The Executive Search Team at Prospectus is regularly asked if we can find candidates with successful commercial credentials for leadership roles in beyond profit organisations. As an executive search business seeking to build society’s human capital, we make every effort to support organisations to hire talented people from other sectors. Diversity in background and experience aid learning and can ensure on-going improvements in how an organisation works, resulting in increased impact.
Why are sector transitions seen as a desirable? When I ask clients what they hope to achieve by hiring someone with a corporate background for a leading role in a charity or social enterprise, answers will usually centre around issues such as ‘change leadership’, ‘entrepreneurialism’, ‘business acumen’, and ‘pace’. There is a general view both in and outside the beyond profit sector that people from commercial organisations are more likely to bring these attributes than somebody with a more traditional charity background. In my experience this is sometimes but not always the case.
So what happens when someone makes the transition and secures a leadership role in the beyond profit sector? The board or chief executive is pleased, the candidate is delighted. How do you make it work, and how do you ensure all those attributes that were so desirable are truly utilised and enable the organisation to achieve more?
Firstly, it is important to recognise the difference in culture and organisational objectives. Most business environments will focus significantly on increasing margins and profitability. Beyond profits are naturally mission driven, and what success looks like not quite as easily defined. Secondly, there will usually be a major difference in the resources available. Beyond profits are in most cases not as well resourced in terms of administration, IT and expertise in a wide range of areas, sometimes including HR and finance. This point is of course interesting when considering the on-going debate about core costs and how efficiently charities spend their funds. Thirdly, pay is almost always much lower than in the corporate sector. Finally, and this is often the most challenging aspect, the number of stakeholders and relationships that you will need to get to grips with and manage, how they impact on decision-making and the time it can take to get things done, will usually be more complex.
Prospectus recently helped Euan Venters, who had previously been Managing Director of brewery business Greene & King, become Commercial Director of the Fairtrade Foundation. He says that “I underestimated how different the culture would be, and for quite a while I struggled with the many grey areas. In my previous roles we had very clear indicators for success, and you didn’t have to win people’s hearts. 90% of people were there for the money, and they agreed to a certain trade off for that reason. Here, you really do have to take your time to win people’s hearts as well as their minds. The Fairtrade Foundation attracts some highly intelligent people who are also passionate and committed. You have to bring them along with you, and when outcomes and objectives are not as clear, that can be more challenging.”
Diana Barran’s first role in beyond profit was with NPC, which she describes as a “pretty safe place to start her new career”. In 2005 she founded SafeLives, a pioneering charity working to end domestic abuse. According to Diana, “the key difference is how you motivate when you don’t have the same financial levers. In a charity particularly, people are your greatest asset, and you have to spend time recognising and developing their abilities. The question you have to continue to ask yourself is how to motivate. I had the luxury of setting up my own organisation, and have tried to create an environment where every manager and director is the ‘owner’ of their area of the organisation and own their success”.
Prospectus has worked with Fairtrade Foundation on a number of search campaigns, and Tim Gutteridge, Chief Operating Officer has recruited several people from the corporate sector. According to Tim, candidates hired from other sectors “take much longer to settle. In the beginning it can be a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlight. I think it is important to recognise and acknowledge that things are different and talk about it. I always try to explain why some things are done differently and what that means. When you make it work, diversity in background and experience is a real strength, but it is also a big challenge”.
Why make the move if it is so challenging? Fabian French was appointed as Chief Executive of UK Community Foundations through Prospectus in 2015. Before this he was Fundraising Director at Marie Curie, a charity he joined after a very successful career in the City. Fabian says that “I just didn’t enjoy my work anymore and got a lot more pleasure out of my various trusteeships. When I joined Marie Curie I found that there were a lot of areas where I had transferable skills. Because of my background, I was able to achieve some quick wins, which was helpful in terms of building credibility. One of the steepest learning curves was to understand the balance between business and charity. The beneficiary is the most important stakeholder and I now truly understand the meaning of that word.”
What are some of the key issues to consider before making the decision to change your career to the beyond profit sector? Fabian French gives the following advice: “Firstly, find something you absolutely care and are passionate about. Secondly, be prepared to work really hard!”
Key points to consider are:
In conclusion, considering a career and leadership role in the beyond profit sector is highly recommended. In every conversation I have with someone who has made the transition they say it was the right thing to do. Building society’s human capital is crucial and what can be more rewarding than helping to achieve that whilst using your professional skills. Making the transition is not always easy, it is actually quite tough. It takes time to find a role, to settle and have the impact that motivated the change. But above all, your career is a journey, and you will not be ‘giving back’ but developing and learning. To achieve that in beyond profit is a real privilege.