Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Hiring Leaders

By Alison Falk

Alison Falk
Temporary gaps in leadership at nonprofits organizations, large and small, can send even logical managers into mad races to fill open positions as quickly as possible, leading to searches that collapse due to avoidable missteps or oversights.

These blunders seriously and negatively impact morale and can lead to feelings of mistrust in organizational decision making, both internally in the staff and externally in the community. The good news is that most of them can be avoided with a little foresight and planning by paying attention to the following.

Pitfall No. 1: Hiring in a Hurry

A leadership transition provides an organization with an invaluable opportunity to step back and reflect on its current state and where it wants to be in one, five, and 10 years.

A strategic search roadmap will ensure a comprehensive process, bringing everyone on board to think about the organization’s future. It starts with an organization asking itself where it wants to be, what it needs to get there, and what obstacles stand in its way. This information makes it easier to identify the qualities and skills needed in the new hire to support the organization.

Pitfall No. 2: Looking Through the Rosy Lens

In a search you are likely going to hear exactly what the market thinks of your organization and its willingness to work for you. It is a significant mistake to neglect the opportunity to critically assess the challenges and obstacles you could encounter in recruiting.

The best tool for avoiding the —rosy lens’ is a private, but highly critical assessment of the challenges for the position and potentially negative perceptions of your organization in the marketplace. Ignoring market perception will ultimately lead to a weak candidate pool.

Pitfall No. 3: Teasing the Bridesmaid

Internal candidates can pop up at any time in the search process and create some of the most interruptive hiccups along the way. Internal candidates are often strong in many areas, but have less experience in others which are equally critical to search committee deliberations.

The rule here is simple. Do not encourage a non-viable internal candidate to apply. On the other hand, if the internal candidate is qualified, s/he should be considered a contender and should be a part of the same process as external candidates.

Pitfall No. 4: Submitting to Staff

Trustees and staff members will use different lenses when evaluating candidates. Therefore, they may disagree about who should be hired, but when staff expects the right to trump decisions the ensuing conflicts can derail the search.

Including staff early on—in developing the position profile and the initial outreach process—are good ways to engage staff ideas and concerns in a constructive way. Ongoing check-ins and regular communication to staff about the general progress of the search also help.

Pitfall No. 5: Distinguishing References from Rumors

References are extremely tricky and can confirm what you love about a candidate and dredge up your worst fears. When conducted haphazardly, they have the power to sink the chances of hiring the right candidate.

To avoid the pitfalls of sensitive referencing, handle on-list and off-list calls in an open, ethical way. Start with on-list references. This gives you a base-line understanding of the challenges a candidate has faced. Before going off-list, alert the candidates that you are about to do this so they know in advance that their confidentiality can no longer be guaranteed and so they have an opportunity to tell you about anyone they do NOT want for you to call and why.

Pitfall No. 6: Spilling the Beans

One innocent comment about a prospective candidate to a colleague who is not on your search committee, or an application left carelessly in the copier room, can cause months of hard work on a search to come crashing down in a split second.

To avoid this, require everyone to sign a confidentiality agreement at the start of the search and again at the interview phase. Passing out materials at each meeting and collecting them at the end of each meeting will avoid breeches of confidentiality. Communicate at the beginning of each meeting how disastrous breaches can be to the search, individual reputations, and organization’s reputation.

Pitfall No. 7: Expecting Sacrifice

The tenor of compensation negotiations will color your entire relationship with your new hire. Poorly handled negotiations destroy the honeymoon phase, immediately handicapping your new hire’s ability to perform to the best of his/her abilities and to the height of your expectations.

Address expectations around compensation at the beginning, middle, and end of the search so that the institution has time to get creative about additional ways to adjust an offer if necessary. If the budget of your organization does not allow you to match or exceed what the candidate is earning, that should be discussed long before you get to the offer stage.

An Art and a Science

There is an art and a science to a well-run search. Identifying these pitfalls is the science; avoiding them is the art. Organizations mindful of these pitfalls should be well-positioned to engage in dynamic, fruitful search processes, but should also be wary of other dangers always lurking around the corner.

Alison Falk is vice president of Boston-based Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group LLC, which conducts executive searches for nonprofits. Contact her at or call 866-903-3182.