Passing on the torch: why mentoring has a crucial role to play in the social-housing sector

First published by Inside Housing on 7 June 2019

It wasn’t until five years after he had joined Northern Irish housing association Clanmil that Kevin Logan began to think of himself as working in housing. Until then, his job had been just another procurement role.

“I was procurement manager, but I never saw myself as being in housing,” he says. “I just carried out a function that happened to be in a housing association.”

A chance meeting with Elly Hoult changed all that. As well as being the programme director at Notting Hill Genesis, Ms Hoult is a director of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and a member of its mentoring scheme.

Mr Logan had learned more about the sector at a training course run by Ms Hoult, so when his job started to incorporate more project work two years ago, he turned to her for advice.

“I thought I’d call her and get all her wisdom within an hour. But she said I could get an hour a month,” he recalls.

“Joining the CIH was never on my radar. I didn’t see myself as being in housing, even though I worked at a housing association, so I didn’t see what the value in joining would be. But the cost of membership is nothing compared to the return I have got as a mentee. It’s had a massive impact on my career.

“The past 12 months have been a culture shock for me. I’d been in procurement from when I left university in 1999 and this is the first time I’ve worked outside contracts. But I’ve started to understand housing, to understand the sector better and how to manage upwards.”

Having that input from someone with a wider view of the sector has completely changed how Mr Logan expects his career to progress. His ambition now is to become a programme director like Ms Hoult, rather than continuing down the procurement path. 

That is exactly what the CIH programme and similar schemes run by the Housing Diversity Network and multi-disciplinary organisation Future of London have been designed to achieve.

Indeed, Ms Hoult says one of the key functions of mentoring is to give mentees the confidence needed to move up within the sector rather than move out of it, something she does not believe can be addressed through “passive development” opportunities such as academic training.

“That’s huge,” she says. “A number of people I have mentored have gone on to get better jobs in their organisation. That locks in potential and makes sure really decent people are moving up into new roles.”

Brendan Morrissey, supported living manager at Clanmil, agrees. Although he had been at the organisation for 14 years and quickly became a manager, he only sought the advice of a mentor recently, after feeling he was beginning to lose focus.

Having been paired with Adele Fraser, chief executive of Scotland-based Linstone Housing Association, he feels his career aspirations are back on track.

“I always knew about the CIH mentoring scheme, but for some reason I didn’t think it would apply to me,” he says. “I worked my way up through the organisation and thought I was getting the mentoring I needed in-house.

“I’m very keen to develop my career in the sector, because I’ve invested a lot in it over the past 14 years, and I wanted to work with someone in the sector with much more experience.

“Eventually I’d like to be a director. Adele is helping me think about how to get there, but also how to fulfil and maximise my potential in what I’m doing now. It’s about doing it in tandem.”

Being able to see where they fit in and where they might go is of obvious worth to those looking to develop their careers in housing. But it is not just those involved who benefit from mentoring programmes.

Like Mr Logan, Blossom Young did not start out in housing, having begun her career as a youth participation officer at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, before moving into the charity sector and taking up her current role as head of operations at Poplar Harca two years ago. She says that mentoring has been “really important” to her own career development because it has opened her eyes to the “wealth of opportunities” that exist in housing. But she also believes the incremental guidance given to those who receive mentoring ultimately has a positive impact on the sector as a whole.

“It’s crucial to the sector,” she says. “Certainly in terms of the community and regeneration side of the work that we do, we struggle sometimes to recruit really good people into the sector. There are choices about where people can go and the housing sector can only really benefit if it thinks about the pool of people it has and how really good staff retention doesn’t stop at recruitment. It doesn’t stop at getting really good people through the door – it’s about how people are supported.”

While some organisations have baulked at the prospect of preparing employees for leadership roles that may end up taking them elsewhere, Ms Young feels the benefit to the sector should outweigh the temporary loss of one person.

“It’s very easy once you have good people to think you need to hang onto them. But if you want them to move into management or leadership, there’s something about moving between housing associations,” she says.

“Rather than seeing that as losing good people, if you start to cooperate, then you’re probably in a much better place in terms of the strength of the sector overall. For every good person you lose, there’s someone else you’ll be recruiting from that pool. Sometimes employers are fearful that they may invest in staff only to lose them, but if they return in a much stronger way, there’s a benefit to that. It requires a lot of bravery to take that view.”

It is clear from the number of mentoring schemes on offer and the breadth of organisations involved that the sector is beginning to wake up to this. Yet Sasha Deepwell, chief executive of Manchester-based Irwell Valley Homes, says more needs to be done to get good people through the door in the first place rather than simply focusing on the pool that is already there.

Having started at a mental health charity, Ms Deepwell believes she would never have ended up in housing had she not been working on a joint project with a housing director who encouraged her to change focus – and gave her the support she needed to do so. She believes that type of outreach, which educates and supports people so they move into the sector, is just as important as helping people progress once they’re in it.

“It’s really crucial that you mentor outside the sector as well as within, in particular reaching out to people at school or university, so we’re bringing in diverse people and people with different skills,” she says.

“I’d never heard of housing and I was working in a related field. I recently did a talk to year two social work students, who you would think would have heard of social housing, but they hadn’t. That’s really interesting.

“Whenever I do things outside the sector, I realise there’s a whole world of talented people who haven’t heard of social housing and who haven’t thought of it as a career option.

“As a sector, we don’t really have a presence in universities or colleges. Some associations do it at a local level, but we need to do more.”

Mr Morrissey agrees. Although he had always known he wanted to work in housing, he believes he was unusual in that regard and that, in general, too little is known about the opportunities in the sector for people to either consider it in the first place or to get the support they need to pursue it when they do.

“I always knew I wanted to work in housing, but when I was doing A levels and going to university people didn’t think it was a career,” he says. “I knew there was a career in there somewhere, but I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge to influence my parents or teachers to show it was a good career for me. My schoolmates went on to become teachers and doctors and when I said I wanted to go into housing people said I wasn’t aiming very high.

“There’s still a long way to go. The majority of people fall into housing; they do something related then only discover by accident that it’s a really good career. That’s why mentoring would help people who are brand new to the sector.”

Those acting as mentors also speak about what they have learned from their mentees, with the handing down of experience and wisdom being repaid by the passing up of fresh ideas and energy. Ms Hoult says being able to share in her mentees’ experiences has been particularly beneficial when she herself has been considering a career move, such as when she moved “from the frontline into a more strategic position”.

For Ms Deepwell, mentoring should always be seen as “a two-way thing”. “It’s usually seen as a very experienced person [mentoring someone more junior] but also as a mentor I feel I have learned a lot from my mentees. It’s doubly beneficial. As a senior director myself I have had that input from someone younger and much fresher in the sector. That keeps things alive.”

Equally, Mr Morrissey notes that the beauty – and importance – of mentoring is that it ensures the knowledge and skills that have been built up in the sector over the past few decades are not lost.

“There’s so much knowledge, skill and history in the sector, and it’s really important that is passed on,” he says. “Very senior people will be retiring, so for them to share information and skills is very important.”

Ms Deepwell goes further, saying there is not just a need for senior people to pass their knowledge on, but an obligation, too.

“In any professional organisation, there’s usually a charter you sign up to and as part of that, there’s a moral obligation to mentor and support the next generation. We don’t talk about that enough,” she says.

Ms Hoult agrees. “As you move into more senior roles, you are duty-bound to give something back,” she says. “It can be quite a small bit of your time to make a really big difference.”