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Amy Wishnick

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Hiring a Nonprofit Executive: Cautionary Tale - Don't Settle for Less!

This article is the first of two that discuss what can go wrong when hiring a nonprofit executive. In this article I’ll talk about what happens when a board of directors settles for less and the downside of fatigue with the process.

Hiring a nonprofit executive is too important to do with anything but the utmost of care. Even with strong planning something can go wrong. That’s real life. What is truly unfortunate is when an executive transition is not successful when, with more attention to the process, it could have been.

Before I began consulting with nonprofits in 2004, I worked as an executive search consultant. Among the things I know from that experience are the importance of a detailed description of the ideal candidate for a position and the necessity for patience in the process. Organizations neglect these essentials at their peril.

In the following scenario, the search committee viewed hiring a new executive as a chore. They approached the search with a defeatist attitude rather than seeing it as a strategic action having a long-term effect on the organization.

The Scenario

A well-respected, sharp, nonprofit executive of a social service agency departed after a dozen years of creative, forward-thinking leadership. During his tenure, the board of directors followed his lead and the agency thrived. His departure was, in many ways, a coup for the agency because he left to lead the local affiliate of a national advocacy organization in which the social service agency was a member. The board of directors, with minimal reflection about the agency’s future, conducted a search and hired a new executive.

The new executive departed after one year. She turned out to be an “unintentional interim.” An “unintentional interim” (short-tenured executive) is especially common after a leader who is long-tenured, very charismatic, or the founder. To be sure, it would be unusual for a board of directors purposely to hire someone with the expectation they would leave within a year. So why does it happen? It may be fallout from a less-than-thorough search process. It may stem from a failure to define the role clearly. It may be due to underestimating how difficult it is to assume a role once linked to a particular person.

The board of directors now found itself back where it had been – needing to conduct a (second) search. And so they searched again. Their job posting, used in the prior search, garnered a small pool of candidates. In their view, each had some deficiency. The board lamented the fact that the pool did not include a candidate with the notable qualities of their beloved former leader. Yet, they made an offer to the person they described as “the best of the bunch” even though this individual did not have many of the requisite skills to lead the agency – vision, proven ability to fundraise, experience leading and managing a similar-sized agency, and more. Moreover, this individual did not possess many personal qualities that are compelling in a leader.

Within a few months on the job, the board of directors was aware of their new executive’s many deficiencies. For a few years they let things slide. After a while, the board tuned in and decided it was time to address some key performance issues affecting the agency. They instituted an evaluation process. They provided feedback. They formulated goals and a remediation plan. Not much changed. Ultimately, the board gave up. They voiced concern that they would never find someone better and decided simply to deal with the executive they had, despite his ineffectiveness. Further, they expressed that the two searches conducted had taken too much time and energy and the results were so unpredictable.

This board of directors settled for less – at the expense of their organization and the clients served.

How There Might Have Been a Better Outcome

This is such a disheartening scenario. It didn’t need to be this way.

We could let the organization off easy by chalking up the first search and “unintentional interim” to bad luck. More realistically, however, it was due to lack of preparation, process, and experience in executive transition. After this experience, what steps could this board of directors have taken to have a more successful search and hire the second time around?

Some particular steps might have included:

  • Putting in place an interim executive when the “unintentional interim” left. This would have given the board time to regroup, probe for what may have gone wrong in the search/hiring process or managing the new executive, and fine-tune the job description and profile of a successful candidate.
  • Conducting a needs assessment, reflecting on the agency’s strengths and challenges, identifying opportunities, and imagining the future and the kind of leader needed to get there.
  • Developing a detailed profile of the next leader that incorporated the requisite experience, skills, personal qualities, and other key criteria to lead the agency forward.
  • Reviewing the job posting strategy and positioning in the marketplace. This might have led to capturing the attention of higher caliber candidates.

These steps, while not exhaustive, would have addressed some of the main activities around the search.

However, the essential breakdown in the process was the board’s willingness to settle. By hiring the “best of the bunch” instead of holding themselves to a higher standard, the board failed to take seriously their fiduciary responsibility. The future of the agency was in their hands and they let the agency down, with potentially long-term damaging effects.

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