President & CEO of The NHP Foundation, not-for-profit provider of affordable housing.
I once thought the worst six months of my life were spent in army basic training. I thought it would never end. But it did, and I went from struggling to run 100 yards to running a six-minute mile on a dirt track in army boots.
I’ve also weathered the multitude of crises the affordable housing industry has experienced during my tenure as CEO of The NHP Foundation: economic downturns, natural disasters, less-than-optimal government programs, detrimental policy shifts and more.
None of these situations compares, however, to the dual crises of Covid-19 and the ugly effects of racism and social injustice we now face.
The stakes for a not-for-profit, mission-based organization like ours, which provides housing for low- and moderate-income seniors and families, mostly people of color, are perhaps higher and different in this environment. Our actions and reactions must consider a wide variety of stakeholders who need to feel that their voices are heard and their needs met.
Mission-based housing organizations are held accountable by both funding partners who need to see continuous safety and profitability in the developments in which they have invested, and residents who need to see compassionate investment in their well-being, quality of life and ability to stay housed. Add to that the need for compliance with numerous state and federal agencies and the ability for employees to feel secure in their jobs.
The task of running a mission-based business successfully while meeting the needs of each constituency falls on the CEO, but without a highly competent team of professionals who understand how to balance the need for financial success while providing housing safe, clean, affordable housing, it would be impossible.
Over the last four months I have tried to lead our organization with strength and compassion. And as we look ahead to whatever the coming days may bring, I find that answering these questions may provide lessons for not-for-profit and for-profit businesses alike.
1. Are you well-informed and keeping critical audiences informed?
Colin Powell once said that if you have less than 40% of the information, it is not enough to make a decision. If you have 70% of the information, it is too late to make a decision. From the top down, leaders ought to assign staffers sectors from which to gather all relevant information and share it with decision-makers.
In an affordable housing organization, this includes tasking your finance department to constantly maintain financial planning; developers to continue creating new housing despite difficulties; advocacy colleagues to provide information about impactful developments in Treasury, Congress and industry; and of great importance, asset managers and resident services coordinators, “boots on the ground,” to provide intelligence about resident issues from rent payment hardships to racial injustice. With so much information on hand, a housing organization can be highly effective, keeping partners in the loop and residents from eviction. Despite the constraints of quarantine, I urge consistent communication.
2. Are you taking calculated, necessary risks
Maimonides famously said, “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.” Our focus is keeping housing affordable for underserved Americans, but whatever your mission-critical is, leaders must move forward decisively in today’s risky environment. Armed with real-time feedback, critical thinking and dialogues with valued industry colleagues, companies in affordable housing or any other development must keep their pipelines moving forward.
For us, it is crucial to continue providing vital affordable housing during these uncertain times. Being sensitive to health needs by utilizing extra precautions, we have successfully relocated residents, made property improvements, continued ground-up construction and secured more affordable housing financing. We are also planning our fourth highly regarded annual Symposium this October. Like many organizations, we have calculated the risks and are excited to pivot this in-person event to a virtual convening. To anyone in the planning stages of their own event, it is reassuring to note that top-notch speakers and sponsors agree that maintaining informative industry events is critical.
3. Can you effectively lead and get out of the way?
Confident leadership in setting the tone and direction for an organization is just as important as acknowledging the strengths of individuals throughout that organization. For example, virtual weekly staff calls run by the staffers with something to report — very little hierarchy — allows leaders to stay informed and get to know each other better. This type of reporting boosts teamwork.
I also encourage others to form working groups to address important, topical issues such as racism and social injustice. Keenly important to our work as a not-for-profit, we are reviewing properties, residents and the communities we serve (including our relations with local police) to see if our organization is doing all it can to combat inequality. I also recommend regular companywide polls to ferret out issues that need addressing.
4. Are you able to predict the future?
No, of course not. But leaders can put programming and policies into place to proffer the softest possible landing into wherever the new world order takes us. Be in constant discussion with property managers as well as every vendor, partner and service provider. Each conversation helps to draft and refine contingency plans. As leaders, you must address the concerns of everyone you do business with today while still planning for tomorrow.
5. Can you do all of this with compassion?
While these days are fraught with stress and fear, it is smart and healthy to stay compassionate. It may be natural during times of economic and societal uncertainty to focus on business at the expense of common courtesy. But the two are never mutually exclusive. Taking a moment for kindness provides psychological and physical benefits. A study found that “taking part in self-compassion exercises calms the heart rate, switching off the body’s threat response.” Remind your colleagues and associates to add kindness to each interaction they have. Everyone reaps the rewards of forming more meaningful, productive relationships that carry them into the future.