Mike Lyons, Michael Page House Sector Lead and Operating Director interviews Paul Richards, an experienced leader in the housing sector, and former Group Director of Customer and Communities at Orbit Group. As Paul moves to the next phase of his career, he shares his career journey to date and provides some valuable lessons he has learnt - with some helpful career advice, his thoughts on the importance of mentorship, and some learnings about leadership in the housing sector.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the housing sector and how did you get started?

“Like many, I didn’t plan on a career in housing, but opportunities led to a very fortunate find. I started out working in utilities for British Gas, The AA, and then HomeServe - primarily working for companies that repaired things, such as boilers and cars. When I finished my role at Homeserve, an opportunity came up with Housing 21 up to help them with their repairs operation. I took it, and very quickly fell in love with the sector and its values. Soon after that I became their Director of Housing and didn’t look back. I really enjoy the balance between great customer service, delivering social value and commercial efficiency that Housing provides.”

What advice would you offer to aspiring professionals looking to advance their careers in the housing industry?

“Be brave and flexible in your career choices, rather than just waiting for things to happen - be prepared to take some risks and step outside your comfort zone. Seek lateral moves within your organisation, look out for and take development opportunities (such as projects), and use this to broaden your base of experience. Actively seek mentors and sponsors - and learn from their experience and networks. Always stay informed about your sector - conferences and networking are great for this. Being bold certainly helped me as I progressed along the leadership path.”

What skills or experiences have been most crucial to your success as a leader?

“To lead in the housing sector, you need a broad range of skills and expertise. The most crucial lesson was recognising what I needed to know and surrounding myself with great people who filled in the many gaps. I believe my role as a leader is to find and develop other leaders, people who in their own right are specialists in their areas. It's essential to recognise that you cannot ever have all the answers yourself, and instead to focus on building an aligned team with the right skills and the same vision”

How do you approach leadership and team building within the context of a housing association?

“It’s about collaborating and creating a shared vision, and building a team that believes in it. Surround yourself with great people - then spend your time focusing on ensuring the team works as one, maintaining shared goals and ambitions. Consistently engage with customers and colleagues on the front line and live your values each and every day - and be authentic! Never try to pretend you’re something you are not - you’ll be found out. Celebrate and appreciate success, challenge when improvements are needed - and keep people updated on progress against the plans - good or bad - honesty is also key”

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?

“The last few years have been incredibly challenging with COVID, legislative changes post-Grenfell, and increased scrutiny from politicians, customers and the Ombudsman. It’s been tough to receive so much negative feedback and to keep your hardworking teams motivated and feeling appreciated. The key is to listen and to learn from the feedback, even if you don’t always agree with it. It will be your response and the improvements that you make that will ultimately define you. Converting challenges into learning opportunities has been essential.”

How do you balance the operational demands of your roles with broader strategic planning and vision setting?

“This is challenging as operations will always demand your attention. But it’s essential to not be consumed by it and to consciously focus on your role in leadership, setting direction and delivering against the bigger picture. Good delegation and putting trust in your team is key. Good time management is essential - make it a priority to step back, to check you are on the right path and to ensure everyone is with you.”

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