Can you really hire to roles in the Social Sector in such difficult times?

The last few weeks have seen more dramatic change and upheaval than many of us have experienced in our lifetimes, with limitless different personal and organisational reactions to the covid-19 situation as it has continued to unfold. Despite everything, organisations still need leaders who can help strengthen their response to the crisis, and transition out of it, whether new Board members, interim or permanent staff. 

We have been asked the question about when and if it is worth recruiting at the present time. Starfish Search has remained available to support the Sector during this period and our advice to those leading organisations, based on our own experience, recognises the unprecedented times we are in. Here are our top five observations:

  1. While organisations choose to respond one way or another, response to this situation is personal. As one client put it, when deciding whether to continue hiring in such a fast moving situation “this is both everything and nothing”. The nature of this particular stage of the crisis, and lack of precedent for it, has elicited the widest range of personal responses and about as many shifts in perspective and priority. The most challenging aspect of searching in these conditions is the requirement to connect with people at a time when there are so many different reactions, and before people can really see the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be hard to anticipate and takes skill, sensitivity and time.     
  1. Messaging needs careful thought. While we have been searching throughout this period, the style of engagement we have used has been different. Searches at the moment need to be framed in the current context, highlighting the hiring organisation’s role and position. A strong focus on delivering outcomes for the organisation and those who depend on it, rather than the ‘process’ of recruitment, is helpful along with clear and honest messaging. 
  1. Professionalism will mean loyalty for many. Accepting and respecting values is everything when hiring at this precise moment. For some CEOs and Directors, it is not the right time to consider a move although many will happily start the conversation and forge links. Those who had planned to make a move this year, pre coronavirus, are engaging well and searches are moving because of them. Those who can see how their organisations may transition out of it are also engaging, although it may feel like early days. The real test lies in the ability to secure commitment from top candidates. Many feel a strong sense of duty to their current organisations and teams. When leaders have been furloughing staff, they are naturally concerned about the ethics and optics of recruiting at the same time. But again, the situation is moving quickly.
  1. Time and access is on our side. Longer timescales are giving people the mental space they need to consider a new opportunity properly and at a pace they can manage as they lead organisations while juggling work and home lives. Technology – such as Zoom – has made it easy to engage with people meaningfully despite social distancing measures. In some instances, engaging with people outside of the confines of a traditional office environment have made for a richer connection, and of course, we are all expecting the practices of old to change for good. As ever, flexibility in the process is helpful. Levels of accessibility at the moment are exceptional making this a productive time to hold conversations with people about their current experience and pressures, along with their plans for the future.   
  1. Proceed with non-executive search. Levels of availability, combined with the emphasis on good governance and stewardship to steer the course make this a good time to search for non-executives. Bear in mind that highly effective non-executives with existing board appointments may be in increasing demand by their current boards as the impact the coronavirus crisis starts to become clear, and the route out of it. Some non-executives may find that, after all, they are not in a position to consider taking on something new. For them, this is not just about the period of lockdown, but about being there to support the longer term future of their organisations.

Many organisations are holding off making decisions about hiring now for obvious reasons – they are still in crisis mode, are experiencing major financial and broader uncertainty, or are simply not yet in a position to prioritise particular posts. But it is, for many, a question of time; as the situation evolves, organisations and the sector at large will begin the process of transition. We will all have a role to play in shaping the ‘new normal’ and building the future together.

However, others will need to and want to proceed with recruitment for key roles at the present time and there is no need not to, so long as the process remains sensitive to the circumstances. Flexibility is key. Some searches will move slower than others depending on the role or even the prevailing values within that community. But all search can succeed with sound and realistic planning and an authentic focus on engagement and connection.