Hail to the chief executive

If you're looking for your first job as a leader, there are a number of different approaches you can take, both formal and informal. Stephen Bubb, head of the chief executives body Acevo, suggests how to go about it.

A pay survey for 2006/07 recently published by my organisation Acevo revealed that 80 per cent of third sector chief executives joined the sector from the private or public sectors. Thirty-three per cent of them came from private organisations.

This demonstrates the unique and challenging role of a third sector chief executive - a profession of which we should be rightly proud - but it begs the question: in what way are we investing in our own good people?

The statistics also provide interesting food for thought for would-be third sector chief executives. What qualities does the sector seem to be looking for and how can prospective candidates from within the sector demonstrate these qualities?

Passion for the cause and empathy with the organisational needs of the charity are of course paramount, but clearly a breadth of experience is more interesting and therefore helpful in such a varied role.

'Charity' has increasingly come to mean 'business', and a commercial edge will also stand you in good stead. Use your experience of the sector to your advantage. Think about how often and in what way you worked with the board in your role as a senior manager or director.

Apart from this approach, though, you'll be pleased to know that there are other ways to go about getting your first chief executive position. Below are four of the key routes.

Life-long learning

The role of third sector chief executives has unique characteristics that mark it out from the same role in the public and private sectors. They need to be able to manage both a paid and an unpaid workforce.

In addition to that, they face increasing expectations about high-quality service and have to tackle the perpetual issue of limited resources. They have to work at a range of levels - strategic, hands-on and political. And they often need to move from macro-management to micro-management on a daily basis.

There is no 'school for chief executives' to teach prospective leaders all of this. However, there are courses and books that can provide an excellent insight into the challenges they face.

Such insight can really help participants decide whether or not the role of chief executive is right for them; many choose against. My advice here would be to trust your instincts, because this is something you will have to do increasingly in your future role as a chief executive.

So what kind of resources might you look at? Acevo's Next Generation CEO course, run in association with Cass Business School, is a good starting point, offering insight into the challenges that a chief executive will face. It is a practical introduction to the knowledge and skills required to be an effective chief executive for up-and-coming leaders who see their next step to be with that role.

Cass's Fiona Ash has written The Chief Executive's First 100 Days: a Roadmap for Success. She emphasises the need for new leaders to take stock of their organisations and for first-time leaders to take stock of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Aside from this, the Clore Duffield Foundation has recently consulted on the development of an emerging leadership programme for the third sector. Building on the Clore Leadership programme for the cultural sector, the proposal is to create a new programme to identify and recognise talent and develop new leadership within the sector.

This proposal has been given the backing of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said that the sector required top-quality leadership. He added: "The foundation's sustained leadership training would be a tremendous boost both to the sector and to society as a whole."

Whatever training you do, engaging in professional development is an obvious plus for an aspiring chief executive. A competitive market will expect you to have an edge; demonstrating a commitment to professional development is vital.

That said, our third sector chief executives do tend to carry a guilt complex about investing time and money in themselves. A challenge for our next-generation leaders, therefore, is to 'be the change you want to see'. Ultimately, it's about investing in your life-long learning and remaining committed to that development.

Peer-to-peer mentoring

It is important to recognise that development is not limited to a formal structure. The best leaders also learn from their inspiring peers, and mentoring is important throughout your career.

When Acevo jointly launched two publications - First 100 Days and Leaving the Organisation - the launch event not only offered aspiring and experienced chief executives the chance to network, but also enabled some fantastic mentoring opportunities to be created.

Mentoring can be useful, not only for tips on chief executive-type behaviour, but also for specific knowledge on who's who in your area of the sector. Your advantage in the job market can stem from your networks; a mentoring relationship is a fantastic way of taking advantage of this.

There are many ways to a find mentor - by going directly to individuals in your own charity, for example, or by talking to people in sister organisations or bodies similar in structure to your own.

You could even consider becoming a mentor yourself. Organisations such as Reach provide excellent opportunities for you to use your expertise for the benefit of other organisations.

Building and using your networks

Building and utilising networks has been hailed as the secret of success in the third sector job market. Get your name and face out there. Raising your profile will undoubtedly help in your quest.

That said, it is important to go out with a message. Think about the impression you want to create. How do you want to be remembered? Your reputation will go before you. Ensure that you are remembered as interesting and credible. Always follow up a first-time meeting with an email.

Developing your network may be a little tricky, especially if you have previously been in a low-profile role or if you have been out of the loop for a while. So take every opportunity to attend receptions, awards ceremonies and social events. Actively seek them out. And remember: successful chief executives display initiative and self-belief.

Other than that, call on old friends or those who may be able to supply you with useful advice. Ideally, your network will have been developed and maintained during your career to date.

If not, don't be afraid to drop an invitation to coffee or dinner along the way. Think about what you will gain from investing in these relationships, and ask the right questions.

Networking is not a scientific process, but one to be tackled from the point of view of a human being. Be personable and display attractive qualities. Whatever happens, try not to appear too desperate.

Recognising opportunities along the way

There will be elements that affect your job search over which you will have no control. A chance conversation or encounter, for example, could change your situation.

The number of potential employers and employees in the job market at any one time will fluctuate, so be flexible in your approach.

Your path to the role of chief executive will not always be clear-cut.

Remain open-minded about other routes to the top, too. Consider a sideways step from the role of senior manager in a large organisation to chief executive in a smaller one, or perhaps vice versa.

A move into the directorship of a large organisation from the chief executive of a smaller one can bring with it all sorts of new experiences and challenges.

Whatever happens, be focused on your goal and persevere. Don't lose sight of yourself by getting bogged down in the processes. Getting certain things right will be critical to your success, but ensure that your humour, health and personal development are not sacrificed. And that means you shouldn't neglect opportunities for life outside of work. Whether it's a non-executive directorship, bell-ringing or claret drinking, try to remember your humanity.


When you're going for your first chief executive job, you might consider using an executive search agency to help you. This type of service can be valuable for prospective senior managers, offering them the chance of an introduction to charities they might not otherwise know about or be able to gain access to. Nonetheless, prospective candidates still need to be careful about how they find and take their first steps with such agencies if they want the relationship to be truly productive.

According to Kate Mason, head of executive resourcing at the search agency Praxis, a preliminary stage - before you even start talking to an agency - is to prepare your CV, ensuring it includes a profile that is heavily biased towards your ability to handle the job of chief executive. Making this initial effort, rather than expecting the recruitment consultant to do it on your behalf, will stand you in good stead with them, helping to demonstrate your professionalism.

After that, says Mason, it's important to find a consultancy that will proactively market you as a candidate. "Some search agencies will find individuals only once they've been appointed by an organisation," she warns. "They won't necessarily represent single candidates."

Once you have pinpointed a suitable agency - perhaps through word of mouth from your peers, or by talking to the chief executives body Acevo - it is then critical that you insist on meeting your consultant face to face.

"When you've met in person, your consultant is going to be a lot better able to promote you to the kind of organisation you want to work for," says Andrew Timlin, associate director at the search agency Hays Executive.

Mason says: "This may be more important in the voluntary sector than any other because prospective chief executives are likely to feel passionate about that particular cause; it'll often be something close to their hearts rather than a simple career move.

"The consultant therefore needs to understand exactly why and how the cause is important to that individual in order to be able to represent them best."

Finally, once you've met your consultant and they start finding interviews for you, make sure you keep in touch with them on a regular basis.

"Ensure you keep yourself at the forefront of the consultant's mind," says Timlin. "Put in regular calls and keep them updated about any progress you might have made with job searches independently."


  • Do your research Know where you want to go and what is out there. Make sure you are talking to the right people. Others in the sector will be a good source of information.
  • Polish your CV Your CV must be right; it will be your first impression on your potential new employer. Avoid waffle and a self-congratulatory tone. In the case of an application form, give a straight answer to every question. Get to the point, quickly.
  • Prepare Be fully prepared if you go for an interview - otherwise you will not be doing yourself justice. Research what the organisation is looking for; no one appreciates a time-waster. Processes can be arduous, but go along with it and it will pay off in the end.
  • Sell, sell, sell Use market principles to 'sell' yourself to potential employers.

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