An Executive Director Search that Went Wrong

This 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. The third post talks about the need for diversity on the search committee to avoid unexpected bias. In this post, the board member reflects on racial and gender bias and a flawed process where a close decision was rushed without examining objections to the candidate.

Strategies for Getting the Right Person for Your Organization

By a Dedicated Board Member, Somewhere in USA

Pub 10 drawing

These events happened decades ago. Our long-time Executive Director gave notice that she was moving to a new organization. We hired an Interim. The Board Chair led the Search committee.

We were fortunate that a loyal donor gave us money for the search and we hired a local firm with experience in the nonprofit area. The search committee consisted of some board members, a staff person, and a community member. There were seven of us. The search firm ran the process. They did initial interviews and brought us a curated group of candidates. They also did all the reference checks.

We ended up with three finalists: a local man who was a person of color, a white woman from out of town, and a white man from out of town. The search committee met for a long time. We were divided. Eventually we narrowed down to the two men. We were trying to weigh having great connections in the local community and knowing the players against stronger management experience. The local guy had never managed more than one person before. He also had less experience on the financial side. The vote was 4 to 3 in favor of the out-of-town guy. It had been a long day. It was dark. We were tired. Bad weather was brewing. Everyone wanted to go home. So, we decided we would choose the out-of-town person. After all, he won 4 to 3. Right?

Then all hell broke loose. Someone on the committee shared publicly about the deliberation and people in the community were furious that we had not chosen the local guy. We were accused of running a racist search. Some funders withdrew their funding. The worst part is the guy we chose turned out to be a bad choice. We fired him in less than a year.

Lesson 1: Don’t Hurry, Take the Time to Come to Consensus

It was an emotional, stressful time and I have thought frequently about what we could have done differently. There are many lessons learned: We should not have made the decision on such a close vote. We should have kept talking until there was better consensus – spent more time understanding what the different sides were thinking. We were all anxious to go home, so we should have come back another day. I can’t remember now but there was some urgency that we felt that we had to decide that day. But I have learned that these deadlines are artificial. It is better to keep talking and make sure everyone is heard. We should have even gone back and looked at the third candidate – the woman. I have wondered how we missed the issues of the guy we did hire. Were we so caught up in a couple requirements that we missed the big picture?

Lesson 2: Anti-bias Training

Back then, there was not much talk about unconscious bias. But today, I would make equity front and center. I would include anti-bias training for all committee members before developing the job description and long before we saw any resumes or met with any candidates. You need to make sure you don’t include job requirements that disqualify people of color or women or others. Looking back, I wonder why we dismissed the woman so quickly. As I recall, I liked her, and she was very qualified. And was there bias in choosing the white guy instead of the person of color?

Lesson 3: Have a Process that Helps to Overcome Bias, Power, and Group Dynamics

We should have talked about process ahead of time. Were some of our requirements more important than others? Was a simple majority vote sufficient? I have seen committees get into “group think.” I also wonder if staff people would vote against board members who were also big donors. We voted by raising our hands. Would we have had a different outcome with a confidential ballot?

Lesson 4: Get Good References – Especially for Nonlocal People

As I said, the guy we hired did not work out. We had to let him go. When someone is local, it is easy to do informal reference checks. But when someone is from out of town, it’s much harder. We should have tried to do some more checking.



  1. This is super insightful. I especially appreciate your note about doing anti-bias training *before* developing the JD!

  2. Tim Schottman

    Our failures can be some of our best lessons, if we’re will to be honest and introspective enough. And we will keep applying our implicit biases, if we are not willing to confront them. Thanks for sharing Janet!

  3. […] 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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