In the wake of the global pandemic, the housing sector was thrust into uncharted territory, navigating a landscape fraught with economic uncertainty, social upheaval, and evolving consumer demands. This unprecedented challenge demanded a new style of leadership: one that not only values efficiency and flexibility but also caring and empathy. Few understand this better than Boris Worrall, Group Chief Executive of Rooftop Housing Association, who has led the way in steering his organisation through these troubled waters.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Boris to discuss topics including the balance between culture and commercial objectives, the traits necessary for successful people leadership, and nurturing a culture of continuous learning and growth.
I’m Boris Worrall, and I’m the Group Chief Executive of Rooftop Housing Association. We manage around 7,000 across North Gloucestershire and South Worcestershire.
It’s quite a long and winding journey. I started out as a journalist in the mid-nineties. It was something I was good at, and I really enjoyed it. From there, I moved into government communications, working for the Criminal Justice Agency at the Home Office. By chance, I landed a job at a housing association, and I began to work my way up and across. Then, six years ago, I was appointed as Chief Executive at Rooftop.
In a world that changes rapidly, there are a lot of things to consider. You need to strike a balance between rules-based decision-making and the need for agility and flexibility. Part of that is down to experience, but you also need to trust your instincts and listen to the people around you. Over the past few years, there has been greater demand to make quick decisions and deal with more challenges at once. So you need the bandwidth, but also the ability to see what’s important and act decisively within the right decision-making framework.
It’s something I’m really passionate about. The first thing we need to do is make people understand that we care about them as people. That needs to come above everything else. I think we’re quite a caring organisation, and that’s something we’ve managed successfully. But on the other hand, you need to have high standards and keep people accountable. We have a strong, flexible benefits package as well as a caring, compassionate culture. The world is hard out there, and we know everybody has a life outside of work. It’s important to have leaders who embrace the need for both empathy and high performance.
There’s an old saying that “leaders need followers”, and I think there’s some truth to that. Status and formal titles will only get you so far: you’ll only get the most out of people if they feel like you listen to them and care about them. Most people want leaders to make decisions, but they also want them to take advice and soundings. People want to feel like part of the solution, and like they’re valued by the organisation and leadership. You need to show empathy, although that doesn’t mean you can’t have difficult conversations. It’s also necessary to show an interest in people’s lives, to know who they are outside of work, and to support them to be the best they can be.
If you’re going to set goals, they need to be easy to understand. They should also be measurable: don’t just say you’re going to deliver new homes, but put a number on it, too. That way, you can keep track of progress and review it on a regular basis. Our organisation has three values: doing the right thing, making things better, and working together. You need to live those values every day and make them relatable to your people. That allows you to create values and targets that people buy into and understand.
There are some structural things you can do. For example, every two or three months we have a colleague brief where people gather in the office for an update on our customers, colleagues, and performance. That gets everybody on the same page and creates opportunities for feedback. In between that, we give managers updates based on those same themes so they can talk to their teams about what’s going on. There needs to be a regular heartbeat of communication that is predictable, reinforced, and follows a pattern.
That’s a very challenging thing to do because the most powerful learning experiences happen when things go wrong. In life, we learn the most from our mistakes, but you don’t want people making mistakes all the time. So it’s about developing a culture of psychological where people feel safe to make mistakes. If you have a culture of fear, then people try to hide things or cover them up, and it only makes things worse.
Be as open and honest as you can: to your managers, your staff, and yourself. If you aren’t honest about the reality of the challenges you face, you won’t be able to marshal the resources you need to overcome them. It sounds easy, but in real life, it’s not always straightforward.
Actually, it was before my career! My A-Level History teacher taught me that life is rarely black and white. Life is grey areas, not binaries. The most difficult problems are usually solved through compromise. Sometimes, none of your options are optimal, and you need to make the best of them.