John Tizard: How to appoint a chair or chief executive

In the second of our articles for Trustees Week, our guest columnist says when appointing a chair or a chief executive, charity trustees must be bold, imaginative and true to their mission

John TIzard
John TIzard

Some of the most important and critical decisions for any charity trustee board are the appointments of chief executive and chair.

There are significant differences between appointing chairs and chief executives because their roles are very different. However, from my experience of sitting on both sides of the interview process, I believe that there are some elements of both that are fundamentally the same, or at least very similar.

Some charities will have a tradition (or even a constitutional requirement) of appointing their chairs from within their existing boards; others will have the right (and/or make the conscious choice) to open the recruitment to external candidates. In the latter case, this does not prevent existing board members being considered as part of the process provided they meet the selection criteria. The same applies for the role of chief executive, where internal applications should be considered only if they meet the selection criteria, rather than because of some false and irrational emotional gesture. Such inappropriate actions for either post do nothing but harm the recruitment process and the people involved.

When you need to recruit and appoint a chair or a chief executive, my advice to trustees is:

  • Plan as early as possible: succession planning for the chair should be a continuous activity.
  • Appoint a sub-committee/panel of the board to lead and handle the recruitment process. It is essential to agree the scope of the panel’s delegated authority and what will require a board decision – for example, final appointment based on recommendation from the panel. To command the confidence of the full board, panels should be diverse in every way, including opinions.
  • Decide whether to engage recruitment or headhunting consultants and, if so, develop a brief and procurement process (keeping this as simple as possible).
  • If appointing advisers, decide the scope of their involvement, but always encourage them to challenge every aspect of the panel/board’s decisions.I
  • Be clear about the key strategic challenges facing the charity over the coming years and its objectives.
  • Consequently, consider what experience, perspectives, skills and styles potential candidates will need. Don’t simply replicate what has gone before or just seek a clone of the outgoing post-holder.
  • Person specifications need to be as wide as possible so as not to discourage exciting and excellent candidates.
  • In the case of a chair appointment, be clear on the role the chief executive should play. She/he must not be allowed to have a veto or think that they have such a right. That said, any sensible board should consider the views of the chief executive (unless the decision to recruit a chair is partially or wholly driven by a need to address issues with the chief executive).
  • Agree how beneficiaries, staff and other stakeholders will be meaningfully involved in the recruitment process. In my view, such involvement should be non-negotiable. Of course, stakeholders should not have a veto, but the appointment panel should consider their views.
  • Ensure that all recruitment material is honest, comprehensive, compelling and exciting.
  • Remember that the charity must sell itself to potential candidates.
  • Be ambitious in terms of potential candidates, but also be realistic and self-aware about the charity – its size, mission, reputation and so on – while actively encouraging candidates with diverse experience.
  • Be totally honest in sharing information – challenging and negative – with candidates and advisers.

If recruitment consultants are to be appointed, this is a very critical part of the process. Always look for a consultant/consultancy that:

  • Has a track record in such senior appointments across the sectors, not just charities.
  • Will seek a wide range of candidates – and not, as some charity sector recruitment consultancies do, fish only in the charity pool.
  • Will seek to entice candidates who might not ordinarily consider the appointment, including appointable yet "maverick" candidates.
  • Will discourage trustees from appointing chairs in their own mode and chief executives in the mode of the outgoing person.
  • Will act as a critical friend to the trustees and challenge them not to backslide into comfort zones.
  • Will advise on drawing up role (chairs need these too!) and person specifications.
  • Advise on process and propose processes that will not alienate candidates, but which will enable the appointment panel and other stakeholders to gain insights into the behaviours, ethos and experience of candidates.
  • Is committed to giving timely and honest feedback to the panel throughout the appointment process and to all candidates at all stages of the process.
  • Will provide excellent candidate care and support.

It is a sad reality that, all too often, appointment panels and boards can be prone to making "safe" choices, which usually end up not being the right choice. They must avoid falling into the trap of the lowest common denominator upon which they can all agree. Rather, they need to be bold and imaginative, while always acting in the best interests of their charity and its beneficiaries.

John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and a former voluntary sector executive. He is now a trustee and chair

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