Peter Stanford: Picking a chief executive is fraught with difficulties

We still have a lot to learn about selecting the right leaders for charities

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

For all the emphasis rightly placed today on teamwork and collegiality, no organisation can operate to its fullest potential without the right leader. In the third sector, as elsewhere, when that leader has been there for a long stretch, it poses quite a challenge for trustees when they stand down.

The trustees might feel one of two things: that this is the moment to flex their strategic muscles and bring in a new broom to overhaul the whole show; or,
bereft without the safe pair of hands who has been at the helm for so long, they are therefore anxious to find an internal candidate to step up to the plate with as little disruption as possible.

The cynical might suspect that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations succumbed to the latter emotion in appointing Karl Wilding to replace Sir Stuart Etherington, who retires in September after 25 years as chief executive. Wilding served for 21 years under Etherington and came to the NCVO straight after finishing his PhD.

It explains why the NCVO stressed that the decision had come only after an "extensive recruitment process". So cynics beware. Etherington has already been talking up the need for the NCVO to evolve and Wilding has adopted the same tone.

Only time will tell if that initial promise is borne out. The point for now, surely, is about due process. As an umbrella body, the NCVO is a bellwether organisation for the whole sector, and it seems to have gone about the task in a way that sets an example to all.

Charities are changing and becoming more professional, but they are doing so at different speeds. I have lost count over the years of the number of incoming chief executives who have effectively been a shoo-in – and, in the same vein, talented, well-qualified individuals from outside the sector who have applied for jobs that they could do very well, but who have been rejected because someone has already been identified as "the one" to succeed.

We still have some learning to do. Being open and transparent doesn’t just mean going public when there is a vacancy or even using recruitment consultants. It means that the trustees doing the appointing have to be open-minded, and that can sometimes be the problem.

It’s hard, as I know from experience. As a chair, I was part of five chief executive appointment processes, choosing two insiders and three outsiders. There is the temptation to overlook stumbles during interview by an internal candidate you know well and who has done a brilliant job in their current role. You feel you know them better than they are presenting themselves on the day.

Equally, it is daunting to take the plunge with someone you don’t know. One of the things that clocking up the decades teaches you is that people are rarely as they seem. Yes, I know that interview processes are now so high-spec that they should expose the "real" person, but they can also sometimes create a false sense of security. One of my outsider picks was head and shoulders above the rest in the various tests we set, then created absolute pandemonium in a few short months.

So what have I learnt from good and bad experiences? Take your time with the process. Listen to the experts. Listen to your colleagues. And don’t form any swift judgements on any candidate. As with most things in life, it isn’t black or white – the grey areas often turn out to offer the best solutions.

Last of all, be willing to recognise when you’ve got it wrong. No judgement is perfect. You can always repeat the recruitment exercise, strengthened by past failures.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more
than 20 years

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