10 Common Mistakes Boards Make When Hiring a New Executive Director

hiring a new executive director

As you read this, there are two things to keep in mind.

1) Great boards often screw up a leadership transition.

2) Mediocre boards always do.

The single most important job a board has is hiring/firing and THEN hiring a new Executive Director. At least a great board stands a fighting chance of getting it right.

I spoke to a board chair once who oversaw a search for a new E.D. after the current staff leader left following a long and strong tenure. The person they hired was kind of a disaster. That’s being kind.

The board chair was actually terrific. I asked him to reflect. “Did you hire the best candidate?” Oh yes, he replied. Then he paused. “But it was a lousy candidate pool and I think we all knew it.”

I’m not at all downplaying just how hard this job is. We’re talking about a group of board members who all have day jobs, working together to make a mission-critical decision.

First let’s talk about why this is so very important today and then I will offer you what I see as the ten most common mistakes boards make when hiring a new Executive Director.

MASS EXODUS OF BABY BOOMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS

“In the 1970s, a huge, new group of workers entered the workforce. These idealistic world-changers often had nonprofit intentions. Over the next four decades, the number of nonprofit organizations grew from 250,000 to 1.5 million (Hall, 2006; Salamon, 2012). This enormous generation of 75 million people came of age at a time when social justice issues came to the fore and hundreds of thousands of nonprofits were born to address those myriad concerns… Now those same purpose-driven people are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day.”  

This is a quote from a 2018 report by the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management. It’s a very good read about succession planning and I needed a Bayer (aspirin) as soon as I finished reading it.

Our sector is so unprepared for the plight of retiring boomers. And as an aside, the headache inducing report above also calls out the sector for a long list of things – from poor succession plan to retirement plans to boards who hang on to staff leaders who have (their words) “lost their fastballs.”

Boards should be well read on this topic of how their organization should be structured and the policies and procedures needed to retain, evaluate, grow, and develop talent. This would make for a fantastic discussion at a board retreat.

So now.

You have either fired a poor former E.D. or your E.D. has gotten a great new gig or has burned out and needs to retire or is burned out and has to continue working because the organization did not offer any kind of retirement plan.

THE TEN MOST COMMON MISTAKES BOARDS MAKE WHEN HIRING A NEW EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

If you think I am referencing your organization, trust me when I say this. I have seen each of these countless times. It’s why I am writing this post. If anything you read today helps you avoid one of these way-too-common mistakes, it’s been a good day at the office for me.

The following are not in any particular order. All ten are big and they are all common.

1. Too Much Time Crafting the Job Description

Word gets out quickly when there is a transition, causing buzz. People start thinking about their own candidacy or who else might be wonderful. You want to take advantage of that buzz. I have seen far too many search committees edit a job description to death, taking what feels like forever to get it out to the world. You lose valuable time when folks are thinking about the transition in your org. Long delays can lead people to think you hired an interim or made an internal pick.

Be honest. You want someone who can do it all and candidates know you want someone who can do it all. Consider having just one person edit/update the old job description and just get it out as quickly as possible after the transition is announced. And you always have the option of making the description super short with a big headline like “Messiah Wanted.”

2. Put the Current E.D. on the Search Committee

When I left GLAAD, my board was wise enough not to ask. My opinion carried quite a lot of weight – too much in this situation. Equally important, the outgoing E.D. has a bias – probably a bunch of them. Bringing those into the search for my replacement could have swayed the process in the wrong direction.

That said, you do want to know what the outgoing E.D. thinks. Ask the E.D. to prepare a confidential two-pager of what she thinks are the skills, attributes and competencies the board should be looking for. Ask her to include any color commentary about staff management, reaction to change, etc. Anything the E.D. feels would be important context for the search committee. This will be very useful to the search and the E.D. will feel that her valuable perspective is actually at the table. Because it will be.

3. Add a Current Staff Member to the Search Committee

This can happen because boards want to be sure that key staff members, especially an MVP, feels really valued during the search. What happens even more frequently is that the staff will believe it is entitled to a seat at the search committee table. Don’t make this mistake.

But do remember that nonprofit staff expects to have a voice in the work – it is a primary driver for folks into the sector. And while you may think it is odd that a staff member would be part of the decision-making process to hire her boss, remember that she won’t be the one making any decisions.

4. Eliminate Candidates Without Fundraising Experience

Boards are hungry for candidates with proven fundraising experience. While typically well intended, they must beware of their own bias (let’s get a great fundraising E.D. and that will take the heat off of us to fundraise). Perhaps more importantly, a focus on this experience may lead you to miss a passionate champion who is an excellent communicator and relationship builder who has exactly what it takes to be a five-star fundraiser.

If the candidate comes highly recommend by someone of note or if the cover letter makes you want to increase your gift, pay attention and meet her. Ask about how she stewards and sustains relationships. Is she still in touch with colleagues from several jobs ago? From high school?

Here’s what you need:

  1. Passion for the mission
  2. Communication skills
  3. Wild enthusiasm to see the organization thrive

A story from a candidate about securing a six-figure gift can sure be enticing, but there is so much about that ask you don’t know. Trust your gut. Do you want to be led by this candidate? When she speaks to the search committee do you feel your checkbook sliding out of your pocket?

5. Put a Board Member in Charge of the Organization During the Transition

I have seen this situation far too many times. It never goes well. Why? The power balance is totally off. Staff members, already shaky because of the transition, can become guarded or even angry that a board member without a deep understanding of the work is running the shop. And the absolute worst scenario is a board member as interim who remains on the board during the transition. So many mixed signals to staff and two very different hats on the board member’s head.

P.S. This is especially true if that board member has ANY designs on the full time gig.

6. Hire Someone Completely Different from the E.D. You Had

I’m not sure why, but often boards go looking for someone really different from the exiting E.D. Perhaps it is about what the board has learned about the vulnerabilities of the outgoing person. That makes sense. But change for change’s sake is not typically wise.

A terrific candidate with a similar background or personality will make her own mark. That’s what terrific candidates do. Boards lean towards difference to avoid inevitable comparisons, but everyone will compare regardless of whom you hire.

7. Select From a Mediocre Candidate Pool

Searches are time consuming and board members are busy. Whether you hire a firm or handle this work on your own, the process is a serious time bandit. You interview the final three candidates. It’s taken a long time. The transition is taking its toll on everyone, especially staff. The board feels it has to decide.

One person starts to look pretty good compared with the other two. The search committee begins to talk itself into how good that person could be. This mistake is the most common one that will haunt you. Mediocre E.D.s are just that. Mediocre. And they can last a long time because they are hard to fire.

8. Discount Internal Candidates

This is a common mistake that leads me to recommend that someone outside the board serve on the search committee. Maybe a retired E.D. in the community or a respected board member of another respected organization.

It can be really hard to see someone in a different role from the one they are in. In addition, we all carry a bit of age bias. I hear this comment quite a lot. “She’d be great but she is not ready yet.” Are you sure?

I think about this one a lot. When I stepped down from my E.D. role, there were two young rock stars on staff. Neither applied for the job, but I think both could have been persuaded. Did they think they wouldn’t be taken seriously as candidates? Did that keep them from applying?

Are both of them two of the most successful Executive Directors I know today (at other organizations)? Yes.

The search committee may have done the right thing not to consider these two. But I wonder.

9. Too Many Cooks

Please be judicious. A well-rounded search committee willing to do the work is the best recipe for success. What I mean is that everyone on the committee has one question to answer – Is this person the very best to passionately lead and manage this organization? With diplomacy, integrity and joy?

Any other agenda (hidden or otherwise) will spoil the search. Please avoid anyone with undue influence (I mentioned the outgoing E.D. in #2 and staff in #3). Here I’m talking about a founder or a significant donor.

As a general rule of thumb, if you are considering adding someone to the search process because you are afraid of how they will feel or what they might do if they are not on the committee, this should send off many alarm bells.

10. Set Expectations Too High for the New E.D.

Maybe there is a lot to clean up from an E.D. you fired. Or a retiring E.D. overstayed her welcome. You will want to push hard; you will be impatient.

Congratulations. You hired a rock star. Now breathe. Work with the new hire to build a solid 30 and 90 day plan, enabling her to build a strong foundation, build relationships, and establish credibility with some quick wins. And talk a lot about change management – how to be sure that folks are bought into the change that you as board members and the new E.D. see so clearly.

BONUS MISTAKE: ASSUME THE NEW E.D. NEEDS NO OUTSIDE HELP

Many boards would not even consider allocating money for an executive coach for their new hire, especially if you invested in a search firm. After all, you hired a rock star.

I work as a strategic advisor for many new CEOs who have followed what we call a “long and strong” E.D. or who follow someone who has been fired (and we all know that if you fire someone, what you find when they leave is always worse than you thought) These folks walk into challenging circumstances and really need thought partners to get things just right.

Include professional development in the compensation package and send a really great message to your “messiah” that you want them to have what they need to be successful. Think Roger Federer. The “messiah” of tennis for over 15 years. He would never walk onto the court without his coach front and center in the Federer box.

MORE ON BUILDING GREAT BOARDS

It is so very hard to get this transition stuff right. I really hope this advice is of value to the searchers and the candidates. Our sector deserves the very best.

I spend quite a bit of time writing about building strong boards. It’s that critical. Here are a few of my earlier posts to help you continue on your way: