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Nigel Wilson

Published on: Wednesday 11th March 2020

Authored by Nigel Wilson

Group Chief Executive

Gentoo Group

New challenges and opportunities

I felt compelled to share a little of my journey and the role Windsor Leadership played in helping me realise the time for change was upon me.

It was my then Chair,  Bishop David Walker,  who suggested that if I was considering some further leadership development I ought to look at the Windsor model.  I dutifully researched the website and felt that it was a good fit and would offer me something away from the ‘Housing’ specific world I occupied.

The course is really the perfect balance of space and time to truly reflect on yourself with invaluable insights from the amazing cohort you share time with.  It’s fair to say in my group they would not normally be people I’d have the opportunity to spend time with; a Bishop, a senior ranking female RAF Officer, the Chief Executive of an African Charity, a Research Scientist and a Dean of a Medical School!  All incredible people with truly inspiring personal stories but also kind, challenging, insightful and generous.

The end of the first part of the course left me with a realisation that after over 12 years in my existing role it was time to open my mind to new opportunities and push myself to consider them.  I was mindful that at age 56 I could comfortably stay in my current role or take on something bigger and more challenging.

Making a life changing decision

So a few weeks after I returned home, I got a call from a headhunter about a role several hundreds of miles from home, up in the North East, with an organisation that had been in some serious difficulties, with a non-compliant regulatory grading, a challenging reputation and also twice the size of my existing organisation!  My immediate reaction was no!  It was too far away, would involve a family relocation, it was a troubled business and all seemed a bit much.  But then the voices of my peers from the course made themselves heard!  I explored the role in more detail with the headhunter,  my network of trusted peers and then my Chair.  His wisdom and coaching made me think about the positives and I felt convinced that the role was a great fit and I should go for it.  I also knew personally that I was not ready to be comfortable!

That was last June and I began the role on 2nd January this year.  The last nine months have flown by and combining my initial commute to the North East whilst trying to buy and sell a house with the challenges of a new CEO role was ambitious!  But after the usual traumas of sales falling through, delays on the purchase and then living out of a hotel for a few weeks, it all settled down.  My old commute of 100 miles a day became 18 and life in the North East has been a joy with easy access to open space, a beautiful coastline and no motorway madness.  The North East is built around great people and amazing scenery and really is a hidden gem.

Sharing the vision

My new organisation had been through the scrutiny of the Regulator and had faced regional and national media spotlight for past issues with leadership and weak governance.  The 1200 colleagues had been left disappointed, frustrated, angry and they felt betrayed.  My first job was to sit down with as many colleagues as I could in the first 2 months (1000 in 1 hour sessions groups of 20 twice a day). I got to hear their issues first-hand as well as their priorities and hopes.  I got to share my vision, hopes for the business and how this was going to be different.  I reinforced that they were doing important jobs for the community and great work but been let down by the previous top team.

I started a weekly video message to all colleagues to ensure they hear first-hand what’s happening.  I also introduced monthly one to one’s, team meetings and core briefings for everyone which had previously not been taking place consistently.  Lots of simple things were put in place to build confidence and share information.  None of it is rocket science, just good practice.

Setting goals

Investors in People had done an assessment that demonstrated we had slipped from Gold Standard to Silver so we had six months to get this back in order and did so with the key engagement of colleagues across all the business.  The business is based in Sunderland but had over time lost focus on its core business of housing in Sunderland so we restated this and shared a clear message with colleagues, tenants and external partners that this is why we exist and our clear social purpose.

I recently had the first week off since January to relax and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what we have managed to get through in the first eight months and it is considerable.  Pace and momentum has been key.  It is important we set a realistic pace so we don’t leave people behind, but also everyone knows we must move forward, change and modernise.  Change is difficult for some and there is no old world space to hide in.  We are all different and I was fortunate to inherit a senior leadership team with a variety of talents and experience, and importantly a shared ambition to get the ship back on an even keel and move forward positively.  A simple thing we did at the beginning was put glass in the doors of Directors offices and knock down some walls to open the floor space up so we were accessible and able to communicate open messages and remove the old school doors and barriers to contact.

Making a difference

Windsor helped me make the change and gave me the belief that this move was right and I will always be grateful for this.  We all need to be open to change and new opportunities and be brave when the time is right.  The simple uncluttered style of the Windsor course allowed all participants quickly to establish trust and be open with each other.  People shared some challenging and difficult situations because they felt able to and got the support from each other that allowed this to be done.  It was interesting at the programme part two some 6 months later, how we had all learned from the first session and made changes based on the work and feedback given.

The Leadership challenges faced in the run up to my new role and since taking up post can be captioned as:-

  1. Clarity of vision
  2. Communication
  3. Belief and trust
  4. Honesty
  5. Confidence

The bottom line is, no matter how long we have been in a leadership role we all learn every day.  We must be open to different voices and, crucially in my view, have clarity of why we do what we do, for me it’s a social purpose to make a difference in our communities.

Nigel Wilson



Authentic and Confident leadership leadership development Effective leadership

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