In the latest instalment of our ‘Transformational Leaders’ series, Sandra Hamovic, Principal Consultant in Berwick Partners’ Not for Profit Leadership Practice, talks to Hilary Croft about her first 100 days as the new CEO of Coeliac UK and her transition into her new role.
I first started working with Coeliac UK in December 2018 when they were looking to recruit a new CEO, following the departure of their long-standing CEO who had been with the charity for over 13 years. The charity was also in the final year of its strategy, with the timing of the recruitment presenting the ideal opportunity for the new CEO to influence the direction of travel.
The Board was open to considering candidates from a range of backgrounds, and so our search covered the breadth of our networks across all sectors and functions. It was also important to undertake a ‘values-based’ approach to our search, looking beyond skills and experience, as we identified the core values of candidates, ensuring that they reflected the needs and values of Coeliac UK.
From the start, Hilary was an impressive candidate; an experienced business transformation specialist with particular strengths in strategy, marketing, business development and digital. She had more recently applied her wide range of industry and consulting experience in the not for profit sector as CEO of the Felix Project, a charity focused on reducing food waste and food poverty.
Hilary joined Coeliac UK in June 2019 aiming to develop the charity’s strong reputation by bringing fresh ideas and strategic insights. Naturally, her direct experience of coeliac disease, through her son’s condition, further motivates her to achieve real and lasting change for the gluten free community. Now, after being in the role for her first 100 days, I wanted to talk with Hilary about her transition and the impact she is having so far.
What inspired you to want to work in the not-for-profit sector and in particular Coeliac UK?
Charity work has always formed an integral part of my life alongside getting involved with my local community through my church. I find the volunteering experience a truly rewarding one. On one hand, it’s humbling because you meet people that are faced with some truly difficult, daily struggles - I believe it’s important to take stock of life’s realities and act where you can or when you can. On the other hand, the charity sector is one that lends itself perfectly to organisational transformation and skills transfer, particularly when you come from an industry and consultancy background, as I do.
As for Coeliac UK, my direct experience of coeliac disease, through my son, contributed tremendously to my decision to apply for the role of CEO. I also come from a seventh-generation family of doctors, so you could say I’m hard wired to improve the lives and outcomes of those affected by chronic medical conditions! I was impressed by the charity’s scope and I thought my knowledge and interest in the food industry would serve me well for this role.
What was your approach to transitioning to a new working environment?
I’d previously led The Felix Project as Chief Executive and it was a formidable entrepreneurial adventure that I felt privileged to be part of. I was, however, keen to apply my strategy and leadership skills to focus on, more directly, transforming the lives of individuals and their families who face difficulties. I’d met the senior management team and Board members during interview stages and genuinely felt we’d be a good match. Transitioning was initially about understanding how the team operated, being enthusiastic and taking physical and mental notes that would assist my rapid integration.
What was your action plan for your first 100 days at Coeliac UK?
I am a collaborative leader and like to involve key stakeholders in decision making in order to get their commitment to the way forward. This obviously required meeting with many different people, with different perspectives and sometimes alternative views of priorities and future areas of development. I try to get a fly-on-the-wall perspective of an organisation, from people close to the charity, volunteers, members, trustees, and then I consult those further afield so that I can form a balanced opinion.
What has been the one new thing you have learned about yourself in this role?
Perhaps not new, but it’s re-confirmed how much I enjoy working globally and cross-culturally. I have recently been appointed to the Board of the Association of European Coeliac Societies, and am working with colleagues in North America to help improve the outcomes for people affected by coeliac condition worldwide. I feel privileged to play my part in this.
What have been the main challenges you’ve faced so far?
Prioritising. It’s very tempting to get caught up in the detail when you first join a new organisation. You have to balance demands on your time with equally important duties like immersion in the different services the charity offers, getting to know the team as people and professionals, learning from members and volunteers, all whilst fully grasping the operations side of the charity, its moving parts and how they fit together.
I also arrived at Coeliac UK at a time when the charity was coming to the end of a ten-year strategy. So, my key challenge is to develop strategy and objectives to enable the charity to define which key directions it wants or needs to take.
What are the key principles to remember when moving to a new role?
Be honest, be brave and be respectful of what’s gone before you. Act as you would like to be treated.
What should organisations or employers bear in mind when on-boarding a new CEO?
Don’t hide the skeletons! It’s best to get any issues out on the table as soon as possible so that they can be dealt with quickly. It’s unlikely you’ll frighten your new CEO away and if you do, they probably weren’t up to it anyway. Do help your new CEO know who the important external stakeholders are so they can meet them in their first few weeks. This will really help them to understand the organisation and opportunities from an external perspective.
What advice would you give to other Not-for-Profit sector CEOs in their first 100 days?
Enjoy it. Write down your first impressions and go back to them after 3 months; they can prove very insightful. Speak to as many people as you can across as wide a range of issues as possible. Be brave and don’t shy away from complex or delicate issues. Be enthusiastic and optimistic.
It is important to have an open and transparent recruitment process which will provide benefits for both the employer and future employee. This approach will ensure that the organisation gets the best out of the candidates it is recruiting, leading to a strong match and good cultural fit. It also enables the successful candidate to transition into their new role more quickly to make a positive impact sooner.
For more information, please visit www.coeliac.org.uk
Sandra Hamovic is a Principal Consultant in the Not for Profit Practice at Berwick Partners, specialising in hospices, health and social care charities, recruiting across all functional areas and at Chief Executive level. For further information on how we could help your business, please contact Sandra Hamovic on 0207 529 6332.