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Stepping up

10 March 2020 at 8:19 am
Lea Corbett
Continuing the NFP leadership series, Lea Corbett and Amanda Cornwall from Map consulting group ask Unison Housing CEO Ed Holmes about the experiences and challenges of leading a NFP.

Lea Corbett | 10 March 2020 at 8:19 am

Amanda Cornwall


Stepping up
10 March 2020 at 8:19 am

Continuing the NFP leadership series, Lea Corbett and Amanda Cornwall from Map consulting group ask Unison Housing CEO Ed Holmes about the experiences and challenges of leading a NFP.

Ed Holmes took over as CEO of housing association Unison just over 12 months ago in challenging circumstances. As he became the third CEO of the organisation in a little over 12 months, he knew the challenges that lay ahead, including the need to boost the morale of staff who were experiencing what one might describe as “change fatigue”. 

Despite a lengthy career in senior executive roles in the private sector and NFPs, the move up to the position of CEO was a bit of a surprise.

“I can’t stress enough how different it is from being in a 2IC role, where you are part of an executive team,” Holmes says.

“There is a much, much sharper sense of responsibility – for your staff, clients and finances – as CEO.” 

Holmes said he marshalled every bit of experience and learning he could from his former roles as a finance executive in the private sector and senior positions in not for profits, to help stabilise and unite the organisation. When we asked him if it is lonely at the top, his response was “absolutely it is”.

Unison Housing – Vitals

Sector: Housing

Purpose: Collaborate to create vibrant, sustainable communities that meet the needs of renters, owners and people who are homeless, by developing, managing and providing access to affordable housing

Annual budget: Over $28 million

Staff: Around 100


Holmes says he has found ways to navigate the new role through the use of a coach, who he meets with on a monthly basis or more regularly if needed, and by reaching out to some of his board members and the board chair. He says his board is very talented and supportive, and absolutely encouraged his decision to bring in a coach. 

“There are some matters you simply can’t discuss with your direct reports, so you have to set up other supports and trusted sources for advice and ‘frank and fearless’ feedback,” he says.

High risk environment

There are risks associated with managing some $300 million in affordable housing properties and providing homelessness services to some of the most vulnerable people in Melbourne. Potential incidents or accidents at one of Unison’s many properties are things that Holmes says keep him awake at night. 

“We have a duty of care to our tenants. Despite our regular property inspections and robust maintenance regimes there is always the potential for incidents to occur,” he says. 

The well-being of Unison staff is also top of mind for Holmes. 

“Dealing with clients with complex issues is always challenging and something we have to constantly monitor and manage,” he says. 

Holmes admits that anyone working in the community housing field must also despair at the lack of affordable housing and hence the growing level of homelessness in Melbourne.

Unison is one of the largest providers of services for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Like other housing providers, Unison staff have witnessed a rise in the number of people in housing stress or crisis, including older women who don’t have a home of their own and can no longer afford high rentals, or women and children fleeing domestic violence or partners with gambling or other addictions. 

“What I worry about is not just the pressure our staff face day in and day out dealing with people in urgent housing need, but the people who miss out on housing assistance,” Holmes says.

“We don’t always have a lot we can offer. Unfortunately, the resources are not sufficient for everybody who comes to us.”

Caring for each other

The housing field attracts skilled and highly dedicated staff and Holmes feels a strong obligation and responsibility to reduce burnout and staff turnover. Unison rotates jobs so that the same people are not always doing the emotionally intense roles such as face-to-face interviews. They also have dedicated education and training for staff on how to manage stress, avoid being overwhelmed and to boost resilience. 

“Above all else, we try to foster an environment where everyone is mindful about their colleagues and prepared to speak up or step in if things don’t look to be going well,” he says.

Holmes says that the culture of the organisation and the values fit of staff are hugely important in the sector and at Unison. It is what sustains people under the most pressured circumstances. 

“Our people genuinely care for the people they are trying to support, they respect them and don’t judge them for their choices in life,” he says.

“Our approach to recruitment not only takes into account the skills and experience people have, but also the values of the person and the alignment they have with Unison and its mission.”

Like in many NFPs, Unison’s staff are dispersed across multiple offices making the challenge of maintaining a sense of “we are all in this together” a little more difficult. Holmes has worked hard over the past year to unite staff, build a Unison spirit and recognise the achievements of individuals, teams and also tenants.

“Our fortnightly newsletter features a profile of one staff member in each edition, and in my monthly email to all staff I project the optimism and confidence I have in the Unison team. It is an opportunity to reflect on what’s gone well for the organisation and its clients,” Holmes says.

He has also introduced three all-staff get-togethers each year where different teams showcase their communities, programs and unique contributions.

“On a day-to-day basis we also try to start all meetings by recognising those staff members who have been working hard to live our values. We want our values to always be top of mind, to play an integral role in every day, every decision, every interaction,” he says. 

High reward

What advice would Holmes give to people who aspire to be a CEO of a not for profit? 

He says that being the CEO of a not for profit is a tough gig – no doubt about it. There are always funding pressures and demand for affordable housing keeps increasing. Many of the people they see at Unison depend on the organisation and stable housing to enable them to deal with very challenging issues in their lives. 

Patience and resilience are two of the qualities Holmes believes are required in a CEO. 

“Patience because change takes time and no-one is going to be able to turn things around overnight, no matter how good they think they are. And resilience because there are times when you don’t think there is any more room left in your head or your heart to deal with another tough management problem or the unimaginable circumstances of some people’s lives,” he says.

“Take breaks – that’s all I can suggest, people need to have an outlet to relax!”

Holmes also regularly reminds himself and his colleagues of the enormous rewards. 

“We do make a difference – there are many people who would otherwise be on the streets if it weren’t for the job the team at Unison is doing. Stable housing, and links to good services can and do change lives,” he says.

Taking a moment to consider an even bigger picture, what would Holmes do if he were premier of Victoria for the year?

“Victoria has one of the lowest percentage levels of investment per capita in social and public housing in Australia and the OECD,” he laments. 

“It’s not a top-of-mind issue for the Victorian electoral but more affordable housing investment is urgently required.

“The renewal of public housing and capacity growth of housing associations has been a slow process and needs to happen quicker to deliver more affordable housing in Victoria.”

And what would he keep? 

“The level crossing removal program”, he enthuses. “It just makes sense to me.”


This article is the fourth in a six-part NFP Leadership series. 

Map consulting group initiated this series of interviews with not for profit CEOs to share their insights about the role and support the success of leaders in the sector, current and emerging.

See also:

My first 100 days

Leading through change

Purpose gets you through

Lea Corbett  |  @ProBonoNews

Lea Corbett is the founder and director of Map consulting group.

Amanda Cornwall  |  @ProBonoNews

Amanda Cornwall is a consultant with Map consulting group. She is a public interest advocate, senior policy and campaign expert.

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