Nick Billingham and Philippa Randle chat with Girish Menon, Chief Executive at STiR Foundation, Sarah Sweet-Rowley, Chief Executive at Autism Early Support and Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive at Bliss about their journeys to becoming a CEO.

This session was conducted as a live webinar. For the full recording including live transcript) please contact Philippa Randle.

Our panelists shared lots of practical advice on the journey from senior management to CEO:

Find out if the CEO role is for you

Before beginning the application process, find out what it is really like to be a chief executive. Speak to current CEOs, find mentors who have already completed the journey and take on a role as a trustee to understand the relationship between the CEO and the board.

What’s your why?

Understand why you want to be a chief executive. Our panelists agreed that without a strong connection to the cause and a belief in your ability to make a difference to those the charity supports, it will be difficult to fulfil a Chief Executive role. 

How do you feel about management?  

As a Chief Executive a big part of your role is management. If you find joy in supporting others to shine, you will enjoy becoming a CEO.

You should also consider how you feel about the more uncomfortable elements of management. As a middle manager, this might be carrying out decisions that you have not had input into.  As a CEO, you have to be comfortable with making difficult decisions.

Are you a generalist or a specialist?

If you are a specialist in fundraising, for example, and have less interest in the other areas of the organisation, question whether leading a charity is right for you. If you are a generalist and have in active interest in how all the elements of a charity work together, even if you don’t have experience in all of them, you will be well placed to lead. 

You will get things wrong

It isn’t possible to know everything you need to know before you become a chief executive. You will continue to get things wrong and learn from them. 

Invest in your own development

Whether it’s coaching, a course on leadership or taking on a trustee role, invest in yourself before deciding to take the next step in your career. You may not get all the training and development opportunities you need from your current role. 

Be resilient 

When you begin your search for your first CEO role, expect a journey! It may take a few applications to get the right role. Think about your application from the organisation’s perspective. You are selling yourself, but more importantly you are selling how you can help to solve their problems and make progress on the issues they work on.

Start from scratch every time you apply! 

Each application should be a blank page, because each charity is unique. Spend time doing as much research as you can, including trying to meet existing staff and trustees or previous employees if you can. Try to learn about more than the charity’s strategy and balance sheet.

Be realistic in your expectations

If you are applying for your first role as a CEO, be realistic about the size and nature of the organisations you are applying to.

Lean on recruiters

Don’t underestimate the part that the recruiters are playing. Often recruiters are making the first round decisions in CEO application processes. Every conversation you have with a recruiter will inform what they tell the charity about you. 

Lean on the recruiter for information about the challenges of the organisation. They will have had in depth conversations with the charity about their requirements, current challenges and aspirations for the future. 

Good luck with taking this big leap in your career.