The changing landscape of leadership

Hannah Scarisbrick, Partner in the Housing practice group at Saxton Bampfylde, and Cassandra Woolgar, a Business Psychologist in our Leadership Services team, explore how housing associations can recruit and develop the leadership talent needed to take the sector forward.

At Saxton Bampfylde we have the privilege of seeing ‘under the bonnet’ of a huge range of organisations. From FTSE businesses to government departments, NHS Trusts, regulators, schools and universities, we work with organisations of all shapes and sizes dedicated to meeting an extraordinary and ever-changing range of social needs. Housing associations, with their blend of commercial models with social purpose and their essential relationships with central and local government, straddle many sector boundaries.

Today, housing associations must be as connected to their customers as any consumer facing business, as accountable for delivering against their social purpose as any charity; and as transparent and compliant as other highly regulated markets. On top of this, they must be sensitive and responsive to social change and need.

Finding the ‘answer’ to what makes organisations successful and resilient is a challenge, but there are three key features that are evident in flourishing organisations from any sector – they are purposeful, innovative and inclusive.Collectively, Housing Associations have many of these qualities, but there is significant untapped potential and a new imperative for the sector to recruit and develop leaders who can inspire and embed cultural change as effectively as they can deliver against other key priorities. Here we draw on the combined expertise of our search and occupational psychology teams to consider some of the ways in which this can be achieved.


Research* shows that companies with a declared purpose that is firmly adhered to by their leadership teams and well-understood by their stakeholders perform better than their less purposeful peers. So what sort of leaders do we need to build purposeful organisations?

Identifying a meaningful goal may be the first challenge for leaders of purposeful organisations. In this sense, housing associations are advantaged because by nature they are responding to a clear social purpose. However, ensuring that organisational purpose feels relevant, authentic and compelling is a critical challenge for the sector’s leaders.

Here the tools of occupational psychology can be critical. Our experience over 30 years of combining search with psychometric assessment has helped purposeful organisations ensure that they understand not only the competencies of their senior leaders but also their key drivers. One of the things we have learned along the way is that packing the board rooms of commercial businesses with people motivated by making money is no more successful than populating social impact organisations with people who bring strongly altruistic traits. A balance is essential and inevitable, but psychometric tools can help boards and leaders understand themselves better and ensure that amongst their leaders, they have authentic champions of purpose.
If in your board room you have those people truly motivated by and connected with your purpose, it must be equally crucial for leaders to be able to communicate that purpose and ‘bring it to life’. The right assessment tools can also measure listening skills, sensitivity, and the ability to use personal presence to engage, communicate and ‘bring people along’. These qualities and skills will matter enormously when it comes to embedding cultural change and an organisation-wide sense of purpose.

Our understanding of different approaches to leadership has led to healthy examination of how we identify potential leaders, diversify from traditional leadership models, and consider how various elements of leadership impact the employees and the business as a whole. We expect to see more and more purposeful organisations recruiting and developing leaders with qualities such as amiability and openness as well as traditional traits like ambition and extraversion.



“Ensuring that organisational purpose feels relevant, authentic and compelling is a critical challenge for the sector’s leaders.”




Although the housing sector is ahead of many others in its understanding and acceptance of the need for diversity, it still has a long way to go to change the make-up of its board rooms and it arguably has a further journey ahead in terms of delivering on inclusion. After all, surface level diversity isn’t the goal here: it is only those organisations which are genuinely inclusive that will reap the benefits of diversity.

It is equally important to recognise that successful and resilient organisations don’t just look at diversity and inclusion when it comes to the recruitment and development of staff and board members: they build it into their DNA. This must be the challenge for housing associations too, especially in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, when much has been written about the need for housing providers to be more connected with their residents, and more inclusive of the resident voice.

Thanks to initiatives like Leadership 2025, Raising Roofs and others, housing associations of the future will better reflect the communities in which they exist. Those that are also genuinely inclusive will be more connected to those communities. They will be more likely to nurture creative thinking, better able to respond to changing operating environments and be more resilient.

Leaders need to move beyond building diverse teams to creating inclusive cultures that harness the benefits of diversity.


In the context of societal change and political and economic uncertainty, the landscape of housing provision is evolving all the time. Housing associations know that standing still is not an option. There is an accepted need for more innovation and risk taking in the space. The generation and application of new ideas could help housing associations understand more deeply the needs of their customers and how to meet those needs in new and better ways.
There are many links between diversity and inclusion on one hand and creativity and innovation on the other. If leaders can create a culture in which challenge and change is accepted, they are more likely to succeed in nurturing creativity. Indeed, research has shown that a culture that encourages creativity is one with inclusive leadership and psychological safety**.

What is clear is that innovation and creativity cannot be ‘owned’ by an individual. Rather, a culture of creativity must be instilled across an organisation, in which new ideas are welcomed, developed and turned into new initiatives that add real value. So, while we can look for evidence of creativity and ‘divergent thinking’ in individuals, the potential to bring that creative potential to life will be lost if the culture isn’t one in which ideas flourish.



“If leaders can create a culture in which challenge and change is accepted, they are more likely to succeed in nurturing creativity.”



Housing Associations may need to:

  • Ensure they are equipped to identify, develop and recruit authentic champions of social purpose at executive and non-executive board level;
  • Match efforts to improve diversity with a robust interrogation of how inclusive the culture is;
  • Look for creativity in emerging leaders and review whether the organisational culture enables innovation and creativity to flourish.


More than ever, housing associations are asking a lot of their leaders. We ask them to be as innovative and bold as they are accountable and consultative. To lead confidently, listen and learn well and to generate healthy surpluses whilst maximising social value. This presents a significant challenge for housing leaders now and in the future, but housing associations are used to evolving and breaking new ground; after all, they were engaged in things like place shaping and social enterprise long before the terms were ever coined.

In realising the purposeful, inclusive and creative housing associations of the future we see particular opportunity for those which diversify from traditional leadership models. Those organisations will consider soft skills, psychological traits, and core values, goals, and interests with as much rigour as strategic, operational, financial and commercial competency.


Hannah Scarisbrick

Cassandra Woolgar

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