David Saint

Dec 5, 2017, 10:41 AM

How to Recruit a Chief Executive

In the last issue of this newsletter we explored how best to recruit charity trustees  – now we turn our attention to the recruitment of a Chief Executive.

But surely recruitment is recruitment isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Some posts need to be handled in very particular ways – especially in the early stages.

The role of Chief Executive is unique in a number of ways. First, although the Chief Executive is ‘the Boss’, he or she is accountable to the ultimate ‘bosses’ – the trustees. In some charities the trustees are highly experienced managers in their own right, and may also have a high degree of understanding about the technical aspects of what the charity does. But in many charities the Chief Executive may be more experienced in either or both of these areas than the people they report to.

Second, the Chief Executive role is quite a lonely one – some of the issues they face can’t appropriately be shared with staff (sometimes even with senior colleagues), and it may be difficult to share some issues with Trustees (because the issues might be about the trustees, or because the Chief Executive is uncomfortable about potentially flagging up an area of weakness). So the Chief Executive has to be quite resilient, and able to tap into external support mechanisms.

Finally, the Chief Executive role is one of the few for which there isn’t really a training course (a bit like parenting, although now there are a few more courses for that even more important role!) So they either come ‘ready made’ (i.e. they have been a Chief Executive somewhere else), or via an ‘apprenticeship’ (Deputy Chief Executive or equivalent), or as a ‘take a chance’ (they look as though they could make a reasonable fist of it). Increasingly the CEO may have an MBA but, that aside, the role of Chief Executive doesn’t require easily identifiable technical skills in the same way that one might expect for a Finance Director or HR Director, for example.

So, when you set out to recruit a Chief Executive, it is helpful (but also difficult) to approach the task with two opposite mindsets:

  • A clear idea of what you do and don’t want, and
  • An open mind – open to all sorts of possibilities that you may not have thought of.

A clear idea of what you do and don’t want

Very often, when we read a client’s draft job description for the first time, we can tell how well they got on with the previous Chief Executive. Reading between the lines (or occasionally explicitly on the lines!) you realise that the job description has been worded to make it clear that “we don’t want another one like the last one!” Less commonly, but really equally unhelpfully, it might be worded to imply “we’d like the same again, please.”

The role of Chief Executive is first and foremost a leadership role, and the worst starting point is to try to define the new Chief Executive by comparison with the previous one. The right starting point is the current situation of the charity, and its future plans. Do we need a peacemaker? A consolidator? A Builder? A driver? A Visionary? And so on. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Board, and of the Senior Management Team? How is staff morale? How are our relationships with significant funders, representative bodies etc.? Should the new Chief Executive have a largely inward-facing role, or outward-facing role? Is it likely they will have to roll up their sleeves and get involved in practical action – perhaps with the beneficiaries, or in fundraising – or should they be turning their attention immediately to questions of strategy? And whatever the answers might be today to these and other questions, are they likely to be the same answers in 3 or 5 years’ time, or will the Chief Executive need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances?

An open mind

If it wasn’t already apparent, it may now be becoming clear that a Chief Executive may require any number of disparate qualities – quite apart from any practical skills. So it isn’t necessarily the case that to be an excellent Chief Executive someone has to have been one before, or has to have worked for your organisation for several years in another role, or has to have at least worked in your type of charity. It isn’t even necessarily the case that they need to have worked in the charity sector at all (although in our view that can be a great advantage).

It is certainly a help to the recruitment process (and to potential applicants) to be able to set out some clear criteria in the Person Specification. But it is better to put as much as possible in the ‘desirable’ category, and as little as possible in the ‘essential’ category.

The actual recruitment process itself is, of course, very similar to the recruitment process for any other role. Perhaps the main difference is that it may be a little less obvious where to advertise (unlike technical disciplines which will have ‘trade’ journals, specialist websites etc.) Some imagination and creativity can pay dividends here. Once you have a sense of the very particular qualities you are looking for this time around, think about which technical disciplines are most likely to attract people with those qualities – two (admittedly simplistic and simplified) examples would be HR if you are mainly looking for people skills, or finance if you are looking for a strong grasp of business principles. You can then target your advertising and headhunting towards people in those disciplines.

Ah yes, headhunting. I know we would say this, wouldn’t we, but honestly headhunting is such an important part of the process. Over and over again we talk with strong potential candidates who say “No, I hadn’t seen the advert” or even “Well, I really wasn’t looking for a job at the moment, but this sounds very interesting.” Perhaps most especially for Chief Executive roles, some of your most promising candidates will be totally focussed on their current role, hardly giving their future career a second thought.


Recruiting a Chief Executive is a bit like making a big purchase. You know how it is. We will spend 20 minutes looking round a house before deciding to put in an offer; we will take a car for a 30 minute test drive before signing on the bottom line; yet we might spend a couple of hours comparing different models of TV before settling on the one we are going to take home. And if we compared the cost of the item to the amount of time we spend choosing it, we’d probably find that proportionately we spend more time per £ choosing which sandwich to buy for lunch!

It can be a bit like that when choosing a Chief Executive - too often it is done poorly, because there are so many factors to take into consideration, and very few of them are directly measurable.

Many organisations put their faith in psychometrics (like C-me, featured in our preference diversity insight). These tools certainly have a value, but they are only one part of the picture. Precisely because the role of Chief Executive is so complex, and multi-faceted, a number of different ‘measuring instruments’ are necessary. This is far from an exact science, but by picking as many as possible from the following list, and perhaps adding a few of your own, you increase the chances of making a good choice:

  • Comparison against your Person Specification – from their CV, interview, other interactions, and references
  • Opportunity to meet staff, volunteers and beneficiaries. Informal feedback from each of these groups. (But bear in mind their perspective – for example if the staff report that a candidate is “really easy to get on with” that may be the opposite of what you were looking for!)
  • Opportunity to meet key supporters or funders. This needs to be thought through and handled carefully. What happens if you don’t pick your main funder’s favoured candidate?!
  • Practical exercise. If the Chief Executive role in your organisation is largely administrative, then the classic ‘in-box exercise’ may suffice. But if theirs is to be a leadership and/or management role, then an exercise involving people is essential.
  •  Some assessment processes involve all the candidates meeting and working with each other. This is a very artificial setting, of course, but the very fact that it is potentially awkward, and pressured, may help you identify the candidates who will do best when out of their comfort zone (and let’s face it, few Chief Executives spend much time in their comfort zone, these days!)
  • The formal interview – very likely going to two stages, with fewer candidates going through to the second stage.
  • An opportunity for informal conversations with members of the Board, and Senior Management Team. Probably reserve this for the last 2-3 candidates at most, because it will absorb a lot of time. However this is an opportunities for both parties to ‘size each other up’ – remember the potential Chief Executive will want to check you out, as well as the other way round!
  • Psychometric tests, as mentioned above. Think carefully about what you want to test for, because different systems emphasise different things. But whatever you do, don’t let the test make the decision for you. Rather use it to explore areas about which you are uncertain.
  • References. These are often seen as a ‘box ticking’ exercise, and in these litiginous days it is quite difficult to get a meaningful reference out of anyone – especially in writing. So do take up references by phone as well, and don’t necessarily restrict yourself to the ones the candidate has offered. Try to get the most rounded possible view – but also keep an open mind. Just because things didn’t work out in one place, it doesn’t mean it was the fault of the individual concerned.
  • Gut feel – yes this comes into it as well. Human beings are remarkably good at sizing people up – although we can also get it horrendously wrong! That’s why it is best to employ as many of the above steps as possible. But at the end of the day, if your gut is telling you this isn’t quite right, it is worth asking others on the interview panel if they feel the same. If necessary call the candidate(s) back for a third or even fourth interview. Your charity will face few more important decisions than picking the next Chief Executive. It’s worth doing everything in your power to get it right.
  • Then make the decision. Offer the job. Get on with it.
  • No – still not done yet! Finally, make sure there is an excellent induction process in place for the new Chief Executive. Make sure you explore what training and development they (and you) think they need, and put it in place at an early stage. Put in place regular 1:1s, formal reviews after 3 and 6 months, and perhaps an arrangement with a mentor (especially if this is their first time as a Chief Executive, and/or if they are new to the sector).

Recruiting the right Chief Executive is so important. If you would like to explore how Action Planning can help you in this crucial task, contact us

David Saint

For more advice on how to recruit a chief executive, get in touch

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