Process Matters Even with an Internal Candidate for ED

I spoke with a new executive director who had been elevated to that role after serving as deputy director. She described how her board created a transparent search process to make sure she was a good fit for the position. She further explained that going through an interview process was also good for her because it helped her articulate her strengths and vision.

Develop a Profile to See if an Internal Candidate Is a Good Fit

As told by an Executive Director somewhere in the US

Transitions matter and people don’t think enough about succession and leadership. For the last five years, the former executive director and I had been talking about me stepping into the executive director role one day. It seemed so far out. But after the 2020 election, he made clear that he wanted to transition out in 2021.

I was grateful and impressed with the way the board handled the transition. They wanted to have a transparent process, not just say that I was the successor. Their perspective was “We have a really strong internal candidate whom we have invested in. We want to see first if she is a good fit for the job.”

I think it was a toss up about whether to do an internal process first or open it up from the beginning. But the board realized that it is hard to compare a familiar internal candidate to a pool of external people who may have great resumes but are not known well.

They brought on a consultant. First, she got feedback from community partners, the staff, and the board about what qualifications they were looking for with the next executive director. These included surveys about my leadership from staff and partners. It is hard being an internal candidate because you are being evaluated by people who will be reporting to you and maybe reporting three layers below you.

After she did all the research, the consultant created a candidate profile. They invited me to apply and had me go through a series of interviews. If I was not a good fit, then they would open it up – which did not happen. In the end, they did not look at anybody else. The board voted and offered me the job. That said, I certainly did not feel like the job was just handed to me. Which was important. I felt I had to earn it.

Create a Unique Process that Reflects Your Organization’s Values

Just as we have human-centered design, we have to think of human-centered search processes too, not just a cookie cutter processes. I appreciate that the board knew they had a strong internal candidate, whom they had invested in. They wanted to maximize that investment. They also wanted to honor our values to grow leaders and give people a path to more power and responsibility. At the same time, they had an obligation to be fair and open. They were thoughtful, balancing their governance role with respect for me as a candidate.

Interviews Help a Candidate as Well

I went through my own process, asking myself “Do I really want this job? Am I doing it because people expect it of me?” I got clear that this is actually something I want. And my soul searching helped me shape a strong vision for the direction that I want to take the organization.

Frankly, the feedback from stakeholders was important to me as well. I feel it is essential going into a leadership role to have a strong mandate from the community, from the staff, and especially from the board. I feel I have that. I feel that the board is going to support me to execute my vision.

I have been thinking about other EDs who step into new organizations, and I realize how tough it would be. I already have relationships with the staff. I know the strategy. I know the external partners. My learning curve is around board management, the budget, compliance, and just stepping into a different type of leadership role from the one I have been in. But those things feel manageable and contained.

Candidate Focuses on Leadership, Culture, and Impact

One great thing about the process is that I had an opportunity to present my vision to the board, staff, and other leaders. I took that seriously. It helped me clarify with myself why I want this role and what impact I want to have. I assembled my own “kitchen cabinet” of close advisors, people who know me really well, who guided me through the process. I was able to brainstorm ideas with them. What are the things I want to drive and move? What is my leadership style? What do I want to bring to the movement?

I concentrated on how I want to lead and how I want the organization to operate in addition to the things I wanted us to accomplish. And I tied those together. Culture was one of the things I named as part of my vision. We can have a great strategic plan but if we don’t have an organizational culture that cultivates our values, the strategy won’t happen. That has been my number one leadership lesson. So during the interviews, I talked a lot about distributed leadership models, about a strong racial equity plan, about work life balance. I talked about bringing some joy back into our movement. We are coming off a time of horrible trauma and we still have a lot to fight for. But our communities are resilient. We have to embrace some joy and celebration to stay engaged and motivated. I want to create a culture where we can enjoy the work that we do, because that’s why we show up to do it.

Looking back, as the candidate, there is a lot of vulnerability. Going through a process like that and putting yourself out there. I am human so sometimes I started to focus on proving myself. In the end, I got to a place where I was very rooted in “this is who I am, and this is what I would bring to the organization” and if that’s the right fit, great. I think I should have leaned into that a little more fiercely sooner.

If I had to do it again, I would also have more conversations with the board around their expectations of the executive director, not rooted in their experience with my predecessor. I needed to know that they were going to support me. I got to do some of that in the interview process. I even named some of the challenges. I am a young-ish woman of color moving into an ED role. There will be ten times more expected of me. I know I will get a lot of criticism just because of who I am. It will be an uphill climb. I am up for that. It is not new to me but in the role of the ED, I want to know that the board has my back. I think I should have been more explicit about what that support looks like when I was interviewing.

Lessons Learned

  • Board needs to identify and prioritize the qualifications and skills they want.
  • Internal candidate needs to consider not only what impact they want to have but also what their leadership style is and what type of culture they want to create.
  • Board and internal candidate should clearly identify their expectations of the ED.

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