Hiring an Executive Director

Hiring the Executive Director of a nonprofit agency is one of the most important jobs a Board does. The Executive Director will carry on the agency mission, implement Board policy and be the everyday face of the agency. Whether the Board is looking for the agency’s first exec or replacing one, there are many things to consider. The search for a new director needs thoughtful planning. Have you reviewed your mission and goals of the agency? Have you developed a job description that outlines the work – not a job description that can only be handled by Clark Kent ?

The exec certainly needs some specific talents and training to get the job done. The search committee may have to determine which talents are most important and which can be learned or which are just icing. For example, is a second language important to your mission or to communicate with your clients? Are you willing to negotiate hours? Must the agency operate at a conventional nine-five schedule, or can hours be flexible? Can the exec work from home?

No matter what talents are important, there is something that can’t be measured, nor even described. It is that intangible quality that the exec brings to the agency – as its “face.” If the Board is changing execs, the search process may be even more challenging. The agency “face” will be changing. Has the Board reviewed the agency mission and conducted an audit of the agency’s strengths and weaknesses? This isn’t complex, in fact, it is probably part of the reason that the board is looking for new leadership. An exec may leave, unilaterally, or by mutual agreement, when the mission grows beyond his ability, or the future of the agency requires more of her time, or more emphasis on management than on client service.

When an exec leaves, the Board should work to make an assessment of what are the next talents the agency needs. It is also important to have a clear understanding of what you are losing. Periodically, the Board should work on some sort of succession plan. This is not to frighten the exec but to make sure the Board understands the job she is doing. Much of the measurable parts of the job are probably apparent in the instrument used for an annual review as well as in the job description. But there are a hundred little things that are important to know. For example, how does your exec interact with your donors? Are there some personal relationships that should be protected in a separation? Does your exec have special relationships with other agencies, or leadership roles in collaborations that should be protected for the benefit of the agency even as leadership changes? And then there’s the small stuff. Is your exec the only person who knows where the fuse box is; or water shutoff; or who to call when the fax machine acts up? Make sure it is all written down.

Preparing to hire an executive director requires a lot of preliminary work. But, I think that reviewing the applications and selecting some candidates to interview is the most challenging phase of the process. The trick has always seemed to me to find the person who in real life is what they look like on paper. Life being what it is, references are skittish about saying too much one way or another. And there are limits as to where the interview goes. All in all it is a fine dance with choreographed roles.

Here are a few simple suggestions. Let just a few Board members review all the applications and select the top 3-5 candidates. Design an interview process that includes questions and is somewhat scripted. This process should be held closely and be confidential. Be prepared to have current employees apply for the position. Also be prepared for applications from many in the community who are already familiar to your agency through other agencies or personal friendships. Job openings attract a lot of interest – even before the Board has a plan for replacement. In future articles, I will deal with the interview and selection process. Just remember, each Board has a personality and the Board is looking for an exec who fits their needs and their quirks and will carry the agency into a new phase of development and community service. My best piece of advice – never try to replace the retiring exec. No matter how special your previous director was, allow her to be remembered, but not institutionalized. Hiring a new Executive Director means its time to move on.

May 18, 2004
May 2004 Hiring an ED

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