The board of directors of a nonprofit organization has to make many decisions, but the most important one is deciding who will be its chief executive officer. If all goes well, a CEO will serve the nonprofit ably for many years, which means that when the board has to return to this topic, it will likely discover minimal institutional memory about how to go about the selection process, increasing the chance that it might stumble a few times along the way, and possibly not hire the best candidate to lead the organization.
Most boards know instinctively that they should form a search committee to find a CEO. Doing so provides plausibility to the process, even if the world would be better off with fewer committees. But when it comes time to establishing a committee that will do the job well, there are many pitfalls that can cause a board to stumble.
Here’s what I’ve seen are the keys to making search committees successful.
The right people are on the committee.
The worst way to form a search committee is to ask at a hastily arranged meeting “Who here. would like to serve on the search committee?” This simply lets anyone get onto the committee, regardless of whether they have the ability to serve effectively. Instead look for volunteers – perhaps members of the executive committee, or chairs of the standing committees (fundraising, finance, program, etc.) to meet to discuss which members of the board would be the best candidates to serve on the search committee. Key criteria to consider include:
- A person who understands the organization, including the challenges and opportunities it will likely face over the next few years. This person is not stuck in the organization’s past, and this person does not have a parochial interest that will color his or her evaluation of candidates.
- A person who is a good judge of talent and able to make intelligent assessments of candidates, including linking their skills and other qualifications to the needs of the organization.
- A person who can work well with others on the committee. The goal is to have 100 percent of the committee members recommend the hiring of a particular candidate to the full board, which has the ultimate responsibility to select the CEO. This does not mean that everyone on the committee needs to think the same way, but all committee members do need to enjoy working with their colleagues, and they need to appreciate the value of reaching consensus.
- Having the current chair on board is very useful; including the person who will become board chair in the next year or two is even more valuable because that person’s involvement insures stability.
- Members that reflect a variety of genders, ages, races and ethnicities, and career and life experiences will stimulate a range of perspectives that will help steer the group to the right candidate – and will cause many candidates to be even more attracted to the organization.
- Members that understand the importance of moving swiftly. In virtually all searches, everyone is eager to bring the process to completion, but, too often, not everyone acts with a sense of urgency, especially after the group has interviewed several candidates and identified perhaps one or two who merit further consideration. If a leading candidate is told that the search committee would like a second meeting – but not for three weeks – that’s plenty of time for them to explore other interesting opportunities somewhere else – and even to take another job.
On occasion, members of the staff want to be part of the CEO search committee. Although it can be risky – and perhaps even unhealthy – to have a person participate in a process to select his own boss – this fact alone can affect how candidates will be evaluated (“Will this impressive, obviously qualified person want to keep me on the senior management team?” is a rational question, but not a valid criterion for selecting an organization’s next CEO) – sometimes it can be helpful to include a staff member or two on the search committee. They can add a valuable perspective to the process, especially if the board tends to be a hands-off, relatively disengaged group that is not particularly attuned to the current realities of the organization it’s responsible for governing (which, of course, raises a host of other questions about the board’s overall effectiveness).
A committee that’s small but mighty.
Based on my experience as a CEO and with numerous CEO search committees, an ideal number is four or five. That allows a variety of perspectives and personalities, with easy dynamics within the small group. Having fewer committee members runs the risk that an unexpected absence could make the group too small to impress top candidates, while having a larger group requires considerably more time and effort to lead. I have had some good experience with search committees that needed to have as many as eight people, but they demonstrated tremendous commitment and discipline that is rare in most groups of this size.
A committee that steps back before it moves forward.
A CEO search is a great opportunity to think about the future of the organization. Dusting off the departing CEO’s job description is easy, but it’s likely out-of-date, given how time and circumstances change an organization’s priorities and needs. So, before the committee starts to interview candidates or even think about whether particular people might be interested in the job, it should take some time to discuss the following:
- What are the key challenges our organization will face over the next few years?
- Given those challenges, what should be the key responsibilities of the next CEO?
- Given those responsibilities, what are the skills, experiences, and characteristics the ideal CEO will possess?
This discussion will help the search committee (or its outside search consultant, if it is using one) put together a new job announcement; it will also help create a common vision that will guide the group as it considers candidates.
A committee with a thoughtful process that will keep the search moving forward.
Once the search committee has been created, it should turn immediately to the nuts and bolts of the search itself. If the board has retained an executive search firm, then these steps should be done in close consultation with the recruiter. And in many cases it will be the search firm itself that takes the lead on many of these steps, including the following:
Establish rules of confidentiality.
- Write a job announcement that will help sources to recommend good candidates and will encourage qualified people to apply.
- Determine the anticipated salary range.
- Pull together a set of background material for leading candidates, to help them prepare for the initial interview with the search committee.
- Set a schedule that includes tentative dates for completing key events, e.g., writing the job announcement, publicizing the search, interviewing initial short list of promising candidates, and having an offer extended and accepted.
- Create a plan to keep the board and staff informed.
- Identify a firm that specializes in pre-employment background checks who can do a criminal and financial/credit check when you’re ready to extend an offer, which should be contingent on completion of a satisfactory background check.
- Create a plan to announce the outcome of the search once a letter of employment describing all terms has been signed by both parties and the background check has been completed.
A committee that selects one and only one person to lead negotiations.
When the time comes to extend an offer and negotiate terms, it’s important to move this critical task from the search committee to one key board member, who might be the search committee chair, the board chair, or some other respected board member who will be able to close the deal and, ideally, already has developed some rapport with the candidate. The full board needs to know and approve of the key terms of employment – especially salary and benefits that go beyond what’s available to all fulltime staff – but one and only one committee member should be dealing with the candidate about terms of employment.
If the search committee follows these steps – gets the right people on the committee, keeps the committee as small as possible, takes time to think about the future before thinking about candidates, designs a process that will enable the search to move forward briskly, and identifies one person to lead the negotiation – then the board will significantly increase its chances of attracting and selecting the CEO who best meets the needs of the organization.
Michelle Turman, MA, CFRE is the CEO of Catalyst Consulting Services whose mission is to facilitate positive change for nonprofits in the areas of executive searches, organizational management, and fundraising. With over thirty years of nonprofit experience, Turman has been responsible for increasing the impact and best practices of nonprofit organizations she serves and has raised over $87 million through her professional and personal philanthropic efforts. Turman is also the Chair of Knowledge & Thought Leadership Committee of the Network for Nonprofit Search Consultants (NNSC)