Thirteen, North Star, Beyond and Gentoo worked together to introduce a trainee programme to increase diversity in their boards.
This group of four North East housing associations agreed that we needed to increase the diversity of our board members to improve governance. We wanted to bring in a variety of perspectives, challenges, and questions, which could only be a benefit when facing such uncertain and challenging times.
Applications were encouraged from groups that are under-represented at board level, including minority ethnicities, LGBTQ+, disabled people, women and young people.
While there were several housing associations who were eager to collaborate on this, many of us were out of sync with one another in terms of when we wanted to start. Our timelines, geographical boundaries, and requirements for trainees meant that it made sense for us to run our trainee programmes in collaboration, so we pursued this as a group.
The collaboration has been hugely positive. It made using Housing Diversity Network (HDN) cost effective, and meant that there were several trainees who could form a peer support network throughout the process, sharing their experiences of being on different boards and supporting one another.
We decided to create individual diversity targets, as well as joint ones. This has been really helpful in keeping us focused and united throughout. To start with, each housing association considered our own current diversity and where we wanted to get to before specifying particular diverse characteristics to target our recruitment. For Thirteen we had gender, age and race imbalances, so we were very open that we wanted women, younger people, and people from different ethnicities to apply.
Recruitment was largely conducted on social media but we also contacted all involved residents with an application form. We worked hard to use social media to target local community groups in particular. The first stage of the application process was a written application which asked questions around why they were interested and their link to the local community.
We conducted both a long and short listing process based on the written applications, which our board chairs were involved in, before inviting shortlisted candidates to interview. The interviews consisted of four questions and the panel included one committee member and the chief executive of Thirteen, and one board member and the chief executive of North Star. Thirteen made the decision to take on three trainee board members, and North Star took on four. Bringing new voices and different views into the boardroom has had a huge benefit. It’s been a really positive process and something we are looking to continue – we’d absolutely like to run the programme again.
It was important to prepare the rest of the board, so we prioritised communicating to them about the incoming trainees. We started this early by submitting reports when proposing the programme, setting out our desired benefits and the reasons to take part.
The chairs took specific steps to ensure trainees feel welcomed. They played an active role in the recruitment process and met one-on-one with each participant as part of the full board induction offered to each trainee.
The trainees had a full induction as any board member would, and have been invited to all board training. In addition to this each trainee has a mentor who is either a board member or an executive from another housing association. We also run performance reviews annually for each trainee.
Trainees attend all board meetings and have a rota for joining and observing committees, so they get a feel for what’s discussed. To help build their confidence, they meet with governance staff ahead of each board meeting to discuss their thoughts on the papers and raise any questions. It requires effort from everyone, but gradually the trainees are starting to get comfortable commenting or asking questions at board meetings.
In addition to this, trainees also go through the HDN board excellence programme and learn about various relevant topics including regulation, the housing sector, board etiquette.
It’s down to each individual how much they put in and get out of the programme. It can be challenging for the trainees to fit everything in; attending all board meetings, mentoring sessions, reading papers and attending all HDN sessions as well as juggling a full time job.
It was interesting discovering the trainees’ motivations for taking part. Some had been brought up in a housing association property, or had strong links to the local community and felt they could contribute to the wellbeing of their community by being part of the board, while others wanted board experience to support their career ambitions.
We didn’t promise an eventual board position within Thirteen or North Star at the end of the programme, and would be happy for them to move to a different board if they find an opportunity that’s right for them. We would all see that as a success for us and for the sector.
There is an internal challenge to running these programmes, it takes a lot of resource to support trainees. You’re managing additional people, supporting their welfare, running inductions and conducting performance reviews. It’s important to go into these schemes with your eyes open to how much work it will be.
Overall, bringing new voices and different views into the board room has been a huge benefit. North Star’s Chief Executive, Angela Lockwood, said: “The investment we have made in appointing these four new trainees from under-represented groups is a reflection of the importance we place on increasing diversity in the boardroom.”
Manisha Sharma, a newly appointed apprentice said; “I am honoured to be part of this wonderful opportunity. It is vital that a range of diverse voices are heard in the boardroom. This is why I applied. I applaud all the partners for leading the way on EDI at a strategic level. This has been missing for too long”.