This short blog is produced by Green Park, Civil Society Futures, and brap in the hope of encouraging further discussion and action on the topic of inclusive recruitment practice at senior leadership level within the charity sector.
Building leadership for the future
We are talking about leadership more and more in the charity sector. Across civil society, austerity and the increased complexity of providing services to the public has meant that leaders have needed to find new ways to adapt and collaborate. Declining faith in the country’s democratic structures has prompted a search for leadership within civil society that is inclusive and gives a voice to those who feel ignored and unheard. Similarly, reduced trust in charities has coincided with increased scrutiny of charity leaders’ values and ethical practice and increasing demands for accountability.
Some have emphasised the different qualities and styles of leadership that will be necessary if charities are to perform effectively in a fast changing environment, whereas others have stressed we need to start by thinking differently about where leadership exists and ‘who’ a leader is. If we are to have any hope of rising to meet our potential, we need much more mixed leadership, bringing different experiences and perspectives. Equally business critical is the need to draw on the widest possible range of talent: the current approach to a small portion of the pool is depriving the charity sector of talent. We need to help create an environment in which the next generation can lead effectively and we need to address longstanding inequalities faced by a range of traditionally excluded groups (e.g. people from ethnic minority and lower socioeconomic backgrounds) in securing senior leadership roles within the sector.
Eight challenges that we face
A wide range of agencies will need to do their part if we are to drive change on this agenda. In this short piece, we want to offer a perspective on one part of that challenge – the challenge of building more diverse and inclusive recruitment practice at senior leadership level within the charity sector. What would a new conversation on this topic look like? We have been identifying some key challenges that we think will require attention in the future if we are to make meaningful progress on this agenda.
Here are eight challenges that are particularly on our minds.
Challenge 1: Out of scope is out of mind…
Voluntary sector organisations aren’t always scoping job roles and person specifications in ways that will enable them to bring in a broad range of talent from diverse backgrounds and from other sectors. In particular, recruitment briefs are often narrow and reductive. Charities don’t routinely review whether their selection criteria are based on what they really need. Appointment panels tend to value years of experience gained in similar roles and they look for linear career progression as a sign of a ‘high flyer’. Many job descriptions require someone who walks on water (amazing administrative skills, superb rhetorical skills, the intellectual prowess of a university professor) without paying sufficient attention to what’s really needed for the role. Yet unnecessary experience criteria can make it hard for some applicants (who may not have had the same job opportunities as others) to demonstrate what they could bring to the job. Similarly, research suggests that some traditionally excluded groups are less likely to take a risk in applying if they don’t feel they meet every criteria.
Challenge 2: It’s not what you know…
Recruitment agencies and charities rely heavily on networks of existing senior leaders to find new talent. The resulting potential talent pool is relatively small and tight-knit. When it comes to finding a diverse pool of talent, the job becomes even harder. Often the same names come up. Experience and a nod from the ‘right people’ is seen as a synonym for credibility. We know that better candidates are likely to be out there, outside of those networks, but we face challenges in going beyond who we (and others like us) know and trust.
Challenge 3: Playing it safe…
With charities under increasing public scrutiny, boards are under pressure to make a ‘good appointment’. Appointment panels often play it safe, looking for candidates who have the same or similar roles who can ‘hit the ground running’. This makes it much harder to attract people who may require some development. It can also lead to a pattern of ‘recycling’ particular leaders across the charity sector who are seen as a ‘safe bet’ and are in a similar role elsewhere. In some cases, diverse candidates feel they got the job because the pressure facing their organisation to do something different/take risks was so great. If that pressure isn’t there and if the focus is on keeping the ship steady, the willingness for a recruitment panel to ‘take risks’ in recruiting a different type of candidate is less likely to be there.
Challenge 4: Speculate to accumulate…
Widening the talent pool and building the readiness and capacity of potential candidates from diverse backgrounds and experiences takes time. Yet it is not atypical for executive search firms to have twelve weeks to fulfil a brief (and for them to risk losing the commission to competition if they challenge the short timeframe). If we want different results, we need to engage in different types of outreach to find potential candidates. Similarly, some potential candidates might need additional support at different points of established application processes (such as applications and interviews). Without this support, we run the risk of testing for proficiency in jumping through established hurdles of the job application cycle rather than testing for potential, for skill and for knowledge to do the job.
Challenge 5: The process we use is the result that we get…
The process of selection typically used to recruit senior leaders in the charity sector has changed relatively little over the last 30 years. Yet, as we suggested in the introduction to this blog, the type of leader and the type of leadership we need to develop within civil society is changing as our society changes. We are using the same recruitment processes but expecting different outcomes. What would happen if we tried something different to the traditional written application, psychometric test and panel interview process? Interviews are costly and many would agree they are not as effective as they could be, but what would an alternative look like? Assessing leadership attributes, such as the ability to facilitate groups or to work with and respond to conflict, is hard to do in a traditional panel-based interview process. What might we understand about the candidate if we directly observed them in those practical situations directly? How could we provide opportunities for a greater and more diverse range of leadership styles to be judged through new application processes? It is important to note that changing selection processes will only be effective if the people who are assessing are also open to judging candidates based on a different set of criteria than they have traditionally used too.
Challenge 6: This is personal…
Not all bias makes for ‘bad’ decision-making. However, we do all bring biases (both conscious and unconscious) to the decisions we make as part of the recruitment process. It is becoming more accepted to talk about ‘bias’ and many people appear to be prepared to admit that they may have biases. Yet few are ready to openly discuss their own specific biases frankly with others. For example, how does bias creep in to the use of terms in recruitment like ‘gravitas’, ‘networks’ and ‘charisma’ which are used to describe leaders and their effectiveness? The language of recruitment is subjective and affected by our personal worldview – yet we rarely talk about this. People in executive and non-executive positions aren’t ‘tested’ on their understanding and application of equality (in the same way other aspects of the job might be tested). Similarly, few are ready to think about how they can use their own personal power and connections to make space for others (outside of their traditional networks) to enter the organisation either at board or executive level.
Challenge 7: Post appointment support…
When people from diverse backgrounds get into role, they may require post appointment support. They may be faced with a working environment where they appear to be different. They may face challenges in getting others to follow them because of how the organisation responds to diversity. This can hinder the performance of new leaders. They may not stay in the organisation as long as other staff do because of the hostile, unwelcoming environment they find themselves in.
Challenge 8: Diversity as a search criterion
Yes, including diversity as a search criterion can help to build a diverse pool of potential candidates and this can help to bypass the effects of inequalities in the labour market and in social networks. However, building a diverse pool shouldn’t be seen as a proxy for an equal selection process. In fact, seeing somebody as a ‘diversity candidate’ can sometimes be detrimental to the achievement of equality. ‘Diversity candidates’ tend to be seen as part of a group associated with their identity (with all of the associations and pre-conceptions associated with that group). It is easier for an older, White British male to be seen (and judged) as an individual because being an older White, British, and male is the norm amongst senior leaders. Whereas a diversity candidate’s potential and talent is also (and sometimes mainly) judged through the lens of their membership of a traditionally excluded group. Indeed, many people who are on the ‘diversity list’ of recruiters know that they are on that list and this can put them off taking opportunities seriously.
Continuing the conversation
We are committed to doing something about this in the future and wonder if you are feeling the same way. We would be really interested to hear your thoughts on what we’ve missed and where we could be making the most impact in the future. We are also looking for partners who are already working on this agenda and we can collaborate with too.
If you would like to discuss this further please get in touch with Asif Afridi at [email protected] or on 0121 272 8450.
Photo by jose aljovin on Unsplash