Chances are your nonprofit board faces an imminent executive transition. Seriously. Anticipation of a mass exodus among nonprofit executives builds as Baby Boomers reach age 65 at a rate of 10,000 per day. According to a survey by Willis Towers Watson in 2018, two-thirds of employers in the nonprofit sector are concerned about the loss of talent as Baby Boomers retire.
You’re not off the hook, however, if your CEO or executive director was born after the boom. Research from North Carolina State University found some nonprofit executives leave for “voluntary retirement,” but almost three-quarters depart for other reasons. Among them, of course, are interest in new opportunities and conflict with the board.
The Board’s Role in Executive Search
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the board, not only in partnering effectively with the chief executive to lead the organization, but also in hiring the right executive in the first place. Most boards know that, and some panic when an executive transition seems imminent. Succession planning is the only antidote, as it gives boards the time and tools to focus on organizational preparedness for a transition while clarifying the actual leadership needs of organizations as they move forward. According to M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the best (albeit uncommon) practice is for boards to begin developing executive transition plans up to three years in advance of their chief executives’ departures.
While the “magic” of any executive transition typically is what happens before and after recruitment, the search still is an essential – and rigorous – process. Like any process, it can be unbundled to reveal best practices as well as pitfalls. It also can be boiled down to show what documents you’ll need for implementing an effective search process. Here are some key components:
Conduct a leadership needs assessment.
Do not assume your next chief executive should be a reincarnation of the incumbent. No doubt your organization has evolved since your last executive hire, as has the external landscape. An executive transition is the perfect opportunity to engage with your stakeholders, including funders. Ask them about your organization’s strengths, priorities and leadership needs to help inform your hiring criteria while cultivating buy-in to the search and transition processes. Solicit their insights on the implications of the executive transition on their involvement and on the organization’s success as a way to mitigate concerns.
In a recent assessment for a prominent social services organization, a funder discreetly shared with me concerns about the board’s ability to function without the longtime executive director. Presented in the context of other critical feedback, that information enabled the board to reconsider and address organizational preparedness for the transition before proceeding with a search.
Revise/enhance the job description.
Chances are the existing job description for the chief executive is not up to date. Even if it was updated since he or she was hired, it likely does not take into account the nuances uncovered in the leadership needs assessment, and it might not even align with current strategic priorities. While broad areas of responsibility will remain the same, specific functions and performance measures will evolve as the organization does. Ensure the new job description incorporates the functions, skills and outcomes appropriate for now.
Pay particular attention to the alignment between responsibilities and qualifications, as possessing the latter may demonstrate ability to perform the former. To illustrate, the incumbent principal in an established K–12 private school did not need experience in early childhood education, strategic alliances or start-up ventures during his 14-year tenure. His successor, however, will be tasked with expanding the school’s offerings to include both a pre-school program and a college partnership initiative due to changes in the community and the competitive landscape. The board must add to the principal’s job description both the responsibility for driving such growth and the specific criteria that will illustrate the right candidate’s capacity to do so.
Develop a source list and a strategy.
Whether your board will spearhead the executive search itself or hire a search firm/consultant, it’s important to ensure the net gets cast where the right fish swim. In other words, be strategic about how and where you promote the opportunity. If the right candidate must be familiar with your geographic area, don’t spend money to advertise nationally. If a specific medical credential or professional certification is required, consider how such people network and what they read, then target your outreach toward them. If your search committee is executing the search, create a master list of potential sources that shows the cost and the committee member who will serve as contact for each.
Don’t rely just upon advertising, though, as the most effective way to build your candidate pool is through your networks. Develop and distribute a message from the board chair or the search committee to all your stakeholders, inviting them to help get the word out. Post the opportunity on your website and leverage social media. In a recent search for the executive director of a regional advocacy organization, a committee member tapped a press contact to cover an agency event and mention the pending leadership change and open position.
Develop screening tools.
Successful search is as much art as science, but art is subjective. By creating tools to support the search process, you can enhance the objectivity of the process and help decision-makers stay on the same page…
- Criteria Rubric – This is a new favorite for me. As a consultant, I find most board members have an initial sense of the “ideal” candidate, yet often their images do not align. It can be an invaluable exercise to create a criteria rubric. List key qualifications in one column, then explore the “gold” and “silver” standards for meeting them. For instance, ideal for the CEO position in a rare disease organization might be x years of experience in executive leadership with additional experience as a practitioner in the field, while the silver standard is y years of experience as a direct report to the CEO and/or as a practitioner in a health-related field. This tool – and discussion – will prove useful later in ranking resumes and evaluating candidates.
- Interview Guides – Make sure those who screen candidates at every stage of the process can compare apples to apples by ensuring they collect the same data from each candidate. With input from your board and/or committee members, design interview guides for your initial phone screens as well as in-person interviews. Include questions related to experience, behavior and
- Rating Tool – Assuming your final candidates eventually will meet the search committee, the board and ultimately the staff, create a rating tool to enable these stakeholders to quantify their feedback as much as possible. Revisit your criteria rubric and add a score column, with a 1 to 3 rating key. Indicate that meeting the gold standard is worth three points, silver is worth two and less than that is worth one (or zero, if warranted). Instruct all stakeholders to complete their scorecards after each meeting with each candidate and collect them for the search committee to review.
Develop an onboarding checklist.
To ensure a successful search outcome, you must transcend the search process – it’s not over when it ends. Assign a subcommittee or separate board committee to spearhead the onboarding process and create a checklist for staff, board members and your new hire to follow. Include a schedule of meetings for knowledge transfer, stakeholder introductions, board chair check-ins and performance reviews in regular increments. After investing so many resources in finding the right executive, you now must focus on ensuring her or his success. According to blogger Julie Edsforth, poor onboarding leads to an increased likelihood of another executive transition within 12 to 24 months.
Executive transitions are not new to the governance realm, but they might well be more abundant. Through the use of tools and technology to foster collaboration among members of the search and transition committees, modern governance supports smoother leadership transitions.