Community-Driven Institute

Searching for a Key Employee
The 7 No-No's of Hiring
by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 1997©

The search for a key employee is the single most critical decision your organization can make. And if you are like most NonProfit organizations, your board and/or Executive Director will probably decide to take on this task themselves.

Most people figure that because they've been in business (or been an executive in a NonProfit) that they know how to hire. But if you ask, they'll tell you war stories - bad hires, bad interviews, horrible candidates.

With the success of your organization hinging on this decision, there are steps you can take (and, more importantly, steps to avoid) to increase the chances of getting the very best candidate for the job.

The 7 No-No's of Hiring a Key Employee *

Don't start with the job description; start with your organization's long-term goals


Don't look for qualifications; look for qualities


Don't place a boring ad; advertise to sell


Don't rank resumes; sort by Yes or No


Don't go straight from Resume to Interview; get more information


Don't interview if you don't know how; Get outside help and know what you're looking for


Don't settle for references that can't verify facts; get the information you need

No-No #1:
Don't Start in the Present; Start in the Future

If you are like most organizations, your executive search will start something like this:

  • Form a search committee
  • Assemble and write a job description.
  • Discuss generally what you're looking for
  • Write and place ad / put word out on the street / put out job announcements

All seemingly obvious first steps. Unfortunately, they're wrong. And unfortunately they set the tone for the whole rest of the search.

Before thinking about the job and the employee, think about the organization. When we focus on the job, we are thinking about the present and the past, when in reality, the key positions in the organization are usually about the future. So look first to where your organization is headed over the next 5-10 years - look to your long range plan.

Real Life Example:
Wrong: We are going to take on a number of construction projects over the next two years. Our CEO should have construction experience.

Right: The next 5 years will take this organization into many new directions. We need a leader who can guide that transition.

No-No #2:
Don't look for Qualifications; Look for Qualities

The search committee meets to determine the selection criteria. They argue over the following items:

Should we require 3 years or 5 years experience in this field?

Should they have a degree? In what?

Should they have any other professional credentials?

Another don't.
How often have you hired someone with 5 years experience, only to find they don't have 5 years of smarts?

So stop looking for evidence of what you want (experience and other qualifications), and start looking for exactly what it is that you want (qualities, skills, talents).

10 years of experience isn't really what you want. You want what comes with that experience. So define it up front, clear and simple. Search for the person behind the qualifications.

Good with numbers. Understands the intricacies of financial management and planned giving.

Visionary. Can take a plan and run with it.

Life experience that gives them good gut instincts about the right approach to take.

The selection criteria will be the basis for screening resumes, for creating second-round questions, for creating interview questions and eventually for making that final decision. So think about them carefully.

No-No #3:
Don't Advertise for Dullards; Advertise for Brilliance

It's time to run the ad. Here's one from Sunday's Arizona Daily Star, August 27, 2000. The names are changed to protect the innocent...

XYZ Agency is seeking candidates for its CEO position. The CEO will manage a budget of $1million and will report to the Board of Directors. XYZ provides X service to X population, receiving the majority of our funding from the State of Arizona.

The ideal candidate will have management skills in the areas of finance, personnel, information systems, quality management, contract development and blah blah blah (it actually names quite a few more). Experience must include Masters or PhD in our field, with 7 years progressive experience.

Now picture this ad to sell your home:

"Home buyer wanted: must have basic knowledge of plumbing and electrical work. People with no money need not apply."

We forget that advertising a job is just that - advertising. And the purpose of advertising is to inspire the target audience to take action. In this case, you want the attention of the most qualified candidates in the field.

So don't bore your candidates to death, or you will get a boring sampling to choose from. Excite them and they will respond in droves, strong job market or not.

In experiments done by ReSolve, we have placed two ads for the same position. One was the sort of ad noted above. The other was what we call the Mary Poppins ad, named for the way the children in Mary Poppins listed all their wishes and dreams for what they wanted their new nanny to be like.

Not surprisingly, the standard ad received 30 responses. The Mary Poppins ad received 240 responses! And the level of respondent in that second ad far exceeded those from the first ad. The most qualified applicants all came from the second ad.

No-No #4:
Don't Rank People by their Resumes; Sort Yes or No

The resumes flood in. The search committee is spending Saturday morning reviewing them.

The committee wants to use their criteria to sort the resumes, because now they know what they are looking for. They read a few and realize it's hard to know someone from that single piece of paper. They spend most of the morning figuring out a ranking system, and they hope the best ones will surface during the interview process.

Well at least there are criteria!

The problem is that it IS hard to know an applicant from their resume. So much of what we hire for just doesn't show up on that single piece of paper.

So the only thing you can do at this stage is to determine minimum standards, and weigh the resumes against those standards. That leaves a resume to answer only ONE question:

Does the candidate evidence those minimum standards?

From your list of criteria, note your minimum "must have" qualities. Financial acumen? Long-term stick-to-it-iveness? The ability to motivate others? Whatever qualities you agree upon as "must-haves," see if the applicants have those qualities.

Remember that this is a screening process. At this level, if someone is included that may not be terrific, they will be screened out in the next round.

You can already see why those first few steps - knowing what the organization needs and establishing criteria to meet those goals - are so critical to this process.

No-No #5:
Don't Head Straight From Resume to Interview; Get to Know Them First

Don't Head Straight From Resume to Interview; Get to Know Them First

Next you will set up the interviews. Or, if the pile is huge, you'll assign a few resumes to each committee member, for pre-interviews by phone, and then you'll set interviews.

Well, not quite.

There are a couple of reasons to create an intermediate step between resume and interview.

First, if you've written a great ad to attract folks with just the qualities you seek, your "Yes" pile is probably pretty big. We've done ads where 500 extremely qualified candidates replied, over 100 of whom passed the resume hurdle. In cases like this, an extra level of screening is essential.

Secondly, an interim step lets you learn more about your candidates, which will lead to a more meaningful interview. Unlike their resume, these questions will be designed to tell you exactly what you want to know, according to your selection criteria.

We call this the Second Round Screen. It can be done with a questionnaire of short essay responses, asking candidates to evidence more of their talents and expertise. The package should include:

• 4-6 QUESTIONS requiring short essay responses. PROVIDE A FORM showing a specific space for responses, so you are not reading novellas. PRE-DETERMINE YOUR DESIRED RESPONSES, to help with screening upon receipt of the responses.

• A fact sheet with as much or as little information about the job and the organization as is prudent to disclose at this time, to help the applicant determine if the job is right for them. Also refer them to your website.

This second round screens in a number of ways:

1) Some won't respond. From the job description and salary range, they decided the position wasn't for them. Or they don't want to write those responses, either because they don't like to write (an executive had better be able to write!), or they feel it's not worth their time. There could be a dozen reasons they don't respond, but in any event, that person is probably not for you.

2) Those who DO respond are even more interested in working for you than they were at first. Compare their answers to your checklist of desired pre-determined responses, and you will have a much better feel for whether or not there is a fit.


Question: "What would your first action be on the job?"

Desired response: "Walk around and listen to people."

Their response: "Call a staff meeting and lay down the new laws."

I'm sure glad I didn't waste my time in an interview with this person!

In our experience, these pre-interview questions lead to great discussion during the interview, because both you and the applicant have already been "introduced" to each other.

No-No #6:
Don't Interview If You Don't Know How; Get Help

You have screened down to a handful of candidates you'd like to interview.

A few committee members are selected to perform the interviews. They gather and come up with questions, deciding who will go first and how long each interview should be.

Ok, here's where it really gets hairy.

First, we would love to say the choice of who does the interviews is based on their experience in interviewing. But the truth is that the selection of who will do the interviewing is generally based on who is the most vocal and/or aggressive on the committee.

Interviewing is a skill. It requires experience. Skilled interviewers delve, know where to push and where to hang back. They know how to get the responses they seek.

Most of us don't have that skill. To be honest, most of us are more intimidated about GIVING a job interview than we are when we are the applicant. During the interview, we are uncertain about our role, and so we concentrate more on how WE are doing at interviewing than with what we are learning from the applicant.

In addition, although the group generally comes up with questions beforehand, they don't talk about what they are really trying to learn. And so questions are either vague or they are based on what folks have read in articles on "10 Great Interview Questions."

A few recommendations for this step.

First, hire an HR consultant who specializes in interviewing, and have them lead the interviews. A few committee members should sit in as well, but the smartest thing we've ever done is to let a professional lead the way.

Secondly, base interview questions on the initial criteria. The applicants have already made it through the other steps, so you know they have the minimum standards. So what do you still want to know?

You want to see them in action, get to know them, and most importantly, see for yourself if they have the qualities you are seeking.

Finally, your checklist should have a space for "gut hunch." Fill it in for each candidate. If it seems like there is just the perfect "click," note it. If they twist every question to answer one for which they were better prepared, note that. Your overall impression is important here.

No-No #7:
Don't Get Meaningless References; Verify the Facts

You've narrowed it down to 2 candidates. The committee will make the reference calls.

You call the first number. "Can you tell me something about Joe?" The person is reluctant to give out information, having been told that references can lead to lawsuits (whether or not that is true, it is a common perception). You get nowhere.

Or you get someone who tells you what a great guy Joe was, how much they miss him, how they would love to have him back.

From either of these, what have you gained? From the first, you have obviously gained nothing. But from the second, what do you really know? If you hadn't hit it off with Joe in the first place, he wouldn't have gotten this far, so are they doing any more than verifying that Joe is indeed a nice guy?

Most of us check references as poorly as we interview. We ask vague questions and we get vague responses. And once the committee gathers back together, all you can report is, "They all said he's a great guy," or "They wouldn't tell me anything."

If you're lucky, you'll learn that Joe never worked at any of those places. At least then you'll have information you can use!

The beauty of a strategic approach to Executive Search is that you can ask references about facts - questions they are more likely to answer. You will have their resume to ask about, their pointed answers to the essay questions, and their interview responses. So what you really want to know is:

Are they really who they say they are?

You may not get a reference to "Tell me something about Joe," but they may just answer:

"Did Joe really increase the endowment by 20% his first year?"

"Did Joe really add 6 new programs at no additional cost?"

If Joe really did everything he says he did, and you already know his personality is a match, then your questions are answered.

By going through the process in this way, the reference call is to verify. You may be lucky and also learn new things along the way, but they will be the cream!

Using this strategic approach to finding key personnel, the Organization is more likely to find the right person for the job. It takes time, but it is well worth the wait when you know you can rest easy. You will have found a leader to take your organization forward into the future.

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