The Candidate’s Guide: Deciding Where to Work

In response to last week’s posting focusing on the process a non-profit organization needs to follow in selecting an executive director or chief executive officer I received a request to deal with the issue from the perspective of the candidate. In other words, what would be “The Candidate’s Guide for Selecting an Agency”. In the context of the recently publicized report by Michael J. Austin and Tracy Salkowitz, “Development and Succession Planning: A Growing Challenge in the American Jewish Community”, it has become clear that the search and placement of executives in the community is an issue of on-going concern for both those looking to fill vacant executive positions and for those in search of appropriate professional roles.

During the initial stage of a search for an appropriate professional position a candidate will decide to submit a resume or to respond to an executive search request for what seems to be an interesting or challenging role. This is usually in response to a conversation with an account executive with a search, or in response to an advertisement or announcement placed in a periodical publication. In many cases there is insufficient information to make a decision but there is enough information to perk someone’s professional interest. As the process continues and meetings and interviews take place the candidate should be clear about the agenda items that need to be explored.

Just as the agency’s board of directors’ search committee is making a decision to select whom they perceive as the most suitable candidate, the candidate is also deciding whether or not this is the agency it makes the most sense to be affiliated with. There are a number of issues the candidate needs to consider and this can act as a guide when going through the process with the lay leaders of the agency or the search firm hired to assist in the search for an executive.

When a search firm is engaged to assist with the placement there will be a formal structure and process set out from the very beginning and when the lay leadership is conducting the process themselves, this can be an indication as to the level of their leadership. Is the search committee well organized and how did they respond to the original letter of inquiry from the candidate? How have they structured the search for the most suitable candidate? Are the steps clearly articulated for considering the relevant candidate? Have they prepared background information about the organization, the community, the board of directors, the staff, the range of services and the client or membership population? If the information is a well organized “packet” or “folder” then this can be an indication as to how prepared the organization is for the search process.

In most cases there are initial screening interviews with a number of lay leaders and these encounters also provide the candidate with an opportunity to ask questions and to learn about the involvement and commitment of the lay leadership. Depending on the responses of the lay leaders the candidate can begin to evaluate the level of educated and informed leadership, and it is also possible to have a sense of the vision that the leadership has for the future of the organization.

Depending on the candidates familiarity with the community, the existing services, the resources in the community and the challenges faced by the community it may be relevant to request a meeting(s) with directors of other services to develop a sense of how the agency is viewed within the broader human services community. For example, if the candidate is seeking the directorship of a Jewish family service agency it would be important to meet with the present directors of the Catholic Family Services or the Protestant Welfare Agency or the generic Family Service Agency and/or the directors of the other agencies within the Jewish community, e.g. Jewish community center, home for the aged, the Federation, synagogues, etc.

Of course, it goes without saying that the candidate wants to review the financial records of the agency and confirm that there has been a certified audit of the finances. If there are any “skeletons in the closet” the closets should be opened prior to the candidate assuming responsibility for the executive position of the non-profit organization. Although this has always been the case, in light of recent financial scandals requiring a certified audit has become a prerequisite for anyone stepping into an executive position today.

One of the indicators of the financial stability of the organization is not only what is seen in black and white in terms of numbers, but also the level of involvement of the finance committee of the board of directors. How often does the committee meet; what is the agenda of the meetings; to whom does the committee report; and what role does the committee play in the financial planning of the organization? These are sample questions that should be asked about the standing committees that are listed in the by-laws of the organization. It is even appropriate to ask to see copies of committee meetings and to see the relationship between the committees and their contribution to the board meetings. Understanding the level of activity of the board can provide the candidate with an indication of the level of the functioning of the board and this can be verified during meetings with the search committee and other members of the board that is part of most search processes.

Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of meeting with the organization’s staff prior to accepting a position. When the search committee is serious about the candidacy of a leading contender it is most appropriate to request a meeting with the professional and administrative staff. It provides an opportunity to understand their vision, commitment and involvement in the organizations, as well as the expectations they have for the incoming executive. Since all new executives enter their jobs with new ideas the exchange with the existing staff can often be one of the most important in the search process. This group is the executive’s “team” and they will be the people who will assist the new person and implement the vision for the further development of the non-profit.

These are some of the issues the candidate for an executive position needs to consider. It could be presented in a “check list” format and as the search process proceeds the candidate can develop a rating of how the agency stands up against the person’s expectations. The members of the search committee have to be cognizant of the fact that as they are evaluating the candidate the candidate is also evaluating the agency and wanting to know what type of professional experience will be provided for professional and personal development and satisfaction. Although such matches are not perfect, by both the search committee being thorough and the candidate being clear about expectations and requirements there is a greater chance the placement will be successful and meet both their needs.

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.