Finding the Right Person: The Search for an Agency Executive

A few days ago I received a phone call from a colleague who asked me to discuss an issue that one of his clients was confronting. Apparently the organization was repeating a search for an executive director following a somewhat negative experience. He wanted to know if there was an approach that could be helpful to them in their search for the right person to provide professional leadership for the organization.

Actually, the search process can be a wonderful opportunity for the non-profit organization to look at its purposes, goals, objectives and programs. It is difficult to engage the chief executive officer of an organization without being very clear about the purpose of the organization and the services provided to the community. Prior to formally beginning the search process it is important for the key lay leadership of the agency to review the mission statement; the stated purposes; and the array of services provided; and to be both comfortable and confident that these represent the essence of the non-profit to the candidates who will seek the executive position. It is important to remember the search process is double sided: the board is selecting the best candidate to lead the agency and the candidate is selecting the agency and board he or she wants to direct.

Some organizations decide to engage a consultant to assist them through the process of clarifying what they are looking for in an executive and to guide them through the search and the selection of the most appropriate candidate. Other organizations have the internal leadership with the knowledge and skills to guide the process, and they seek counsel when need. Still other boards of directors are able to implement the process with their own resources from the beginning through the final selection of the most qualified candidate.

Although there are no formal rules for searching for an executive director or chief executive officer of an organization there are some well tried and tested steps that can be taken following the review of the mission statement and purposes. It is not uncommon for a search committee to be formed and to be composed of the president or chair of the board of directors; a number of officers of the board; and one or two past chairpersons of the board. In addition to these people, occasional search committees can include member(s) of the agency staff; representative(s) of key funding foundations, Federations, and/or the local United Way (where they exist).

The first task of the newly formed search committee is to discuss what the executive’s responsibilities will be and what duties the person will perform on behalf of the organization. The process of discussing the role of the chief executive officer provides an opportunity to review the existing job description and whether the description meets the present and future needs of the organization. If there is not a member of the staff on the search committee, one or more senior members could be invited to participate in this discussion to offer their knowledge and experience since they have worked with the organization. Following these deliberations a job description should be developed and an ancillary document stating the qualifications for the position. This usually includes minimal educational requirements as well as a description of prior employment settings reflecting both professional knowledge base required as well as previous administrative background, if requested.

Once there is clarity as to what is needed in an executive an announcement can be placed in appropriate venues, for example, newspapers, professional publications, and relevant websites letting people know there is a search for an executive. The statement of qualifications and the job description becomes a “lens” by which the committee can begin to view responses. It is common for a subcommittee of the Search committee to review initial letters and e-mails from interested parties. Following this review, the subcommittee could invite several additional members to participate in initial interviews with a select number of candidates to meet people face to face and to explore their appropriateness beyond the submission of a resume.

Usually there are several interviews following an initial meeting and this enables the search committee to observe the candidate in different settings; to learn more about the candidate; and for the candidate to learn more about the organization and the leadership. For example, once the process has moved along and there are a small number of serious candidates, each one could meet with the organization’s staff; representatives of major funding bodies; past presidents; and perhaps executives of other organizations in the community. If a candidate is serious then he or she would request such meetings, and if they are not, then it is appropriate for the chairperson of the search committee to suggest them. It can be very helpful to have some feedback from major stakeholders in the community when the board is making such an important decision.

Once the search committee has made its recommendation the leading candidate is presented to the full board of directors and it is appropriate for them to endorse the selection and formally engage the person for the initial employment period. It is a common practice to provide a six month probationary period and once it is completed the contract negotiated by the search committee (or a subcommittee of the search committee) will be fully implemented.

Although there are no guarantees as to whether the match between the board and the director is perfect, a thoughtfully planned and implemented search committee is the best way to insure the best qualified and most appropriate person to provide professional leadership for the agency.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.