The most important thing that a board can do to assist the success of the organization is to hire the right executive director.
If you have the right person in the job, there isn’t much you can do to mess it up. If you have the wrong person in the job, there isn’t much you can do to make it better.
Consider an executive director who has trouble raising money, setting a clear direction for the organization, getting along with staff, engaging partners and working with board. What is the board to do?
Consider an executive director who gets along well with donors, incites the staff and volunteers to greater performance, runs the finances crisply, has a clear sense of the relative roles of herself and the board and makes progress in implementing the strategic plan, which is a good one. What does the board need to do?
So how do you find a good executive director?
Deepen the pool of applicants.
First, there aren’t that many people out there who have the capacity and willingness to do this kind of job. The hours are long, the pay is (usually) low, and these jobs are complex. So, the pool of applicants will be shallow and the good candidates in that pool will be few. That means that anything the board can do to deepen the pool will help. Even in the internet era, most job applicants find out about the opportunity through word of mouth. Use your network. Sure, post on Craigslist and other job sites, but also ask everybody you know to spread around the job description, and circulate it as widely as possible. Keep asking the question of everyone in your network, “Who do you know who we should send this job description to?” Remember what Metcalfe’s Law says: that the value of a network increases with the square of the number of members. Then allow time for the network to work and for enough good candidates to apply.
Organize the work into a doable job.
A good job description is pivotal. Non-profit executive director job descriptions look like a description of the unicorn. We all want to believe in a single individual who can raise tons of money, work with elected and appointed officials, serve as an inspiring leader and mentor to the staff and volunteers, keep the books squeaky clean, develop an insightful and brilliant organizational strategy, display superior oral and written communication skills and do all this for $40,000 salary. We all also want to believe in unicorns.
It’s okay to wish for all this in the job description the board uses to recruit candidates. If that’s what the job truly takes, then ask for it and search for it. Just don’t expect to get 100% of it.
Know what functions and expertise are genuinely indispensable for success in this executive director job, be explicit about them, and seek them out. Some other traits might be nice to have, and it’s okay to list them, but keep them in perspective. The must-have traits are truly must-have, and candidates without them should not receive further consideration.
Identify the secret sauce.
In every job there is a certain something that will spell success for the candidate. It might be deep passion for the mission, or ability to pull together disparate interests, or the ability to get things done on time without fail. Look into the organization’s culture for these certain somethings. It’s the special sauce that often decides between success and failure.
In one organization, the special sauce is—the willingness to work the hours necessary to get the job done! One director now struggling in his job came from a charitable foundation in which he just didn’t have to log the hours to tackle the workload. In his new job the workload is heavy, but he hasn’t invested the necessary time to address it, in contrast to his colleagues in this organization whose culture is to work hard. Don’t expect him to last.
In hiring, identify the secret sauce and design the interview process to seek it out in the candidates.
Check references with a critical ear.
Checking references has become a perfunctory task. It’s a mistake to just check it off as a task on the to-do list. In many cases now, the references are instructed by the corporate lawyers and Human Resources Department to do no more than acknowledge that the candidate actually worked there once. But many references will still talk with you openly. The purpose of checking references is to test your hypotheses of where you think the candidate is deficient. You know why you think he’ll succeed. You also have to ask why you think he’ll fail, then test it with references.
If you think the candidate might have trouble getting buy-in from a difficult staff, you might ask, “Have you ever seen him in a touchy situation with other employees? What was the outcome, and what did you see him do or hear him say to create that outcome?” You want to get observable behaviors here, and not so much what the reference thought happened—you be the judge.
You can also check the references of the references. As the references supplied by the candidate for some references: “Who else should we talk with?” Then follow up with those folks to further test your hypotheses.
Listen to your gut feelings.
If your gut instinct says something’s not right, listen to it. You already know why you like the candidate. So then ask yourself why you think the candidate will fail. Be honest. Because there are no unicorns, you will find something not quite right about every candidate. Don’t be afraid to ask and to listen honestly to the answer. The result may be trivial, such as “he reminds me of my brother-in-law,” or it might make all the difference: his lack of fundraising experience is a deal-breaker. In the novel The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, the protagonist has a little mantra to get through life: lead with the head, follow with the heart.
Hire slowly, fire quickly.
As Will Rogers said, “the secret to making money in the stock market is to buy stocks, and when they go up, sell them. And if they don’t go up, don’t buy them.” If something tells you that you don’t have the right candidate, then don’t buy.
The secret to hiring the right executive director is to keep looking until you find one. The temptation is to go through the designed process and hire the best available candidate, even if the best one doesn’t feel right. Resist.
It will be easier to run the process again than to have to fire someone and then run the process again. Hold out for the right person.
The board’s job is to organize the work into a doable job (manifested by a job description), hire the right person and then support that person. So if something isn’t going right, it’s the board’s error in one or more of those functions. Where boards often go astray, quite understandably, is to try too long to provide support when the mistake is in the hiring decision.
Let’s face it, hiring an executive director is a lot of work, but firing one is truly painful. Not only does the board have to do the firing (nobody’s favorite thing), but also has to manage the transition period with an acting director, and then go through the hiring process all over again. Yuck.
Take your time to hire the right person (but not unduly, to avoid missing good candidates). And also pay attention to the first three months of the new executive director’s tenure. My experience is that you can tell in the first six weeks if the executive director is going to make it or not. Most job failures are not a lack of execution in technical functions, but the inability to function well in the culture of the organization and get along with the staff, board and volunteers. You can tell pretty much right away if the new executive director “gets it.” If she doesn’t still get it after six or eight weeks, she probably won’t get it any better after six or eight months.
Fairness dictates that you let go of the new executive director fairly quickly (perhaps three months) if she shows no signs of progress toward the shortcomings that crop up early in her tenure. The board should try everything it can to support the new executive director, but be open to the possibility that she is the wrong person, and if she doesn’t hit benchmarks for improvement that strengthen that feeling, get out the job description and mobilize the network.
After hiring, throw away the recruiting job description and write a new one.
Chances are, you got a good candidate and are excited about your new executive director. Chances are also that she is not a unicorn. Of all the traits you wished for, you only got some of them and not all. Recognize her as a human being. Draw up a new job description by leaving in the functions truly reserved for an executive director and which this candidate can do well. Figure out how to get other necessary functions done by delegating them elsewhere, reducing their importance, or dropping them altogether. Then, after a three month orientation period, sit down with the executive director and establish a set of specific performance objectives so that the executive director and the board both know what the expectations are.
If the board is going to succeed, it absolutely must select a competent executive director. It’s the most important decision that boards make. Do well.