From drama school in Exeter to teaching in Borneo, Helen Forsyth’s route to becoming chief executive at Berwickshire Housing Association is a road less travelled.
Tell me a bit about your career, and how you got to be where you are today?
I wanted to be a Shakespearean actress when I grew up. It never crossed my mind that I would end up in housing!
After three years of a drama degree in Exeter, which by the way was great fun, I went off to Borneo to teach in a high school in the jungle for two years. On my return I went through a series of fascinating and challenging jobs which took me on a very different route than the dreams I had had at school. I worked with homeless people in London, started training and supporting staff in the voluntary sector to deliver services to the most vulnerable, and later with more senior staff in health and social care. It was while working in health that I saw a job in a housing association, setting up new care services based within extra care housing and sheltered housing. I had never worked in housing and had no technical skills, but I did know about care. They took a chance on me and I landed the job.
“If a man is derogatory or disrespectful towards me, I tend to be very assertive in return!”
I have now worked in housing for 23 years, starting as a care director, a regional director and then appointed to the role of chief executive, firstly at Edinvar Housing Association and later at BHA. My passion is working with people and enabling them to grow, develop and take control of their lives. I also discovered a culture of starting a project and actually being able to complete it, which I loved. Houses really got built, projects got funded and people with less opportunities actually got chances to change their lives.
I have been lucky enough to run two housing associations, in very different places with very different challenges and I learn new things every single year. I make mistakes but there is a culture of support and learning that I find invigorating and refreshing. I love taking the whole team on a journey and learning to work together.
Have you faced any issues being a woman at the top in housing?
I guess I have, but only very occasionally, when I have come across men who are fixed in their views. I remember interviewing a man for a senior position, who gave his entire attention to the male board member on the interview panel and wouldn’t even speak to me. But apart from a couple of difficult moments, generally speaking I have had brilliant support throughout my career, from both women and men. If a man is derogatory or disrespectful towards me, I tend to be very assertive in return! The vast majority of people I have worked with have no problem working with me or with other senior women. If someone does have an issue with having a female boss, I find they tend to move on.
Should more be done to encourage women into social housing?
There are many women already in social housing, and I think that is because we are a sector where people are generally very happy at their work – it’s one of the things I have noticed over the years. There is a positive culture and great job satisfaction within social housing. It offers job security, the chance to make a difference, and there are also plenty of opportunities for flexible, part-time and family friendly working.
However, I do feel that more should be done to encourage women to take up the most senior roles in social housing. There are lots of really talented women out there who need coaching and support and a lift in their confidence to take on the more senior roles, but I can see that it is changing for the better.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
There is something really good about overcoming obstacles to ensure a sustainable future for your organisation, and our community wind farm certainly contributes to that. I can’t help but be very proud of this achievement.
But sometimes something much simpler has lots of positive consequences that you hadn’t realised would happen. Our Next Steps programme, where we work with pupils in our local school who might need extra support with their housing choices, is an example of this. Because it has now run for many years, the graduates are now in their 20s and seeing them blossom and grow and become active citizens in Berwickshire is incredibly positive. It just goes to show that sometimes a very small intervention can make a huge difference.
What exciting things has BHA got planned for the future?
BHA is always looking at the bigger picture and thinking about how we can contribute to the wealth, health and safety of our communities. We also consider the problems our residents face, such as managing their finances, paying fuel bills and finding employment. We work together with local partners to find solutions, such as more affordable ways to heat homes, enabling tenants to be independent and active citizens, and helping all our communities to go digital.
Over the next five years, we plan to build 250 homes in the area, and to continue improving all our homes to ensure they are cheap to run, and that fuel costs are as low as possible.
We are piloting a number of new heating systems, including heat batteries and infra-red heating, which have had some good results for tenants. The 700 homes which have already been fitted with photovoltaic panels are already benefitting from reduced energy bills, so we plan to fit these on even more of our homes in the near future.
We have an ongoing internal innovation programme, which we use to develop new products, solve problems for our customers and improve our business practices. Staff put issues that need solving in “The Jar” and our team of “innovation enablers” identify the issues we will work on.
Some of the things our innovation programme has come up with this year include identifying ways to use empty land more creatively for allotments, community gardens and orchards, appointing a ‘pet champion’ to help families with dogs that create nuisance, and reducing our own office running costs. We are continuing our ever popular ‘skip and scrap days’, allowing tenants to remove large items they cannot afford to have uplifted. We’ve also identified a plan to give our tenants online access to their accounts during 2018. We are currently working closely with our local schools, and are in the final stages of developing a game that can be used by teachers in lessons.
Catch up with the rest of the Scottish Housing News International Women’s Day feature here.