The next generation

By Tom Murtha - on 17/04/2013

HACT's Chair Tom Murtha comments that strong leaders understand when the best way to serve their organisation is to leave.

During my long career in housing I have worked with some great leaders including many of the first generation who helped create a number of our most successful housing associations in the 1970s and 1980s.They had many strengths, and weaknesses, but for me what stood out in the truly great leaders was a self-awareness of knowing when it was time to go. Even those who appeared to be permanently fixed to their jobs were able to make this decision when the time came. Those that did not, often hung on for too long, harming their reputations and more importantly putting their associations at risk. Leaders who fall into this category often saw themselves as irreplaceable and as we all know this is never true.

Apart from knowing when it is time to go, good leaders also help develop the next generation to take over. The best example of this that I know is my old colleague Barry Natton who was chief executive of MIH, now Riverside. He was often regarded as a permanent fixture in the sector but at a relatively early age he moved on to pursue a successful career as an artist. Many said that he could not be replaced but his successor Deborah Shackleton more than proved them wrong. Deborah also moved on recently at a relatively early age. She was also described, quite rightly, as an hard act to follow. Her successor Carol Matthews, who has recently been voted one of the most influential chief executives in the sector, is showing that she is more than capable of taking on this mantel.

It is already a year since I left Midland Heart and I am still asked why I moved on (retired) from my full time job as chief executive at the relatively young age of 60. My answer is quite simple. I believe that the best organisations should provide opportunities at all levels for staff and that all organisations should seek to refresh their senior teams regularly. Leaders who stay too long in their posts are in danger of preventing this from happening. It is always better to go when people are still asking ‘why?’ and not ‘when are you moving on?’ Vacancies at the top of organisations give opportunities for the next generation of leaders to come through. All leaders should consider regularly not only when it is time to change their teams but also when it is time to change themselves. Sometimes the best leaders change their style to suit new circumstances but there will inevitably come a time when it is time for a change at the top. As far as the chief executive is concerned this is a vital role for the board, through regular and thorough appraisal.

This is why I was pleased to read a recent list of those who are seen by their peers as having the greatest influence in the housing sector. It comprised a number of names who would certainly be regarded as the next generation. These included Ruth Cooke my successor at Midland Heart and Matt Leach my colleague at HACT. These people bring fresh ideas and new ways of working at a time when they are more needed than ever. It is good to note that an increasing number of the next generation are women, although sadly not enough to reflect the number of women working in the sector. It is disappointing to see that the next generation of leaders still fails to reflect the number of people from ethnic minorities living in our homes and employed by housing associations.

In my new life I have the pleasure of chairing the HACT board which is made up of a number of existing leaders and a number of people who will be the next generation of leaders in the sector. They bring energy, vitality and a passion to their work which shows that when their turn comes to take over they will not be found wanting and the sector will be in safe hands.

There is an argument that age brings wisdom and security to a role and an organisation. This is of course true, but I fear that some of our senior leaders may have become too wise and too safe in their job. Leaders new and old should have the humility to remember that we are only stewards who have a responsibility to do the best for our organisations. When the time comes when we, or others, feel we can no longer do that we should pass on the baton, with grace and dignity, to someone who can.

This leads to the question about the roots and values of the sector. It is sometimes argued that as organisations change they move away from their original purpose. It is also claimed that each new generation of leader is more remote from the past. There is much debate currently about the future of the sector and whether our original purpose will be forgotten in the race to become more business-like in our approach. This debate has taken place for as long as I can remember. Its answer lies in striking the right balance between being business like and staying true to our values and roots.

I hope that the next generation will remember that the best leaders spend some of their time in the past, some in the present, and some in the future. As an old friend once told me, the past gives us roots, the present gives us energy, and the future gives us wings. It is important that the next generation of leaders ensure that they get the balance right and that they have due regard to the past as they innovate and develop new ideas for the future. It is right to do things differently and it is important to remember why we do these things. I have argued elsewhere that if we use this approach in evaluating and risk assessing new projects there is less chance of failure. The latest report on HBOS shows that this approach was missing and that it failed because its leadership failed to understand this.

I hope that the majority of my older colleagues will continue to challenge themselves by asking have you got the balance right and more importantly are you still the best person to make that judgement. Making way for the next generation is one of the most important decisions a leader can make. I accept that for some it is a difficult decision to make but if you ask genuinely what is best for the business it becomes much easier. I and many others have found there is more to life than being a chief executive and new challenges even in later life can be just as exciting and rewarding.

When I met Barry Natton at my retirement celebration he gave me a piece of his work as a gift. Quite appropriately, it is a wonderful print of a group of old trees on a winter skyline. Our conversation showed that he has brought the same passion, energy, skill and pure bloody mindedness to his art as he did to his role of chief executive, when he was regarded as one of the most influential and powerful figures in the housing sector. But even the most powerful must recognise that nothing lasts forever and in the end we are all but passing players in the history of our organisations.

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