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Michele Hickey

About Michele

Do's and Don'ts for a Successful Nonprofit CEO Search

Few things strike more fear in the hearts of nonprofit boards than the resignation of a trusted chief executive. In fact, the entire organization will likely experience some form of anxiety at the announcement. In a perfect world, every outgoing nonprofit CEO has the time, foresight, and resources to ensure that there are layers of institutional knowledge and skill to hold operations steady until their replacement is on board. As we all know, and many of us have experienced firsthand, this is not always the case. Communal anxiety can quickly descend into an all-out panic attack.

Dennis C. Miller

Editor's note: This article is coauthored by Dennis C. Miller, the Managing Director of The Nonprofit Search Group. Dennis is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach and executive search consultant with more than thirty-five years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. He is also an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy, and succession planning. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator, and leadership performance coach.

The responsibility for a CEO search rests with the board of trustees, a group of volunteers who may or may not have experience conducting an executive-level search. Even worse, the current board may bring to the table memories of a failed search. There can be a lot of baggage to overcome, in the form of inexperience, history, or both, at a time when clear, strategic thinking is most critical.

As executive search consultants, we’ve seen and worked through a lot of scenarios, from navigating the succession of a dynamic organization founder to reorganization and replacement of an ineffective, short-term chief executive. There is no single right way to approach a chief executive search and transition.

That said, we do observe certain truisms that serve boards well regardless of the specifics of their situation. Here are our most trusted tips for a successful chief executive search:

  • DO think of the chief executive search as an opportunity to take your organization forward. Even though it may be hard to say goodbye to the outgoing CEO, consider that a new leader may mean an exciting new chapter for your organization.
  • DO take stock. Identify the strategic challenges that will face the new CEO, and then determine the skills and experience needed to effectively address them. What is your desired new direction?
  • DON’T sweep anything under the rug. An objective, in-depth assessment of your organization and board performance will point up areas needing improvement, particularly where best operating and governance practices are concerned. Your new CEO should be aware of your warts as well as your wonderful-ness.
  • DO develop a comprehensive, customized position and ideal candidate profile for the new CEO. Be specific about the competencies and experience you are seeking in the next leader.
  • DON’T forget to bone up on state and federal regulations related to hiring. For example, there is a growing movement toward regulations that prohibit asking a candidate for their salary history.
  • DON’T rely on advertising to attract the best candidates. Expand your search beyond individuals who are seeking employment by conducting a targeted search into organizations and sectors that align with your organization to identify candidates. Actively reach out to executives who are succeeding in their current roles to encourage them to apply.
  • DO organize a board-level search committee to screen candidates and schedule interviews. The committee will drive the calendar and the process, and should set and monitor target dates for the search. This committee will present the most qualified candidates to the full board (or a larger, more inclusive search committee that may include select senior administrators) after conducting in-depth interviews and reference checks.
  • DON’T give in to the temptation to include the outgoing CEO on the search committee. Regardless of this individual’s successes as chief executive, her/his presence will dampen the committee’s ability to envision beyond the organization’s current status. It may also hamper applicants’ ability to ask pointed questions that could be taken as critical of how the organization is currently run.
  • DO consider carefully when and how to include staff in the search process. Selection of a chief executive is a leadership role. Not only is it inappropriate (and kind of uncomfortable) for staff to select their own boss, they will lack the perspective and experience to understand the skills needed for the role.
  • DO think outside the box when negotiating your offer. Performance bonuses, extra vacation allowances, and other perks can make the position more attractive to a qualified candidate.
  • DON’T forget to plan for on-boarding and ongoing support. This is a great time to involve staff at all levels in welcoming your new CEO, and making sure that s/he has access to all the information needed to ensure a smooth transition.

Leadership transition can be overwhelming. It requires strategic, visionary thinking as well as a lot of groundwork. For this reason, many organizations opt for executive search services. Comprehensive search professionals can assist with everything from board assessment and strategic visioning to negotiating the offer and advising on effective onboarding. Search services not only lift a considerable burden from the shoulders of those who volunteer on the board; they also help ensure a successful start for the new chief executive.

Whether or not your organization opts for the services of an executive search professional for its next CEO search, we hope you take advantage of the do’s and don’ts outlined here. Your investment in leadership succession will help ensure that your organization achieves its fullest potential.

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2 Comments

  1. Amy Wishnick on May 10, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    This is a nice overview of some of the nuances related to a successful nonprofit CEO search. Thank you! In my experience as a nonprofit executive transition management consultant, I would add that the board should embrace the the fact that the search will take as long as it takes (to find the right candidate). Feeling pressure to hit a certain target date (arbitrary?) for concluding the search can sometimes drive boards to "hire the best of the bunch" rather than holding out for the candidate that can truly lead the organization to the next level.

  2. Marilyn L. Donnellan, MS on May 15, 2018 at 7:16 am

    I agree with Amy. I am in the process of writing a guide on this subject and one of the issues we address, which is not included in the summary, is the importance of developing a succession plan long before you have to go through a search.

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