Thoughts on Hiring a New CEO or ED

A friend who is board chair of a local nonprofit called to ask me about hiring a new ED. The long-time, founding ED of his organization had given notice. Nothing was broken, the ED just felt it was time to move on. My friend knew that I had participated in ED searches and wanted to know if I could give him an overview of the process and share my thoughts. He also recognized that hiring a new ED or CEO is one of the most important jobs of a nonprofit board. This is what I shared.

1. Communications

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to communicate — even over communicate. Send out messages even if you do not have anything new to say. I believe you should update the full board weekly and staff weekly or every other week. You should update key stakeholders, partners, and donors monthly. Donors get anxious when they do not hear anything for months. In addition, I had a situation where the staff got upset, thinking that decisions were being made without their knowledge – when really no decisions were being made because the process was moving more slowly than expected. When there is a communications vacuum, people fill in with the worst.

Tell stakeholders when they can expect to hear from you: “Fellow board members: you will get an email from the chair of the search committee every Monday. Stakeholders: expect an email first week of the month. “

I would use the same email and put the latest information at the top so everyone can read down and see all the messages easily. And the communication does not have to be more than a sentence. Read from the bottom up!

Week 7: Yeah! We chose XYZ Search. Expect to hear from them as we develop criteria for our next leader. We want your feedback. Some will get online surveys, other will be asked for a phone conversation. Please help us out.

Week 6: Still waiting for those proposals.

Week 5: Asked three firms to give us proposals.

Week 4: Still interviewing.

Week 3: Interviewing five search firms on the phone to see who we want to submit proposals.

Week 2: Still researching search firms. Thanks to all who sent suggestions.

Week 1: We are researching search firms. If anyone has firms they like, let us know.

You get the picture.

2. Interim ED/CEO

An early question is whether you want an interim ED. Sometimes the outgoing ED gives short notice before departing. There is not enough time to hire a replacement, so you need one or more people to take over the ED’s responsibilities until the new person comes on board. You may have staff such as a Deputy Director or COO who can step up. But you may still want an outside interim. Even if the outgoing ED gives sufficient notice, an interim can be beneficial.

An interim ED can be helpful when transitioning from a founding or long-time ED – to give staff, donors, and other stakeholders time to get accustomed to change. An interim can also be useful if there are staffing or other organizational issues. The interim can make these changes so the new ED comes in with a clean slate. On the other hand, having an interim can be stressful to staff who must go through multiple leaders and wait longer through uncertain leadership.

The full board should decide whether to appoint an interim. During this process, you will need to discuss how long you expect to have an interim and what you want them to do. Some boards will decide to have at least a year to give time for other decisions to be made or actions to be taken. Others will choose to have an interim only as long as it takes to find a replacement.

If you want to have an interim and do not have an internal candidate, then you will need to identify individuals and organizations that offer this service. Often, the full board decides to hire an interim, the process of finding the interim will be handed over to the search committee.

3. Search Committee

A search committee should be five to eight people. I do not think you would want any larger. It is too hard to manage that many schedules. I also think you do not want fewer than five people.

I think the committee should be comprised only of board members (or perhaps past board members). You can and should get input from staff, donors, clients, and other stakeholders (see below). But I would not put them on the search committee – consider that these groups have a “voice” in the process but not a “vote.”

Be transparent about membership on the search committee. Ask board members if they want to be on the committee, making clear that not everyone can be on it, that the commitment is huge, and that the organization needs a variety of voices. If you are uncomfortable with opening up to the entire board, then the full executive committee should decide who to ask. The Board Chair should not decide on their own.

The Board Chair should not chair the Search committee. First, it is a big time commitment to ask of anyone. Second, that places too much power in the hands of one person. Sometimes, the Board Chair serves on the committee as a full member. Sometimes, they serve on the committee as an ad hoc member. Often the Chair Elect or Immediate Past Chair chairs the Search committee. Other times, a long-serving board member is chair.

4. Search Firm

If you can afford it, you should get a search firm, or at least an individual to manage the process. Doing a good search takes a lot of time and there is a lot of administrative work. Having a firm or individual who knows the process is well worth it. Consider the tasks: survey stakeholders, develop criteria, write and post a job description, do outreach to candidates who may not be looking for a job, manage and screen applications, do initial screening interviews, schedule interviews and meet and greets, facilitate discussions, perform reference checks, even inform candidates who did not get the position.

5. Internal Candidate

Some organizations wonder if they need to go through a search process if they have an internal candidate. I think that even if you have an internal candidate, it is good to go through at least part of the process. An internal candidate has advantages: they know the organization and its mission and stakeholders. But they can have disadvantages: they might not bring fresh vision and insights.

I recommend developing criteria for the position because this forces the board to identity what type of leader they want going forward. Create an internal rubric that identifies the qualifications the new leader absolutely must have, those you would like them to have, and those that would be wonderful additions. Then have the internal candidate go through the interviewing process. Make sure they meet the criteria you have outlined in your rubric. If they do, you can feel comfortable selecting this candidate without expanding the search. Having a process also validates the candidate.

6. Role of Outgoing CEO

I do not think the outgoing CEO should be on the search committee.

I see their role as:

  • Making sure their current job description aligns with what they actually do.
  • Providing their opinion of the opportunities and challenges facing the organization.
  • Being available for the finalist candidates to talk to if they wish.
  • Helping to develop a list of partners and other stakeholders the new CEO should meet.

7. National vs. Local

Whether you do a national or local search depends on your organization. If your organization works at a national or international level, then definitely go national. Even if your organization is locally focused, realize that as soon as you post anything on the internet, your search is national. I would give preference to local candidates only in a situation where knowledge of local players or situations is vital.

8. Antibias Training

I recommend that all board members, or at least the search committee, undergo antibias training before writing the job description or at least before interviewing, if your search firm feels that they can keep bias out of the job description. Your search firm may offer this training. The first time I did this training, it was very enlightening.

9. Criteria and Rubric

Before you write your job description, you need to have a clear idea of what you are looking for in your new leader. This is the goal of the board, staff, and stakeholder surveys. Create three lists:  skills, experience, and traits that are “must haves;” those that are “like to haves;” and those that would be great additions. The full board should approve these criteria. Your search firm should facilitate developing these criteria.

From these criteria, the search firm can develop the job description. They should also develop a detailed rubric for search committee members and less detailed ones for other stakeholders. It is important to use these rubrics and be open to starting over if you do not find a candidate that meets all your “must haves.”

10. Job description

The search firm writes the job description and circulates it to the full board for approval. The entire board should give feedback on and approve the job description. Once completed, the search firm will post the job description and ask board members and others to circulate to their networks.

11. Including Other Stakeholders

I would not have anyone other than board members on the search committee. But that does not mean you cannot include a wide variety of stakeholders in numerous ways, including:

Input on criteria for the next leader

Board members: You should also get input from all board members – whether they are on the search committee or not. This can be through a survey or individual calls.

Staff: It is especially important to get feedback from staff at all levels. I would suggest both doing an anonymous online survey and some in-person calls or meetings.

Other stakeholders: Depending on your organization, getting feedback from clients, partners, and donors is generally a good idea. The outgoing CEO can help develop a list. Some stakeholders will require a phone conversation or an in-person meeting. Others can be surveyed online.

Input on finalists

The challenge with getting input around finalist candidates is confidentiality. The candidates may not want their current employer to know they are looking for a new job. So, everyone who participates in interviews or meet and greets must understand confidentiality. A simple feedback sheet (rubric) should be available for individuals to give consistent feedback.

Another challenge at this stage is being clear that staff and stakeholders have a voice, but the final decision is up to the board. If staff dislike a candidate, they can undermine that person’s ability to be successful. That said, if staff and board have quite different opinions, I would recommend having a conversation and making sure that everyone understands and agrees to the criteria developed in the beginning.

Board members: All board members should have the opportunity to interview the final candidates.

Staff: If possible, due to confidentiality, having a staff meet all finalists is useful. If that does not work, they should certainly meet the chosen candidate soon after selection.

Other stakeholders: Whether partners, clients, donors, or other stakeholders get to meet finalists is very dependent on your organization. Usually, this group does not interview. But I was on a search committee of an organization deeply entrenched in community where key partners were invited to meet finalists.

12. Interviewing

Again, your search firm will help with the organization. Make sure you do your antibias training before interviewing. Also make sure you ask all candidates consistent questions – otherwise it will be hard to compare them.

13. Voting and Discussion

After everyone has been interviewed and you have held meet and greets with finalists and board members and staff, it is time to make a decision. Make sure that everyone who attends an interview turns in their rubric sheet, so you have all the information. I have several recommendations here:

  • Watch power dynamics. Power dynamics play out in search committees all the time: a newer, younger board member may not contradict a long-term older one. A person of color may feel white people dominate. Women may feel men dominate. A person whose culture highly respects seniority may not speak out. In one instance for me, two powerful committee members were very vocal about their choice. I was not thrilled with this candidate but thought, “Maybe I missed something.” The candidate turned out to be a poor choice and I wish I had spoken up.
  • Group think. Watch for group think. Some members of the committee getting excited about one candidate can influence others. Sometimes group think is caused by power dynamics. Sometimes just because committee members want to avoid conflict. Sometimes because enthusiasm is contagious.
  • Anonymous straw vote. I recommend holding at least one anonymous straw vote. This is an effective way to counter both power dynamics and group think. If the results of the anonymous straw poll are different from the open discussion, then you need to keep talking.
  • Take your time. I was on another search committee where it was late in the day, committee members were tired and ready to go home. The vote was close. We chose the winning candidate but should not have. We should have reconvened the next day and kept talking, taking time to understand why some people preferred one candidate and some the other. We would have made a better choice.

14. Onboarding and Objectives

Once the candidate has been selected and compensation negotiated, it is time to onboard the new CEO. Some organizations create an onboarding committee, some use the search committee, others use the executive committee.

  • Have a plan for a listening tour – a prioritized list of stakeholders the candidate should meet.
  • Work with the new CEO to identify quarterly objectives for the first year.
  • Be clear what you expect from the new CEO – if you want them to steer in a new direction, handle staffing problems, or focus on your business model.
  • Ensure the executive committee and board check in regularly to see how the CEO is doing and where board members can help with introductions, removing barriers, and otherwise setting the new CEO up for success.

For More Info

I have written other columns on Hiring a new ED/CEO. Check them out:

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