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From CEO to Chairman: learning the art of subtle leadership

As Group Chief Executive of Isos Housing, Keith Loraine grew its housing stock from 800 to over 30,000 units during a 25-year tenure. A lifetime advocate of social housing, he helped establish Isos’s reputation for providing the highest quality affordable rented homes, building and managing a workforce of over 800 dedicated staff, and, through his involvement with the National Housing Federation, NECC and the CBI, playing an influential role in developing national housing policy. His achievements were recognised with an OBE in January 2017, which also marked the beginning of his retirement.

Nine months later, however, Keith was back into the fray as Chairman of Gentoo, the Sunderland based Housing Association (HA) after they appointed a new Board following Group consolidation. Keith speaks to Nigel Wright about his motivations for re-joining the sector in this new capacity and gives an insight into the experience of transitioning from CEO to Chair.

After an “enriching and rewarding career” in social housing, in 2016, age 62, Keith felt it was time to step back and spend more time with family. As well as husband, father and grandfather duties, he was enjoying playing more golf while starting the process of ticking off his ‘places to visit’ list. He admitted he had no desire to return to work, but on hearing Gentoo was seeking a new board member, knew it was an opportunity he needed to pursue:

“After stepping down from an important job which carries an awful lot of pressures and excitement, you get used to being retired, but when something that you’re passionate about presents to you an opportunity which might not come up again, it’s hard to ignore. I’ve still got family in Sunderland and have an affinity with the area. Joining Gentoo means I’m giving something back to my hometown, after a successful career outside of it. When you’ve spent 40 years doing work which absorbs you in a cause, it’s hard to let go.”

Keith was the ideal man to guide Gentoo through a difficult period, but under no circumstances did he view this move as a backwards step. As a leading light in the local housing sector, Keith noted his enduring respect for Gentoo throughout his career and is confident that the business has the right infrastructure and attitude to continue delivering great services to people in Sunderland.

While Keith will play a vital role in repositioning Gentoo, it will be from a different perspective to his previous roles. Having worked with several Chairs over the years, he’s certain of how to make his appointment a success. As Chairman, he noted, he enjoys the privileged position of having an overview of the entire business, identifying organisational strengths and weaknesses, and challenging the Chief Executive and executive team and their decisions and actions, but in a positive and constructive way. While both are responsible for business performance, unlike the Chief Executive, the Chair doesn’t carry the daily pressures and therefore has more space and thinking time to work on the business rather than in it — planning and stress-testing, while keeping business strategy and corporate structures under review.

Culturally, too, the Chairman and Board have significant input. Keith sees them as the guardians of the organisation’s values and highlights how, without any profit distribution, the main driver for a housing association is ensuring cultural alignment. Yes, over the years, HAs have become more diverse and commercial and not dependent on one area of business, but from an organisational perspective, Keith says this has created greater complexity requiring “sophisticated” leadership approaches to ensure service excellence: “You’re not solely thinking about the bottom line but rather focusing on making people’s lives better. Yes, building, repairing and refurbishing houses is what HAs do but it’s not the primary focus. The primary focus is the people who inhabit them. Engaging our people and helping them connect with customers, therefore, is key. We often do this better than our private sector counterparts.”

As Chair, Keith must ensure that the right messages are coming from the very top. Effective board meetings and delivering good governance can be tricky, especially when you’re not involved in the day-to-day activities of the business. It’s important, he says, to peel back the layers and not always accept everything you hear at face value. During the limited time the board is given to satisfy their curiosity, it’s essential, in his view, for them to dig deeper and trust their professional and business instincts when faced with difficult or key decisions, flagging anything they sense will help expose risks or failures. After a meeting, the executive should never feel liked they’ve had an easy ride.”

Therein lies the biggest challenge of a Chair — having a necessary impact while not treading too much on others, and particularly the Chief Executive’s, toes. The two jobs are very different and Keith says each must have clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the partnership to work. Personal differences and differences in view on strategic direction are the catalysts of conflict. Firstly, the Board must select compatible people. Then, communication is key to avoid misunderstandings about who is doing what. Getting that relationship right will be a key determinant in achieving success. In his words:

“As Chairman, you’re not there to manage day-to-day operational activities, you’re there to offer a strategic overview, guidance and support. You’re often acting like a mentor to the Chief Executive, steering them to your way of thinking when appropriate, but not ever trying to do their job. Hands off as much as possible and hands on only when necessary — there will be occasions where you might have to intervene in the best interests of the business, but you shouldn’t make a habit of it — seeing the Chair around too much can be a warning sign that something’s not right.”

At Gentoo, the executive team’s response to Keith’s impact and involvement has been positive. Even though Keith revealed there might be the odd uncomfortable moment in the Boardroom, the general feeling is that, following recent changes, the business is resilient and less likely to run into difficulties moving forward. Keith and Interim Chief Executive David Jepson already enjoy an honest and frank dialogue and have conducted several joint site visits and staff briefings to build a bond of trust with employees. Keith has made it clear to David, however, that he shouldn’t hesitate to tell him if he feels he’s getting too involved: “I empathise with the Chief Executive. It’s like I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper. I’ve been through that experience on the other side and I know what I must do now I’m Chair, to make this a relationship which will help enrich the business.”

As well as giving back to Sunderland, performing a role which plays to his skills and experience, two other critical factors were at play in Keith’s decision to come out of retirement. Social housing, he highlights, is a political priority more so than it has been since the early days of Keith’s career. There’s widespread awareness in Government that unless we address the UK’s housing problems now, they may soon be unsolvable. Despite a lean period, a few years ago, during which HA rents were supressed by the Government and fewer grants available to build new houses, Keith believes a new-found recognition of HAs significant role in society has emerged:

“We need to do far more than we have for a long time. Across the UK, we should be providing 300,000 new homes a year to keep place with growing demand. The HA sector has an important role to play and Government recognises this. There’s nothing wrong with renting privately or through registered social landlords. Housing Associations provide high quality services and high-quality homes, further investment in them would help fix what many call a broken housing market.”

It’s the ambassadorial dimension of the Chairman’s role where Keith’s skills and experience come to the fore. After the Grenfell Tower tragedy and subsequent scrutiny given to building regulations — in addition to other prominent social housing issues such as universal credit — Keith explained how MPs are concerned about what’s going on in their constituencies and keen to gain insight into these areas, so they can share information with Parliament. Keith meets regularly with Sunderland’s three MPs and is impressed by their actions: “That it took the Grenfell disaster to raise the profile of social housing reflects the times we’re in, but we’ve got three terrific MPs here who want to help and who have been very supportive in recent months. As Chair, it’s vital I keep those lines of communication open.”

With almost 30,000 properties in the city, Keith estimates Gentoo has well over 70,000 customers. There’s an awful lot expected of the Gentoo brand in Sunderland, he says, but is confident that during his three-year term as Chair, the needs of the tenants will be met. The first-year objective, Keith explains, is to satisfy the regulator that Gentoo has overcome its historical issues, that governance remains solid and its reputation as a first-class organisation is restored. With a new and capable Board in place and “up for the challenge”, there’s no reason, in his view, they won’t achieve this. Beyond that Gentoo will continue working in partnership with Sunderland City Council to build high quality homes, create improved affordable rental programmes and develop key sites, helping the local authority meet its economic targets.

And after three years? Keith explained staying on in his capacity as Gentoo Chairman is possible if the Board decide that’s what they want. Other opportunities, too, if they emerge could pique Keith’s interest if it matched his professional desire to help and have influence. Ultimately, though, he’s focused on the job at hand:

“I want to concentrate my efforts on Gentoo and not dilute them with distracting thoughts about the future. Working in this sector is a privilege — getting close to tenants and seeing what makes folks tick, witnessing incredible people overcome adversity and pulling themselves through financial and familial difficulties continues being humbling and enriching. Would I stay on or accept a new challenge altogether? Never say never, but my main priority is to my family. My wife Sue likes to remind me that I’m effectively retired and there’s still a few places — China, Australia and New Zealand for example — we’d like to see while we still can.”

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