Q: Our organization lost its long-tenured executive director about two years ago. Since then we have hired several replacements. None of them ended up being the “right” person. In each case either the individual or the organization pulled the plug after only a short period of time. At this point the problem has gone beyond our inability to find a competent and compatible person to inhabit the top slot. The organization’s reputation has slipped dramatically in the community. People wonder if we’re stable enough to support, so individual, foundation and corporate donations are down. Can you suggest the best places for us to look for top notch talent – the sort that will once again instill confidence in the community?


A: From what you have shared, I think the issue is less where to go to recruit, than what work your board must do before it begins yet another search. Like so much in life, the more attention paid to the preparation phase, the easier and more successful the task itself becomes. And, I’m afraid that without such preparation, you will be caught up in the loop that Albert Einstein defined as insanity, where you are doing the same thing over and over again, unrealistically expecting different results.

I suggest that the board set aside several hours to discuss the following: The organization’s mission, vision and values. Where it has been effective in working toward the achievement of each, where it has been less so and why, where a shift in direction is indicated to get the organization on track, and how to make the organization more stable and strong. The role that each of the executive directors played during their tenure, regardless of how short. The areas in which each excelled, and the degree to which that was helpful. The areas of importance in which they were incapable of performing, and the degree to which that negatively impacted the organization. The differences in the environment today that could potentially affect actions taken moving forward. Based on the answers to these questions, the board should be able to better determine the skills and experiences needed at this time to propel the organization ahead in the desired direction, as well as those to be avoided.

I would have board directors ask similar questions of the staff, representatives from the local foundations and corporations, and perhaps clients and community leaders. You want to get their perceptions of what is needed, not only because those perceptions may differ in critical ways from those of the board, but also because it will demonstrate a desire to really get the hire right this time, which is important in obtaining support from these key stakeholders. People who are solicited for their advice become invested in your success.

Only at this point should the board draw up a job description. While you can take ideas from the job description you used in the past and those used by other organizations, this one must be unique to your organization at this time and focus on the skills and experiences necessary to achieve the desired results you’ve identified. Think through what you are asking for and why. Be as specific as possible. For instance, instead of asking for “five years of experience” or “a master’s degree,” determine what you think someone with those qualifications will bring to the table. If you think “five years of experience” means the person will bring experience born of increased levels of responsibility that will make that person a better manager, ask instead for a demonstration of increased levels of responsibility and high marks as a manager. The sad truth is that someone with five years of experience could just have one year of experience that he or she has lived over and over again, rather than having grown over that time period.

As an alternative to posting the position – where you often get inundated with resumes from individuals that may be totally inappropriate – I suggest you call community leaders who are experts in your mission area. Ask them who you should be speaking with, even if those individuals are currently employed. Stress you want help identifying only the very best. Invite those individuals whose names you received to submit a resume.

Prior to interviewing anyone, have the board come up with a list of questions that it can ask each candidate to ensure it is ultimately comparing apples to apples. Come up with some hypothetical questions that will provide insight into how each candidate thinks and how much experience each actually has. In this case I would also definitely ask how each candidate sees turning around the image of the organization. On a related note, the board should think through how it will answer candidates who will invariably question the instability of the organization. Can the board enumerate what it has done to ensure that this hire will be the right one, and what it has done to make the organization a better place to work?

Of course, you could hire a search firm that can help you strategically navigate these waters. Such firms can save your organization a lot of time and energy. Just be sure to look for someone or a firm with a strong track record.