The 5 Stages of a Successful Executive Search Process

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by Dennis C. Miller

As nonprofit boards grapple with the exodus of baby boomer leaders who have reached retirement age, they are faced with the need to recruit leaders who possess the competencies to successfully steer their organizations forward. An understanding of how to conduct a competitive nonprofit executive leadership search has never been more important.

“Competitive” is a keyword here. The days of posting a job in the local newspaper or even on a job board, using an outdated CEO job description and hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will come running along is long over. Even though your outgoing CEO may have been a terrific leader during their tenure, the environment in which nonprofits operate has changed dramatically in recent years, and even greater changes are on the horizon. Top candidates with the competencies to navigate these waters are in high demand.

To successfully recruit your new executive leader, I strongly recommend the following five-stage process:

  1. Analyze the strategic challenges your organization is facing and the role that the new executive will need to play in addressing them. Make sure that your board members and executive leadership team are invited to participate in this process. Work together very closely to discern the skills and experience best suited to the role. Use this information to develop a comprehensive, customized ideal candidate profile that highlights your organization’s strengths as well as the role and responsibilities of the new executive.
  2. Conduct a targeted search into organizations and sectors to identify potential candidates with the relevant skill sets and qualifications that you identified in step one. For example, if you are seeking a new CEO for an organization providing services to individuals and their families coping with intellectual and developmental disabilities, ask colleagues in similar organizations if they can recommend a qualified candidate. Your goal is not to gather names of individuals who might be interested in the position or who are actively job hunting. Rather, you are trying to connect with successful professionals who have the capacity to do the job well. Develop a list of qualified prospects for consideration.
  3. Approach potential candidates to test their interest in the new position, and prepare to use your powers of persuasion. Communicate to them the strengths of your organization and invite them to share the excitement of your vision of a better future. In the executive searches we conduct at our firm, 80% to 90% of the candidates we refer to our clients are not actively seeking a new employer. It is unlikely that they would come forward without our encouragement.
  4. Present the most qualified candidates to the search committee and board for approval after conducting in-depth interviews and reference checks, focusing on those whose competencies and track records best match the ideal candidate profile you developed at the start of your search.
  5. Complete the hiring process and provide onboarding support during the initial phase of the candidate’s tenure. Onboarding refers to helping the new executive adjust to the social, cultural and professional components of their new job while also stepping quickly into the strategic priorities you identified in the early stages of your search. It is a crucial step that more than half of newly hired nonprofit executives never receive.

Your investment in bringing the right executive leader into your organization and in setting them on a strong course to succeed will result in positive community impact for many years to come.

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