Profile: Karen Wilson, CEO, Origin Housing Author: GUEST POST     
Date: 28th April 2016

Charityworks trainee and Assistant Business Analyst at Origin Housing, Suzanne Birkett, speaks to the CEO at her placement organisation, Karen Wilson.  Karen talks about her career journey to becoming Chief Executive at a large housing association, barriers she had to face and gives advice for those starting out fresh in the social housing sector.


“[My role] is an intellectual challenge, and a chance to get creative in how to support people and create homes that add positively to the local community…”


Karen Wilson, Colin Sherriff, Origin HousingHow did you come to work in housing, and get to your current position as CEO?

After leaving university I knew I wanted a job where I could have an impact but didn’t want to be stuck at a desk all day. I’d always been interested in social work and organisational development so I wrote to local authorities asking for a trainee managerial role. I ended up spending six very formative years at Sheffield City Council just as their housing department was going through extensive reform. It was a great chance to get a breadth of experience across a number of different roles and included spending six months mapping housing services in the city and using this to devise the management structure for the department.

Several years and roles later, I decided that I wanted to leave local government as I felt like there was a lack of decision making and taking of responsibility, which was having an impact on the ability of local authorities to make a real difference in people’s lives and housing situations.

I wanted to use my experience and take on more challenging roles, so became a Regional Director and then Operations and Planning Director for Metropolitan Housing Trust, followed by Operations Director at English Churches Housing Group. The latter was a tough role, but a real confidence booster in terms of knowing what I was capable of doing. I moved to Origin Housing in 2004 and have been here as CEO ever since.

What do you enjoy about your role and is there anything you don’t like?

I really enjoy the business strategy side of things, creating a vision, shaping things, and problem-solving. It’s an intellectual challenge, and a chance to get creative in how to support people and create homes that add positively to the local community, both aesthetically and socially. It’s a privilege to have this job, so I can only really complain about the paperwork!

 “…[in the social housing sector] there aren’t enough women in senior positions.  Only about 37% of leaders are women”


Have you experienced any barriers during your career in the social housing sector?

The only times I felt I was treated negatively because of something was more about my age rather than the fact I was a woman. For example, when I took on increasingly senior roles, many people expected an older person to be doing the job. In terms of whether my gender has made any difference, I can only think of occasions when some of the people we worked with were culturally  used to doing business with men, rather than women.

Housing associations tend to be quite flexible employers so I think this is one of the reasons so many women work in the sector, but there aren’t enough women in senior positions. Only about 37% of leaders are women, and we’re lacking ethnic diversity as a sector too. I think one factor might be the difference in confidence levels between women and men when applying for jobs, with women only applying for those where they have all the competencies being asked for and men more likely to go for those where they only meet some of the criteria. This is gradually changing, but I do think women need to be more confident in what they are capable of, and go for those leadership roles.


“Try and get a breadth of experience by going for a range of roles…Start to build up that mental map of how the sector works.”


What advice would you give to someone starting out in the social housing sector?

Don’t get pigeon-holed into one area of the business.  Try to get that breadth of experience by going for a range of different roles. This way, you get to know the strategic and operational side of things, how things link up, and can start to build up that mental map of how housing associations work and how the sector works as a whole.

As the pace of change is increasing and things are becoming more uncertain, it’s important to know how to engage and connect with people with different skills, and to focus outwards rather than inwards – partnership and collaboration is key!


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