Alan Nairn: Creative and collaborative environments mean better boardroom decisions

Alan Nairn reflects on a successful decade of work at Caledonia Housing Association with a focus on the importance of good governance.

Alan Nairn: Creative and collaborative environments mean better boardroom decisions

Alan Nairn

A 10-year anniversary for an organisation provides an ideal opportunity to reflect on its achievements but also to think about what lies ahead and how to prepare for it. However, 10 years ago no-one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for resilience and the ability to think the unthinkable. That requires an organisation to step back from day-to-day issues, irrespective of how important they may seem, and take a strategic overview. No part of the organisation is better placed to do that than a board.

As chair of Caledonia it is my responsibility for the creation of a successful team at board level, to maintain a positive working relationship with the CEO and to ensure that the board sets the context, the objectives and values of the organisation to achieve its vision of providing families with homes and services that make life better. Our board’s role is also to ensure we never lose sight of these objectives and that we operate to the highest standards of governance, strategic direction and financial oversight in an organisation that owns and manages 4,600 homes in eight local authority areas.

In order to fulfil this role we need to regularly challenge our own relevance and contribution. One of the key areas is in our recruitment process in balancing the aspiration that our board is representative of the community it serves, against the professional skills required. We must therefore recognise the distinctive contributions different people can make, both immediately and into the future. We have recently recruited three new board members, two of which are tenants, with a diverse mix of experience and skills.

Of course, the task of recruiting new members is only the starting point. There must be a proper induction process which allows them to fully understand the organisation, the key relationships with the management team and their individual and collective role as board members. As with any part of the organisation we also need our board members to feel supported and engaged and be confident in their contribution. As we emerge from the current virtual environment of working groups and board meetings, new challenges arise in building relationships between individuals who have never met in person.

Alan Nairn: Creative and collaborative environments mean better boardroom decisions

Caledonia's Rosebank development in Dundee

The role of a board member requires dedication, extended working hours and working outside of comfort zones. Even if someone has housing experience, the governance requirements dictate an understanding of the regulations, funding requirements, technological changes, property development and importantly the needs of our tenants. Board decisions will have medium to long term implications but there must be an acceptance that a board members’ tenure may only be four or five years.

As part of the need to reflect and change, we want our board reporting to be creative, informative and dynamic, allowing more time for informed discussions in key areas such as risk, resilience, scrutiny, and ultimately service improvement against the backdrop of the Scottish Government’s targets for social housing. This also frees up time for this longer-term strategic thinking, allowing the management team to focus on the operational needs of the association and the direct service provision to our tenants. It is one thing to recognise the improvement required but another to put it into practice.

Looking back over the last 10 years, I am confident we have achieved our main objective of improving life for our tenants - at which point it is important to pause and say well done to everyone for a decade of positive work at Caledonia. If the next 10 years are as successful, then the board will be equally justified in sharing in Caledonia’s achievements.

  • Alan Nairn is the chair of Caledonia Housing Association
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