these and more scenarios are playing out these days, in organizations all
around the world. Executive transition is a hot topic, as many Executive
Directors / CEOs are retiring after decades of service. In addition, we seem to
hear more and more stories of organizational leaders who are being asked to
leave for a variety of reasons.
Suddenly, boards are having to do
one of the hardest jobs around: Hire the right
the scenarios above, there are both the seeds of possibility and potential, and
the seeds for falling flat on their faces. Why is it, then, that so many of
these scenarios end up on the flat-on-their-face side of that equation? And how
can we aim those scenarios at the potential for making the most strategic
hiring decisions those boards have ever made?
What’s Wrong With the Way We
faced with executive transition, whether things were great with the former CEO,
or things were horrendous, boards are often left with what feels like an
overwhelming task. Many go beyond that sense of “overwhelmed,” and
become downright afraid.
afraid they do not know the job, but will be the ones to hire the person who
will hopefully know how to do it.
afraid of what will happen if they do not find the right person - who will run
the former CEO left things in a bit of a mess before leaving, they are afraid
that they need to get someone in there quickly, to start picking up those
answer, then, to the question, “What’s wrong with the way we
hire?” is that we approach hiring as a problem-solving activity. And
problem-solving mode often leads to bad decisions.
Why is Problem-Solving a Bad
Approach for Hiring?
Let’s look at the various
scenarios in the opening.
In Scenario #1, the ED is
highly competent. The board barely understands the ins and outs of how the
operation works. Typically in this scenario, the board will seek to hire
quickly, as they fear what will happen if the organization is left leaderless
for too long. Fear and fast seem to go hand in hand in this scenario, and neither are great
conditions for hiring well.
In Scenario #2, the board is
already in a pickle. They want that situation to be fixed as fast as possible.
They also blame themselves for not fixing the situation when it first showed
signs of being a problem, perhaps a year or two earlier, perhaps longer. And
now, day by day, the reputation outside and funds inside the organization are
spiraling. This scenario, like Scenario #1, combines their current fears of
what will happen if leaks are not plugged quickly, with their self-admonishment
that they did not act quickly enough in the first place. Again,
fear and fast combine to make this situation an unlikely one for hiring
Scenario #3 is a bit
different. In this situation, the board is looking to finally get someone that
has all the qualities they have always wished their visionary ED had. More
realistic, feet on the ground, not always pushing the board to stretch beyond
their comfort zone. They finally have the opportunity to move the organization
back to “reality.” And while they feel this is being prudent, it is
actually simply reacting to the long-term creative tension of being a board
with a visionary ED. The board is seeking to hire from their own comfort zone,
which is, again, not a great position for hiring.
Finally, in Scenario #4, the
board feels it must find someone to fill in the hole left by the person who
embodied the heart and soul of the organization. Like a lover who has lost her
passionate other half, decisions made when we are anxiously hoping we will find
someone to make us whole are rarely a condition for hiring
So what results have we seen
in these scenarios?
Scenario #1, we have seen the hiring of competent administrators, who are
able to simply maintain. The boards are relieved that the ship seems to be
sailing smoothly, but those organizations are making little impact in their
communities and doing very little to even acknowledge their potential for
Scenario #2, we have seen chaos and stagnation. We have seen staff turnover
(in one case, an organization lost its entire senior staff within just one
year!), and a focus on money over mission that further alienates the community.
The new person is often asked to leave after a short term. If that person does
stay on, the organization typically becomes focused on building its own empire
(bigger building, more non-program staff such as a fundraising department),
rather than focusing on its potential for creating impact in the community -
the kinds of activities that would build ongoing community support. Community
resentment evolves from a temporary reaction to a permanent
Scenario #3, we have seen new hires step into organizations with a
pre-established visionary culture, both internally and out in the community.
Because those new EDs were hired to be just the opposite of their visionary
predecessors, we have seen those individuals almost immediately alienate the
staff and the community, both of whom had enthusiastically supported the former
visionary role of the organization and its ED. We often see the “new
guy” last only 18 months. Unfortunately, we have also seen staff leave in
droves before the new guy leaves, which further decimates the organization.
from Scenario #4, we have seen the kind of chaos that comes with ongoing
change of direction. We also see additional CEO / ED turnover in this
particular situation, as there are only two kinds of visionary leaders - those
who stay put and joyfully do their work in the same place forever, and those
who flit from place to place, always looking for the next exciting adventure.
Your board is not likely to hire the first one, because she is not leaving her
current position until she retires. So if you find a visionary to create a
direction for your organization, her vision may just lead her on to the next
place in short order.
Why Boards Hire So
do boards so often do such a poor job when it comes to hiring for that top
1) Boards assume they know how
to do the hiring.
are often comprised of smart business people who hire all the time. They assume
they know how to do this, because they do it in their real
When transition is happening in an
organization that has some association with Help 4 NonProfits, we often offer
to counsel them pro bono - to help them avoid the pitfalls noted in this
article. We are almost always told they do not need our help - that they have
an HR person on their board, and they are confident in it going
those same board members how many AMAZING hires they have made in the last ten
years in their “real lives,” and you will quickly see one of the
reasons Executive Transitions often result in tumult. The truth is that hiring
is a huge issue EVERYWHERE, not just in the world of Community Benefit
hear the words, “There are just no good people out there!” or
“Nobody wants to do what it takes anymore!” or “They
won’t work for what we can afford to pay!” then that is the sign of
a bad hiring process. Because a good process indeed finds good people. They ARE
out there, they DO want to work, and they WILL work for what you can afford to
2) Boards hire for what they
see, given the scenarios above, why that would be so. We are in financial
trouble, so we need to hire someone who can fundraise. We do not understand how
things work around here, so we need to hire someone who can take over quickly.
We have never liked X about our CEO, and now we will have Y. (That one is
actually even worse, as it is not even hiring for the present - it is hiring
based on what we haven’t liked about the past!)
result of such hiring is that the organization does not get someone who will
bring them into the future; they get someone who will simply patch up what
isn’t working about today. Once they have filled in the hole, that new
person is not capable of building up from there - not capable of reaching for
the highest heights.
brings us to the third reason hiring fails:
3) Boards do not understand
their role in defining the organization’s
of the scenarios noted above, the board did not see it as their job to plot the
ship’s course. They saw their role as choosing the captain, and hoping
from there that the captain would head in a good
result is that there is no continuity in the vision and values that guide the
organization. The direction of the organization rests entirely on a single
person, a dangerous situation for any organization.
are a number of ways boards can create an environment that is conducive to
hiring well. Those approaches all have one thing in common: They turn hiring
into a celebration of what is possible, rather than a reactive, fear-based
search for relief.
The Board as the Keeper of the Organization’s Purpose and
The most critical step in hiring is
the one that comes long before the board even considers hiring. It has to do
with the board holding itself accountable for the organization’s results
in the community.
board is at the top of the organizational chart. While most boards assume the
CEO is the keeper of the organization’s vision and mission, the org chart
says differently. When a board has a clear vision for the difference the
organization will make in the community; when the board creates annual plans to
reach for that vision; when the board weighs all its decisions about what will
be best first for the community, then for the organization, in the long term
and the short term; and when the board has an established code of values that
it follows in all its decisions - the board will then hire a CEO that fits into
a path the board has already created.
board is the one establishing the vision, and from there making the plans to
actually attain that vision, there is alignment from the top of the
organizational chart, clear to the bottom. An individual board member or
individual employee (even the CEO) can come or go, and the direction of the
organization will not be affected. The course is set.
alone provides confidence for a smooth Executive
Have a Succession Plan at All
succession plan (or as Kate Henry of Fresno’s Nonprofit Advancement
Council calls it, a Succession System) is a system for ensuring your organization is always as prepared
as it can be, in the event of a transition, sudden or
plan in place, and updating that plan every year, takes the fear out of the
process. It allows the board to always know it is ready in the event they have
to find a replacement for their current CEO.
For a step-by-step Succession
Hire the CEO to Create the Future, Not for Today’s
Once it comes time for the actual
hiring, the biggest mistake boards make is short-term thinking. And that
thinking is usually based on today’s fears.
hiring the CEO is a critical point in the organization’s potential to
accomplish its vision and mission, fear-based / today-focused hiring is the
exact opposite of that. Such hiring can only, at its best, fix problems and
financial security! We need someone with vision! We need someone with their
feet on the ground! We need someone to please, oh please, take the helm of this
to do instead?
First, hire for the future you want to
Hire someone who will be great for
bringing you from today to five or ten years from now. You can only do that if
you have a vision and a plan already in place - if you know where you want to
be heading. So create your plan first. Have a clear vision for the
organization’s potential to create impact in the Community, and aim the
ship in that direction. Then hire the person who can get you
Second, to address the very real issues pressing upon you
today, hire an interim executive.
Hire someone who can address those
problems. If the problem is money, hire someone who can fundraise. If the
problem is coordination of all the complex pieces of the mission, hire someone
highly organized, who can step in and guide the ship while you thoughtfully
determine its course.
instinct when we are concerned about today is to rush. By focusing on tomorrow,
you can hire someone to temporarily take care of today, and take the time to do
I say, “take the time,” I mean it. Plan on having that interim
director in place for at least six months, and more likely a year, especially
if your CEO has left you in crisis.
yourselves the time to reach for what is possible, rather than patching up what
is making you uncomfortable. Because - and putting it quite bluntly - rushing
the most important decision your board can make, out of fear of what will
happen if you do not do it quickly, is, quite simply, a lousy way to
Hiring as a Celebration of What is
shared horror stories, it is far more fun to be able to share what happens when
hiring is done well.
We were working with an organization
that had had problems with their Executive Director for years. Both staff and
board lived under a dark cloud. No one smiled. The board, while wishing things
were different, lived under the ongoing fear that the organization was so
complicated - if the ED left, where would they even
First, we worked with the board to
establish their vision for the future they wanted to create, for their clients
and for the community. We helped them create a code of values that would guide
their decisions and actions. We helped them create a succession plan. And when
the time came, we helped guide them through the hiring process, based on what
they wanted the organization to be able to accomplish in the next
At the time of this writing, their
new Executive Director has been on board for three years. These days, when we
step onto the campus, there is no dark cloud - just the opposite. I often joke
that I expect to see a butterfly alight on my nose, or some magical creature
pop up to say hello, whenever I walk around the place, from the sheer joy the
organization now exudes. The staff, the clients and the board are happy these
days - all the time! And the progress this organization is making in the
community is palpable.
All this in only three years, much
of which time had to be spent in addressing the very real problems left behind
by the former ED.
great hire is possible. It entails taking a step back, doing what is necessary
in the short term, but not letting that interfere with the long term aims of
those long term aims are simple: Help make the community you love an
extraordinary place to live.