Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

May 20, 2013

Need a new CEO? Convene a diverse search committee

Special to Philanthropy Journal

Terrie Temkin

Executive transition and succession planning for nonprofits are hot topics as more baby boomers make the decision to turn over the reigns to someone younger. The question becomes how to find the “right someone” to replace them.

Of course, you can hire a headhunter or post an ad. However, headhunters are expensive and you are going to be limited to the pool of people who see an ad, find it of interest, and take the time to reply. And, both options still require a lot of pre-work to ensure success.

I suggest taking the following approach instead. Convene a search committee. While typically made up of interested board directors, you might include selected staff. Task the committee with the following.

Assessing your needs: With the full board’s help, determine what the organization must accomplish in the next few years. If you have a strategic plan, that’s a good place to start. What skills, experience and personal characteristics will be necessary to take the organization where it needs to go? Be specific. Stay away from meaningless requirements like “five years of experience.” Focus instead on what is it that you think someone should have gained from those five years. Are there any skills that the person who is leaving possessed that you believe will be equally valuable in the new hire? What about skills the departing exec did not have that you believe will be critical for moving forward?

Developing a job description: While this will evolve from the needs assessment, also ask each director what s/he sees as the most crucial tasks the new hire should accomplish in the first year. The compilation of ideas will allow the committee to better define the scope of the job, and break it down into key tasks with accompanying criteria for measuring success.

Determining a budget: Research what is fair compensation, what similar organizations are paying in salary and benefits for similar work, and what your organization can afford to pay. This will help determine the level of candidate you can realistically approach. It will also help determine where you can afford to post the position, how long an ad can run, and whether you can afford a search consultant.

Assessing the organization: Candidates will want to know about the organization, its needs, position in the community, and strengths and weaknesses.  They will also want to know what the organization can offer in terms of support, training, salary, benefits, etc.  You need to be prepared to tell them.
Identifying potential candidates: Still believe in posting the position? Be sure you identify the most appropriate places to post. Prefer asking stakeholders for recommendations? Plan to counter the risk of undue influence – especially over mediocre candidates. Try asking community and industry thought leaders for recommendations. I have found it generally results in the strongest pool, as you get names of people proving their worth every day in other jobs. Invite those who have been recommended to submit letters of interest along with their résumés.

Screening: Evaluate candidates’ credentials and work products, comparing how closely their background, skills, outputs and interests match the previously defined criteria.  While usually based on the paperwork submitted, this might include a phone interview of the strongest candidates. The purpose is to narrow the number of respondents to the top contenders.

Interviewing: Be sure that everyone who will be conducting interviews has a similar set of questions and knows what to look for. It’s helpful to have at least two people doing each interview so that you decrease any chance of getting an “outlier” response to a candidate. For CEO and other senior level positions, I suggest that at least the top two candidates go before the entire board.

Selecting a candidate and offering the job: Evaluate your top candidates against the criteria you established, check references and perhaps credit scores. Confirm that the committee and board are in agreement about – and satisfied with – the top candidate. Speak with an attorney who understands labor law to craft your offer. This is the best time to review with the person to whom you offer the job the organization’s expectations, the areas on which he or she will be evaluated, and when that evaluation should be expected.

Checking back:  You’re not done yet! Build in a support system for the new hire. Be sure the person is adequately oriented and has someone to speak with when questions arise. Provide feedback on an ongoing basis so that the person knows whether or not s/he is meeting expectations.

While this process takes work, it is strangely fun and rewarding for everyone. And with such a systemized approach, you greatly increase your chances of making the right hire.
Terrie Temkin, Ph.D., is an internationally-recognized governance and planning expert.  She is a founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits Inc., which interweaves governance, board development, fund development, PR/marketing and public policy to strengthen organizational capacity.  Contact her at 1-888-458-4351 Ext. 3 or

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