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What not-for-profits need in a CEO, Russell Reynolds

Posted on Nov 5, 2017

What not-for-profits need in a CEO, Russell Reynolds

In a period of marked political turbulence, global development and social justice organisations everywhere face uncertainty that threatens to destabilise funding and undermine many of the assumptions about public policy that have long guided the non-profit sector.

In response, many organisations are experimenting with new and innovative business models while simultaneously facing amplified donor scrutiny regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of their work.

To succeed in this increasingly complex and results-driven context, organisations working in the field of human welfare require leadership that is capable of navigating complex micro- and macro-economic forces. Their CEOs must be flexible and responsive while staying focused on long-term goals.

To understand what differentiates the most effective humanitarian CEOs and enables them to succeed in this complex environment, we enlisted 31 best-in-class CEOs from leading global development and social justice organisations to complete an in-depth series of well-validated psychometric assessments that focus on behavioural characteristics relevant to leadership roles.

Below is a summary of our research in terms of what this means for CEOs and the organisations that hire them.

Organisations looking for a new CEO

Context matters:

The best leaders can span across both ends of a competency spectrum, but organisational context will impact which end may be more important. Consider the specific opportunities and challenges your CEO will face: Organisations in need of transformation should prioritize a more confident and decisive leader, while those having to negotiate multiple stakeholder groups should over-index on leadership candidates who can empathize and collaborate.

Strive for balance:

Understand the competencies and profiles of the C-suite that will be working with the new CEO. While the chief executive should not be retrofitted to the existing management team, it’s important to reflect on the probable dynamics and look for opportunities to balance competencies and skill sets wherever possible.

Get on the same page:

Collaboratively establish a framework and shared language for onboarding the CEO that takes into account the unique nature of the organisation, team and strategic context.

CEOs looking for development opportunities

Know your blind spots:

Psychometric testing, conducted by independent, organisational psychologists, can help reveal leadership strengths and potential blind spots. It also offers an opportunity for those leaders to reflect; in our conversations with this group, we were struck by the fact that they felt this was a rare chance to focus on their leadership approach in this way.

Consider using these tools to identify your own opportunities for growth, as well as to understand the dynamics, complementarities and potential gaps of your support team.

Ask for the 360-degree view:

Concurrently, or alternately, consider soliciting 360-degree performance feedback from peers. Such evaluations help increase self-awareness: In hearing a comprehensive account of how they are perceived by others, individuals gain an understanding of how their own preferences and motivations may impact their colleagues, donors and other stakeholders.

The results were aggregated and compared with results from the same assessments for a group of 34 best-in-class corporate CEOs and a group of 20 global development and social justice C-suite executives from Russell Reynolds Associates’ proprietary database.

These comparisons allowed us to identify the psychometric scales in which the global development and social justice CEOs were statistically unique, creating a comprehensive psychometric profile of the best-in-class humanitarian CEO.

This is an edited version of an article by Russell Reynolds’ Gary Hayes, Jamie Hechinger, Simon Kingston, Clara Dessaint, Jacob Martin, Emily Meneer. For more go to