- 12 October 2022
Without housing associations the country would be in chaos.
Of the estimated 24m homes in England, 4.4m of them are owned by the social housing sector, providing a roof over the heads of everyone from the most vulnerable members of society to those who are employed but simply can’t afford market rates.
If it were not for social housing, the country would be awash with homelessness, leading to untold pressures on the health and social services. It’s a bitter pill for those in the sector to swallow that too often the role they play is overlooked.
So, if any organisation deserves good leadership then it is a housing association. That’s why I am really glad there are people around like Greg Reed.
Greg, age 52, became Group Chief Executive of Places for People last year, after working as UK CEO for multinational emergency repairs and improvements company Homeserve from 2017 to 2020. During his time there he was named as one of the top five rated UK CEOs during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Greg’s job at Places for People means he is responsible for 231,000 properties providing homes for around 550,000 people, as well as 100 leisure centres and a total of 11,000 employees.
Raised in Delaware in the United States, Greg first began training as a lawyer before pivoting to work in banking, including roles as President of UK Card Services for MBNA, part of Bank of America, and head of credit cards and overdrafts for NatWest Group.
Today he is focused on using his experience gained in the corporate world to inspire his team to improve the lives of people across the country.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to catch up with Greg and chat about his approach to leadership last month.
One thing that he and I definitely agree on is that a good leader doesn’t have to be an alpha figure who pretends to have all the answers.
Of course, good leaders have strong beliefs but they also need to be good listeners and prepared to change their minds. Rather than being extroverts, many leaders are quite understated and focused on creating success by drawing the best out of their team. (Incidentally, like me, Greg is also a fan of Jim Collins’ fantastic book Good to Great, which explores many of these themes and is essential reading for anyone in a leadership role.)
Greg says his own approach to leadership has some of its roots in childhood quizzes he took part in at school
“I used to read a lot and I loved history and so I was always a pain in the ass, answering all the questions,” he says.
“Eventually the teacher said ‘That’s enough, Reed, you can keep score now’. I wasn’t allowed to play anymore. It actually taught me this lesson in life that if you can let someone else answer, you can listen and you can learn. You’re still in the game and you can still be influential.
“The leader is really the person who comes in and does their job and helps other people be better. That’s the kind of leader that I’ve tried to become.
“I will have people say to me ‘Why don’t you just tell us what you want?’ and I will be like ‘I want to hear what you have to say’. I do think it’s all back to that moment. In that classroom I thought to myself ‘I’ve not done myself any favours by dominating the narrative and answering all those questions’.”
Another thing Greg and I have in common is the strong influence of our grandmothers in our lives. Just as my grandmother Eveline was the inspiration for Alertacall’s OKEachDay innovation and our award-winning company, Frances also taught him some valuable life lessons.
“My grandmother was always one of these people who told me to take opportunities as they come,” he says.
“Don’t think about what could have been or should have been. Tomorrow’s a new day. Get on with it. As long as you’re happy and you’re working and you’re providing for your family, go do whatever you want.
“When opportunities come, take them and be brave, whether it’s switching jobs, moving to another country, asking that person to marry you, having kids early, buying that dream house and fixing it up. These are all things that if you wait for the perfect moment, you’ll find yourself at my age, running out of time and never having got those things done.”
So, another thing Greg and I definitely agree on is that great things can happen when you pay attention to your gran.
Do good and do more of it
As well as being generally undervalued, the work of housing associations is also misunderstood.
The very worst prejudgment people make about social housing is that it is somehow for people who don’t want to work. I can tell you right now, having visited hundreds of people who live in social housing, that this is nonsense.
In fact, a third of people in social housing are gainfully employed, hard working people who, for a variety of reasons, cannot pay the going rate for housing where they live.
While many will understand that housing associations manage and develop affordable properties, this is only part of what an organisation like Places for People does. At the same time as giving people somewhere to live, it is also actively engaged in helping them manage their money, find jobs and even advises them on how to live more sustainably.
Places for People also invests in the health and wellbeing of communities through its leisure centres, which are used by more than half-a-million people.
“There’s a lot of things that go into a thriving community,” says Greg.
“Over the years a lot of people haven’t understood why the leisure centres were part of the business. But to me it makes 100 percent sense, especially with our older customers. Getting people out, getting them exercising; it’s very, very important.”
The move from the corporate world into one of the country’s largest social ventures has allowed Greg to take on a new challenge; running a profitable enterprise where success is measured in good outcomes rather than payback to shareholders. It really is a good example of the concept of doing good by doing well.
“When I was in banking and especially when I was at HomeServe, I wanted to create a great culture for people to work in,” he says.
“It’s about getting paid to do something while you can also make a difference in someone’s life. That creates a real purpose for the business. I can take the profits and put them back into doing good things. I feel very blessed to be able to do that.
“What I would like to do is to take these 19 companies that make up the group, come up with a single purpose and then really help our people do more of the things that they want to do. I want them to feel empowered so they can make decisions and they can really get out there and help these customers a lot more.
“I went to one of the developments we’re building recently and the team there asked me ‘What do you want us to do?’ I gave them a four word answer. I said: ‘Do more of this’.
“I’ve learned in leadership roles that if something is wrong then you need to fix it. However, if it’s just not exactly the way you want it then that’s OK. We’ll agree a strategy and then it’s just a matter of me saying let’s do more of this, or less of that, rather than being in the detail of it and doing their jobs for them. I think that’s the best thing I’ve learned over the years.”
My time with Greg left me confident that Places for People is headed in the right direction under his leadership and he – and his team – are fully committed to improving the lives of the residents and communities they serve.
It’s refreshing to meet someone who is so sharp and articulate and simply focused on getting stuff done. (His daily habit of waking up at 6am to run an 11k reflects a lot about his general attitude and commitment to his professional life.)
I’m really looking forward to staying in touch with Greg and learning more from him in the future.