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Search Committee or Full Board? Roles in Executive Transition

by Molly O'Connell
MANP is pleased to present the following guest blog post by Jeff Wahlstrom of Starboard Leadership Consulting–an endorsed provider of executive search services. This post is part of our ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition. 

One of the essential responsibilities of a nonprofit board of directors is the hiring of its organizational leader (CEO, President, Executive Director). The prospect of conducting and managing the details of an executive search can be overwhelming and probably the last thing you wanted to do when you signed on to the board. I get it! You joined the board because of your passion for the organization’s mission and the belief that you had something meaningful to contribute. What do you know about executive search? More than you might think actually!

You and your fellow board members are leading this organization. Collectively, you hold the vision for the organization’s future and you’re responsible for guiding the organization from where it is today to where you want to be. You know the experience, skills and characteristics needed to move the organization forward, and your connections to the community and separation from the day-to-day operations give you the perspective and objectivity to identify the best match for this opportunity.

So, as much as you might like to hand-off this process, searching for and selecting your next staff leader is a responsibility that can’t be delegated. Owning this responsibility doesn’t mean you have to go it alone, however—a search consultant can help—but the full board needs to be actively engaged and participate in several key decisions along the way.

In our experience as search consultants, most boards find it advantageous to have the board chair recruit or appoint a member of the board to lead a small search committee made up of board members. Rarely, in the case of a small and very “hands-on” board, all members choose to work together on the search process, but this is the exception to the norm.

In the more typical scenario, where a search committee of board members is leading the process, it’s important to establish the authority of the search committee from the outset and to clarify how, when, and where the rest of the board will have an opportunity to participate in the process and/or vote. Finding the right balance is essential, and there isn’t necessarily a “one size fits all” approach, but what follows is some advice that might help with that balancing act:

Authority and responsibilities – Before opening the search, the search committee should outline its anticipated process and how and where individual board members, and the board as a whole, will have opportunities to weigh in. Especially important is clarity about whether the search committee will ultimately be presenting one final candidate for board approval or whether the board expects the committee to present two or more candidates for them to actively interview before making a decision.

Organizational priorities and search criteria – The board should discuss and agree upon:

  • The organizational priorities that will guide the board and the new leader over the next 2-3 years
  • How those identified priorities influence what skills, abilities, and experience you’re seeking in your next staff leader
  • Expectations for the search (key milestones, timeline and projected expense), the respective roles and responsibilities of the board and the search committee, and the negotiation process
  • Anticipated salary range for the new hire and any modifications to the benefits package
  • The importance of ensuring confidentiality regarding the candidates, their references, and information learned during the process

Ideally, the board should be guided in this discussion by the organization’s strategic plan, but in the absence of a current plan, we recommend setting the stage by identifying together 3-5 goals you hope to accomplish in the next few years. Getting clear on your top priorities will help you shape the expectations for the role and determine the kinds of qualities and experience you’ll be seeking.

Communication and messaging – Get the board on the same page regarding messaging. Help people see the transition as an opportunity—not a traumatic event—and voice confidence about the process, the committee selected for the work, and the anticipated outcome. Applicants’ details must remain confidential, but there’s no need for secrecy regarding the status of process. Share as much as you can with staff and other stakeholders. They’re interested and probably a little uneasy because change is naturally unsettling. There is no benefit to keeping them in the dark and much to be gained by cultivating the sense that you’re all in this together and an exciting outcome is at hand.

Meeting the candidates – Provide all board members with the opportunity to meet the finalists and offer feedback, and consider extending this opportunity to key staff as well. You don’t want to replace or replicate the work of the search committee, but seeing how candidates engage with others and the impressions they make can be very illuminating. To signal that the occasion is not an interview but rather a chance for the candidate to get to know the board and vis versa, consider hosting the meeting in a less formal setting with light refreshments. Provide attendees with a confidential vehicle to offer their feedback. Our experience suggests that an online feedback survey (with a link provided immediately after their interaction with the candidate) is an efficient way to get a quick read on how those who are not on the search committee feel about each candidate.

Transition committee – At the start of the search process, it makes good sense to consider the appointment of a transition committee. A transition committee is not the same as the search committee. It’s a group of people—board members, staff, volunteers—who will make sure you celebrate the accomplishments of your departing leader and help the next leader get off to the very best start possible. This opportunity is a great way to engage board members who are not on the search committee and set the stage for a successful transition of leadership.

Closing the deal – Ultimately, the board must vote to approve the hire. It works well for the board to authorize either the board chair or the chair of the search committee to negotiate on its behalf a compensation package with the selected candidate, in accordance with the range of salary and benefits established at the beginning of the process. Once the board has voted to approve the hire, this authority will allow the board member to “seal the deal” without having to return to the board to adjust the parameters and gain approval. When the board votes to approve the hire, it should also reach agreement on how and when to announce it.

A successful “launch” – New leaders often complain that they were hired and then don’t see their board members until the first board meeting. Signal to your new leader that you are partnering with them and care about their success. As part of your transition plan, consider the role board members can play in helping with introductions, establishing relationships, and attending welcome events and activities.

A leadership transition requires that the board step up and really lead. A well-managed search process—and the details and communication associated with it—will reflect well on the reputation of the organization and the board. While no board looks forward to managing a search for a new leader, done right, it can be an opportunity for the board and the organization to shine.

About the Author

Jeff Wahlstrom is managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting and a MANP-endorsed provider of executive search services. He has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. He regularly provides counsel to boards on governance best practices, leadership succession and transition planning, and strategic planning. Jeff has developed an online board self-assessment tool and strategic board recruitment toolkit for Maine nonprofits, and he is a frequent speaker on a wide range of board governance and nonprofit management topics.

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