Long read: Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Sumner Smith shares some detail on how we approached a recent recruitment process.
Why this blog exists
We have prepared this reflection to help us learn. In line with our values, we take a learning approach to our strategy, leadership and organisation, actively making space to reflect, learn, evaluate and grow. This applies to recruitment, too, and we want to make our processes as good as we can, for our benefit and also for our candidates’. That can’t happen in a vacuum.
We have also prepared this reflection to help future applicants understand how we work and think – inspired by Chayn’s sharing of a recent recruitment process (see its very detailed analysis here). We try to be as open and transparent as we can in every process, but know that candidates rarely get a ‘behind the scenes’ view. So, to give you some sense of what our approach is like, and to walk you through one process as an example, we pulled together this blog.
For some headline tips for candidates, see also here.
Developing the job description
The job in question was a new role for the Lab and developing the job description took a lot of thought and input from the whole team. The role was to lead the Lab’s programme to grow purpose-driven finance to help build the financial system of the future, one that puts people and planet first. When developing a new role the temptation is to write a giant wish-list of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ experience – and we wanted to avoid this approach. Instead, we tried to leave the job description open. People with many different backgrounds and types of experience could have brought something special to this role and we didn’t want to exclude them with an unrealistic list of demands.
We also took a lot of time considering the job title. Our original plan was ‘Head of Programme: growing purpose-driven finance’, but after discussion with various wise parties we realised this was a name that said a lot to us but not much to anyone outside the Lab. Instead, we opted for a name we hoped would attract those with the core skills the role required, settling on ‘Movement Building and Campaigns Lead’ – although we’re open to this changing in future, as the programme develops.
We also opted to advertise this as a full- or part-time role, to ensure we weren’t excluding great people who, for whatever reason, can’t commit to a 35-hour week.
The application process
The process was expected to run as follows:
- Application: based around four key questions
- Interview 1: to explore motivation and experience further
- Interview 2: to test application of skills to this particular role
However, as we received a large number of strong applications, we inserted a further step before Interview 1, to help narrow the field – more on this below.
The application questions
The application consisted of four key questions on which candidates were scored anonymously. These were:
- Why is the Lab’s strategic goal of growing purpose-driven finance important to you?
- What skills and experience do you bring in creating policy, social or political change through working in alliances, coalitions or movements? Please give specific examples where possible.
- The bulk of the Lab’s income comes from grants from trusts and foundations and this is likely to be our focus for funding this programme. What skills do you bring that would be useful for building a strong pipeline of funding for this programme? Please give specific examples of where you have applied these skills in the past and how you would apply them at the Lab, where possible.
- This is a new role to develop the Lab’s programme to grow purpose-driven finance, to help build the financial system of the future – one that puts people and planet first. When building this programme of work, which areas (other than fundraising) do you believe would be the most important to focus on and why?
The questions were intended to test four key skills we had identified as important for this role: commitment to the Lab’s vision and values; programme development; building alliances and coalitions, and understanding how to create social and policy change. Each question had a detailed mark scheme, with responses scored from one (weak) to five (excellent).
The strongest answers were those that included specific examples rather than more generic statements. Stronger applicants used the available word count not just to tell us they had a relevant skill, but to add an example about where they had used that skill effectively. That really helped us to get a sense of their understanding of the work this hire would be doing.
Why no cover letter and CV?
We know many organisations use cover letters and CVs and sometimes we get asked why we don’t do this. A couple of key reasons are:
- We want to be able to compare all candidates fairly on how well they could do this role. Yes, previous experience is relevant but to create a shortlist we want to know you want this job with this organisation and how you’d address key elements of the role requirements. That’s why we use our own set of questions rather than a CV and cover letter. Answers to the sift questions above told us a lot about people’s understanding of us and the work. (Note this was a senior hire, so the questions we listed above are quite challenging. We’d pitch them differently for different roles.) We know this kind of application can be more time-consuming for candidates in the early stages, but we think it is worth it to help both sides identify early in the process if the applicant is not right for (or not seriously interested in) the role.
- Not using cover letters and CVs also helps remove bias from the process. CVs and cover letters are full of information that encourage us to build a (likely false) picture of candidates – so we don’t use them.
Back to the story! Assessing the applications
The applications were reviewed by our CEO, COO and Head of Policy and Advocacy.
They were submitted via the Applied platform, which shows reviewers the responses to each question anonymously, alongside the mark scheme. The platform helped us to sift applications rapidly and the sift panel met the day after applications closed to discuss the outcome. (We know long recruitment processes can be frustrating, so we try our best to keep things as streamlined as possible.)
There were four stand-out applications and six others that were very strong (note that where we had job-share applications, we refer to each pair as an applicant). This prompted a great deal of discussion over possible next steps. Taking only four applicants through to the first-stage interview seemed too few, but 10 would be too many – the latter being a huge investment of time from both us and the candidates. We had requested CVs as part of the application to help in situations such as this, but after review felt that we would need to make too many assumptions about candidates to use CVs to narrow the field and this could introduce unwanted bias into our decisions.
One cause of this challenge was that most candidates hadn’t answered the question ‘When building this programme of work, which areas (other than fundraising) do you believe would be the most important to focus on and why?’ in the way we expected. This made it hard to score this using the mark scheme we had set up. Given so many candidates interpreted it differently from us, we know the issue was on our side. We didn’t get this question quite right and we have learned from that. While we don’t think it would have changed the initial shortlist of 10, it did make it very difficult to narrow this group down further.
Being honest, the sift meeting felt a bit tense at times as we grappled with how to proceed – but we don’t see this as something negative. Effective collaboration requires that we feel safe to disagree and know we can eventually build the right path together. After some constructive disagreement we decided to inject an additional stage to narrow the shortlist and set about designing what this would look like.
Designing the written exercise
We wanted to design something that would help to differentiate between stronger and weaker candidates but would also feel useful to our shortlist in their decision as to whether this was the role for them. Given that the aim was not to take more of people’s time than was necessary, we also didn’t want to ask for something that required a lot of pre-work. We settled on a 45-minute exercise that would be introduced via Zoom on the day and then emailed back to us once completed. We limited the pre-work, asking candidates to read a page-and-a-half summary of our emergent strategy in the area they would lead, and also two short blogs on related topics.
The Zoom intro was to ensure there was a more human element and to allow time for any clarifying questions or other queries about the process. I hosted those calls – which was a lovely way to meet all our candidates and answer their various questions – but didn’t share anything about the conversations with our CEO, who was assessing the written output, so I wouldn’t influence his thinking.
The exercise focused on how candidates would go about turning the emergent strategy into the final strategy for the programme. We weren’t looking for the content of the strategy, instead prompting them to focus on specific areas of process. This would be a core part of the job, so if candidates floundered – or found they weren’t interested in the task – that would tell both sides a lot about whether progressing with the application was right for them. We tried to be as clear as possible about what we were looking for. We never try to ‘trick’ or ‘catch out’ candidates, but rather to enable them to do the best they can.
The anonymised written submissions were reviewed by our CEO using a pre-agreed mark scheme, with marks available for demonstrating each of: quality of planning; involvement of the movement, and understanding of the emergent strategy.
The written exercise responses were all different but all strong. The very best had a clearer structure and included more detail than others, setting out the different steps in the process more precisely, noting the importance of engaging relevant people throughout the strategy development process and showing understanding of how much time this kind of work takes.
Scores for the initial application and the written exercise were then compared and the five highest-scoring candidates (including one job-share, so five candidates but six people) were invited through to the first interview. The candidates had very different backgrounds – a good reminder there is no such thing as a perfect candidate and something that gave us confidence our job description had been pitched roughly right.
Inserting the additional step threw off our recruitment schedule completely, as the added written stage took place in the time-slots we had planned for interviews. Finding alternative times with the original panel proved impossible. More lateral thinking was therefore required and we asked an experienced advocacy and campaigns consultant known to the Lab to support the process.
The candidates were each interviewed for 45 minutes by our CEO and the external consultant via Zoom. This was a competency-style interview following the requirements set out in the job description, with questions on topics including motivation, experience creating change, and fundraising. There was also time for candidates to ask their own questions. (At this stage we interviewed our job-share candidates separately, as each had to pass the threshold for them both to proceed.)
The stronger interviewees demonstrated traits you might expect: they answered each question in detail but without waffle, they gave specific examples, and they used the interview to best show off their skills and experience. We know some people are better at interviewing than others, so our panel used follow-up questions to help people show what we were looking for. As mentioned already, we’ll never try to catch you out and never ask ‘trick questions’.
Three candidates were invited to the final stage. One candidate withdrew before the interview for personal reasons, reducing the pool to two (reminder: we refer to job-sharers as one candidate, so this was two candidates but three people).
The second and final interview was designed to allow candidates to demonstrate how they would go about this work if they were appointed. This is a much more useful approach than simply asking people – for us and for candidates! Given we were now down to the final two, we were more comfortable asking candidates to spend time preparing for it and so we asked them to prepare a short presentation. This task was designed to test for a basic understanding of the Lab’s goals in this area alongside candidates’ knowledge of different ways of building movements and campaigns to create change.
In addition to the presentation, around 30 minutes of the interview was given over to a role-play designed to test network facilitation skills. The interview panel consisted of our CEO and two of our trustees (Kit Beazley and Nana Francois), each of whom took on a character in the meeting to test the skills and patience of the candidates. In general, we try not to spring things on candidates, but for this role in particular whoever was hired would need to be able to think on their feet – so the role-play was a surprise on the day. As ever, this was designed to help both sides understand what their doing the job would look and feel like and candidates told us they enjoyed the experience.
The remaining questions were more competency-based, focusing on issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, systems change, and people management, among others. It was a rigorous set of challenging questions but both candidates performed strongly.
Both candidates were appointable – a very happy place for the Lab to have found itself. With two strong final candidates the distinction between them will always be harder to define. One element that helped us to decide between them was the level of thoughtfulness and reflection demonstrated about their own experience. Learning and reflection are key elements of the Lab’s culture and our approach to systems change and we felt one candidate demonstrated greater openness to learning and reflection than the other. This is not to say the other candidate wasn’t also open and reflective – just that what we saw on the day suggested greater strengths of one above the other.
So who did we appoint? The successful candidates for this role were our job-share candidates. They will be the Lab’s first job-share staff and also the first hire we have made where their place of work will be home rather than London (they live in Wales!). We’re excited to have them join the Lab team and know we’ll be able to learn a lot from both of them, from their previous work and their ways of working.
Thinking about the process more generally, feedback from candidates was positive throughout, we had an incredible pool of applicants and made a great hire. For us, it has been a successful process. I would say that also reflects the amount of time, effort and care we put into designing it. Internally, it took a lot of discussion – and constructive disagreement! – to get the process to its final state and I’m proud that the Lab is an organisation that takes the time to really think about its approach.
I’m also proud at how hard we work to ensure the recruitment process is relatively quick. The Applied platform gives us various analysis and so I know it took us 36 days from applications closing to a job offer being made. Given that included the sift, a written exercise and two interviews, that seems respectable.
Thanks for reading!
I know this overview has been detailed but I hope it helps you understand our approach – especially if you’re interested in working with us. We’re sharing this to help you understand us and to help us learn. Get in touch if you have comments on how we could make this even better.