Board member in the spotlight Grainne Heselwood

Grainne Heselwood, Chair of Salix Homes, describes her experience as a housing association chair, and offers advice on ensuring you have the right skills on your board and you’re prepared for the challenges ahead. Grainne also chairs our Board Member National Group, which guides and supports the Federation’s work for housing association board members.

Grainne Heselwood, Chair of Salix Homes

Grainne Heselwood, Chair of Salix Homes

10 October 2019

Why did you decide to become a housing association chair?

Like many women, I didn’t immediately think ‘this is the role for me’. Rather, I was encouraged to apply by the outgoing chair. In truth, I felt I was probably making up the numbers to ensure at least one woman applied for the role. This isn’t an uncommon barrier to getting more women into non-executive roles, and one I’m happy to help dismantle. This was the main reason I decided to apply to be Chair of Salix.

I’d already spent many years working with housing organisations on governance issues, such as governance reviews, board appraisals and board training and development. I’d also been lucky enough to hold previous board roles, so I felt suitably qualified for the role.

It helped that I knew the organisation well and had a great deal of respect for the work it was doing – and what it had already achieved.

It’s so important to be sure your values and the values of the organisation meet and connect.

Did becoming a chair live up to your expectations? Did anything surprise you about your role?  

When I found out I’d been successful, I was genuinely delighted. It came as a surprise – but a very pleasant one.

I took up the role on the day the organisation completed its transfer from being an ALMO to become a housing association. Our main task as a board was to deliver the promises made to tenants in the Offer Document, which was part of the transfer process.

The surprises – or should I say shocks – came from external events that were out of our control. The joy of the role of chair for me came from overcoming those obstacles to become a successful, resilient and modern organisation.

I’ve loved every minute of my time as chair. I’ve particularly relished the challenges, as these are the moments when the organisation shifts and real differences are made.

The role has more than lived up to my expectations and I would urge more women to apply for board roles.

What are the skills you think board chairs need – both for themselves and their board members – to ensure organisations achieve the very highest standards of governance and scrutiny?

Chairs generally have different styles – and I love that. In terms of skills, I think there are two areas to think about. The first is the basic skillset needed for the role, and the second are the qualities the chair needs to drive forward the organisation’s strategic objectives. In other words, the chair needs to be a good fit for the housing association.

In terms of skills and qualities that board members need, here are a few that I think are important:

  • building excellent working relationships
  • collaboration and teamwork
  • setting high standards and lead by example
  • nurturing new ideas and learning
  • being able to get out there, engage and build networks
  • chairing productive meetings
  • being fluid, agile and responsive and able to make decisions
  • adopting a solutions-based approach
  • embracing change
  • sharing a clear vision that inspires and engages.

If we jumped back to your very first day as a board member, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

There are a few tips that I’d give any new board member from day one:

  • Take the role seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Prioritise building an excellent working relationship with the CEO. This is your key relationship as a chair and everything else flows from that.
  • Have a clear vision of what governance will look like in your organisation, and what board you will need to achieve that vision. Share your vision with the board and engage them in your journey towards modern and effective governance.
  • Talk to people - whenever and wherever you can.

What are the biggest challenges facing housing association boards in 2019 in your view? And how can we address them?

There are so many challenges ahead and I don’t want to bore you with the usual list.

As I’m sitting here writing this, I’m watching the news feeds relating to ‘the B word’. This is a clear and immediate challenge for housing organisations in so many ways. There are the obvious problems with the supply chain, but more importantly, the uncertainty is having a negative impact on our communities. After 10 years of austerity, our communities are less resilient and more vulnerable to the projected negative impact of a potential disorderly B- - - t.

There is also the uncertainty of how economic policy will be impacted. For example, could we see a change to the agreed rent policy? So much is unknown that it can seem hard to prepare, but what we do know is that whatever happens, it will most certainly be challenging.

To prepare for the challenges ahead, boards should be:

  • keeping up to date with the ever-changing environment
  • having and monitoring a clear plan
  • being clear what plans B, C and D are
  • knowing the ‘must dos’ and opportunities
  • working closely with partners
  • supporting their executive teams to do whatever they can to continue to deliver planned new build developments.

Grainne Heselwood will be one of the mentors at our Board Excellence in Housing Conference on 6-7 February in London. We’ll be running speed mentoring sessions where you can discuss your goals and challenges with a senior housing association board member.

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