Hiring a new executive takes more than just a hiring process. Changing executives is a big deal for any organization. Tim Wolfred, a leader in developing the art and science of nonprofit executive search and transition, lays out a well-developed and proven process that increases odds significantly of a successful leader hand-off and sustained or increased mission results. Tim’s excerpt from his book Managing Executive Transitions: A Guide for Nonprofits provides any nonprofit leader facing executive transition a seven-step process for success.
“Seven Essentials for a Successful Executive Transition”
A change of leadership is never an easy time for a nonprofit. The board has a lot on the line. Clients, staff, and funders are looking to them to find the right person to take the organization forward.
The wrong hire can set the agency back. Replacing a failed new hire means more money and time in starting the transition over again.
It’s Not Your Typical Hiring Process
Tim Wolfred has had plenty of experience. Before he founded CompassPoint’s Executive Transitions program in 1997, he had served as an interim executive director sixteen times. One of the basic problems he sees is that too often, boards push ahead with a typical hiring process.
“Executive transitions involve more than simple recruiting,” explains Wolfred. “A leadership transition is a pivotal moment—an opportunity for transformation. When the director leaves, things become a bit unglued. This unglued state, however, is not all bad; this is a time when board and staff can take the opportunity to put things back together in new and creative ways.”
An executive turnover gives the organization an opportunity for renewal and fresh thinking. Therefore, Wolfred encourages a transformational process with three phases: Prepare, Pivot, and Thrive. A typical hire is a transactional process. One leader departs the executive chair and the board goes through a set of steps to put a new leader in that chair.
In the Prepare phase board members, staff, volunteers, and funders engage in an efficient process for updating the agency’s strategic directions and crafting a profile of the skills needed in the next executive. The organization also identifies the major constraints that hold it back from achieving its strategic vision and sets goals for addressing them.
In the Pivot phase, a search ensues, conducted by a board reinvigorated and excited about the agency’s future impact. Staff takes the first steps toward resolving identified constraints.
In the Thrive phase, the board engages the newly hired executive as a leadership partner and gives him or her clear performance priorities derived from the strategic directions.
Seven Essential Ingredients
Wolfred also recommends that a board focus on seven essential elements when it’s time to hire a new executive. “These ingredients are critical,” he says. “Leaving any one of them out can cause the transition to fail in a few different ways: The new executive might have a short and troubled tenure, staff could leave, funders desert the agency, or the agency’s programs will become increasingly out of touch with its constituents’ needs.”
The seven elements include:
- Board leadership and engagement
- Healthy closure with the departing executive director
- Strategic review and candidate profile
- Staff engagement
- Attraction of qualified candidates
- Thorough candidate screening
- Attention to the new executive’s launch
1. Board leadership and engagement
The board has to come to the work wholeheartedly, for two reasons. First, hiring the right executive is one of its most important duties. And second, there are significant opportunities for agency renewal in the transition moment. “The board sets the tone for the entire process,” explains Wolfred. “Staff, funders, and constituents look to the board to model enthusiasm and diligence in planning the agency’s future.”
2. Healthy closure with the departing executive director
A good beginning starts with a good ending. Central to the ending is closure with the incumbent. The board needs to honor the departing executive and his or her legacy. Wolfred says, “This can be an uncomfortable time for board and executive, but the board must resist the temptation to minimize its discomfort by ignoring the closure activities.” That discomfort can lead the board to procrastinate closure because the board knows that the executive will be out the door shortly and perhaps out of sight. The ending must be attended to, or unresolved issues may sabotage the new beginning and new leadership.
3. Strategic review and candidate profile
A board will know what kind of leader it needs after it knows where it’s going,” says Wolfred. And the more perspectives it taps—staff, departing executive, funders, community leaders—the better its map. The strategic directions set at this point will define the candidate skills profile used in the executive search and the leadership priorities for the new executive.
4. Staff engagement
Minimally, the board and its transition committee need to communicate clearly, directly, and frequently with staff as the transition and search process unfolds. Wolfred says, “Transparency about the transition process will cut down on staff uneasiness and confusion.”
Wolfred also finds that staff involvement in the transition and search process can increase the likelihood of success. It is helpful to have staff input on strategic directions and capacity-building needs. Wolfred says, “Get staff feedback on the candidate profile, encourage employees to recruit candidates, and give them some time with the finalists.”
5. Attraction of qualified candidates
A good strategic review can build board excitement to the agency’s future. In turn, that excitement can energize efforts to uncover strong candidates. Wolfred has found that board members who believe in their agency and who are invested in fresh goals are better at attracting qualified executive candidates. He says, “Merely posting the position on the right web sites runs the risk of attracting a pool of lesser candidates.”
6. Thorough candidate screening
Candidates should be screened against a specific profile of skills and characteristics. The chemistry and attractiveness of candidates as they emerge in face-to-face board interviews are important, says Wolfred, but he adds, “Experienced recruiters stress that data derived in the interviews account for less than half of the information that should be gathered on a candidate.”
7. Attention to the new executive’s launch
Finally, a board need to pay careful attention to setting up its new executive for a productive start. Wolfred recommends, “In launching a new executive, the board should set first-year performance priorities and evaluation methods.” The board and the executive need to make specific plans on how they will work as a team and how they will support and challenge each other. They should also agree on the skills that the new executive should develop to support the strategic directions of the agency.
When a board is faced with hiring a new executive director, the organization—and the community served by that organization—will benefit from a recruitment process that is strategic, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. The best boards embrace transition with a spirit of resilience and hope that new leaders will bring the same commitment and know-how of previous nonprofit founders and directors.
Tim Wolfred is retired and can be reached at email@example.com.