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Time to interview! Now what?

by Guest Blogger
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. 

Your executive search committee has pored through the resumés and identified the most promising applicants, but who should be involved in the interview process? In a corporate setting the H.R. director and the hiring manager might be alone in interviewing candidates, while at a college or university the process might involve a hiring committee, multiple sessions with campus stakeholders, and a community forum. Something in between these approaches usually makes sense for most nonprofits, and here’s what we recommend:

Phone interviews as a first step

As search consultants, we often conduct phone interviews with promising candidates. In a call we can quickly get a read on a candidate’s communication style, sense of humor, and seriousness about the job. We also check to see whether the anticipated salary range is really acceptable, so nobody’s time is wasted moving forward. These initial conversations also provide an opportunity to explore more deeply their level of experience with key aspects of the position and to dig into any questionable aspects of the résumé or cover letter: “What about the four-year gap in your work history?” Once the candidates’ responses and our impressions are relayed back to the search committee, members are able to make an informed decision about whom they would like to interview.

Initial interviews with the committee

We recommend that the search committee conduct 45-60 minute interviews with the candidates it considers most promising. If the candidates are local, interviews may be done in person, but Skype or Zoom video conferencing can also work well for this purpose and avoids the need to reimburse candidates for their travel expenses. In a case where some candidates are local and others are “from away,” video conferencing with all helps to level the playing field.

By asking the same set of questions—developed and agreed upon in advance—and giving the candidates time to ask a few questions of their own, the committee is sure to identify whom they would like to move to the next stage in the interview process.

Onsite interviews

Bringing candidates on-site for a tour and a variety of interviews and meetings is usually the final step in the interview process, reserved for the best of the best applicants. Keeping in mind that you want your candidates to be impressed, excited, well-informed, and ready to say “yes” if you make the job offer, who they meet with is an important consideration.

Candidates will want to meet key staff and members of the board, and those key players will want to meet the candidates. It may also make sense to provide an opportunity for the candidate to meet with other stakeholders: a key funder, collaborative partners, or members, for example. In all cases, role clarity and the management of expectations is very important. Those who meet with the candidates need to appreciate that their time with the candidates is a “two-way street.” Just as they’ll want to vet the candidates and relay their impressions to the search committee, the candidates will want an opportunity to ask their questions and assess the board and staff.

In addition to a final interview with the search committee, we suggest inviting interested and available board members to join the candidate for coffee or lunch where they will have the opportunity to engage the candidate in casual conversation to assess potential fit more holistically. Structuring meetings with staff is usually dependent upon the size of the organization. Sometimes it makes sense for the candidates to have one-on-one meetings with individual senior managers, while other times it works best to plan one or more group meetings with direct reports or managers.

Providing a vehicle for feedback

In all cases where board, staff, or other stakeholders meet with the final candidates, it is essential to have a vehicle that will allow for feedback to the search committee. Without closing this loop you might miss the benefit of their perspective and unique takeaway; as importantly, you risk sending the message that you didn’t really care about their opinions. 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.

Be clear upfront

However you decide to structure your interview process, let board and staff know upfront if or how they will have an opportunity to be involved. Board members need to appreciate their role and responsibilities, and clarity with the staff will help to reduce misunderstandings and hard feelings down the road. While many details of the hiring process should remain confidential, being open about the steps you’ll take, the timeline, and how your various stakeholders will be engaged is key to bringing the search to successful conclusion–and preparing your organization for a positive transition.


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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