Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Find the Right Nonprofit Executive

During the last few years, I have written 20 articles on various subjects. Of those, six have been on the topic of nonprofit CEO success. The reason I have written about this subject so often is that the recruitment and retention of the CEO position in nonprofits continues to be an area where we see boards (and CEOs) make the same mistakes time and time again.

One article The Foraker Group published last year discussed why it is hard for board members to become effective CEOs in organizations when they have moved directly from a board seat to the CEO’s chair (Board Member, Staff Member; Is That a Question? ). Another article, So You Want to be a Nonprofit CEO? Was written for individuals who now work outside the sector and think they want to work in a nonprofit organization. It stressed the fact that nonprofit jobs may not be as easy to do as it looks from the outside, and it identified the skills needed to succeed as a nonprofit CEO. We have also published a few articles on retaining good CEOs, including topics such as how to complete an executive’s annual evaluation and the benefit of sabbaticals as a tactic to reduce burnout. Most recently we published an article on the leadership void in the sector , reporting on the national research that indicates that we all must do a better job at retaining effective leaders and at fast tracking emerging leaders to reduce this deficit.

Recently, a colleague offered me new insight into what we were missing in our previous discussions on CEO success. It was her thought that the real issue we should help address is how to help boards do a good job of hiring the right person in the first place. That thought registered for me as true. If I were to summarize what we’ve heard about CEO searches it is that boards are often in a hurry to get the first warm body that may fill the position; or they assume that all of the board’s private sector knowledge provides them with all they need to make a good hiring decision for a nonprofit executive and they do not need professional executive search assistance; or they expect that the current CEO has in some way failed if they have not left an heir for succession.

All of these assumptions are misguided. In his recent books Good to Great and Good to Great Social Sector, Jim Collins stresses the need to make sure that the right people “get in the right seat on the bus,” even if the seats stay vacant longer than desired. Collins suggests that making the wrong hiring decision can do more harm to organizational excellence than being under-staffed for a long period of time. His advice would be to avoid hiring the first available warm body. While we are not fans of board members becoming CEOs of nonprofits where they currently serve on the board, we have seen situations where the right CEO was not available and a board member moved from the board to serve as interim CEO, giving the board more time to find the right CEO. We have also helped organizations hire an interim CEO, providing the time they need to do an adequate search. Whatever you do, do not replace a CEO unless you are sure you have found the right person.

The second assumption is that the board has adequate skills to complete a CEO search without help. Finding the right nonprofit CEO is not easy. People seeking nonprofit CEO jobs are often passionate about a mission and may have had experience providing the mission’s service, but may not be able to move into the top seat and succeed. Another factor that seems prevalent when a board does the job search themselves is adequate discipline on checking references. All references should be checked. No matter that the reference will give the candidate a glowing review, a skilled individual doing a reference check can often find useful information when asking the right questions. Whenever possible, the search committee should look for information on candidates from as many sources as possible. Does anyone you know have experience with this candidate? Do you know anyone where this candidate used to live? Do not just rely on the candidate to provide you with the information you need, do your own research whenever possible.

The final assumption that boards make is that CEOs should select their heir. This is also problematic. While, all effective CEOs should develop their staff and existing staff should always be considered when boards are looking for the next CEO, one of the most critical jobs for all boards is to select the CEO. It is not your current CEO’s responsibility to groom his or her heir. The Board should own the job of CEO selection and the job of positively managing the relationship with that CEO in order to form a healthy partnership to accomplish mission.

This article highlights some of the most common problems we encounter when boards look for a new CEO. What we need now are examples of how CEO searches move strategically to the selection of the right candidate. If you have examples that may be useful, please contact me at The Foraker Group (907-743-1202). We would like to develop a toolkit for nonprofit boards on CEO recruitment, and we welcome your ideas.

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