The Executive Transition Opportunity

By Barbara J. Gilvar

Barbara Gilvar
Hiring executive directors is one of a board’s most important responsibilities. It can be viewed as a problem to be overcome or an opportunity to seize.

Board Preparation
Executive transitions are significant opportunities for nonprofit organizations regardless of why the executive director is leaving and regardless of how long he or she has been there. This an opportunity to strengthen the board's leadership abilities, to build a vision for the future, to use the vision as a marketing tool to attract great candidates, and to build community with staff and funders.

The Search Committee and its Chair
A wise and respected search committee chair is an early indicator of how the search will proceed; a good choice will increase confidence in the process. A good search committee member needs wisdom and openness to learning. A well-rounded and representative search committee provides what is too often a rare opportunity to have meaningful dialogues across constituencies.

A comprehensive plan for outreach includes advertisements, announcements, and networking. The ads, the announcement, and networking calls describe both the strengths and the challenges. Minimizing the challenges may result in more candidates but fewer who are prepared to do the hard work. Networking can assure that there will be a strong, talented, and diverse group of candidates.

Screening Applications
An important, early discussion within the search committee is to establish minimum requirements and a “wish list” for other experience. Establishing minimum criteria carefully will help a committee assure that any candidate is fairly evaluated. On the other hand, requirements that are too narrow may unnecessarily limit the number of strong candidates. Flexibility could provide excellent people whose background the committee could not visualize at the start of the search process.

The search committee creates questions to ask each person interviewed. The “job description” with its stated goals is a good basis for developing those questions. Asking about the candidate’s actual experience always reveals more than “what if” questions. “What if” questions test the person’s ability to think quickly, to interview well, and to guess at what the committee wants to hear. Providing time for candidates to ask questions of the committee can be informative, illustrating how the candidate prepared for the interview and what he or she feels is important.

References are critical because they help search committees and boards continue their learning. Speaking to people a candidate reports to, people he or she supervises, and her or his peers will provide a well-rounded view. This decision is too important to get wrong. Written references are less informative than telephone reference interviews. The goal is to arrive at a thorough understanding of each finalist so the board can have an in-depth discussion of the organization’s future and which candidate will be the best leader.

The Next Phase of the Transition
Once the board has reached its decision and the candidate of its choice accepts the offer, it is natural to breathe a sigh of relief ”“ but the next phase of the process is just beginning. This is an opportunity to continue positive communication within the organization and to highlight its progress to funders and other external players. Making sure that the new executive director understands special traditions, unique parts of the organization’s culture, and the power structure is important to a successful beginning. First impressions are critical and mistakes are hard to overcome later.

Barbara Gilvar coaches search committees and has written a second book on the executive transition process, The Art of Hiring Leaders: A Guide for Nonprofit Organizations. Call her at 617-437-0850 or email