I attended my first Institute of Housing (CIOH) event in 1977. It was a weekend course on housing management at Beamish Hall in County Durham. It was my first experience of the CIOH and of people working in the housing sector. One of the main speakers was Geoff Filkin (now Lord Filkin) who was then the Director of Housing at Merseyside Improved Houses (now Riverside Group). He described the work they were doing in some of the most deprived areas of Merseyside. I was so inspired by what he said that I decided that one day I would work there.
It took me ten years to achieve that ambition. By 1987 I was deputy director of a small housing association in Birmingham. I knew that if I was ever to become a chief executive I would need experience of working at a senior level in a large housing association. At that time Riverside was one of the associations that aspiring leaders wanted to join.
I applied three times. The first time I was not interviewed. On the second occasion I was interviewed but not successful. However, the Deputy Chief Executive recommended me for another senior post with a large Manchester housing association. Unfortunately my application to them was also unsuccessful. So it was in the autumn of 1987 that I applied for the third time to become an executive director at Riverside.
The first interview was fairly straightforward and I learned that night that I had been selected for the second stage. This was a gruelling two day affair some weeks later. When I arrived for the second stage I discovered that there were five other candidates, two internals and three externals, including Mathew Gardiner (now Chief Executive of Trafford Housing Trust). I was always wary of internal candidates but I knew by reputation that Mathew would be the main competition.
The first day consisted of a number of one to one discussions with the executive team and a long interview with a panel of three which included the chief executive, Barry Natton. I knew Barry from my time at the National Housing Federation. He was passionate about social housing and was often uncompromising in his approach. To put it bluntly he “did not suffer fools gladly”. He believed in putting pressure on people during interviews. On the basis that if you could handle that pressure you could deal with the demands of senior leadership. It is not something I would do today but it was common at the time. He knew I was a smoker and said that I was weak willed because I could not give up even though Riverside was a no smoking environment. I countered by saying that I was actually strong willed as I could resist smoking during office hours and only smoke in my leisure time. He was not convinced but I had not buckled under pressure.
The next stage was a role play based upon real events. At the time Runcorn New Town was transferring its homes to a number of housing associations. Riverside was one of the main recipients. The role play was based upon negotiations with trade unions representing New Town employees. I was asked to play the role of Riverside’s main negotiator. The panel represented the three unions involved. I knew that Barry would again give me a hard time so I said that his union only had observation rights. He protested but I was allowed to set the rules and he remained silent. Luckily the other two members of the panel were easier to deal with. At the end of the process I was told that I was through to the final stage. This was an interview with the Board.
Only four of us were selected for the second day. The internal candidates had been excluded. We were told in the morning that there were two jobs to be filled. The Board interview was again straightforward even though the Chair told me that my application was the worst written form he had ever seen. We later learned that the Board always followed the recommendations of the interview panel. It was simply a rubber stamping exercise. At the end of the morning Barry came into the waiting room and informed us that Mathew and I had been appointed. The other two candidates left and Mathew and I discussed what salary we should ask for. The post had been advertised at circa £19,000. We agreed to ask for to ask for that. Barry returned told us that the offer was £18,500 take it or leave it. That was Barry’s way. We gladly accepted. I had achieved another ambition in my career and was delighted to rush off to tell my wife and my parents.
Mathew and I joined Riverside on 4th January 1988. Just in time to celebrate their 60th Anniversary. We soon learned that the panel had produced a report for the Board on the interview process. They were keen to learn why two excellent internal candidates had not been successful. The report stated that in terms of experience Mathew and I were a quantum leap ahead of the others. Whether this was true I cannot say. What we both had was wider experience of the housing sector. The report lead to the setting up of Riverside’s leadership development programme. Many future housing association chief executives benefited from that programme and some of Riverside’s current leadership team. It is commonplace now but then it was unique. Mathew and I still joke about the quantum leap. In reality it is only a small step but in terms of our careers it was a massive leap. Riverside gave us the foundation to go on and become chief executives. I for one am eternally grateful for that.