Hiring a New CEO or Executive Director

Hiring a new CEO or Executive Director is one of the most important jobs – if not the most important job — for a board. You are hiring the person who represents the organization, sets its direction, and motivates its staff and stakeholders.

As I interviewed board members around the country, the significance – and the difficulty – of making the right decision came up over and over. So, I am going to dedicate several posts to this topic. And I am going start with a story of a successful CEO search – one where several years down the road, the board remains happy with their choice. This board member reflects on what they did right that led to a positive outcome.

Future posts will focus on searches that did not go so well and those board members will examine what they might have done differently. I will end by sharing an interview with Melissa Merritt, Principal, Waldron which does Executive Searches for nonprofit organizations.

Please join the conversation!

Rigorous Search Process Results in a Great CEO

By a Dedicated Board Member Somewhere in the US

Pub 9 drawing

I was on the board of an organization that was very well established, large though not huge. It had a strong reputation in the community. The CEO had been in his position for about four years. He was well respected. When he gave notice, I had been on the board for two years.

We put together a search committee of six people. The committee was composed of board members and a few outside people who brought a different perspective.

As a committee, we had to decide if we wanted to use a local search firm or if we wanted to go national. We decided to get a firm that could go national. Our contact was a very senior guy – a go getter. He was awesome and helped us focus in on what was most important and what we were looking for. Because of our reputation in the community, the firm was highly motivated.

Spend Time to Identify Criteria Up-Front

The search firm was very specific about how we went about the process. With the firm, we developed criteria for the job description. We thought long term: Where are we going with the organization? What would we like the organization to do?  Of course, some of the criteria were reacting to the previous CEO – what we liked and what were weaknesses. One of the criteria was to see if we could get someone from the for-profit sector who would bring private-company discipline. Once we developed the criteria, we took it to the full board for input. We did not get input from other stakeholders in the community. On the staff side, there were some brainstorming sessions to get their input. That was part of the process.

The search firm took the first shot at developing questions for interviews based on our criteria. We added and subtracted a few. We had a lot of candidates. The firm screened the candidates. Then, we interviewed seven or so people. The process was rigorous and structured. We had joint interviews. Not everyone was in each interview, but each interview had two or three people. And we were very specific about our question list and asked the same eight or so questions of each candidate. We avoided mixing it up with a bunch of spontaneous questions. We wanted to give everyone a chance to perform on the same basis. We had three candidates who moved to the second round. We had a scenario and they were asked to present a plan for where they would take the organization.

The entire process went pretty fast. We kept the board informed and some staff were at the board meetings. But because it went so fast, we did not need extensive communication to the staff.

Use Reference Checks to Address Concerns

The candidate we chose stood out because of his energy and because he brought a new perspective, especially one of focusing on the next generation instead of continuing in the same vein we always had. Over time, he clearly became the candidate we most wanted to have.  That said, there were some concerns about how our final choice presented himself. He was very polished. People were worried that he was too polished. But we did a lot of reference checks and we realized in talking to the references, that it was not a superficial thing. It was the way he goes about thinking and acting. And also, he was very good speaker which was an asset because we wanted him to promote the organization.

The search firm did the official reference checking. Although each of us have our own personal contacts and if one of us knew of one of the candidates from other places, we made calls to check on different things, to make sure they were the right person.

Once the committee got past that first appearance, our final choice was absolutely the right person. The search committee made a recommendation and the full board made the final decision. Then, we had to convince him. He had some other opportunities. He had done well in the for-profit sector. I think he chose us because he wanted to expand his horizons. I felt that he wanted to do something that was giving back to society.

He has been a good match from my perspective. Both the board chair and I were champions for new blood coming into the organization.

The Board’s Role Does Not Stop Once the New CEO Is Hired

Part of the success was what happened after he came on board. He went on a listening tour. He was good about meeting all the various constituencies. He met with all the people who had formerly been CEOs of this organization – and there were a few of them. He was directed and knew who he wanted to talk to. I think it is critical for someone coming in to understand the landscape and do a fair amount of listening. In addition, the board chair and the executive committee worked with him to come up with short-term goals and what he wanted to accomplish in the first couple years. The board chair handled the reviews. The finalist brought a lot of process and organization to the management side. He naturally works that way. It made it easier for us to see progress.

Several years down the road, he has more than lived up to our expectations.

Lessons Learned: Include Stakeholders, Use a Firm, Have a Strong Process, and Check References

Looking back, I would include more staff and stakeholders in the process to get a different perspective. I think the more diversity you have the better, especially when you have an organization that is serving diverse constituencies.

It was really helpful having the search firm. They did a great job leading us through the process. Getting a senior person at the firm who felt that it was beneficial to their organization and was highly motivated made a difference. We are a volunteer board, so a lot had to be done by the search firm.

We ended up hiring someone local. But I think it was good to have a broad search to see what was available. We set really high standards.

I liked that we talked to so many different candidates. You get a feel for each one and it helped us figure out what kind of person we wanted to have.

It happened pretty fast. A quick process rather than a long drawn out process is important. It keeps people fresh and highly motivated.

Finally reference checks are the most important thing from my perspective. You can find out a lot about a person.




  1. Great tips, Janet!

  2. Very helpful for both new and experienced board members!

  3. Lorri Dunsmore

    I agree that care must be given in hiring a new CEO. This is a critical transition moment for a nonprofit that must be navigated carefully. I like your suggestions on how to proceed to find the right person!

  4. […] my last post, I started a series on the most important job for a nonprofit board: hiring an Executive Director […]

  5. […] post is the third in a series about hiring a new CEO or Executive Director. The first post is the story about an effective search that resulted in a great CEO. The second post included three […]

  6. […] post is my fourth in a series about hiring a new CEO or Executive Director. The first post talks about a successful process. The second post addresses how the outgoing ED should be involved. […]

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  8. […] also reveal some of the same lessons about selecting a new CEO that I share in previous posts: Hiring a new CEO, Role of Outgoing CEO in Hiring, Need for Diversity, A Search that Went Wrong, and Expert […]

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