The Housing Collective: The Journey to Becoming CEO

6 mins
Tom Neely

By Tom Neely

In this first post exploring our recent Housing Collective podcast with Fiona Fletcher-Smith, L&Q Group Chief Executive Officer and the newly-appointed chair of London’s G15 organisation, we discuss Fiona’s journey to becoming a CEO and her advice for staff looking to make that transition.

The second episode of our Housing Collective podcast, delivered in partnership with crowdfunding platform Beam, sees Neemar Search founder Tom Neely catching up with Fiona Fletcher-Smith, Chief Executive Officer for L&Q Group and newly-appointed chair of London’s G15 organisation.

This first exploration of Tom’s discussion with Fiona allowed us to gather some incredibly valuable insights which will assist current and aspiring leaders in thinking about their career paths and planning for the future trajectory of the housing sector.

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.

From Summer Temp to Chartered Surveyor to CEO: Making A Successful Transition

L&Q Group was founded in 1963 as the Quadrant Housing Association. This was prior to its 1973 merger with the London Housing Trust and its 2016 merger with the East Thames Housing Group. The group manages 120,000 homes across the United Kingdom.

With properties ranging from the North West—following the successful acquisition of Trafford Housing Trust in 2019—to the South, the business is focused on providing affordable and socially-rented homes and supported and sheltered living arrangements.

As a £39bn business with an annual turnover of £1bn, Fiona had her work cut out for her when she was appointed CEO of the organisation and its 4500-employee-strong workforce in 2021. Alongside this, her work has seen her appointed as the chair of the G15 organisation—a collective of leading housing associations whose members house one-tenth of Londoners and manage 770,000 homes across the country.

Fiona first worked with L&Q Group as a temporary housing officer, spending two summers with the company during the course of studying for her undergraduate degree. Following this formative experience, she:

“...sort of moved away from housing in my career. I’d moved into local government, so I did lots of different things—managing refuse in Hackney, looking after planning services, and then I did about a decade at City Hall in London, running development planning, environmental policy, transport policy, economic policy, so a really wide range of things!”

She was approached to apply for the role of development director at L&Q in 2018 and was chosen by the board specifically because of her well-rounded experience and skillset developed in the public sector. Fiona notes:

“A lot of people downplay or underplay work in the public sector… I think it’s unfair to do that, because what the public sector actually teaches you is an incredible range of skills as a leader.
First of all, you’re leading very complex organisations with lots of different priorities. You’re often doing that in a financially constrained way… Also, working with politicians is… absolutely inspiring and brilliant, and on the other end, really quite difficult… What working with politicians has taught me is that it’s all about transparency, collaboration, and problem-solving.”

Whilst certain private-sector organisations may discredit public-sector work to some extent, it’s important to recognise that Fiona’s experience highlights how a stint within the industry has enabled her to impactfully negotiate with internal and external stakeholders to ensure buy-in for her and L&Q Group’s strategic vision.

This experience and expertise saw Fiona chosen by the board to become the new CEO for L&Q Group, following the departure of their former leader—and industry juggernaut—David Montague CBE.

But how did she elevate herself to the level necessary for success as a CEO—aside, of course, from the 30 years of prior experience?

As Fiona notes, succession planning within L&Q Group is robust and always a team effort. Their prior CEO knew he was retiring for some time, so the organisation put in place a framework for choosing their next candidate, ensuring buy-in for this appointment was company-wide and all stakeholders will aligned on the company’s direction.

Similarly, a supportive executive team made all the difference, particularly given that Fiona’s appointment came at the start of the UK’s second national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, who took the time to develop as professionals and as a team to ensure a successful transition.

And her advice for aspiring leaders looking to ace this transition in the same way? Whilst there’s plenty of wisdom to be found throughout the podcast, Fiona highlights that it’s important to:

“...volunteer for everything that’s going on. I stuck my hand up to implement an IT system, I managed the mortuaries… Just give it a go.”

It’s vital that would-be leaders and those looking to discover their management strengths take the chance to hone their skills and make themselves known as supportive team players. But how does this leadership style play into the future of L&Q Group, her role as the chair of G15, and the wider housing sector?

Looking Forward

As Fiona illustrates in her discussion with Tom, L&Q Group’s previous CEO was considered a significant force within the housing industry. All the same, he made decisions that were right for the organisation during his tenure—but things, as always, change.

For instance, fire safety and ensuring all residents are safe in tall buildings was crucial, as was a push to invest in maintenance for existing homes. This required Fiona to work with her executive team to develop a corporate strategy that allowed the business to build resilience for a future that will be very different from the present day.

David’s comments to Fiona on passing the mantle are a poignant reminder of the crucial role that leaders play in the housing sector:

“He said, ‘I’m handing it over in a better condition than I found it, and your job is to do the same.’ The role of a CEO is that of the trustee, the curator—to hand something better on to the next chief executive.”

With several disrupting forces across the housing industry vying for leaders’ attention in 2023—including economic inflation, political instability, and skills shortages, as identified in a survey of over 4000 CEOs by Deloitte—what are Fiona’s plans for L&Q Group moving forward so that she can hand the reins over to the next CEO with pride?

“Obviously, budget pressures on our ability to invest and grow, but I see these as short-term constraints… The long-term ambition is still to build significantly in the North West.
I’d love us to be able to do major urban regeneration, something akin to the Barking Riverside development in East London.”

Barking Riverside, an ongoing development which has created over 10,00 homes so far, alongside transport connections, commercial and leisure facilities, as well as parks and schools on a brownfield site formerly occupied by Barking Power Station, shows the impact that organisations and partnerships across the housing industry can have on rejuvenating and regenerating these sites for future housing projects.

Alongside these goals, Fiona notes that she aims for L&Q Group to continue working in successful partnership with local authorities such as Trafford Council, helping to support their regional teams on high-impact projects such as housing for foster carers—particularly important given that the number of fostering households has dropped by almost 25% in the last four years.

Meanwhile, as chair of G15, Fiona is in an excellent position to build on the legacy of the organisation’s previous leaders, Geeta Nanda and Helen Evans, driving more collaboration and sharing between the housing associations that make up the collective. Her aims for the organisation are to improve the overall image and reputation of the housing sector—leading to positive, rippling effects on investor confidence, resident satisfaction, and talent acquisition across the industry.

In addition, Fiona highlights that she hopes to continue the way in which G15 facilitates and champions residents' voices. “How are we, as an organisation, really listening to our customers, and what can we do as a collective?” she asks, and this is being borne out in her plans to improve the efficiency of repairs and maintenance services across the properties that L&Q Group manages.

The continuation of the CleanStart Employment Programme is another strong sign that Fiona’s future plans are robust. The scheme aims to place prison leavers in caretaking, grounds maintenance, and facilities roles across the L&Q Group, with recent calculations showing that the programme has saved the Home Office £20mn over the last decade by reducing recidivism.

Fiona’s journey to becoming CEO of L&Q Group and the chair of London’s G15 organisation exemplifies the importance of diverse experiences and leadership qualities within the housing sector.

From the days of her early-career roles as a temporary housing officer to her various roles within local government and the public sector, her well-rounded background has equipped her with the skills necessary to navigate complex organisations and collaborate with stakeholders. Her successful transition to CEO was facilitated by robust succession planning and a supportive executive team—and serves as a guide to aspiring leaders on the significant impact a strong network can have on success within a C-suite role.

Fiona’s journey serves as a testament to the transformative power of effective and compassionate leadership, highlighting the crucial role that an active and passionate CEO plays in driving social impact and strategy within the housing industry.

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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