Catherine Andrews: How to help private sector recruits succeed in the third sector

The recruitment expert offers her advice on how to help people from commercial backgrounds hit the ground running

My last article outlined how you should look in the private sector for staff with the commercial skills to help your charity grow and diversify its income. Once you’ve found your dream candidate, however, you must focus on helping them to make a successful transition. Many want to work in an environment that is more meaningful and are keen to "give back", but most are unlikely to appreciate just how different the world they are stepping into actually is.  

Working for a cause-driven employer can be a shock to people with commercial backgrounds. There is huge scope for creativity and impact, but charities are more complex, face greater restrictions, operate within tighter financial constraints and manage more complicated approval processes than most commercial businesses. All of these factors create an environment that many from the private sector are unlikely to have experienced.

Nevertheless, although some of the stereotypes about the private sector mindset might have some grounding in truth, commercial people don’t one-size-fits-all packages. So how can employers ease the transition into the third sector?

An effective induction

A structured induction is key to helping your new recruit hit the ground running, regardless of the level at which they are coming in or their previous experience. This should help a newcomer get to know your key purposes and messages so they can bring their best to the role from day one. Don’t assume they’ll be aware of the details, and make it as comprehensive as possible.

Include everything, from profiles of key people in your charity and your values and behaviour to strategies, financial information and the governing documents. Providing explicit information about your listening, thinking and decision-making processes is also critical. Understanding these is crucial to the new recruit’s ability to apply their expertise, shape and influence your organisation, and have the impact that you desire.

Negotiate and agree performance indicators so that all parties are aware of what is expected, including the pace at which you want them to introduce change. A clearly stated direction will help your new hire to adjust and start performing in this new environment.

Meeting and greeting

Stakeholder management within the sector requires subtle negotiation skills, balancing the needs of volunteers, trustees, donors, beneficiaries, employees and partners. An ability to bring a nuanced understanding to the needs and interests of these multifarious layers will underpin your new colleague’s success.

Face-to-face meetings with key people are vital to building relationships, and these start as soon as they’re in the job. Encourage your new recruit to view these meetings as an opportunity to get inside the vision, mission and values of your charity and understand how success is evaluated. The aim is to give your newcomer a deep appreciation that will enable them to win hearts and minds and effectively embody your brand. These meetings will furnish them with an appreciation of the motivations of key stakeholders and equip them to manage the delicate task of aligning needs and wishes with your overriding strategic objectives.

Apart from the value of learning about their motivations and perspectives, spending time with the chair and board members is a timely opportunity to press home the practical realities of being governed by a board of trustees who are volunteers with day jobs – busy people who give their expertise because they believe in your cause.

Time well spent

A common concern aired by people who have moved from the private to the third sector is the speed of action. Effective stakeholder engagement requires a planned and coordinated approach, which means it can take longer to reach a decision. Without a simple commercial imperative, the sector must engage with people at an emotional level, as well as a rational one.

Deciding where to invest resources when there is no "right" answer (such as weighing up the case for spend on research versus campaigning or service delivery, where all are equally powerful) requires an ability to connect with the passion and convictions of colleagues and supporters, and offer a measured response. It can, however, feel like a waste of time to someone with a commercial background who is used to a single focus – the bottom line.

It's also important to be up front from the off about the realities of the charity’s financial constraints and choices. As we’ve learnt in this era of austerity, scarcity can stimulate creativity, but positively setting out the limits early on can foster a constructive approach and mitigate possible frustrations further down the line.

In the context of ever-expanding needs and the imperative to prioritise, tough-minded executives with private sector experience can bring a lot to the third sector. The transition can be challenging, but I hope these lessons will help you to facilitate a smooth landing and provide the platform for your new recruit to take the organisation to the next level.

Catherine Andrews is director & UK lead of the not-for-profit practice at Veredus

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