During Acumen Executive Searches’ 16 years as an executive search firm, we have supported numerous associations and not-for-profits as they transition to new leadership. A search at any level of leadership within these entities can be a very nuanced process, but the role of the top staff leadership, whether the title is Executive Director, CEO, or other, warrants particular consideration. Here are a few key areas of focus that have proven vital as we support our clients through successful leadership transitions.
Gain alignment up-front: As associations and not-for-profits, hiring decisions are often made by a governing body or by consensus, whether that be a Board, committee, or community group. It is important to agree on the desired skills, experiences, values, and leadership styles for the ideal candidate. You need to know who you are looking for before you start looking. Here are some questions to ask of the hiring body:
- What worked/didn’t work with the last person in this or a similar role?
- How will you measure success at 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and beyond? Agree to specific goals in advance so everyone agrees on what success looks like.
- What values align with your organizational culture and mission? How are you going to assess these in the search and interview process?
Examine how organizational needs have changed. A leadership transition is a good time to take organizational and operational inventory and consider redistributing responsibilities.As your organization evolvesthere are different opportunities and challenges. You don’t necessarily need to seek out a new leader who is an exact replica of the one you are replacing. A leadership transition is an opportunity to review what has worked well in the past and realistically examine new directions. This is a different conversation for every organization, yet here is a common scenario:
A rapidly growing legal advocacy not-for-profit has a retiring founding attorney with 20+ years of relevant experience that serves as staff CEO. The exiting CEO’s responsibilities included overseeing operations, serving as a thought leader in the field, setting the strategic plan for the organization, and regularly appearing as a spokesperson for the cause. Faced with this leadership transition, the Board may choose to prioritize experience with operational leadership, a history of scaling organizations, and managing rapid growth when looking for a new CEO. Because growth is the primary objective for the organization, they are less concerned that the incoming CEO is an established legal advocacy thought leader. The Board agrees that they can take on thought leadership and spokesperson responsibilities, while mentoring the new CEO as they get up to speed with this aspect of the job. Additionally, they see advantages in moving strategic planning to a permanent Board level responsibility, as the Board can bring more diverse experiences to this process and will have more day-to-day connections in the various communities in which the not-for-profit serves.
Redistributing responsibilities can also be a tool to use when candidates’ salary expectations are not in line with the organization’s budget, such as in fields where experience and thought leadership are well compensated.
Get input from a variety of perspectives: Input frommultiple stakeholders (peers, business/community partners, clients, staff/direct reports) can be especially valuable if all the members of the hiring team interact with the role you are filling from the same viewpoint – such as a Board. Ask questions that are relevant and in the purview of each stakeholder group so your search considers skills, experiences, values, leadership style, etc. that will support interactions with a broad group. Also consider that leadership changes are a top reason people leave an organization, getting input from team members across the organization can also help ease worry about this transition.
Document an Ideal Candidate Profile: Consolidate the input you receive into an Ideal Candidate Profile and refer to this as a road map throughout the outreach, screening, interview, and decision process. Be specific, be bold, and think about the leader you need now and who will support your organization into the future.
Ideal Candidate Profiles can perpetuate dominant cultural biases so always review this through an equity lens to ensure that the profile supports inclusive hiring practices. Read more in 5 Questions to Support Building Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace.
Allow time for this process: We are often asked how long it takes to find a new leader, whether that be the CEO or other executive roles. Ideally this is an ongoing conversation that is part of your strategic planning process every year, where a succession plan is discussed for all key roles. If that isn’t the case or plans go awry, don’t worry. Acumen’s average search time for a leadership role is 7-10 weeks and we have been able to find new leaders in as little as 3 weeks. Regardless of the timeline, prioritize developing a well thought out Ideal Candidate Profile and conduct a robust and inclusive search.
Be intentional with your candidate outreach: We find that 80% of the successful candidates that are hired by our clients come from our intentional outreach, as opposed to applying for a role unprompted or just “happen to have seen” the job posting. This outreach requires a plan, time, project management, and someone who can authentically sell the role (you only get one chance to make a good first impression.) This can be particularly burdensome for organizations that rely on volunteer leadership or have a lean headcount, yet a well-organized, intentional process is vital to finding a strong and diverse candidate pool, so carefully consider how to conduct this outreach.
Consider the candidates throughout the process. We find that top candidates are most often currently employed and/or have several opportunities that they are considering. A slow or unorganized process can let good candidates slip through your fingers.
- Develop a unique selling proposition for this role and make sure each team member can clearly articulate why someone should leave their current job or choose this role over another opportunity. A good starting point is to ask your Board and staff what inspires their involvement in the organization.
- Communicate clearly and often, don’t leave candidates wondering what is happening or how long the process is going to take.
Think about your panel interview process. Panel interviews are vital in getting input and buy-in from multiple stakeholders, yet they require some intentional planning.
- Consider the panel format. Put the candidate in a situation that will assess the skills needed for the role. Rapid-fire “surprise” questions might be good if you are hiring a public-facing CEO, yet you might also what to provide some questions in advance, to see how the candidate prepares a more thought-out response.
- Cultural, language, cognitive, and lived experience differences can impact how the candidate answers. Encourage the panel to rephrase or clarify should the candidate misunderstand the intention of the question or not fully answer.
- Even with the best intentions, the hiring panel’s unconscious biases can impact the interview process. This 2019 King County Washington training video is a good resource to explain interview bias and how to reduce its impact.
Plan for pre-onboarding and onboarding: After all these efforts to develop the Ideal Candidate Profile, find candidates, and decide on the next leader for your organization, make sure you are considering the transition from candidate to new leader. An employee’s success and happiness within the first 3 months is indicative of how long they are likely to remain with the organization. For more information on pre-onboarding (time from offer acceptance to the start date) and onboarding see Key Elements of Executive Onboarding.
Your onboarding plan should consider:
- If you have a long time between the offer acceptance and the start date, plan at least one connection a week for this pre-onboarding time.
- Assign an organizational mentor or executive coach to the new hire; discussions might include identifying strengths and learnings for the new role, as well as strategies to quickly gain trust within the organization.
- Establish clear communication channels for the new leader to express concerns and seek guidance as well as check in on their progress to onboarding and long-term goals.
These are just a few key areas to consider. Bringing a new leader into an association or not-for-profit organization can be time-consuming and stressful, and it is very important to get it right to ensure the success of your organization today and into the future. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to discuss a particular situation – we are always happy to have a conversation about executive recruiting/search, navigating leadership transitions, succession planning, etc.
Thank you to the members of California Society of Association Executives, Partners in Diversity (Oregon), ProVisors, and many more for their input and inspiration for this article.
Acumen Executive Search provides equitable, customized, and impactful executive search and advisory services that benefit our clients and positively impact the communities in which they operate. With staff across the West Coast, we welcome a conversation to help you navigate executive and managerial transitions.