Executive Search – What to consider before you launch

In the workshops we lead, we often say: “No one joins a nonprofit board of directors hoping to participate in a search for a new president or CEO.” Managing a leadership transition and conducting an executive search can prove to be one of the most significant challenges a board can face.

Whether you have been given 6-12 months notice or just learned that your staff leader is leaving in 4 weeks (or 4 hours!), here are some things to consider before launching a search:

  1. This is a board responsibility – The board must take the lead on a search for your next executive director, president, or CEO. This is one of those duties that cannot be handed-off to staff. It is not fair or appropriate to ask the departing leader to find his or her own replacement or to ask the staff to hire their next boss. This doesn’t mean you have to go it alone—a search consultant can help—but the full board needs to appreciate that they will have to be actively engaged and participate in several key decisions along the way.
  2. Lead-time matters – For most organizations, having six months of notice before the leader departs will provide a reasonable window in which to conduct a successful search and facilitate a leadership transition. If the timeline is much tighter than that, the board may want some form of interim leadership to help support a smooth transition. A senior staff member might serve as an interim leader in order to provide continuity, or there may be value in contracting with a consultant who specializes in interim leadership.
  3. Realize the opportunity – Rather than being a time when the organization treads water or drifts backwards, consider this as an opportunity to assess your organizational direction (see “Successful Transitions Start With A Strategic Plan”), identify any weaknesses or deficits that need to be addressed, and get clear about the skill-set you’ll need in the next leader. If turnovers in leadership have become a too frequent occurrence for your organization, now is the time to dig into the reasons behind that. If you are going to attract and keep the very best candidate for the job, you need to be ready to put your best foot forward and be the kind of organization (and board) that a top-notch individual will want to lead.
  4. Your best candidates aren’t scanning want ads – The days of running ads in the “help wanted” section of local and regional newspapers are over, and even today’s internet advertising options have their limitations. Experience tells us that, more often than not, the very best candidate for a leadership position isn’t actively looking for a job—he or she has one. The future leader for your organization could be in a leadership position right now, or is aspiring to one, and is unaware what a tremendous opportunity your organization can offer. When it is time to start running ads, it is also the time to activate the board’s contacts and connections. A search consultant can help you move beyond the “usual suspects” and those who are desperately seeking work to connect with rising stars, new leaders, and those who might be ready for the next challenge.
  5. Determine if you need help – Handling all of the details of a search process that reflects well on your organization and the board can begin to feel like a full-time job for those who take on this task. There are rarely any shortcuts to finding a highly qualified leader, and too much rests on getting it right the first time. You don’t want to repeat the process again anytime soon! If you are lucky, you may have a board member who can manage the process and handle the essential details—but don’t underestimate the time commitment or expertise that will be required in order to generate and screen candidates, reply to inquiries, answer applicant questions, deal with the intricacies of internal candidates, protect the anonymity of candidates, conduct reference and background checks, negotiate an employment agreement and compensation, and keep the entire process on track and on time. Getting the help of a search consultant may prove to be a worthwhile investment.

If you serve on a nonprofit board for a couple of terms or more, odds are that you’ll be facing a leadership change and an executive search at some point…hopefully only once! Ideally, these transitions will become opportunities for the board and the organization, but appreciate that successful transitions take time and a lot of work. Done right, your board and your organization will emerge from the process feeling even stronger, and you will have attracted the kind of leader who can lead your organization into the future.

For more information about leadership transitions or executive search, visit the Starboard Leadership Consulting web page: www.starboardleadership.com, or contact us at (207) 992-4400.