The Housing Collective: Maintaining Company Agility as a Housing Sector CEO

6 mins
Tom Neely

By Tom Neely

The third episode of the Housing Collective podcast, delivered in partnership with crowdfunding platform Beam, sees Neemar Search founder Tom Neely catching up with Bjorn Howard, Group CEO of Aster Group, a coalition of companies that serve Southern England from Cornwall into Surrey and Sussex, as well as the Southern Midlands, Oxfordshire, and London. 

In our second review of Tom and Bjorn’s conversation, we see how he continues to stoke the desire to innovate, challenge themselves, and improve the lives of the residents which his 2000-employee-strong workforce serves.

The Freedom To Be Challenged

Core to Aster Group’s continued success, Bjorn highlights, is the emphasis on never sitting on their laurels. As he mentions in the course of his discussion with Tom, “I think the day that you start believing you’re a really good organisation is the day you’ll stop being a really good organisation.” This attitude extends to the boardroom, where his executive team constantly push the boundaries of how the organisation works and operates, seeing it as a business necessity. 

“We have to be big enough to say that the world has changed and moved on.”

Indeed, he repeatedly highlights how crucial it is to have people in executive and leadership positions who bring different perspectives to the table—a diversity of thought and passion for the housing sector is central to this initiative. 

However, he cautions that leaders, especially CEOs, should be prepared to encourage their executive team to express their often very different ideas of how the business should do what it does. 

“The worst thing… you can do is surround yourself with people that think like you. What you really need is people that don’t think like you… create the environment where they can challenge your thought.”

Inspiring confidence in the team that he’s formed around him is vital to Bjorn’s continued success in the role of Chief Exec, noting that one of the most important tasks for a business leader to accomplish is “ constantly drive forward that progress, that transformation, that change.”

This kind of creative tension within an organisation's leadership team—and all other teams—is vital to facing the challenges within the present-day housing sector and learning from the mistakes made along the way. Aster Group has a no-blame culture, fuelling innovation amongst colleagues and giving them the freedom to be creative—a cultural and business imperative. 

Fostering An Innovative Culture

So, how does Aster Group ensure they can continue attracting and retaining the talent that makes their life-changing work possible? 

In short, this has required all leaders and colleagues within the business at all levels of seniority to contribute towards a more Agile, supportive, and flexible range of cultures—or subcultures. As he explains, whilst there may be common themes that run through all of the cultures that exist within Aster—honesty, professionalism,  integrity, and authenticity—these themes play out differently from department to department. 

“It’s very difficult to touch culture… to objectify it or set KPIs that would work for it. It’s something you feel as much as anything else… It’s a long-term opportunity, but it’s also a long-term piece of work to change the culture of an organisation.”

The internal sales and marketing team, for instance, are grounded in these themes but behave in a commercial way. On the other hand, the care and support workers that Aster Group employs to offer dignity and end-of-life care for residents have their own culture, very different—but just as recognised and respected—as that of the more commercially driven teams.

This embrace of the different cultures within Aster Group comes from above—with the executive and board teams living, breathing, and championing it. In short, Bjorn has aimed to create an environment where Aster Group’s people and customers can succeed. 

Their unique approach to operating within the housing sector saw them embed Agile, geographically-distributed ways of working well before the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged other employers to entertain the idea of flexible, objectives and results-driven working arrangements. 

“Are we paying people for hours deployed, or are we actually paying people to achieve things… objectives, our strategy, and so on? …If people are doing that, should we be bothered where they’re doing it as long as they’re safe, and when they’re doing it, so long as they’re not overworking? The answer is, in most cases, no.”

With such a geographically distributed team, how does Bjorn ensure that togetherness remains central to the organisation? As he explains, the key was the constant effort to find the right environment in which individual in the organisation can give their best, leading to a hub model where colleagues who wish to can come together if they wish to, whilst leveraging advanced communication and collaboration technologies to ensure remote employees can continue to contribute towards business goals. 

“I’m not driving us to have the next ‘great thing’ in terms of our people offer. What I’m really interested in is developing something that’s honest, good, and reliable… creating a working environment where what you’re doing with us is really exciting.”

A transition from office-based ways of working to an Agile, remote-first attitude took some effort to achieve buy-in from the board. Bjorn took the time to explain the business imperative behind this initiative, and the necessity of attracting and retaining the best people the housing market has to offer. In his words, he wanted to “...create that environment where people can give us their best because they’re fresh.” 

Fortunately, as we established in our first post on this podcast, Aster is no stranger to experimentation—with the board welcoming several approaches, from unlimited annual leave to shedding prescriptive definitions of what a role is. Whilst some of these experiments have been less successful than others, the company continues to revisit and expand their unique offering for future employees. 

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 to make an impact. 

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

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