housing industry in 2023, touching on some historic changes and the transformation currently underway within the sector in response to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire and the tragic death of Awaab Ishak in 2020. 

If you’d like to learn more about the Housing Collective podcast or you’re searching for more impactful leadership lessons, make sure to check out our founder’s recent open letter, in which he details the Neemar Search mission statement and highlights the crucial aspects that we believe will make the housing sector and the communities within it stronger, more resilient, and more capable of driving positive change.

Charlie’s Journey to CEO

Given the unprecedented number of retirements at the Chief Executive level across the housing sector over the last 12 to 18 months, ever greater numbers of senior leaders are taking their first steps into a CEO role. 

This is something that today’s podcast guest, Charlie Norman, understands well. Charlie has spent the last 35 years of her career in housing, and whilst she worked hard to achieve the mission of the organisations she’s been a part of, she never planned to become a Chief Executive Officer. Despite this, her daring attitude and the guidance of a predecessor meant that she took the chance:

“I felt a kind of duty to go for the role, because I really loved what the organisation was about. It was never about a title or progression… it was about doing what we do.”

Indeed, this values-led approach has seen her at the helm of the Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and West Yorkshire-focused Mosscare St Vincent's (MSV) Housing for over 11 years. In this role, she’s been able to drive significant transformation across the almost 9000 homes that MSV maintains, with a corporate strategy focused on empowering their residents, from tackling fuel poverty, increasing sustainability, and providing training and employment for young people within the city, to investing in the construction of 350 new homes as part of a community-led project which aims to celebrate the heritage of Moss Side. 

Alongside her role as CEO, Charlie also gives her time as chair of the influential Greater Manchester Housing Providers coalition, a group of 24 major organisations that together account for 260,000 homes across Greater Manchester, comprise a collective workforce of around 30,000 employees, and contribute an estimated £1.2bn to the local economy. The organisations that form GMHP built one-third of all new homes in the region in 2022, highlighting their significance in the local housing landscape.

The Challenges Facing Executives in the Housing Industry

Given her time at the helm, it comes as no surprise that Charlie has faced some tests and setbacks over her tenure as CEO. As she highlights: 

“It’s a very different job. You’re very accountable, but… in some ways, it’s quite disempowering as a role because you’re trying to place yourself between lots of different audiences… You’ve got to really want to do it and take the accountability that comes with it. It’s not about… the next rung up the ladder.”

This accountability extended to MSV Housing’s past Fire Risk Assessment downgrade. The company are back where it wants to be, but the experience was valuable for implementing new, rigorous standards in the Big 6 Compliance Areas—fire, asbestos, gas, electrical, and legionella—as well as the tackling of damp and mould, which is quickly becoming the seventh entry to the Big 6 list. 

The change has been heartening. Through the leadership of Charlie and her wider executive team, she’s seen passionate employees MSV pull together to ensure that residents are provided with a good home and a springboard into life, the ability to age well, and grow old in comfort—our homes often being the starting point of these journeys.

Charlie’s approach to leadership challenges is to face them head-on, whether it’s a matter of compliance or a governance issue: 

“Ultimately, this job is about keeping people safe… and seeing people succeed, whether it’s your colleagues or one of the residents.”

Changes across the housing industry over the last decade have shaped how Charlie leads MSV Housing, and how she represents the organisation on local and national stages, whether it’s addressing threats to LHA allowances—an existential threat to supported housing—or responding to the lack of diversity and inclusivity at the leadership level. 

Whilst recent years have seen the gender imbalance in executive roles within the Manchester housing sector redressed, when she first entered the position, she was one of three female CEOs—and also the youngest. Despite having the experience and mandate to succeed in the role, she remembers feeling “...quite intimidated by that, wanting to say the right things… It was challenging.” 

As Charlie notes in our podcast interview, most Manchester-based CEOs of housing associations and social housing providers are now women, and whilst the sector has moved away from its male-dominated roots, we’re still some way off the levels of diversity necessary, especially when it comes to getting people of colour into leadership positions within the city. 

MSV Housing provides a number of events that aim to encourage members of the diverse communities they serve to develop career-ready skills. Alongside this, the business is part of a wider movement for change in Greater Manchester, providing mentoring to prospective leaders and executives from diverse backgrounds, pushing for change programmes within organisations that challenge recruitment processes. 

As she highlights in the course of our conversation, whilst initiatives that are dedicated to pushing the needle on allyship and inclusivity are well underway within Greater Manchester’s housing sector, resilience is still a crucial competency for all leaders to develop: 

“It was challenging, but I learned to hold my own. It’s about what you bring, what you contribute, what you believe in, and your passion for things that counts, not your gender or your age. It feels different now… I hope we’re on a journey to much, much more diversity in leadership.”

When it comes to advice for prospective CEOs, she wants candidates to focus on answering their why. Why do they want to become a leader within the housing industry? For Charlie, this is because she wants to do as much as she can within her career to address the housing crisis, overcrowding, and the problem of families in temporary accommodation. In her words, “...if you feel that's why, just go for it.” 

As long as executives within the housing sector are focused on doing the right thing, and are fair and empathetic when making tough decisions and delivering difficult messages, they’ll be well on their way to fulfilling their duties and helping to lift their residents and colleagues.

Specialist Housing Executive Search Firm

Whether you’re a candidate making a career change or you’re a business leader searching for a seasoned expert within the housing industry, Neemar Search is here to support you.

If you’re interested in learning more about the challenges facing the housing sector or you’re searching for more leadership lessons, join the Housing Collective Newsletter for the latest expert insights.

We’re dedicated to partnering with leading not-for-profit housing associations, local authorities, arms-length management organisations (ALMOS), and for-profit enterprises to drive change within the industry through executive staffing solutions. Whether you require recruitment expertise within corporate or customer services, asset management, development, or finance, we can help you make an impact. 

Contact us to learn more about our specialist hiring services within the housing industry.

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