Strategic thinking in your ED search

Is your nonprofit facing a search for a new executive director? Knowing when to bring in outside help is important. RMA is much more likely to be hired by nonprofits who have struggled with this critical recruitment in the past, otherwise they might think it was simple and try to go it alone. Whether you consider our involvement or not, here are some essential considerations.

1. Make a deliberate decision about whether your full board, or a subset, should serve as the search committee. Finding an ED is important to everyone, to be sure, but it may span several months and require an unusual commitment of time. Rarely do we recommend that a full board focus on the search, but a carefully selected core group. If you are replacing a founder, that person should participate on the committee but probably not chair (or completely control) it.

2. There are some critical groundrules that must be explored before you plunge into a search. In our consulting, we strive to understand why previous recruitments/hires failed. Is the committee clear on the organization’s life cycle/evolution? Up front, confirm that you have the right salary range/package. This is also the time to candidly look at whether you have the right staffing pattern so that your next ED can lead.

3. This is also the right time to discuss the full board’s belief/expectations on their involvement in the recruiting. Does the committee plan to present three finalists, or a single recommendation? Make sure you are also considering senior staff belief/expectations on involvement in recruiting; a key senior staff person may be appropriate for the committee. Talk now about the potential for staff applicants and board applicants. These are the kind of conversations that, if ignored, can derail your process and waste a lot of time.

4. Make sure you are matching your candidates with the life cycle of your organization. In the growth phases and turn-around phases, you need to have much more of a leader than a manager, someone who can bring people together and make hard decisions quickly. A person with an entrepreneurial background is key because accepting risk is important. In an organization’s mature stages, you try to minimize risk, but in the growth and turn-around stages, understanding risk is critical. Many of RMA’s executive search clients have been in the growth and turn-around phases where a candidate’s ability to understand and lead through risk is essential.


5. You are looking for three things when you hire senior management: background and skills in the particular area, cultural fit, and personality. It is important to match these three to the specific job; all three have to be aligned if you are going to be successful. There are many people who have the technical skills, but they don’t have the personality or their style and preference is from a different culture (i.e., corporate, entrepreneur, military, academia, etc.). The question on culture is not whether the person is a natural fit, but whether they possess the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to understand the adjustment. Can they be successful outside of their cultural “default?”

6. For both practical and political reasons, make sure as part of the interview process that you involve the staff they will be working with and a few community people or donors who will be working with this person.

7. Make sure you match the background of the individual with the life cycle of the organization. We have not had a lot of luck in having people come from a major nonprofit organization in the institutional phase and have them succeed with smaller, grassroots and community-based organizations. Even though they very much want to work “closer to the people” and the principles of leading are the same, the cultural fit is so very different that they rarely succeed. Having someone come from a smaller organization and then working in a more established organization, however, usually does succeed.

8. There can be an uncomfortable point in an ED search when the committee feels as if the process is leading in the wrong direction, almost a pre-ordained mistake. Any number of factors could be the cause, from an insufficient pool of candidates to an undercurrent of persuasion on the committee toward a specific (but not optimum) outcome. When RMA recognizes this point, we will pause the search and spend more time exploring the following with the committee: How important is (specific factor) over (specific factor)? Do you feel that your next ED is in this pool? Do we need to re-open the call for applications? Any reservations/feedback about the process at this point?

9. When interviewing final candidates, set up situations where you put them under stress during the interview. For example, when they come for the interview ask them to go into the other room for 10 minutes and to prepare a five-minute presentation where they will be presenting to a board of directors of a foundation a grant request for $25,000. Or, have one of the people doing the interview challenge them directly to see how they respond to conflict. Set up a situation where the candidate will be “pushed” and under pressure.

10. When checking references, don’t spend a lot of time on references that the candidate gives you. Research on your own and try to talk with people that your candidate has been working with over the years. These are the people who can give you an honest evaluation on how this person really is, how they act under stress, and whether they make decisions easily or get immobilized with hard choices.