Selecting an executive is among the most important responsibilities of a Board. With each executive transition, organizations get stronger and more able to advance mission, or they get weaker and less able to meet mission. Having one or more internal successor candidates can be a gift to an organization. Managing that gift well is a big job for the Board.
When a nonprofit executive announces her/his departure, the question of whether there is an internal successor or strong internal candidates is front and center for the Board. In the best case, the Board and executive have had an ongoing dialogue about executive and Board succession and there are no surprises. Unfortunately this is not always the case.
Regardless of how much attention has been paid to succession planning, the Board faces the question of whether or not to do an executive search. There is no easy or magic answer to this dilemma. Here are the considerations found most helpful by our clients facing this question:
- Are we clear about what is different about the skills and competencies needed in our next executive and how they may be different than those of our departing executive?
A big risk for hiring Boards and interested internal candidates is to begin assessing who is right for the executive position before the position requirements are clear. The decision to search or promote an internal successor should follow thoughtful preparation by the Board about any changes or pivots in direction, big transition issues or other factors that inform requirements of next executive.
- What is our policy about conducting an open search?
Again, ideally the Board has had this discussion in developing a written succession policy to guide planned executive transitions. If a succession policy is not in place, the Board should answer this important discussion: Is an open search always required or under what circumstances might the Board appoint an internal candidate without a search? Board members often hold very strong opinions in opposite directions on this question. Some Board members argue that the Board has a fiduciary and ethical requirement to consider more than one candidate to ensure the best person is hired and that all interested persons have an opportunity to apply. Other Board members argue that is unfair to other candidates to go through a search if there is a very high likelihood the internal candidate will be selected. Others argue a search is a waste of time and money if you have an internal successor. The following considerations help Boards find consensus around this debate:
a) Does the whole Board know the internal candidate well enough to be confident in the selection, or only a few? If only a few, what happens to the internal candidate if, as the other Board members get to know her, they become convinced she is not the right fit?
b) Would the internal candidate be more empowered if selected in a competitive process? Often this is the case, and it gives the Board a way to really get to know the candidate and compare to others and make a more fully informed decision.
c) If the internal candidate was appointed without an open process and there were performance concerns, would the Board be united in supporting her development and assessing performance or would there be a rush to terminate because there was not full Board support at hiring? Thirty percent of nonprofit executives leave involuntarily. The risk of premature departure rises if there is not unanimous and full support for a selected executive from the Board.
d) Would it be disingenuous and a sham to do a search? If the case for the internal candidate is so compelling that other candidates are wasting their time, then perhaps no search process is the best way to go. This does occur, particularly where there is a planned transition and preparing of an internal candidate with Board knowledge over an extended period of time.
- What does it mean to do an open search? What are our options?
For some leaders, doing a search means hiring an executive search or transition and search firm or individual. There is an implication of a broad exhaustive national search. In reality, Boards have several options in deciding how to compare one or more internal candidates to external candidates. These options include:
a) Posting the position internally within the organization and an agreed upon number of public postings. The message here is, “We have a strong internal candidate, and we are open to considering other applicants from our community.”
b) Posting the position internally and with a broader range of listservs, websites and job boards where potential candidates may be found. The message here is, “We want to make sure people in our field know about this position and invite interested persons to apply.”
In options a) and b), the Board may choose to use Board volunteers to screen applicants and support interview and selection process, or secure the assistance of a firm with expertise in executive transition, search or human resources. If done by volunteers, assuring there is sufficient time to do well and with expertise is essential. Additionally, assuring there is no possibility of an appearance of bias or preference for a particular candidate.
c) Working with a transition and search firm to bring a third party and experienced view to assessment of internal candidates and to proactively building a finalist pool made up of internal and external candidates. In retaining a transition and search firm, the Board will have a choice between a full national search, or a more targeted outreach effort. In either case, the search company is responsible for leading the search and developing a pool of finalists that meets the agreed upon position requirements.
Ultimately, there is not a single approach that is automatically the best choice for a given organization. Best practice is for nonprofit Boards and executives to think about succession planning when transition is not imminent. This allows time and space for important discussions and assures that the organization is better prepared when the executive transition arrives.
For more information on succession planning, executive search and transition services, visit our website.