How to Hire a Great Executive Director

Hire a Great Executive Director

OK folks. It is time to deliver on what is likely the most important decision you will make as a board. You are hiring a new Executive Director or CEO.

You can’t screw it up.

Actually, sure you can. Boards do it all the time. I tell clients in transition that even strong boards often make bad ED hires and weak boards always do.

I want to help turn these odds around.

There are some good resources out there. Bridgespan has a solid list of sample interview questions. I found a great resource from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada – an entire interview guide. (I may be looking to relocate to Canada after Election Day so it’s good to know that they are on their nonprofit game up there.)

But these resources come with a risk. They focus you on the process, putting you in the weeds.

Sure, you need to be sure you are following a process. But if you want to hire a great Executive Director, you have to keep your eye on what is important. I like a quote attributed to Lee Iaccoca, former CEO of Chrysler: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

So I am offering advice that I hope will keep you focused on the main things as I see them – advice I hope will keep your process at the right altitude.

How do you go about finding the right fit for the organization? How do you fight the urge to “settle” when you have a mediocre candidate pool? (Hint: DON’T.)

Here’s what you need to do to find your next great Executive Director….

ADVICE #1: START WITH YOUR EXISTING NETWORK

What is the likelihood that you will hire someone to run your organization that has never given it a dime? Never attended an event? Has not even signed up for your email list?

Your next Executive Director will not be someone you discover on a malt shop stool (this reference is only applicable if you are over 50. If under 50, google “Lana Turner”.) There is a high likelihood that your next E.D. is already in your database.

This is the argument I make when organizations cannot imagine doing the search without a search firm, whether they have the money or not.

ADVICE #2: ENGAGE AN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR IN THE SEARCH

A big problem board search committees have is that they don’t exactly come to the interview with a 3-dimensional perspective or a deep understanding of what the job really requires.

It’s rare that anyone around the table has ever actually done the job. So brainstorm effective leaders you know, in and out of your sector. They could be current or former Executive Directors. But make sure you can lean on the advice of somebody who has been there.

ADVICE #3: SORRY, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL

The typical job description for a nonprofit CEO borders on the absurd. When I speak to groups of CEOs or EDs, I’ll ask, “How many of you heard the search committee say ‘in the job, you get to do it all?’”

Many raise their hand.

Then I look at them incredulously: “And you took the job anyway???”

It gets a laugh but it’s true.

Here’s the thing. You need someone who can lead and manage the organization as it is today and build it to where you believe it needs to go.

Your inclination will be on the tactical; to see who checks off the most boxes in some way, shape or form:

  • Fundraising experience
  • The biggest ask someone has ever made
  • A success that illustrates perseverance, determination
  • How the candidate handles setbacks
  • What is your management style?
  • Public speaking experience

So sure, you have to ask these questions but maybe there are more important questions to ask.

Try these on for size…

(1) What will the candidate do to get the organization ready to be what it is going to be next?

(2) Where does the candidate believe the organization needs to go? And can the candidate describe that picture to you as a board member in a way that inspires you?

(3) What experience and skills will you call upon to get us there?

ADVICE #4: ATTRIBUTES TRUMP EXPERIENCE

My board took a leap of faith when it hired me. I had no nonprofit experience and no fundraising experience.

Yes, I was in the organizational database as a ticket buyer and a donor. But based on experience alone, I should not have made it past the first round.

But I had the five most important attributes any good Executive Director must have.

I wrote an entire post on this topic. It’s called “The Five Attributes of a Great Executive Director.”

So if you want a really solid interview, one that helps you hire a great Executive Director, develop questions that get at attributes and not just experience.

ADVICE #5: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SANDBOX

Remember that book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”?

During the interview, go back to kindergarten. Ask them about who they were on the playground. How they handled the kid in the sandbox with a wicked cool dump truck who refused to share.

This is about assessing the candidate’s ego. You need to understand how she will work with colleagues in the sector – both leaders of other organizations and other folks in the organization’s sphere of influence.

By digging into the kindergarten experience, you are on the hunt to answer a simple question: is this a person who can lead with generosity?

BONUS ADVICE: BEFORE YOU FALL IN LOVE, TAKE A TEST DRIVE 

Besides hiring and managing staff, partnering with the board, creating strategic plans, holding staff meetings (should I go on?) what is the most important attribute a leader must have?

The most important attribute a leader must have is the ability to build, cultivate and steward relationships. This means getting the best staff hires “on the bus” and retaining them, partnering with the board chair to cultivate relationships that lead to a first rate board, and building a sphere of influence that leads to volunteers, donors, corporate sponsors, and the best staff.

So test-drive the ability of your candidates to build relationships – in writing and in real time.

Writing

I like asking the candidate to write a letter of introduction to secure a meeting with a lapsed donor who left the organization. Create a scenario that is not solely about the donor being insufficiently stroked for her gift. Make it more substantive. Ask the candidate to write something and to include any other elements of strategy she might employ to secure the meeting.

Do not say explicitly that you are looking to see how he creates a relationship even though that is what you are looking for. See what he comes up with on his own.

Working A Room

An Executive Director will do more of this than most anything else. So put a room together and have the candidate work it.

Here’s what I would do.

Split the board in half (if big enough) or gather them all (if not) in a non conference room setting. Serve mock-tails. The candidate needs to work the room and then, after an hour, he comes to the front of the room and makes the pitch for support.

Does the candidate ask the board members questions? Is he engaging? Do you enjoy spending time with him? Or is he all about firing information about the organization to you? Is he planting relationship seeds?

And in the pitch, is there a story that stays with you? Do you feel a sense of urgency to give? After the pitch, do you feel he has represented the organization well? Are you proud to be on the board of an organization with that person at the helm based solely on that experience rather than a CV most stakeholders will never see?

I believe this event will tell you more about your candidate than any laundry list of questions you can ask or any background reference you speak with.

Ah, references. The reference list you receive will be quite useless. It won’t help you hire a great Executive Director. All of these folks will have been prepped with soundbites. Trust me. I coach folks to do this all the time.

NEXT STEPS

Now it’s your turn. What’s a great question to ask in an Executive Director interview? Have you been part of a process where a mediocre candidate was hired? Readers would love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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