Denise Fowler: A singularly diverse career at Women’s Pioneer Housing
Denise is the Chief Executive of Women’s Pioneer Housing, a women’s housing association in West London, which was established by suffragettes and suffragists in 1920. The association owns and manages 1,000 high quality social homes for single women in West London.
Denise also co-founded and co-chairs the Women’s Housing Forum, which aims to raise awareness of the links between women’s housing needs and gender inequality. The Forum’s ambition is to encourage social housing providers and other partners to work together to tackle the issues that women face in finding and keeping suitable housing.
Denise is a member of the Executive Board of the G320, which represents smaller Housing Associations across London (up to 2,500 homes). She is a Board member for Wandle Housing, a housing association in South London with around 7,000 homes.
Denise’s previous roles include being the Housing Ombudsman for England. Appointed by the Secretary of State to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants, and as a senior lawyer in government. She headed Departmental legal teams in three government departments: Communities and Local Government (now MHCLG), Work and Pensions and Health. Earlier in her career, she worked in local government and the voluntary sector.
It would be safe to say that her early life experiences have had a significant influence on Denise’s career choices. She grew up in a working class family in South London. The family became homeless when she was two weeks old and, it wasn’t until she was six, having moved constantly and having been hospitalised for several months after a life changing accident that her family were finally offered a council home. That home, Denise explains, transformed her life. She and her family now had access to health, education and social connections. This enabled them to thrive and succeed and she is determined to support others to have the same opportunities.
A lightbulb moment in a sparkling career
It was as the Housing Ombudsman that Denise first met some of the consulting team from You Collective. Denise says of the work she did with the You Collective team, which included executive coaching, team development and cultural change:
The work we did together made a massive difference. I constantly asked myself ‘how can I support people to be at their best?’. This was very different to the approach I had experienced in the civil service where a set of competencies were used to judge people against a notional ‘identikit’ civil servant with no recognition of the need for diversity.
“The work we did together made a massive difference. I constantly asked myself ‘how can I support people to be at their best?’. This was very different to the approach I had experienced in the civil service.”
Denise Fowler — Women’s Pioneer Housing
Denise retained the consulting team to provide executive coaching for herself and for other members of her senior leadership team, as well as applying the tools and techniques from coaching to develop the team and culture at the Ombudsman as a whole.
I know that my strengths are dynamism, pace, decisiveness but the strengths approach enabled me and the team to understand how different strengths could help with the same challenges.
For example I recall asking one candidate, who was extremely compassionate, whether she would find it difficult dealing with underperformers. But she explained that her compassion for the whole team meant that it was essential to deal with the poor performer. She was able to use her empathy and compassion to explore poor performance with individuals to explain how a failure to meet the standards expected impacted on the whole team and why things needed to change.
So what was Denise’s greatest learning from this personal development work?
That organisations are all about people and that recognising people’s individual strengths and building from them gives the best chance of success.
Making a difference in a new context
Denise’s move from the Housing Ombudsman to Women’s Pioneer Housing has seen even wider application of her more appreciative, inclusive approach, with her senior management team and the wider organisation.
I have a very diverse SMT in terms of skills, strengths and behaviours and I really value that diversity. We have learned to gain value from it, by getting to know our own people and bringing our best selves to work. By getting closer to having more ‘flow’ moments at work, where we experience less of the grind.
And what about the wider organisation?
We take equality and empowerment very seriously in our work at Women’s Pioneer. In fact, the organisation was set up to address structural inequality in housing for women and we continue that mission today. Our core values are reflected in the way that we engage with residents, so that we are honest with them about housing issues. And this is also reflected in how we support each other as a team. We feel it’s important to deal directly with issues that may be affecting our residents and staff e.g. Black Lives Matters, the Windrush scandal, violence against women and girls, homophobia, domestic abuse. We need to allow people time and space to discuss these issues and take action to address any issues identified. We also know that there’s always more we can learn.
“We take equality and empowerment very seriously in our work at Women’s Pioneer. In fact, the organisation was set up to address structural inequality in housing for women and we continue that mission today.“
Denise Fowler — Women’s Pioneer Housing
Denise’s inspirational story shows how you can continue to grow and develop throughout your career, as long as you’re intentional about it and take on board the learning wherever you find it.