Recruitment - prepare well when looking for a leader

If you don't go through the right processes when you need to recruit a chief executive, their tenure might prove to be a short one, writes Rebecca Cooney

When a charity is looking for a new chief executive, getting the right fit is crucial, as two recent high-profile cases can attest. Two years ago, Ben Kernighan left the National Union of Students after only 10 months. Last year, Rosemary Gillespie was asked to step down only 15 months after her appointment as chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust. She is currently contesting her dismissal at an employment tribunal.

Such short tenures can be a sign that something went wrong with the recruitment process. So how can charities ensure they hire the person for the long term?

Rob Hayter, recruitment director at the specialist charity agency TPP, says the first step is for charities to be aware of their organisation's culture. "About four out of five new appointments that fail do so because of cultural misfit," he says.

David Fielding, managing partner at the executive recruitment provider Attenti, says that by the time a charity draws up a shortlist, the candidates should have been narrowed to the point where all of them have the necessary skills. But an insufficiently detailed brief at the start of the process can cause problems. "The board and top team need to be spending more time being clear and getting an honest, warts-and-all assessment of where are they now, where they want to go, the pace of change needed and what kind of chief executive they want," he says.

Grant Taylor, partner at Peridot Partners, which works with the charity leaders body Acevo to help charities recruit leaders, says a common problem is that charities are not proactive enough. "Most prospective candidates are not the sort of people who respond to advertising," he says. Advertising alone might reach only one or two out of 10 possible candidates, he says. "There aren't that many good leaders out there, and they might already be doing a good job somewhere else," he says. "So you have to be prepared to go out and approach people with a story to entice them in."

After identifying candidates, charities need to have a robust assessment process, Taylor says, that includes an interview and possibly psychometric tests. But the most important thing is to involve different stakeholders, he adds. Fielding says it is wise to ask candidates to interact with beneficiaries: "The validity of an HR decision increases with the amount of data you take on," he says. "The more stages you have, the more confidence you can have in the validity of your decision."

One source of discord for a new leader can come from unsuccessful internal candidates. The best way to handle this, Hayter says, is to ensure transparency and give feedback.

Once a candidate has been chosen, Hayter says, it is important that both the charity and the new chief are clear about what success looks like.

"You need targets," he says. "I have seen situations in which, six months in, the appointee thinks it's all right, but the board is dissatisfied - and it's because they haven't explained what they want."

It's also vital that charities don't hide any problems from candidates, Taylor says - the successful candidate will find out anyway, and nasty surprises will only create problems.

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