18 October, 2023

Dhivya O’Connor, incoming Chief Executive of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women discusses market challenges and working in both interim and permanent roles

Dhivya O’Connor, incoming Chief Executive of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women discusses market challenges and working in both interim and permanent roles.  


Simon Pickerell: Hybrid working has changed how we tend to work. Have you managed to achieve the work/life balance that everyone’s talking about, and if so, what’s your secret?

Dhivya O’Connor: I’ll start off by saying hybrid working is actually fairly challenging. We have a situation where people are now comfortable with remote working and I think organisations are trying to strike the right balance between having people in an office versus working from home. Personally, in terms of work/life balance, I do a compressed work week, so I deliver my role in four days a week. That gives me the flexibility for personal commitments like with the children and school, as well as for Board engagements - I sit on the Board of Book Aid International.


SP: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve seen in the sector in the last 12 months? And as we approach the new year, what do you see as the main challenges in 2024?

DoC: I think without doubt it is a funding challenge. I think that during the pandemic charities benefitted from Covid funding and I think we were in a bit of a bubble. I feel the current cost of living crisis is going to hit that much deeper, because organisations are able to raise less money from the general public and foundations, and everyone’s costs have gone up. I think funding is going to remain the number one challenge for the sector  going forward into the next year.


SP: I’ve worked with you as an interim; how has your experience as an interim prepared you for a permanent role? What advice would you give someone who’s planning to become an interim?

DoC: In some ways, I think being an interim CEO is harder than being a permanent CEO and personally, I feel my interim roles have really accelerated my leadership skills and learning. In the past five years, I’ve been in a CEO role in four different organisations, working with different Boards and stakeholders. When you come in as an interim, you have to very quickly establish relationships, identify issues and influence stakeholders. The nice thing about being an interim is that you tend to have a set mandate, so you have a defined scope for what you need to deliver. Although being in the CEO hot seat, if things go wrong, you’re still the one who has to sort them out!

My advice to anyone looking to become an interim is to think carefully about why you want to be an interim. Are you looking to fill a gap? Or are you looking to expand your knowledge in a new sector, for example? And you need to bear in mind your financial situation, because interim roles tend to be between 6 and 12 months long and then you have got to find your next employment. I’m very much looking forward to stepping into a permanent Chief Exec role with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, because what really lights me up is the ability to look at the longer-term impact of developing and delivering a long-term strategy, and the benefits that brings.


SP: Describe your management style and why you think it works for you.

DoC: I would say my leadership style is collaborative and inclusive, and I very much believe in co-creation. And the thing I’ve intentionally done in all of my organisations is to create visibility of leadership and transparency as well. Last week at  The Girls’ Network, where I am currently Interim CEO, we had our biannual Away Days, where we brought the whole team together in person for two days, and it was absolutely brilliant, having everyone back in the one room. One of the pieces of feedback I received from some of the team, was that they were leaving the event feeling optimistic about the future. I also had colleagues who said they felt that their voices were heard, and that I had created that ethos and culture of psychologically safety, where people felt empowered to speak up. As a leader, that is hugely rewarding; I’m very pleased to have created that culture in the organisation.


SP: You have a very successful podcast series. Do you have any advice for someone wanting to do the same?

DoC: Yes, The Charity CEO Podcast! I would say that doing a podcast takes a lot of work, so make sure it’s an area you’re passionate about. I think the ones that are really successful and have longevity are those that are really targeted, and are consistently putting out content that is of value to the audience. I really enjoy creating The Charity CEO Podcast; I find it very inspiring and I love being able to talk to different leaders and learn from them. There has been many a conversation with a guest on the show about leadership challenges, where I have taken something, a learning or an insight, that I’ve then applied in my day job. Podcasting takes time, effort, and it’s a labour of love.

You can access my podcast at www.thecharityceo.com


SP: When you’re looking at an organisation, what attracts you? The culture? The mission?

DoC: Definitely the mission, because I don’t think you get a sense of the culture until you’re inside the organisation. From the outside, it’s quite hard to really understand that. Also, as a leader of the organisation, if you’re in a CEO role, you do have the ability to set the culture. A philosophy that I subscribe to is that the culture of the organisation is set not just by the positive behaviours that the leader role models, but actually by the worst behaviours that they are prepared to tolerate; and that’s quite an important distinction. So for me, it’s the mission and I have very much been involved with organisations whose missions that have resonated for me personally.


SP: It’s been a very challenging 12 months in the job market. It’s gone from very fluid, with hybrid working and people moving around, to a very competitive job market. How can candidates distinguish themselves in interviews and what qualities do you seek in a potential hire?

DoC: I would always seek to hire for attitude. If someone comes with the right approach, they can learn any specific skills, but attitude is going to take you far, in terms of fitting in with an organisation and driving results. It is a competitive market and based on my own experience of being a candidate as well as a hiring manager, I would say the number one important thing is to do your research. I dont think you can be over-prepared for an interview. Have questions ready to ask interviewers, that show that you have considered and reflected on key issues for the role or organisation. And in terms of distinguishing yourself, I think everybody has something that is unique to them and I think it’s important as a candidate to know and establish your personal selling points. Reveal some of who you are; maybe you like volunteering, maybe you have a hobby you are passionate about, maybe you have a podcast… bringing those aspects of yourself into the conversation makes you memorable.


SP: If you could speak to your younger self what advice would you give yourself?

DoC: This is such a good question. I tend to be quite hard on myself when things don’t go as planned, so my message would be to go with the flow more. To just be present and enjoy the learning. I often say that being a charity CEO is a dream I didn’t even know I had!I took the opportunity when it came and that has led to where I am today, enjoying an extremely fulfilling career.


SP: You are about to start as the CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. Can you share some of the exciting plans you have, and what to look out for in 2024?

DoC: I’m joining the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women as their new permanent Chief Executive in November. The Foundation’s mission is to empower women in low and middle income countries, enabling them to access  the tools, resources and skills to start, sustain and grow successful businesses. For women, entrepreneurship is powerful route to financial independence, leading to greater economic gender equality. And gender equality is a fundamental human right, essential for our societies and economies to prosper.

The Foundation has a bold strategy in place, with an ambition to reach one million women entrepreneurs by 2030. I’m very much looking forward to joining the team and looking at how we can reach one million women entrepreneurs, which also supports  the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, on Gender Equality and Economic Growth


Thank you Dhivya for taking the time to speak to Simon Pickerell, Associate Partner in Green Park’s Interim Management Team.

Simon Pickerell

Written By

Simon Pickerell


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