Thursday, 7 January 2021

Reflections of a First Time CEO


Becoming a first time CEO at the age of 52 in the charity sector would be considered as arriving quite late to the party, especially when most would get to that role in their ‘40s or some even in their ‘30s. That said, I was delighted and felt quite privileged to have been appointed as the CEO by the board of ActionAid UK, led by the Chair, Margaret Casely-Hayford, in August 2015 – firstly because it was a very reputed organisation in international development, and secondly because I did consider myself as an ‘outsider’, having arrived in the UK after having lived all my life in India till early 2005, and without the benefit of an international education or vast professional networks here in the UK.

I was also fortunate that while I was in my previous role with WaterAid UK, I had the opportunity of attending a course at the CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness called the Aspiring CEO course, thanks to my then CEO, Barbara Frost, which was also about making one think of whether one really wanted to be CEO. A few participants from my cohort came to the conclusion that the CEO role was not for them, but many others pursued their ambition and eventually many have become CEOs.

Having stepped down after over 5 years in the role in December 2020, I thought of looking back at my experience, reflecting on what I had learnt, and sharing that with those who, like me, are ‘outsiders’ and hence do not have a firm social or professional foundations in the UK – but also those who are considering their first ever CEO role. So this is what I have come up with.

1.    Nothing quite prepares you for the role – you have to live it : As I mentioned, I did the course, I spoke to a small number of CEOs I knew, I read a couple of books. I also had coaching support, both formal and informal. All that was incredibly helpful and I would certainly recommend these and more. But you need to get into the role to feel it and navigate through all the uncertainties and complexities. I became a CEO in the year when there were huge controversies around fundraising and governance practices of charities. That was soon followed by Brexit, rapidly declining public trust in charities, safeguarding concerns, merger of DFID with FCO to create the new government department, FCDO, and of course, the massive Covid pandemic. Each one of these had a bruising impact on any international organisation, and for each one of these, one had to find one’s own way.

2.    Do not underestimate the importance of governance : CEOs may have a tendency to focus more on the executive or operational side of things, especially in terms of working with their senior managers and the wider staff body. I learnt soon enough that it was of crucial importance to develop a strong understanding of the board, the role of individual trustees, their hopes, aspirations and concerns, and ensure that the senior management and the board of trustees have a strong relationship of trust, respect and accountability. And that doesn’t happen easily, especially when the external challenges can be quite draining and the expectations of the board members varied. But it is equally, therefore, more important for the CEO to prioritise and invest time in working with the board, and especially the Chair of the board.

3.    Balancing internal and external engagements is not easy : There always has to be a compromise before one gets to a sweet spot, if ever there is one. Internally, the buck eventually stops with the CEO and hence, there is no excuse for not focussing on the internal issues. Yet, the organisation depends quite a lot on the CEO’s external engagement in building profile, developing networks and bringing in external intelligence. One needs to manage what works best given individual preferences and work styles, and that requires robust time management and quite often, long hours.

4.    Role modelling is very important – even if it does not resolve everything : This needs to start from a place of self awareness and identity, so that the behaviours one lives and breathes demonstrates authenticity and integrity. It does not pay to try and fit into your predecessor’s shoes if it does not come to you naturally. Comparisons will often be made – take it in as an input or information. See if there is something really important that you can adopt or adapt. But be sure to model the behaviours that align with the organisation’s values and your personal ones as well. It also doesn’t mean that by role modelling alone, you can change behaviours you wish to change. Keep at it but also find other ways to communicate with perseverance.

5.    Recognise individuals and their contributions – it matters : I have been surprised as how many people thought that CEOs are most likely to be quite distant and not in touch with colleagues other than the senior managers. Equally, it is surprising how motivating it is when individuals are recognised for who they are and their contributions appreciated. Make time to know as many people as you can. It is not just important for them, it is important for you as a  CEO to know your colleagues much better than just in meeting rooms.

6.    Trust your colleagues – you don’t need to have all the answers : Perhaps this is the most liberating of all thoughts, if one acknowledges and accepts that the CEO does not and will not have all the answers. And so, learn to step back with humility and let someone else take the space who knows better than you on a matter of their functional specialism. Use that opportunity to learn more and better, ask the right questions, challenge perspectives, but let them lead if that is the area of their expertise. That is always best for the organisation.

7.    Banish the thoughts of the ‘imposter syndrome’ : It took me 2 years and 12 roles that I applied for before I landed my first CEO role. It can be very demotivating and make you think that being an ‘outsider’ means you will never make it, or worse, that you are simply not good enough, because you do not fit into the mould of the majority of CEOs in the sector. When you get the role, you may find that there was an internal candidate who had applied for the role and was quite good too. These may trigger the ‘imposter syndrome’ in you. Be confident in your own style, your approach and what you can contribute.

So once you have made up your mind to be a CEO, go for it by all means, but go for it with your eyes and ears open, be fully prepared for all the curved balls directed at you or coming your way, have your own reserves of resilience, but most importantly, believe in yourself and the mission of the organisation. And trust me, it doesn’t matter if you do not have a Masters or a PhD from a university of international repute. It doesn’t matter if you do not have a vast professional network. All that matters is you ! Once you get into the role, build a professional support network around you to learn from and share ideas. Keep looking for ways in which you can sharpen  your skills. Seek feedback from those  you work with. Very importantly, devote time to reflect on your journey from time to time.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Leading in a crisis

‘Focus on what you can control’ is a mantra that seems much more applicable to the current situation than ever before. As the Covid-19 pandemic grinds the world to a halt, thanks to the invisible virus, there is understandably a sense of anxiety and panic, not just about the immediate threat (e.g. on health, relationships, jobs, economy) but also on the absolute fear of the unknown (how long will it last, how deep will its impact be, what will the new normal be, how will it change the world etc.).

As leaders, we also have the responsibility of bringing in a sense of calm to our respective teams and think beyond our immediate lives, to even attempt to bring about a semblance of normalcy. So here are some of my thoughts :

1.    Stay mission focussed : Our organisational mission is akin to a lighthouse that serves as a navigational aid. When there are waves of uncertainty that swirl around us, it is the mission that provides a sense of direction and reminds us what the purpose of our organisation is, and what we are here to achieve. At ActionAid UK, we constantly remind us that our mission is to work with women and girls living in the global south living in poverty and enable them to realise their rights. That is what always inspires us and should do, going forward.

2.    Be true to your culture : Every organisation has its own organisational culture. There is no better way to bring that culture to life than during a crisis. Let the culture enable those values and behaviours to be demonstrated clearly in how we manage the crisis, some of those values being - empathy, self-care, inclusion, kindness, trust and respect, which are quite common in the not-for-profit sector. At ActionAid, this is expressed through our feminist principles and behaviours, and there is no better time to embrace it fully than now.

3.    Understand resilience through an inter-sectional lens : Resilience is key in managing the crisis, but it is different for each individual, given their background, their beliefs, the socio-economic group they represent, and it is important to understand how each individual could be supported in being more resilient in view of the unpredictable future. We have had some discussions internally on issues of mental health for instance, and we are fortunate to have a dedicated team of mental health firstaiders who offer a fantastic resource. Equally, we keep reminding our colleagues of the confidential helpline we have, to support colleagues through these difficult times.

4.    Connect and communicate : With home working becoming the norm for an indefinite period, it is more important than ever to reach out, check-in, communicate, reassure and make people feel part of a wider team and organisation. I am so impressed to see how many of our teams have immediately put in some creative forms of catch-ups virtually, to keep in touch and check-in, which has been hugely welcome, especially by those who live on their own and feel very isolated. I participated in a Friday afternoon virtual drinks session, and it was great to also meet some of the family members and pets over this virtual catch-ups !
5.    Self awareness and vulnerability : We all have our own lives, and hence, an entire hinterland of anxieties and concerns. Leaders must look inwards to introspect what their deep concerns are, acknowledge them in the spirit of self-awareness and be comfortable in expressing their own vulnerabilities. I have realised that the current crisis is having an impact on my sleep pattern, and every time I wake up at night, which is a few times, my mind immediately diverts to whether I am doing the right thing in managing the crisis. And I have found immense comfort in being able to share that with colleagues.

We all have been through various crises in our respective roles and organisations, and I am sure there is a lot we can learn from and be proud of how we managed that. But this one is at a scale hitherto unseen in modern times. And it is global, affecting every single organisation across sectors. It therefore calls for deeper solidarity irrespective of who we are, where we come from, what our beliefs and ideologies are or where we live in the world. It may just be that moment to come together as one world, one community, to appreciate our diversity, to be more inclusive, tolerant, understanding and unified. It may just be the moment that will help redefine global relationships, bring us all together to continue to fight some of the other huge challenges like poverty, gender inequality, exclusion and social injustice.

(Originally published in the Third Sector, March 2020) 

Identifying exclusionary factors

There has been a lot of discussion on diversity and inclusion – and hence, it is only natural that we look at why this is such a big issue. One answer is that diversity is lacking in the sector, especially at senior levels. The other answer is that there are exclusionary factors, which need to be tackled to ensure inclusion. I would like to focus on the latter.
In my experience as someone who has sometimes been at the receiving end and speaking to others, there are different types of exclusionary factors. Some are personal (as felt by the individual), some are contextual (where some specific settings can be exclusionary), some are structural (caused by how organisations are configured, and their own processes & systems) and some are systemic (that has roots in behaviours and culture). In the real world though, it is not as neat and clear categories. There are all inter-linked. So instead of going into each type of exclusion (i.e. those caused due to gender, race, religion etc.), let me take you through what some of the exclusionary factors may look like – and I would like to highlight four of them.

1.    Recruitment : People face different types of entry barriers. Some of them could be because of gender, race, religion, class, education, i.e. factors that are more identifiable when someone applies for a role and provides a full CV. In case one passes through that if one is fortunate, there may be exclusions on the basis of some physical or cognitive disabilities, introversion or linguistic grasp, which may not be very significant or relevant to the role the person has applied for.

2.    Hierarchy : Hierarchy can be often about power and authority. While some form of hierarchy exists in all organisations, these structures sometimes result in some voices not being heard, some views being marginalised because it is expressed by a person who are relatively more ‘junior’ in the hierarchy of the organisation. There could be a power struggle between different departments and teams (e.g. based on who has more staff and finances) that could result in some teams feeling more marginalised and hence excluded.

3.    Behaviours : We all relate very differently in different situations based on several factors including our own temperament, attitude and resilience. And while that may be quite legitimate in many situations, what we often do not realise is the impact it has on others. We may come across as being passive aggressive, intimidating or even bullying. People draw their experiences of us from the verbal and non-verbal expressions that form part of our behaviours.

4.    Culture : The culture of the organisation is something that a person experiences when they step in to the organisation. It is broadly described as ‘how things are done here’. Even if organisations seek to build an open, vibrant culture, some people in some situations experience the organisation very differently, and they feel that the culture results in them being excluded and discriminated against.

In discussions on diversity and inclusion, we often talk about intersectionality which is about factoring in the overlapping identities of an individual to understand the impact of the disadvantages or prejudices they experience, which could be, but not limited to, gender, race, religion, class, disability, sexuality etc. Equally, the various factors mentioned above can further aggravate exclusion that individuals face or further perpetuate these when organisational processes collude with individual identities to create a web of powerful exclusionary factors. And it is really important to understand this because while individual identities very often cannot be changed, organisations can certainly change systems, processes and culture that are within its sphere of influence and control.

The purpose of laying some of these factors out is because addressing diversity and inclusion is extremely complex and it is very hard to get it right for all people across all contexts. I do believe that it can be quite a utopian quest. However, that should not stop us from understanding factors that cause exclusion and exploring various options to mitigate or eliminate these factors completely, because it is the right thing to do – especially for the not-for-profit sector that prides ourselves in being mission oriented, working around some core human values that are liberal and progressive, and for our collective commitment to a world that is safer, more just, more equal and more tolerant.

In my subsequent blogs, I will aim to explore each of the factors above with some examples that I have seen or experienced. And I will try to explore these through different forms of diversity in trying to follow a more intersectional understanding.

(Originally publised in the Third Sector, February 2020)

Friday, 15 November 2019

The Chair-CEO Relationship

Taking over as a Chief Executive a few years ago, I was quite conscious that being a first-time CEO, it was really important for me to understand how to build a strong, working relationship between the Chair of the board and myself, based on the principles of mutual trust, respect and accountability. That was one of the questions I asked many of my experienced peers at the time – and often still continue to ask, as this is one of the most important relationships that can make or break organisations.

So why is this important ? The Chair is unlike any other ‘line manager’ that one would have. For one, the Chair is more often than not in the charity sector, a volunteer with whom one would have relatively less contact, albeit more than with other trustees. Thus, it means that the Chair, who often is not able to get into the details of the running of the organisation, is still getting substantial assurances on how the organisation is run, in terms of delivery of its strategy, plans, external relationships and internal culture. The Chair provides a steer to the board, who, in addition to their statutory and fiduciary responsibilities, also provide the strategic steer for the organisation. On one hand, while it is important for the Chair to have strategic and operational oversight of the organisation, it also needs to be balanced with the limited time s/he would have to provide that support and challenge that the CEO needs.

Speaking to many of my peers and based on my own experiences, these are some ways in which Chairs and CEOs have managed to maintain a sound working relationship, while also providing leadership and steer to the organisation.

Regular catch-up : It is generally believed that a fortnightly catch-up would be ideal. I would recommend scheduling a fortnightly call and a monthly face-to-face meeting, even if we think it may not quite be required. While using these as an opportunity to brief the Chair, it also provides space for the Chair to ask questions or offer advice. Very importantly, a catch up just before the board meeting would be crucial so that the CEO can brief the Chair on what the expectations of each agenda item would be and on what the ideal outcomes for a board discussion would be.

Policy of no-surprises : Long gaps between meetings or calls could mean that some critical issues could fall through the cracks. CEOs need to anticipate what issues could potentially be problematic or controversial, which need to be proactively flagged earlier on rather than it being sprung as a surprise in the board meeting, which could make the Chair feel quite exposed, but more importantly, would be difficult for the Chair to steer discussions with objectivity and balance.

Agreement on agendas : I strongly believe in ensuring co-creation of agenda as much as possible. There are often standard items on an agenda depending upon the organisational calendar. But it is important to understand the expectations of the Chair across the meetings in a year, so that these can be factored into developing and agreeing agendas, while also working towards a better understanding of the expected outcomes of these meetings.

Giving and receiving feedback : Unlike a member of an executive team, it could be quite difficult for a Chair to understand the implications of their engagement on other members of the team, mostly because they are not often around, physically. Equally, for the CEO, a meeting with the Chair should be a safe space where problems can be shared and advice sought. It is also an opportunity for the Chair to play the role of a coach or a mentor, as appropriate. Hence, there must be a good understanding of when and how feedback can be mutually shared, thus building greater trust and respect. This could also be about other senior members of the team or other board members.

Being part of a journey : I remember a Chair once remarking during a talk, “I prefer my CEO to help me bake the cake with her, rather than giving me a baked cake”. I think that was a very insightful comment. Often, we make the mistake of just ‘selling’ or ‘telling’ the board on a range of issues we think they need to know, but do not sometimes make the effort of bringing them on to a journey.

The external role : It is really important for CEOs to be able to identify opportunities where the Chair can play the role of the organisation’s ambassador, thus also leveraging the networks they have. These are immensely inspiring opportunities and the Chair would have the unique perspective of being a part insider and part outsider, which can be hugely advantageous for the organisation. It is also great for others to interact with the Chair and see the Chair play such key representational roles.

The Chair-CEO relationship is a very important one, and sometimes, it can be difficult to get it right. But as long as the Chair and CEO are able to agree on some first principles and get this relationship right, it can work only to the advantage of the organisation.

(Originally published by the Third Sector, November 2019)

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Getting recruitments right

A post-summer holiday time is when many organisations ramp up their recruitment plans, having avoided the quiet period. It is likely that in September or October, one would see a spike in the number of recruitments happening as organisations seek to get their chosen candidates in place before the Christmas break, fresh for the new year, or at least to have identified them.
Recruitments, as in most organisations, would be led by the Human Resources or People & Culture department or team, who, over a period of time, would have arguably mastered the art of getting things right. But why do we get it wrong so often ? In many cases, the answer doesn’t lie in pointing fingers at the HR or P&C team but asking questions about whether the ‘recruiting manager’, i.e. the person who will eventually line manager the incoming person, has taken recruitment as seriously. And that is what I want to focus in this piece. Here are a few points that I have learnt or have observed as good practices, that have worked :
·         Working in partnership : It is really important that the HR person supporting the process and the recruiting manager work in partnership with a joint understanding about the person they are seeking to recruit, rather than leave it to the HR / P&C team to manage it all. The reason being – it is ultimately the responsibility of the recruiting manager to manage the person and hence they must have a very clear idea on the kind of person they want and whether the person specifications are clearly aligned to the job description. Once this is clarified, it is important to get clarity on who will do what as part of the recruitment process.

·         Clarity on the process : The recruitment process must be right for the role and the time / effort must be proportionate to the importance of the role. Hence, while it is really important that every person joining the organisation is aligned to the culture and values of the organisation, more thought may be need to be given for roles that in leadership / senior management positions, or technical specialism. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all. If it is a trustee recruitment, for instance, it will need much more engagement of some board members. A process may normally be a combination of formal and informal panels, written tests, psychometric analysis etc. but it is important to think through which of these are really essential for the given role, rather than have it as a standard template.

·         Decision making : I always believe that the ultimate decision making must be with the recruiting manager and therein should lie the accountability for getting the right people while also empowering the manager. That said, it is important that diverse perspectives are brought in to enable and support the line manager in getting to the right decision even if they ultimately own the decision. Do give thought to how many people should be on the panel and what their role would be. For instance, if a role involves financial management, it would be important to get someone from the Finance team to be on the panel, even if the role sits in another department. Diversity on the panel is really important and it should reflect, to the extent possible, the organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. I would often advice the recruiting manager’s line manager to be involved in the process even if at the final stage, just to support the recruiting manager in their decision. In case of senior roles, I have found informal panels consisting of peers and potential direct reports to be very useful but with the role to only provide the candidates with information they need to prepare them better for the formal panel and respond to their questions, rather than asking questions themselves. Consider very carefully if there are certain roles for which you need to bring in a board member or an external panellist to help you make the right decision as they can add immense value and objectivity, which is particularly helpful if there are sensitivities involved in recruiting specific roles.

·         References : This is one of the most important and increasingly difficult part of the process that is often undermined. Employers are increasingly reluctant to provide anything more than a ‘factual reference’. It does make it hard for recruiting organisations to get more insights about the person that are relevant for the role. Personal references therefore would play a very important role and the recruiting manager needs to think carefully about obtaining it – but also, preferably, to make the call directly to the personal referees and have a conversation, focussing on a set of key questions that are relevant for the role and also on issues related to alignment on culture and values.

·         Information and communication : Irrespective of whether a person succeeds in the interview or not, it is really important that anyone applying for the role values the experience of the process. Candidates would understandably be disappointed in not getting the role they aspire for, but they will also remember how they were treated during the process, which is important for the reputation of the organisation. Hence, it is important to be responsive and respectful throughout the process – and once a decision is made, to make the effort and communicate it with sensitivity and empathy, especially in case of those who did not succeed. Isn’t it fantastic when someone comes up to you and says. “We met when you were on the panel for a role that I applied for. I was really disappointed not to get the role, but I have a very positive experience” !
Happy recruitments !

(Originally published by Third Sector, September 2019)

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Diversity and Inclusion

“We live in a diverse world and a diverse society, and our organisations needs to reflect that diversity to make us more representative and pluralistic”. That is one of the most compelling yet simple arguments I have heard in response to the question on ‘Why diversity’ ?

As a not-for-profits sector, there is another even more compelling imperative. We are united in our purpose to create a society that is more equal, more fair, more just and more safe. We do it differently of course and have different pathways, but that is essentially the core essence. In delivering our mission, we seek to understand the challenges of those who are vulnerable, living in different parts of the country or the world, so that our work responds to their struggles and their challenges. Diversity helps bring some of that understanding and empathy if our teams have people who have the lived experience of those challenges or can relate to them better than others, given their social or economic status.

And as we embed diversity in our organisations that reflect diversity in society, it is equally important to work towards an environment which is truly inclusive, that respects people from diverse backgrounds, that enables people to share their diverse perspectives, that is free of any form of discriminatory or exclusionary behaviour, that creates and promotes safe spaces and enables people to perform to the best of their abilities and effectively.

All of this is part of a ‘culture conversation’ that is very important for every organisation to have. While our success will be measured by what we do, our success will be amplified if we also consider how we do it. Any culture conversation needs to consider what kind of an organisation we aspire to be, and needs to have diversity and inclusion at the heart of it. There is now plenty of evidence on how diversity and inclusion drive higher degree of engagement and therefore more effective performance. Diversity is also now considered to be a driver for innovation and lateral thinking.

At ActionAid, we have embarked on a culture journey which we started about three years ago. It started with a reflection on the culture we currently have and conversations on the culture we seek to create. It was also the time when we were developing a new strategy, which revolved around the rights of women and girls living in poverty. We understood issues of gender inequality being driven by patriarchal values, norms and culture. And we recognised the power of feminist values to redress this ‘power imbalance’ as part of our strategy and programmes. But it was not good enough for feminist analysis to be ‘out there’ in our programmes. It was also important for us to talk about feminist principles ‘in here’. Thus started the journey of embedding feminist values as the basis of our organisational culture, and therefore a very comfortable nesting of diversity and inclusion within that, which essentially emphasises respect, self awareness, self care and zero tolerance to discrimination as some of its core principles.

A process that started off within our staff teams was soon widened to include our board of trustees, recognising the key role of governance in influencing organisational culture. We were very fortunate that the board fully embraced this concept and devoted time and effort to participate, engage, influence and shape the feminist agenda, within our strategy, culture and behaviours.

This has not been an easy journey because it makes us ask some hard questions about ourselves and raises some difficult, uncomfortable conversations. And there are no right answers or right solutions either. It is all about the principles and the values we hold dear. Even if there is a theoretical or ideological acceptance on issues of culture, feminist principles and diversity & inclusion, it eventually boils down to behaviours of each individual, for it is ultimately through our behaviours that our commitments are brought to life. It puts incredible pressure on the leadership to hold themselves accountable, to demonstrate the right behaviours, to acknowledge and accept where we get it wrong, to call out behaviours that are not aligned to our principles. Hence, it is all the more importance to embrace it and commit ourselves to get better.

We are getting clearer on some of these aspects. We are on the verge of finalising our diversity and inclusion framework that looks at what we are currently doing and what we need to do. We are consulting with various staff groups looking at various aspects of diversity, including gender, LGBTQ+, mental health. We are looking at our measures and how we report on these. We are digging deeper on specific areas of inclusivity, be it around flexible working or safe spaces. We are connecting it to feminist principles and coming up with a framework called ‘My Feminist Behaviours’. We are embedding it in everything that we want to do around our people, be it on recruitment, retention or advancement, across staff and trustees.

Reflecting on our work over the past three years, it does give me a deep sense of satisfaction that the journey has truly begun. It even makes me feel proud. Equally, I am very conscious that a lot more needs to be done in fulfilling our aspiration of an organisation that has diversity and inclusion at the heart of our culture that is embedded in feminist principles. What I do know is that we have the support of engagement of staff across the organisation and our board – and of course, we are still seeking answers !

(Originally published by the Institute of Fundraising, April 2019)

Monday, 18 March 2019

Onboarding - and why it is important

Recruitment is one of the most important management functions. Ultimately, it is about getting the right people, with the right skills, expertise and attitude, who are aligned to the values and culture of the organisation. We all know how difficult it is to get it right, we all know the pitfalls of not doing it well enough and well all know how difficult it is to retain the right people.

Once completed, the recruiting manager gets a big tick in the box. Job done ! But our experiences show that getting the people into an organisation is only the start of another and more important responsibility, which I personally find very exciting, that of onboarding.

As a term, the use of the word ‘onboarding’ is relatively recent. This has replaced earlier terms like ‘orientation’, perhaps because it is about making a new entrant more comfortable with the work place and the colleagues, and enabling them to understand the organisation and settle down well. ‘Induction’ is another popular term, which involves either focussed and tailored sessions about the organisation and getting to know about the various teams or departments in the organisation, the policies and processes, the ways of working etc.

‘Onboarding’ is presumably a more comprehensive term which is all the above, but it is also about enabling the person to be fully on board. It is about understanding the role that the person is recruited to, its connection with the mission and purpose of the organisation, the key inter-relationships both internal and external, and very importantly, the culture and values that underpin an organisation.

So how can onboarding be effectively done ? Here are a few things that I have found quite useful :

1.    Organisational history and purpose: One motto that I have found quite useful is : Respect the past, live in the present and be aspirational about the future. It is so important to know where the organisation has come from, what were the key phases in the evolution of the organisation, how do we understand the history of the organisation. That is what would help us in enabling new joiners to better understand the context in which we are working, and getting their heads around the rationale behind the various changes in the evolution of the organisation.

2.    Clarity on the role : It is quite reasonable to expect that a new joiner would know what their role is. After all, they would have gone through the recruitment pack, which enabled them to prepare for the role and that’s why they got the job, isn’t it ? Often, it is not that simple. When a person comes in, they do have some understanding of the organisation and the role, but do not take it for granted. They need to understand the role in the context of what the organisation seeks to achieve and its purpose. They need to understand their role vis-à-vis that of others in the team and in other teams. They need to understand the distinctive contribution they need to make. They need to understand what is expected of them and the basis on which their performance would be assessed. They need clarity on the role, in terms of their objectives and measures of success.

3.    Culture and values : We all have seen various ways in which people try to explain the culture and values of the organisation. It may be on wall, on the intranet site, on post cards, in documents. The trouble is, when we ask people about these values or explain the culture of the organisation, it often depends upon who you speak to. As it is often said, culture is more about how people experience it rather than how people explain it. It is that intangible, it is what people feel about being in an organisation. There needs to be opportunities and space for the person to understand this, to ask questions and to be guided in enabling a better understanding, and therefore, a deeper commitment to the organisational culture and values.

4.    Accompaniment : A new role in a new organisation can be daunting in itself. It can be particularly so for a person who is relatively young and starting a new career, someone returning after a long break, someone settling in from overseas, someone who is from a different sector, someone who is moving up or sideways in a career. The first port of call is  usually the line manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day accompaniment, with a mixture of coaching and mentoring. In some cases, it could be the someone from the HR/People team. While these are more formal and established touchpoints for contact, it would be worth thinking of a system of ‘buddying’ if the person is up for it and if the role is complex enough that requires some such buddying arrangement. Some organisations would also engage external coaching for senior roles, as they need to quickly get to grips with complex leadership challenges.

It is very difficult to estimate the exact length of time that the process of onboarding would take for it to be effective. But in my experience, it is rarely less than six months and it could last for up to a year, especially in more senior roles and in international organisations, that would require them to travel, get to the more international parts of the organisations and the programmes. What I have seen is that when done well, it is a huge investment of time and resource that is well worth the effort as it is all about making the person settle down well, which in turn, drives engagement and retention. The last thing organisations want to see is someone leaving within a year or two of joining or someone who is unable to perform, primarily because they were not supported especially in their early days !

(Originally published in the Third Sector, March 2019)