I had the good fortune to interview Jack over a lovely lunch recently. Jack Shand (http://www.portagegroup.com/our-team/) has been a leader in executive recruitment for Canada’s association sector since 1996. Before that, he was President and CEO of the Canadian Society of Association Executives for ten years.
As I usually do, I asked Jack to work backward from the desired outcome. He describes that new CEO or Executive Director as someone who came in well-prepared, having made a special effort to learn about their new organization and its issues before Day One. In the first two weeks, that new CEO engaged all key stakeholders, including staff, to talk about the tough issues. The new CEO brought the ability to persuade others to get on board regarding new directions and changes, and so is able to show progress early. The first small victories come within the early weeks of arrival. Concurrently, the Board has taken ownership of its hiring decision. The directors are giving the new CEO as much support as possible, while delegating appropriate responsibility and authority.
What does it take to get that result?
The best foundation for beginning an executive search is a good transition plan already being implemented. The Board has equipped the organization for transition by already knowing the bench strength within the senior management team with regard to capability and interest in leadership. They have thought about what kind of leader they need, and how willing they are to consider an external hire.
Then, the Board builds, or preferably strengthens, its relationship with an executive search consultant. The resource will help them understand and clarify the Board and CEO roles going forward, and the skills required, based upon the organization’s future needs. The Board is ready to give clear direction and goals to a new CEO, and has the confidence to move forward with hiring. The stage has been set for success.
Jack notes it is critical for the Board to be honest about the organizational culture and its governance approach during the hiring process, so the candidates can make informed decisions about how good a fit they would be. And no final choice is made in advance of good due diligence, including careful reference checks with just the right questions.
What barriers get in the way of good results?
On the board side, there is very little affordable and accessible training for directors of nonprofits. There are Canadian organizations providing lots of training for Executive Directors, but hiring a CEO is a Board responsibility. Where training does exist, it is hard to let board members, especially of small nonprofits, hear about it, and many organizations have no budget for board education.
On the CEO side, the new hire may get off to a bad start. They may misread the culture, such as assuming the culture is the same as in their prior organization. When that happens, they may attempt changes that are unnecessary or even disruptive. The new CEO may even be inaccurately briefed by board members who do not have a full understanding of what changes may be occurring within their constituency.
As well, staff members sometimes disagree with the choice and attempt to sabotage the new leader. They don’t have confidence in the new CEO, and will not cooperate.
How is Executive Transition changing?
First, the degree of complexity in leading nonprofits just keeps going up, so incoming leaders need ever stronger sets of skills and experiences. More and more, they will have worked outside the nonprofit sector for at least part of their career. They may be coming from a related industry or government role.
Second, the baby boom generation has been in senior positions for so long that many in the next generation have had little opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills. They, and many others, want to see hiring done on potential not just past performance. That changes and improves the nature of the interviews.
Are you optimistic?
Yes! Boards are growing in professionalism, and increasingly have some directors who have taken director training and/or made a real effort to learn governance on their own. They may have sat on corporate boards.
And we have an innovative generation bringing systems thinking into force to enhance the impact of their organizations and the ways organizations get resources. Organizations that take advantage of those trends will likely thrive.