Meet the headhunters

They are the uniquely placed recruitment insiders who know all the key movers and shakers in the charity sector. John Plummer asks four recruitment experts about what it takes to land a senior role and how aspiring sector leaders can get ahead in 2018

Clockwise from top left: Juliet Taylor, Borge Andreassen, Charlotte Wilmot, David Fielding
Clockwise from top left: Juliet Taylor, Borge Andreassen, Charlotte Wilmot, David Fielding

Juliet Taylor, Practice director, Gatenby Sanderson

Juliet Taylor

Severe funding cuts have prompted many charities to seek new leaders with fresh ways of thinking, she says. This has injected new blood into the market, with many charities sinking or swimming according to the quality of their recruitment. "Some charities have disappeared in the past five or six years," she says. "Some have muddled through and some have become stronger because they are attracting a new cohort of good leaders."Austerity has opened up the market for senior executive roles in charities, but it has also changed the requirements of the role, according to Juliet Taylor of the executive search firm GatenbySanderson.

So what characterises this new cohort? Taylor says they are less inward-looking than their predecessors and often have radical change agendas that allow organisations to do more with fewer resources.

"Charities are looking for people who are entrepreneurial, agile, creative and open to working with others," she says. "They want people who are willing to ask difficult questions. We've moved away from the safe pair of hands."

This new style of leadership has permeated through to all departments, says Taylor. "Emotional intelligence comes high in the brief for all areas, but especially in finance," she says. "It has moved out of the back room and become embedded in organisations. It's less about number-crunching and more about being able to work with non-finance experts to improve financial awareness."

Staff with leadership ambitions should have an active social media presence, says Taylor, who has noticed increased use of the business network LinkedIn. Avoid bland blogs and tweets, she says. "Post updates on things you are passionate about and don't be afraid to push yourself or have views," she says. "Develop a leadership personality by making it clear what you stand for."

The candidate that knocks your socks off spend time imagining what they would do in the role

Juliet Taylor

Register with headhunters and join peer groups to learn about opportunities, she adds, and keep an eye on specialist charity and broadsheet websites. When applying, all your important career information should be on the first page of your CV, says Taylor. And she has two golden rules for interviews: do your homework and be yourself. "Look at the accounts and strategic plans and maybe do some mystery shopping," she says. "Look up the backgrounds of the board. Think about what kind of person they will want.

"Many candidates give intellectual reasons for being in the role, but the ones that really knock your socks off spend the weekend before the interview imagining what they would do in the role."

Be the role you are going for, she advises: "If you're applying to be a chief executive, display strategic and visionary thinking."

With so much competition, competency alone isn't enough. "Knowledge and skills are important, but influencing, engaging and vision are key," says Taylor. "The great unspoken truth is that interviews are all about how you influence and how you build confidence in people to follow you."

If you are rejected, ask for feedback. "It's human nature to think you have done something wrong, but it's usually down to how you fit with the organisation and how it goes on the day," she says.

David Fielding, Managing Partner, Attenti

David Fielding

David Fielding specialises in recruiting chief executives and has one salient piece of advice for those looking to land the top role: "If you want to become a chief executive, it's essential you contribute as a trustee because it gives you vital experience and skills, and helps to position you."

Trustee opportunities have opened up in recent years as charities strive to embrace people from a wider range of backgrounds. "Charities are beginning to realise that diverse boards make better decisions and acknowledge that they haven't put enough effort into this," says Fielding.

Most board roles remain unpaid, but Fielding says charities are "having more conversations" about remuneration.

If you are up against 30 others, the determining factor is often passion

David Fielding

Fielding's other top tips for aspiring senior charity executives include getting two or three mentors, fostering good relationships with headhunters and developing a strong social media footprint. "You need to tweet and blog," he says. "If you are passionate about your organisation, you should be doing this anyway."

Networking is good, he says, but be discerning. "Don't be a busy fool," Fielding says. "Go to any old event and you could be perceived as lightweight."

To get interviews, candidates should be able to demonstrate achievement, he says. "Past performance is a great indicator of future success, so be brilliant at your job. People will notice you. You cannot bluff your way into jobs these days."

But to get a job requires more intangible qualities. "If you are up against 30 others the determining factors are often passion and emotional intelligence," Fielding says. "Softer skills make a difference: the ability to engage and put yourself in other people's shoes."

Before the interview, think about all aspects of the person specification and prepare to be probed and picked apart. Panels, says Fielding, usually ask for evidence of people skills, developing a team and strategic thinking. But one standard question often gets overlooked these days. "Panels used to ask 'what would you do if you got the job?'" he says. "But that's a stupid question because it's so easy to answer. They are more likely now to ask about when you did something successful as evidence of your ability."

Whatever you do, don't make the mistake of assuming you're a shoo-in. "If you do, there will always be somebody who goes that extra mile and puts together a stronger case," he says. It helps if you can talk to interviewers about life beyond work. "Charities prefer someone with hobbies and passions," says Fielding. "Frankly, they don't care what they are as long as they're something."

The odds of success aren't great. For example, adverts for chief executives of large charities can easily generate 50 applications. "They probably end up with 10 to 15 exceptionally good people who could all do the job, so it comes down to choice, fit and feel," says Fielding.

He is less bullish about the market than the other headhunters. Austerity and Brexit, he says, have bred circumspection. "People are less likely to move and boards are more cautious about hiring," he says. But if you're great at your job, and do your homework, opportunities do exist, he adds.

Borge Andreassen, Director of executive search, Prospectus

Borge Andreassen

Anybody keen to land a senior role in the charity sector in 2018 should start the process with an honest self-appraisal, according to Borge Andreassen of Prospectus, a consultancy that specialises in charity sector recruitment. "First, think about your core competencies and strengths," he says. "Then think about your gaps and develop a plan to fill them. Focus on where you can add value and where you can add learning."

If you've been with the same charity for a decade, you might struggle to convince an interview panel you haven't gone stale, and might need to learn some new skills.

"It depends on the development opportunities in the organisation you're with," says Andreassen. "If you can demonstrate progress and development, it is not too long. But if you've had 10 years in the same role and don't have any evidence of development and progress, that could be challenging."

Interviews are becoming two-way scenarios, so ask good questions

Borge Andreassen

Conversely, if you took up your current post only a year ago, a panel might wonder why you want to change again so soon. "I certainly don't think people should move too often, because that can become a credibility issue," he says. "If you move every other year, people will wonder why you can't stick with a job. You need to stay long enough to be able to see the outcomes of your work."

Andreassen says career progression, professional development and learning are all valid reasons for moving.

Once you decide the time is right, keep a close eye on organisations you're interested in on LinkedIn, Twitter and their websites, he says.

Networking can be useful for discovering interim, short-term jobs that aren't always advertised. But a thorough interview process is inevitable for full-time senior roles.

Your CV should be a maximum of three pages and your cover letter no more than two, he says. "Be succinct," he advises. "Focus on impact, achievement and passion."

Expect to be quizzed at interviews about your commercial acumen, says Andreassen. "In the past five or six years charities have been focusing more on entrepreneurial leaders who can diversify income and work with a number of stakeholders to be commercial."

His interviewer checklist includes: make sure you can provide examples of key points relating to your personal skills; have evidence of your impact in previous jobs; and prepare searching questions about funding and the marketplace. "Interviews are becoming more two-way scenarios," he says. "Candidates are increasingly assessing organisations, as well as the other way round, so it's incredibly important to ask good questions."

Andreassen also stresses the importance of being a good storyteller, especially if you want to become a chief executive: "It is a great ability because you have to communicate with so many stakeholders."

As for clothing, Andreassen's rule is simple: wear professional business attire unless otherwise instructed. "It's better to look too smart than too under-dressed," he says.

Get it right and 2018 could be a good year to make the next move up the ladder. "There's cautious optimism and natural movement in the market," he says. "People will always move for the right opportunity, which opens opportunities for other people to move."

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