Q&A with Lorraine Usher, chief executive at Loreburn Housing Association
Loreburn Housing Association chief executive, Lorraine Usher, reveals her career highlights and her commitment to champion, encourage and support young women to thrive in housing.
Tell me a bit about your career, and how you got to be where you are today?
My housing career started with a role as a Housing Assistant with a rent round in a city suburb. Like many people, when I started I didn’t know much about social housing, especially not as a career, but was lucky to work with some really fun, inspirational people who made each day interesting.
My housing career has spanned a wide range of functions including Supported Housing, Tenant Involvement, Community Development and I also managed foyers for young people, so I have quite a broad range of experience. The consistent thing in all of those roles was that I engaged daily with a wide range of people with interesting stories to tell. The theme which weaved throughout all of their tales was housing - the availability, the quality and the cost of it, to name only a few key issues. I knew I had found my vocation and have never looked back. As the saying goes “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I can quite honestly say I’ve found that job as I’ve never once hesitated about coming to work and trust me - I’ve had some tricky days!
After leaving school with very few qualifications I was soon a mother of a wonderful little boy. Drifting in and out of low waged jobs, my attention span was short and I never felt stretched or challenged. After returning to the UK following a period living abroad, I entered social housing initially in a temporary role with a six month fixed term post in a local authority. I’d previously lived in Berlin and was living there when the wall came down, which shaped or at least had a bearing on my views around social justice. Seeing people celebrate freedom that we all took for granted truly opened my eyes.
When my first fixed term post came to an end, I moved across to a role with a housing association. The RSL offer me a place at university in Newcastle to study housing and sustainable communities. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and it was followed a few years later with the opportunity to enrol on a Postgraduate Certificate in Leadership in Housing at Lancaster University. The course was part funded by the NHF and aimed at helping future housing leaders to think more innovatively and creatively.
“I rarely think about gender and if someone did treat me differently I think it would say more about them than me as a woman.”
During the time I was studying, my roles kept changing. Because it was so interesting, I stayed with that RSL for 15 years, and in that time I’d had around five or six different roles. I never consciously set out to ‘rise to the top’ but each time I ‘cracked’ a role (as I called it then) I was soon interested in testing myself to see if I could progress to the next level. I am a bit of a risk taker when it comes to jobs and opportunities and believe ‘what’s meant for you will not pass you by’ so it always excites me to take that next step.
When I saw the role of CEO advertised at Loreburn Housing Association, I applied for the role to test my skills and identify areas for development, and was absolutely delighted to be offered the post and appointed. I enjoy working in Scotland, with a progressive Government who truly value the social housing sector, this is a great place to be part of the social housing sector.
Have you faced any issues being a woman at the top in housing?
Although topical and widely discussed in the media recently with the BBC and Tesco stories in the news, I can honestly say I’ve never experienced any form of sexism, discrimination or other issues in the workplace that are related to my gender. I rarely think about gender and if someone did treat me differently I think it would say more about them than me as a woman. I have had good relationships with many colleagues regardless of gender and if they do a good job I’m happy to work with them regardless.
Should more be done to encourage women into social housing?
I think the sector offers excellent career opportunities for women and with the move towards agile and flexible working in housing, those will continue to grow. However, I do think more should be done to promote housing as a career as there are such a huge variety of interesting roles and opportunities. Loreburn HA introduced a Modern Apprenticeship programme a couple of years ago and it has been a delight to see those young people progress both within Loreburn and with other businesses.
“Seeing someone move from homelessness to sustainable success brings real job satisfaction.”
Seeing another new generation of young people begin to enjoy a career in social housing is so rewarding and great to see. I think it is important for values-based housing associations to ‘grow their own culture’ in order to embed our excellent ways of doing business, and a Modern Apprenticeship scheme enables that. Social housing offers excellent career opportunities and we should champion and promote it more widely.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
My most rewarding and proudest moments at work are when I am involved in the development and growth of people across the businesses. I truly enjoying seeing others achieve success, whether it is the young people who have had challenging starts in life or seeing someone move from homelessness to sustainable success, it brings real job satisfaction. The young people who join our Modern Apprenticeship programme often don’t have a great deal of confidence, so watching them blossom and move into permanent roles with new skills and experience is very rewarding. It is especially great to see young women build their self-belief and start to apply for promotion or roles with new challenges. Watching those young people makes me feel like I have come full circle, from the time when I was encouraged to stretch and challenge myself when I quite easily could have accepted a future as a young unemployed mum.
What has Loreburn got planned for the future?
We have a high energy creative culture at Loreburn, where all ideas are considered and everyone has a voice, which is why I so enjoy working here. Loreburn has achieved external recognition and over the years we’ve secured a number of awards, but we were truly proud to win Charity Employer of the Year as this award is recognition for our culture. Ours is an energised, enthusiastic and successful culture where we continue to push to be the best and offer an exceptional customer experience. As a member of the Scottish HouseMark Advisory Board, I keenly contribute to work around service costs and affordability for tenants across Scotland. I’m truly committed to driving out unnecessary costs and waste to keep rents affordable. I believe all RSLs have a duty to continue to explore and introduce new ways to deliver excellent services at competitive costs, and I’m excited by opportunities presented by AI, predictive analytics and GIS tools.
Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day we should look to the future, be proud of what has been achieved to date, with a commitment to champion, encourage and support young women to continue to seize the opportunities that are now available to them.
Catch up with the rest of the Scottish Housing News International Women’s Day feature here.