Senior recruitment in the social sector: what to expect

As we emerge from the crisis phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations are once again starting to think about the future. 

For many, May and June 2020 will present the first opportunity to take stock and assess the impact of the coronavirus response, while starting to plan different scenarios for the remainder of the year. For others, the remaining Spring months offer the opportunity to progress recruitment to critical roles that was originally planned for February and March. 

We have continued to support our clients throughout the lockdown period. Our three key messages for organisations who are considering recruitment to non-executive, Director and CEO appointments in the months of May, June and July are:

If you are a talented executive director looking for your first CEO job, this is your moment. CEO appointments in mainstream sectors or subject areas are still attracting a strong response. Expect to see fewer serving CEOs in the field; unless these candidates had planned a move for themselves in 2020 and were already open-minded to it, they may be less likely to engage with the idea of a move at the moment. 

Many leaders we have spoken to feel a duty to their current Board and are loyal to their teams. With fewer experienced competitors in the field, this is the time for talented executive directors to shine. If your organisation is open to a first-time CEO, you may have exceptional choice.

Expect higher numbers of applicants for senior executive roles. Although it is still too early for many organisations to count the true cost of COVID-19, uncertainty and nervousness within the workforce is nonetheless reflected in significantly higher applicant numbers. 

If you are advertising a role that has a mainstream role title, expect to receive a higher than normal level of interest. It is likely that this response will be drawn from a variety of sectors. 

While this may sound appealing to those seeking a cost-effective approach to recruitment, beware: within the higher numbers, we have experienced a much higher volume of candidates who have not given consideration to the organisation or context. 

While overall numbers are up, focused search is still producing the top contenders for jobs; effective and thorough screening is also essential. We anticipate further increases as we enter the Summer period, once it becomes clear that organisations are unable to continue employing the same numbers of staff.  

Searches for particular Chair and Board member appointments will take longer to complete. Overall, the market of suitable and available non-executives has contracted. This is because high calibre applicants who are already serving on boards are now being asked to increase their time commitment significantly, in order to help those organisations through the transition phase. For many, this will make it impossible to commit to a new role for the time being.  

The lockdown period has presented an unrivalled opportunity to access very senior people without the usual structure and boundaries of the working week. Paid non-executive Chair posts are continuing to attract a good response, subject to the usual considerations (financial health of the organisation, reputation and strategic priorities). 

Voluntary chair roles where the organisation is funded through contracts, membership or another comparatively stable source, are also continuing to attract high quality applicants in smaller numbers. 

All Chair candidates are taking their time to carry out additional due diligence and may require greater access to detailed information. Mainstream charities with a historical reliance on fundraising, for example, may appear to present a more mixed opportunity, especially while the impact on future income is yet to be understood. For this reason, our role as advisers and brokers on these appointments has become more fundamental. 


All organisations will need effective leadership and governance if they are to transition successfully out of the current period. They must have the right skills, experiences and perspectives at the top to make confident choices about the ‘new normal’, and to begin the process of planning for a new future. 

These appointments continue to require outstanding people with the vision, commitment and tenacity needed to take organisations, and possibly parts of the sector, forward. While current conditions mean there may be additional questions for candidates to ask, these roles remain outstanding opportunities to restore, revive, and deliver positive change for good.   

Towards the future: why professional interim managers have a role to play in the post COVID-19 transition period

The crisis phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to evolve at an unprecedented pace. But while those charged with leading and governing organisations – across all sectors – remain focused on steadying the ship, the last week marks a sizeable shift in thinking and attitude. In particular, the many leaders we have stayed in touch with during this period – wherever they are working – have now started to look ahead. 

Few will tell you that they have the answers. Like most of us, they have been listening to an increasing number of influential voices, each busy painting a picture of what our lives may look like as we come out of the biggest global health crisis of our lifetimes. From these varied sources, we are all starting to shape our own view, and piece together our own emerging picture of what the future could hold post lockdown and, longer term, post coronavirus. 

Even in such unprecedented times – and very likely precisely because of them – effective leadership depends on practical, real world solutions. For many organisations, continued uncertainty and ambiguity will delay long term commitments. However, the skills of interim managers – especially in handling change and transformation, and in sense-making from chaos – will make these professionals a fundamental part of the senior transition team.

Here are our top six observations on how best to source and utilise the best interim talent:

1.As we emerge from crisis management to business continuity, organisations are likely to find internal capacity is limited and look to appoint strategic advisors on a short-term basis, for example in areas such as workforce planning or financial modelling.

2.A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the RSA( showed that fewer than 10% of people want a complete return to normal after lockdown is lifted and organisations will already be thinking about their future delivery models and the impact on their workforce. Even though people feel confined by lockdown, most have valued the time at home and agile working. Digital capacity within organisations was mobilised at lightning speed and will likely go further.  As organisations build capacity and seek investment in technologies to enable more remote working, we expect to see a spike in requirements for interims with experience of digital transformation and innovation.

3.Organisations will be starting to onboard employees virtually; this will continue and can be utilised for Interim hires. Interims have proven track records in their fields and can be relied upon to deliver on objectives set even in a virtual environment.

4.The future of some organisations is already uncertain. We are expecting to see more collaboration (including mergers) between similar organisations to survive; this puts added strain on stretched workforces. We work with many Interims who have specific talents around Mergers and Acquisitions, Restructuring, Organisational Design. Strategic intervention at this time could add significant value. You may not have the expertise internally and acting quickly will pay dividends. External interim leaders can make tough decisions without fear of fallout from the organisation.

5.The environment we are working in now is unchartered territory especially for CEOs – consider hiring Interim expertise at CEO level, Interim Managers can empower you to make the best strategic decisions for your organisation. 

6. You may have gaps on your leadership team and a weakened infrastructure at this time means more work for the CEO – Interim Managers can help fill these gaps and give extra capacity to executive teams.

The interim market is strong. Outstanding experienced leaders can be accessed quickly and cost effectively by any organisation looking for remedial or specialist support. Like everyone else, people who have chosen to invest in an interim leadership career are keen to add value and expertise to organisations in these changing times. Many are uniquely equipped to join senior teams at short notice and provide essential support with their trademark resilience. As we move deeper into the stocktaking and transition phases of the COVID-19 response, we would encourage organisations to think laterally about the solutions they may need, and to consider the benefits that this community can offer.

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.

Embracing transparency

Earlier this year we held a client round table event under Chatham House Rule to discuss the topic: ‘If transparency builds trust, what’s stopping us from embracing it?’ 15 charity CEOs and Industry leaders joined us. Thanks to 11 London and Trust Impact for partnering on this event  and Kate Lee, CEO of Clic Sargent for giving such an insightful and honest appraisal of how transparency around impact reporting has created positive change both internally and externally at Clic.

Interview with our CEO


So, what’s it like starting up a new search business?

It goes without saying that it’s hard work, but more than that I believe it’s about having the humility to learn from your mistakes and move beyond your own comfort zone. Nobody will ever get it right first time and what has worked in more established businesses will often not translate into a start-up. It’s been a fantastic experience so far but we’re only at the beginning. 2020 is our year of growing, and growing up. I personally love being able to shape the way we work with our clients, by listening to clients and candidates and building on the depth of colleague insight we have. Being able to shape the culture is really exciting too, and is one of the reasons we have been able to get a strong team together.

What motivated you to create Starfish?

I think the world of headhunting has a mixed reputation. We really want our business to do our bit to challenge that. If you’re serious and committed about the work then your pride comes from the professionalism with which you carry it out. We talk about executive search very much as a profession, not just an industry; so standards are important. So is building a team of people who want the quality of their work to stand out. At the end of the day, what makes it all worthwhile is what our candidates go on to do once they are appointed. They really do change society. 

What does a great day look like at Starfish HQ?

We’re a close knit team; we have a really strong team culture with each new hire and this will define our business as we grow. A great day for us is a day when we’re all pulling together to achieve something – to land a new project we really want, or to organise our roles to deliver on a tricky assignment. But it’s also being able to come together when we don’t always get the result that we like and support each other. We’re great problem solvers and the team is very motivated and energetic.

How can you tell whether or not a headhunter is good at what they do?

Ask a client! We have built Starfish on what our clients have told us matters most to them – the list includes being a good listener; sound judgement and advice; honesty and someone who does what they say they are going to do. Good headhunters are usually influential and authentic about their work and because they enjoy it they go the extra mile. Speaking from within search, I would add that great headhunters can balance the received wisdom of their industry with common sense, flexibility and a desire to do the right thing. A good sense of humour helps – we’re in the people business and any headhunter will have had their fair share of events where those passing through our doors have done or said the unexpected.

What’s your message to people who might be thinking about moving into search?

Do it. Recruitment is quite often a misunderstood world and it is varied in terms of the approaches and specialisms involved. If you find the right company with the right culture for you, then it can be a fantastic career in which you will keep learning, build your own profile and specialism, and meet people you may not otherwise be able to engage with. I have met so many role models over the years – sometimes your clients and candidates can inspire you to think differently and that is an amazing experience. I remember all of those people and am still in touch with many of them. To do well, you need to be professional, reflective and interested in people, how the world works, and life. You can enter the executive search world from most backgrounds. It’s fast paced but it’s also exciting and you will forge strong working relationships that stand the test of time. 

And finally, why did you call the business Starfish?

Our values and culture are particularly important in how we deliver for our clients, so we wanted to choose a different and perhaps unexpected name. The starfish is a symbol of guidance, vigilance, inspiration, brilliance and intuition. It has represented friendship and guardianship across all cultures for millennia and is also a symbol of strength and longevity. The impact of our work is about all these things. Who knew that the humble Starfish was so significant?