Login  |  Signup   Connect with us  

At home with Brian Johnson

Metropolitan chief Brian Johnson is stepping down in July after just over four years in the role. He tells Mark Cantrell why the moment is right for him to move on – and why he feels he’s been lucky in his career so far

 

BRIAN Johnson has had something of a “jammy” career, he confesses, and he’s not talking – or at least not only talking – about his time as chief executive of Metropolitan housing association.

He landed the role just over four years ago, tasked with turning around what was then an organisation in difficulty; by his own admission there was an element of daring himself to take it on.

“I was persuaded to apply for the job by the executive search agency, and I remember at the point of being offered the job, my feelings were if I don’t take this job and give it a go, at the end of my career I will always wonder whether I chickened out,” he said. “In other words, it was a big challenge and I wondered if I was up to doing it. It’s quite thrilling to be here, personally, and with the team that’s done all of that.”

Now, with Metropolitan back on track and able to pursue its ambitions, Johnson feels it’s time for him to move on; he’s announced that he’ll be stepping down as chief executive in July this year.

“I came in to do a job, which was to get the company back on its feet and flying again – and I feel that job is done,” he said. “The company is doing really well. The place feels very different: solid, we’re delivering amazing people outcomes, and [we’ve a] big development pipeline.

“Metropolitan was in a difficult position four years ago. It’s in a good place now. That’s not just an optical illusion; we all believe strongly it’s in a good place. There are things we still need to improve but the trajectory is good.”

There’s still work to do, of course, but overall Johnson feels that he and his team has established a sound platform for his successor. Going by the organisation’s last annual report, published in October 2016, this is no idle boast. The company’s financial performance in 2015-16 was strong. The organisation reported a surplus of £77 million (£68 million after a one-off pension scheme adjustment is considered), up from £60 million the year before. The organisation, meanwhile, aims to be building 1,000 new homes a year by 2017-18, a target it is fully expected to hit.

As Johnson said at the time, the results demonstrated it was “all systems go” for Metropolitan, but getting there wasn’t easy. While he knew more or less what he was getting into when he took the job, he admits that he didn’t quite appreciate the scale of the task in hand. Still, it offered some valuable lessons. One of these is that organisations – even troubled ones – already contain the seeds of revival; all they need is the right conditions to flourish.

“People in organisations want to do what’s right: they just have to be led in the right direction,” said Johnson. “While we had to put some really good leaders in place at Metropolitan, the vast majority of people who work [here] have always cared about the organisation. Get the leadership right and people will do what’s right, because fundamentally people come to work to do a good job.”

Leadership, meanwhile, also depends on good relationships, with other senior managers, and with the board. “There are several of the relationships on the executive team that are critically important, and the relationship with the chair of the board is really fundamental to the smooth working of the organisation,” Johnson said.

“I feel really strongly about governance; governance isn’t a tag-on, it’s something that helps the organisation do what it does. My own philosophy is to be absolutely, unstintingly open with the board. If there’s bad news they get to hear it quickly but always with solutions. They never hear a gloss-over. That whole self-awareness and honesty with the board is critically important. And with honesty comes trust back, so when things are difficult they’ll challenge, but most of all they’ll support you as chief executive.

“That’s what you need from the board in tough situations. I do think that relationship with the board is critical. Like any relationship it needs to be worked on, and the fundamental basis of that relationship is openness and integrity. That, I think, is really important.”

These are uncertain times for the sector, of course; many of the risks and difficulties it faces originate in the political realm, which can play havoc with long-term planning. One of the things Johnson says really concerns him is the overall impact of policies such as social rent cuts, the caps on Local Housing Allowance, and the like.

“Beyond the immediate damage that they’re doing, they’ve sent a message to the sector that [government] ‘will tinker with the pricing structure whenever it wants’,” he said. “As a sector, we have to get the message across that we’re much more akin to infrastructure companies than we are to housebuilders. We’re putting social infrastructure on the ground in a way that has to wash its face financially over a 30-40 year period. That means if you tinker with the pricing mechanism you make that investment non-viable.”

What this means for the qualities needed by a chief executive, Johnson suggests, number one is a “tolerance of uncertainty”. Certainly, they need to be jugglers, and probably contortionists too, to accommodate the diversifying demands placed on housing associations these days.

“Having the breadth to be able to hold sharp financial performance in one hand, this overriding sense of social purpose in the other, and be able to put the two together in a way that complements rather than contradicts each other, that’s probably the most important thing,” he said.

No small task, then, for the next incumbent, but then that’s the chief executive’s lot. As for Johnson, he says he is thinking hard about his next challenge, something “worthwhile” in keeping with his past career. As he prepares to hand over the reins, it invites some inevitable reflection on where he’s come from.

Like many in the housing world Johnson started out as something else. In a previous incarnation, he was a chemical engineer, as it turned out, doing his bit for the environment.

“I feel so blooming lucky in my career. I have done things I never imagined doing. As an engineer one of the projects I led the design on, and then commissioned, was the world’s first plant for making ozone-friendly refrigerants in the United States,” he said.

“You know, I was back there a couple of summers ago, seeing this massive $200 million plant still running, and then a few months later there’s news that the [hole in] the ozone layer had closed up. I had played a tiny part in all of that, and then to find myself in housing being able to make a completely different impact – it’s so bloody lucky to be able to do all of those things.”

And that’s why he feels he’s had such a “jammy” career.

 

This article first appeared in the February/March 2017 print edition of Housing magazine

Add new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Latest #ukhousing Tweets

Ecodan for New Build Applications

Latest features

In a nation with nowhere to call home
May 26 2017 - 11:11

They couldn’t have designed it better if they tried. Welfare reform and a lack of genuinely...

Safe as houses: Lone worker safety
May 24 2017 - 14:06

Getting out into the local neighbourhood is an integral part of a housing provider’s day-to-day...

Rent Arrears: The human element
May 24 2017 - 12:03

Everything is digital these days, even rent arrears. So what role can software play in helping...

At home with Councillor Martin Tett
May 23 2017 - 10:39

You’ll never take politics out of the equation, but as the LGA’s housing spokesperson tells Mark...