Elizabeth Balgobin: Don't rush into a fling when looking for your next chief

Finding the right leader for your charity takes time, says our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

Last week, Ruth Lesirge wrote in her Checklist in Third Sector about the challenges for a charity in selecting its next chief executive. This struck a chord with me because my fellow trustees and I at Voice4Change England are going through this process and our experience might be of interest to others.

We were faced with the departure of our director earlier this summer. Vandna Gohil was with the organisation from the start, had been synonymous with the charity and was the face of its work. Above all, she was trusted, liked and respected. As trustees, the discussion and debate about what we should do to fill her role engaged us more than the accounts or the risk register.

Take your time

We decided to have that debate electronically, which meant that every board member was able to be involved in it. As chair, I felt this allowed the debate to be conducted more thoroughly than if we had constrained ourselves to a two-hour emergency meeting that some would not have been able to attend.

We are taking our time. We recruited an interim director through an open advert to give us time to decide what the organisation needs. This transition period allows us to explore all of our options and to decide what skills will be necessary for the next three years. It also gives us time to recruit.

Taking this approach makes perfect sense to me. When a significant and strong relationship in our personal lives comes to an end, for whatever reasons, we need some time to mourn that loss. Rushing into a new relationship always raises eyebrows because it is rare to find 'the one' during this mourning phase, and it can be hard to make a rational decision at such a time.

And the flings you have between these significant relationships serve a purpose. If this can be said of our own relationships, why shouldn't an organisation have some sort of transitional relationship?

Be open to new people

My point is that a charity should avoid grabbing the first person it finds when it is trying to recruit - it is far more sensible to take your time. We all know of organisations where a hasty marriage has led to long days and nights of repentance.

Equally, while you might have a good idea about what sort of person suits your organisation, you should be open to trying someone you might think is 'out of your league' or might challenge your way of thinking.

In finding the right person to replace a member of your team - your next 'long-term relationship' - it is important that your charity does not fear rejecting people or even being 'single' for a while. The real story begins when the romances end - and living happily ever after is possible with thought and care.

Reflecting on our experience I cannot imagine a risk register that does not list loss of key personnel as a risk factor, but what do we actually do to mitigate this? Usually, not a lot. When you are working with someone and that relationship is functioning well, few of us are likely to wonder if we need a different sort of person.

We might comfort ourselves by thinking that all will be well, that we know how to recruit effectively and that there are competent people out there. As well as this, there is invariably a notice period and a bit of time to get your head around what to do next.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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