Ann Frye

Ann Frye, author of ‘Look before you leap’

Last month ACEVO published ‘Look before you leap’, a guide to help charity leaders make a checklist of questions before starting a new Chief Executive role. Here, the guide’s author Ann Frye writes about why it’s important for Chairs to also be aware of what a prospective candidate will be looking for.

It would be surprising to find any charity Chair who did not ensure that a process of due diligence was followed before appointing a new CEO. But would it be equally surprising to learn that many candidates for Chief Executive jobs fail to do so? And yet that is all too often the case – with sometimes disastrous results as new appointees find that the organisation or the job is not what they were sold!

ACEVO’s new guide ‘Look before you leap’  is a checklist of the kinds of questions that candidates for CEO jobs should ask and the information they should expect to be given to build up a full – and true – picture of the role and the charity.

The guide is based on interviews with a number of CEOs who freely admit that they made the mistake of failing to ask enough questions. Some are no longer with the charity in question, others have stuck with it and managed to bring the organisation round – but often at considerable personal cost.

Some Chairs were also interviewed to get a balanced perspective on the key relationship between CEO and Chair and the pitfalls to avoid at the recruitment stage. As one CEO notes: if you don’t have confidence in your Chair, the job will be an uphill struggle from the start.

Advice from those who have been through the recruitment process is that meeting the Chair informally as well as during the formal interview process is vital to establish whether you will be able to work together successfully.

The guide suggests that issues for the prospective CEO to probe should include:

  • How the Chair wants to work with the CEO and how available they are (can you contact them at evenings and weekends if you need to).
  • How disagreements are managed (be alarmed if the Chair says there are never disagreements!) Listen to both what the Chair says and how they say it.
  • Who is the voice of the Charity? Is the Chair the public face or is it the CEO? If it is the Chair, are you comfortable with that?

The guide notes that there will always be a tension between giving the candidate access to all the financial, and other, details and protecting the reputation of the charity. Candidates are warned that it may only be at final shortlist stage that Chairs are willing to be completely frank about accountability and other key governance issues.  This means that questions about topics such as shortfalls in fundraising or other financial challenges, skills gaps or personality issues in the Board are unlikely to be disclosed until the very final selection stages of recruitment.

As one CEO remarked: “Don’t be frightened of asking, but recognise that they won’t want to wash their dirty linen in public until they are sure of you.”

From the Chair’s point of view, failure to be honest about finances or organisational problems before contracts are signed is running the risk of an expensive and damaging failure, with the new CEO feeling wrong-footed from the start.

While much of what is covered in the Guide seems like common sense, it is often these most obvious of issues that get overlooked in the stressful and busy recruitment cycle.

It is worth taking a few minutes, as a Chair, to check your own processes and thinking, against the experiences from the other side of the interview table.