Striking the right balance between hiring the people needed to grow a business while also conserving its culture is one of the trickiest challenges business leaders face. Our latest CEO Circle sought to answer some of the most perplexing questions CEOs have, as they look to ensure their businesses not only thrive but also retain the essence of what makes them unique.

All Together’s CEO Circles are confidential, round-table discussions focused on pertinent business issues, hosted and moderated by our expert Volunteer Advisors. This month, we invited the brilliant Melissa Reed, Managing Partner of Global Consumer, Digital and Retail at H.I. Executive Consulting, and serial Chair, Jim Sharp, previously Chairman of In The Style and currently Chairman of The Cotswold Company, to lead the discussion.

Melissa’s vast wealth of experience as a hiring expert, combined with Jim’s profound understanding of boardroom intricacies promised to offer answers and solutions to our members’ most pressing concerns.

The Crucial First Hire: Take Stock of What Your Business Needs

The dilemma of which senior role a growing company should bring on board first was the primary question echoed by our attendees. Some thought that appointing a Chair should be the first step, but the consensus among our experts favoured a more situational approach.

Melissa Reed CV crop

Melissa Reed‘s CV//

2022-Present // Managing Partner – H.I. Executive Consulting

2018-2022 // Partner, Retail & Consumer – H.I. Executive Consulting

2015-2018 // Principal – Korn Ferry

2012-2015 // Director, Consumer & Retail – CTPartners

2000-2004 // Consultant – Alexander Hughes

1998-2000 // Head of HR EMEA – Episode Europe

“Strong leadership is indispensable for catalysing growth and executing strategy, especially during challenging times”, offered one of our Volunteer Advisors in attendance, “but the pivotal role might not always be a Chair. Depending on the needs of the business, it could be a CEO, COO, FD, or CMO.”

Jim agreed with this take, giving a relatable example: “Bringing in a Chair can be invaluable, but if you’re worried about your P&L, for instance, a Chair probably isn’t the right option. You should be focusing on someone who is either very good at finance or very good at operations, instead.” Melissa then shared her perspective as recruitment professional, which closely mirrored the opinions given thus far.

“What you need to work out is the why”, she explained. “Why do you need to bring this person in? What inflection point are you dealing with that makes this the right hire? It’s about self-awareness, understanding what your business needs, and then going to market to find someone who best fits that situation.” For many businesses, a Chair does happen to be the most appropriate choice, however, and so the discussion then turned to the nature of the Chair’s role and how business leaders should recruit them.

Jim Sharp CV crop

Jim Sharp‘s CV Highlights//

2022-Present // Chairman – The Cotswold Company

2016-2023 // Chairman – In The Style

2017-2020 // Chairman – Seraphine

2008-2019 // Partner – Sirius Equity

2003-2007 // Strategy/Finance/Operations – Jimmy Choo

Hiring a Chair: Evaluate Experience and Networks

“I was really keen to join today because I really can’t get my head around what a Chair does”, shared one of our members. “I’ve been considering bringing a Chair in for a while, but I want to understand what that really means.” In response to that question, our co-host, Jim Sharp offered an exhaustive list of advantages to hiring a Chair.

“An experienced Chair can be a formidable asset”, he began. “They can help with facilitating recruitment, developing your priorities, succession, raising money, managing the board and external shareholders, and ushering in IPOs.” What you must figure out, however, is which of these areas you need the most support with because, as our experts pointed out, every Chair will have their own strengths and weaknesses.

“Not every Chair will be great in every situation”, Melissa warned, “so you need to find someone who can complement you and your business. There’s no point in bringing in a carbon copy of where you are strong; what you need is someone who can fill those gaps.”

A useful tactic the group discussed was to evaluate potential Chairs in terms of their prior experience and networks. Jim explained that each Chair has their own functional expertise they can bring to the role, which they have amassed either through their own experience as a CEO, or their previous boardroom roles. But between you and your Chair, some gaps will inevitably remain, and that’s where your Chair’s network will be pivotal.

“The power of the Chair’s network is the ability to bring in people as needed”, Melissa clarified. “That allows you to keep your board quite tight, but when a need for specific skills arises, their network can help you access the support you need on a flexible basis.”

Typically, Chairs support Founders and CEOs with a whole host of challenges and responsibilities, but at its core, the relationship is simply intended to reduce the pressure on the CEO. For it to succeed, the Chair and CEO must trust one another, which brought us to the question of how to ensure the people you bring in, whether they are a Chair, FD, or otherwise, will be a good fit.

Hiring for Culture: Contrast, Compare, and Do Your Due Diligence

Culture can be a business’ strongest asset or its Achilles’ heel. The profound influence it has on almost every aspect of an enterprise means it is vital to get right, but that becomes particularly tricky when bringing new people into the fold. This was emphasised by one of our members, who recalled a hire they made who ticked all the operational boxes but was unable to assimilate into the company culture. Their question for the group was how to avoid making that mistake again.

“Any new hire needs to have a real empathy and likability for the business you’re trying to build”, Melissa divulged. “And I think that’s particularly important for exec level hires in scaling organisations because, if you get the culture wrong by making poor hires early on, that can be difficult to correct.”

She went on to say that it can therefore be worth flexing slightly on a candidate’s skillset if they’re the perfect fit in terms of culture. But that still left the issue of how to know if a candidate is a good fit for your culture unresolved. So, what techniques can you employ to get a good reading of someone’s morals and values?

Well, Melissa was keen to stress the importance of rigorous referencing. “Reference not just for the three people they give you in their application”, she advised. “Take your own soundings in the market: people they’ve worked with, people they’ve reported to, their peers. Try to get a 360 view of what they are really like.”

This was followed up by one of our Volunteer Advisors, who gave advice based on her extensive experience as a seasoned HR Director. “In my experience, a lot of leaders fall into the trap of mistaking culture fit for style. Quite often they’ll hire people who look, sound, and think like them, but what you really need to look for is alignment on values.”

To discover if a candidate’s values align with those of the company, she recommended an extremely useful interview tactic. “My favourite way to interview for this is to get candidates to talk about moral dilemmas they have faced and how they worked through them”, she explained. “You can see a lot about how their values are wired in that way: their ethics, integrity, the red lines they would never cross, those sorts of things.”

As a follow up to that point, another attendee offered a solution they had found great success with surrounding candidate matrices. “We build out a candidate matrix for every hire that include competencies and behaviours”, he shared, “but the one constant in every matrix is the focus on values.” By using set questions on these qualities, he explained how he can rank each candidate’s answers against those of the people who truly understand and align with the company’s values. If you have a core team that really ‘get’ your business, you can use their answers to these questions as the benchmark and see how candidates’ answers stack up in comparison.

Networking: Make Use of One of the Most Potent Tools at Your Disposal

Finally, the group concluded with a discussion on the effectiveness of leveraging your network when looking for new hires. This was particularly useful for the leaders of smaller businesses who joined us, for whom recruitment agencies and executive search firms are not always viable avenues to pursue. Another of our Volunteer Advisors, the Founder CEO of a company that has become the market leader in its space in under a decade, shed some light on this topic, underscoring the power of networking by sharing their experience of recruiting new and exciting talent.

“After using both methods on my journey, I’ve found that my personal network and outreach is what has worked best for leadership recruitment”, he revealed. “We have certainly found great people through recruiters too, but if you aren’t able to access those services, you shouldn’t overlook your own network.” He continued to recommend investing time in broadening your network so that when the time comes to bring someone in, you might already have someone in mind and can vet them more stringently via the methods offered above.


Thank you to Melissa and Jim for leading the discussion at our latest CEO Circle and packing it full of amazing insights and advice. If you would like to join our next CEO Circle, apply to All Together today for eligibility and to receive up to 5 hours of pro bono mentoring from a leading CEO, every year. We now support start-ups, too. So, if you’re the leader of a business with revenues between £50k-£20m, fill out our application form now to see how we can support you.