One-on-One with Michele Adair
What led to you to make such a commitment to the community housing sector?
My motivation is deeply personal and professional. Having been on the brink of homelessness as a child and then again as a single mum I know it can happen to anyone. Life throws curve balls at all of us and sometimes they hit with devastating consequences. Housing stress is a terrifying, humiliating and all-consuming experience. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to help other people avoid it. Professionally, I love the commercial challenge of doing property deals, creativity in the design process and the complexity of engaging with all three levels of government. And then there is the very best bit – giving someone the key to safe, secure, affordable home.
Can you share your journey in making such a transformational change with the Housing Trust (HT) from a non-compliant organisation on the brink of administration to an award-winning development enterprise.
In any crisis, the first thing you have to do is prioritise. I was given about 6 weeks to prepare and have a compliance action plan accepted by the Regulator. That had to come first as they would have turned our lights off otherwise. Despite the challenges, everyone at the Housing Trust had always believed in our vision – a decent home for everyone. I used that vision, and constant references to our values – integrity, respect, collaboration and support, to get our people aligned and focused on the future. Seven months after I started, we exchanged contracts to buy a vacant retirement village. We renovated 25 units, using our own people rather than contractors whenever possible to boost their sense of pride, and we celebrated progress every step of the way. They were the first new homes we’d added to the portfolio in years and everyone was so proud. That was a critical turning point. I continued to build the team and we lace more emphasis on values and vision alignment than on skills or industry experience when we are recruiting. We were fully compliant with all aspects of the Regulatory Code within a year of delivery of my plan and we continue to grow our portfolio and our social and economic impact. Staff who were ashamed to work for the Housing Trust now encourage their family and friends to apply for jobs with us.
You are seen as a role model in leadership … what three things do you believe are critical as a leader.
Leadership means doing things differently, working with incomplete information, disrupting systems or challenging the status quo. If you’re going to lead, then you need to be courageous. You’ll get push back from the stakeholders who are invested in the way things currently operate. They can be very powerful, often unseen and they necessarily be kind, polite, honest or rational.
You also need to be vulnerable, especially with the people you work most closely with. It’s important to say “I don’t know … I’m not sure”, to ask for advice and really listen to what you’re being told. You’ll get lots of great ideas but also build trust. Trust is the foundation of a great culture and essential for sustaining organisational performance.
The third thing is to be authentic. Being really comfortable in your own skin, warts and all, is so important. Modern work, health and safety approaches embrace supporting people in the context of their whole being and life context. It’s not about over sharing, just sharing enough to help everyone understand and care about each other as people.
When looking at how women have progressed in your industry, what personal attributes or skills do you feel are essential for women to acquire or strengthen that would create a level playing field in terms of equity, equal opportunity.
The playing field is not level, and it never will be. There will always be people who face more barriers to success than others. Every woman is different and the challenges we face are different too. Accepting that as it affects you personally and identifying how your privilege can create bias is an important first step.
If there are common attributes to breaking down the barriers for women, I think the first is having unwavering confidence in your right to be at the table and to have your voice heard and be respected. Whether sharing a great idea, calling out unacceptable behaviour, or being consulted on a decision that affects you. It is important to have the confidence to know you have the right and the responsibility, to be heard regardless of your gender, ethnicity, age, religion, ability, sexual identity or any other attribute.
Knowing when and how to communicate is also really important. Do you make a bold point in a meeting or have a quiet word with some other people first? Have you planned your keynote and practiced the delivery so that your nerves are under control? Know how to give feedback and ask for what you want. Learn to compromise on budgets, the scope of a project, timelines etc, but never compromise your values or sense of self-worth.
Resilience and courage are hallmarks of your career. This is also evident in your advocacy where you rely on respect and collaboration to challenge economic disadvantage and social inequity. What is your definition of resilience?
Resilience is the ability to keep functioning through disruption. It is often described as an event or a quality you are just lucky to be born with. The reality is very different and building resilience is intentional. It is a process of constant adaptation and adjustment. Of course, being optimistic and confident helps, but so does good planning, understanding risk and working up scenarios.
You are seen as part of a growing chorus of experts calling for governments to build more social housing and as a voice for the industry to help people understand the complexities of social and affordable housing. Is there something you would still like to say?
I’d like everyone, whether they are making professional decisions about designing or pricing a project or managing their own investment property, to ask themselves “is this an opportunity to ease the housing crisis just a little?”. If we all make small changes, we can have a massive impact.
If we were meeting again in 12 months’ time, what would you like to be celebrating
That we have taken the immediate short-term steps to house everyone who is homeless, just as we did during Covid, and that we have begun implementing a plan to re-design the housing system so that everyone has a safe, secure, affordable home in the future.
This interview forms part of a UDIA D&I Committee initiative series to encourage and highlight more diversity in UDIA and the property industry. It is intended to highlight diversity by profiling our members through industry publications on a regular basis throughout the year. Thank you to Michele Adair, CEO, Housing Trust.
Since 2018, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee has been one of the key Business Advisory Committees for the UDIA NSW, focussed on improving and promoting diversity and inclusion in the UDIA and our industry. This year, we launched the ‘One Thing’ campaign – celebrating and sharing the ‘one thing’ that we’re doing to empower people by respecting, supporting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, and education. What’s your One Thing?