I’ve made a few observations after watching many organizations hire new first chair leaders (President, CEO, Executive Director) during the last several years. I’ve sen some great hires that have worked out really well, and too many that have turned quite sour.
I’m not an expert in hiring, in fact I’ve only been directly involved in one such situation. So let’s assume I’m wrong about all of this, but here are a few things that seem to be true to me.
1. Boards often don’t know enough to make a good hire.
It’s always hard for any board to stay in touch with the real operating situation and culture of the organization, but when it comes to hiring a lead staff person there needs to be a solid awareness of what kind of person is being replaced from the staff/volunteer/donor/client perspective, and what the needs and expectations should be for a new leader.
2. Boards often don’t properly evaluate internal candidates.
Sometimes it’s just easier to hire someone known to the Directors who has served in a senior role. Other times these people are dismissed too quickly. Either case is usually evidence of a board not doing enough work to properly understand the needs and current reality of the situation.
3. Boards typically want to hire fundraising/marketing people.
Every organization recognises the challenge of maintaining and growing revenue, and often board members are reluctant to play a large role in doing it themselves. Aware of the need to keep funds rolling in (or increase them enough to pursue opportunities or keep the doors open) directors can naively believe that bringing in an expert in this area will address those issues and relieve that pressure. Fundraisers and marketers also tend to interview very well, their skill set is in compelling and persuasive communication. That may not translate to the ability to maintain leadership influence and strategic success over time.
4. Boards tend to hire a response to the previous leaders weaknesses.
A short term mindset makes dealing with the most apparent shortcomings priority. Its a great way to deal with things that may have been frustrating the board for several years of the outgoing leader. What it brings is often immediate change that is like a pendulum swinging past the point of best health. Hiring should be proactive, thinking of long term strategy; not reactive to issues that may be addressed more effectively with a broader approach.
5. Boards like to hire quickly and step back.
Every decent HR expert agrees that organizations tend to hire too fast and fire too slow. Interim leadership is not a tragedy, it often provides a perspective that is very helpful. Beyond that, too often there is not enough support and accountability provided during the first year of leadership. Boards don’t want to micromanage, and the time involved in transitions is draining on volunteer Directors, but successful hiring requires an ongoing active involvement to give the new hire and the team the best chance to thrive.
The bottom line is this: Hiring a new leader is the most significant way the board influences the impact of any charity. It requires significant time and energy to dig into the real needs of the organization over time and to properly consider applicants. A search consultant can be very helpful, but the responsibility for handling this effectively cannot be delegated. This is the time for Directors to step up and lead.