I was first invited to join a housing association board in 1980. Within a few months I was invited to join another. The reason was simple. I was the regional officer for the National Federation of Housing Associations (now the National Housing Federation) and it was assumed I knew something about housing associations. In those days very few people did. I was 28.
I was not new to boards and committees. I had been secretary for the Inter Racial Solidarity Campaign and president of my students’ union in Leicester. I had also served on a number of trade union boards and committees. It was part of my life in those days. It still is.
Since then I have served on 8 housing association boards and chaired 2. I became what was known as a Statutory Appointee for the housing regulator. This meant that I was appointed to boards experiencing regulatory problems. Since retiring from the role of chief executive I have sat on 3 more HA boards as well as undertaking other non-executive and trustee roles. The 3 HAs were all in regulatory supervision. On each occasion I was asked to join because of my previous experience. My average stay has been 2 years as I always move on when the issues are resolved.
It is against this background that I say that when I retired I decided not to apply to be a normal board member of a housing association. I was busy being chair of HACT at the time and also chair of Emmaus. But this was not the reason for my decision. I believe that too many ex chief executives and executives join boards and become chairs almost by default when they retire. I have often wondered if this is a good thing and if they have thought seriously about the difference in roles before doing so. Just because you have been a chief executive does not mean that you will become a good board member or chair. The skills required for one are not necessarily the skills required for the other. I believe also that we have a duty to make way for younger talent as I said herehttps://tommurtha.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/the-next-generation/ some years ago.
The best chair I ever worked with had never been a chief executive and had no desire to be so. This meant that he had no interest in doing my job and at the time I had no interest in doing his. This is vital. Understanding the differences in the two roles and having clear lines of responsibility are essential to a successful chair and chief executive relationship. I have seen too many chief executives trying to do the chief executive’s job, when they become chairs. (Just as I have seen chief executives trying to do the chair’s job, but that’s another story) This often entails becoming too involved in the operational side of the business and blurring lines of responsibility and control. Of course if things go wrong this might be necessary, but not in normal circumstances. Strategy, vision, values, and challenge and support through the board are the chair’s main functions not day to day operational leadership. As an old coach of mine often said, “good chairs rarely venture onto the dance floor. They stay on the balcony.”
This strategic view is one of the essential qualities of a good board member, along with a commitment to the values of an organisation, and the ability to monitor, challenge, and support performance. In my view diversity is also an essential component of a high performing board. This means that chairs should be ensuring the appointment of a diverse range of people including younger board members as well as the more mature. We should make spaces on boards to appoint younger people. Just as we did when I was young. My question to ex chief executives and executives is, why do you want to become HA board members? Perhaps you should resist the temptation and do something else, and create more opportunities for younger people.