Engaged by the recently appointed CEO of a major international charity to work with him on the strategy to build a sustainable organisation, Jo Carter took her first steps into the world of a global not-for-profit body adjusting to the demands of a rapidly changing world.
It led to a 17-month placement on the Executive Committee that saw her take an unprecedented – but ultimately highly successful – approach to re-shaping the organisation’s approach to managing its people.
“Under a new Chief Executive brought in for his commercial experience, the organisation of in excess of 11,000 staff was going through a major metamorphosis,” explains Carter.
“It was starting to evolve into a much more business savvy body, focusing its efforts on delivering sustainable service to its client base in the underdeveloped world.”
Her first task, before she could concentrate on her functional areas of expertise in HR, was to work with the charity’s Executive Committee on redesigning the international support office structure to align with the new operating model.
“Effectively, we needed to get the wider organisation sorted before we could even begin to think about transforming the support functions. To do otherwise would have resulted in unnecessary disruption to the HR service provision and been counter-productive.
“In the first few months I started to scope out what I believed the HR structure should be. My vision was a fit for purpose function that would transform the existing transactional department to one focused on enabling the business to operate effectively and deliver results.”
Once the major work was done on the support office structure, and having carefully reviewed the existing and potential team structures within HR, Carter discussed her proposal – shaped by her experience in the private sector – with the Chief Executive
“I had a very clear view of how I thought HR should operate and where it would add value,” she says. “But my concern was that few individuals within the charity had experience of the vision I was setting out which meant minimal understanding of its potential and advantages.
“With the CEO’s agreement to my proposal in place, I assembled a team of experienced, heavy hitting interims to show the organisation what good would look like.
“In my experience, interims are usually overqualified for the roles they’re brought in for. I wanted to use their skills and strengths to raise the bar and for the organisation to benefit from that.
“My promise to the top team was that if you like what you see, I’ll work with you to make it a permanent arrangement.”
Helen Lancaster, a fellow interim with a track record of success in the corporate world, was brought in to head up learning and development, with a remit to transform it into a strategic and proactive organisational development function with a clear talent agenda.
“Our impact was pretty immediate because, for want of a better expression, we’ve been around the block and we know what to look out for,” she says.
“Myself and my fellow interims used the experience we’ve gained in a range of other sectors to analyse what the issues were, get under the skin of the different ways of working that naturally evolve within long-standing teams and identify opportunities to be more holistic and joined-up as a function.”
“The key difference for me in Jo’s approach,” adds Lancaster, “is that by bringing in a team of interims, and with her strong leadership and vision, she was able to galvanise the team, align them with a common purpose, and utilise our combined skills to great effect.
“We were all experienced, thanks to past individual assignments, in pushing the boulder up the hill on our own – but this approach enabled us all to get our collective shoulders behind the boulder and push together. It was a source of real energy that enabled us to make positive change that we’re hugely proud of.”
“Experienced interims are very used to assimilating the culture of an organisation and finding creative ways to deliver change without disrupting business as usual. Seamlessly integrating the interim structure into the existing team was another critical element for success” says Carter.
In less than a year, Carter and her team had demonstrated their vision to the charity’s Executive Committee and successfully delivered their HR restructure. They have now exited, leaving strong permanent successors in their place.
Lessons learned during Carter’s assignment have inspired specialist recruiters BIE Executive to develop their own interim ‘team solution’ offering for their clients as an option alongside the more traditional approaches.
Carter explains: “I’m acutely aware that, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, there’s a lot of apprehension about the perceived cost in bringing senior interims on board.
“But one of the things that has become clear to me is that by having flexible resource, you can cut your cloth according to need. Your ‘cost’ therefore becomes more of an investment that doesn’t actually have to be much more significant than your comparator, i.e.a full time position, with the add value of delivering effective processes and practices that build solid foundations for the future.
“You can assemble a bespoke team for the task in hand at any one time. There’s an added bonus when doing so through a specialist consultancy like BIE, who really do know their network of interims personally, understand how they work and can identify the right cultural fit for different organisations. You can parachute in seasoned executives with very specific skills, such as OD, talent or IT and be confident of hitting the ground running in terms of deliverables.”
For Carter, the first assignment into the charity sector was an immensely enjoyable one and she says that if she had to do it all again, she would probably follow a similar approach.
“To make the change I knew was necessary, I needed a high level of trust from the organisation – and in turn I had to put my trust in others.
“The key to success was showing people what good looked like and for that I needed the right people around me,” she concludes. “By putting together a team of interims I could be absolutely certain about what they’d achieved in the past, what skills they could bring and how they would approach getting the job done in terms of their style and culture.
“And, because in the interim world you’re only as good as your last assignment, you always know you’re going to get the very best that person has to offer. It’s certainly a model I’d consider using again.”