Having an experienced, engaged board is never as important as when your association is hiring a new CEO. The association and non-profit sector is undergoing increasing CEO transitions because of retirement, resignations for other opportunities and board-prompted departures. While each type of transition brings different challenges, there is a series of steps to fill a leadership spot that apply to all situations.
The first order of business is to quickly establish the interim leadership solution previously identified in your succession plan. This may include a variety of resources and will typically include leveraging current staff to handle the day-to-day operations, along with a board member who can step into the interim CEO position. In the case of a retirement, this may not be an issue provided you have been given adequate notice by your CEO of their intended departure date.
Communication to Stakeholders
You must communicate quickly to your sponsors, board members, key partners and your members that the change has taken place (or is anticipated) and that you are quickly implementing a plan for the transition and selection of a new leader. Do not expect to keep this change a secret as you are operating in a transparent world and word will get out much faster than you expect!
Support for Staff
It is easy for a board to neglect the staff or to underestimate the support and communication they will need during the transition. Getting their input and keeping them informed is vital. It is also important that all board members are consistent in their messages to staff members. They also need to be clear that their voices are important to the selection of their next leader and that they will not have a vote – the hiring decision is a board decision – not a staff decision.
Review of Strategic Plan
A leadership change is an opportunity to take a fresh look at the future direction of the association and for the board to take stock of where they want the next leader to take them. If you are operating with a current strategic plan, then this may be a board discussion that results in a confirmation or small tweak to the current direction.
If the exiting leader has accomplished the current plan or other external factors are impacting the strategy, then a more robust approach to evaluating the current and future state of the organization may be required. It is critical that the board is clear and in agreement on the future direction prior to launching a search. This may not require a fully developed plan but at a minimum the basic guidelines to accurately convey board and member expectations to your potential candidates is essential.
Search Committee Formation
With a clear vision of the future path, who you select to be on your search committee is your next task. Do not under estimate the importance of this step – the future of your organization is in their hands! At a minimum, you want the current and future board chairs and board members with diverse perspectives to be included. You may also invite key donors or members to join the committee based on the nature of your association.
When you issue the invitation to join the committee, be clear as to the time commitment and expectations of the members. To move through the search process in a timely manner you must be able to gather the full committee for meetings and know that they will be able to fulfill this responsibility. If you invite non-board members to participate you may choose to give them a vote or just ask them for their opinions. Be sure to provide them with enough information about the current state of the association as well as the future goals and direction so they can make a meaningful contribution.
Search committee dynamics are also vital to the process. They will be representative of the full board and, as such, their ability to work as a team and mirror the board dynamic will contribute to attracting and selecting a new CEO who will mesh well with the board.
Selection of Your Search Partner
It is a good practice to invite several search firms to respond to an RFP. After you receive and rank their proposals, the committee should meet with the top two or three before making the selection. The criteria to consider include the size and experience of the staff, knowledge and background of the consultants who will conduct the search, the ability to professionally represent your organization to targeted candidates, guarantee and post selection support.
When you meet with the search consultants, assess your ability to form a trusting relationship with the lead consultant. Working with a search firm is a partnership, and a good relationship is vital to everyone’s success in hiring the right leader. References should be checked by members of the committee as a step to inform or confirm your selection.
The search firm will work with your search committee, staff and other key stakeholders to develop a profile of your next leader. Review of your strategic plan, an organization assessment, conversations with members and any other activities needed to understand your operating environment create the foundation for a great hire.
The firm will be responsible for attracting and identifying top candidates for your position. They will also leverage the networks of your board members and general membership. When they have assessed potential candidates and narrowed the field to a slate, the interview process with your committee begins.
A common challenge with association searches is the question of who will be best in the role – a leader with the same experience as your members or a professional association leader. A clear understanding of what skills are needed by the CEO will help clarify the answer to this question. It is likely that some members (and/or board members) will apply for the position.
Be prepared for how to objectively evaluate and communicate your decisions so relationships are preserved no matter the outcome.
The first round of interviews takes place with the full search committee. When you have narrowed the slate to the top two or three candidates, conducting follow-up meetings with pairs of members of the committee works well to deepen your knowledge of the candidates and assess how well they will fit your organization and community. This additional step is the only way you can really know your finalist candidates. It also gives them the opportunity to become more confident about making the job change to join your association.
Reference and background information should also be provided by the search firm and be considered in your decision making. Never assume that a leader who was successful in one organization is automatically going to be successful in yours!
Transition Support for New CEO
It is tempting to want to take a break when the new CEO is in place because you have been doing double duty during the transition period. Now is not the time. A transition committee consisting of board members and at least one person from the search committee and the board member who assisted as an interim leader forms a great team to support your new CEO as they take the reins of your organization.
If the retiring CEO is available, it is helpful for them to provide a short overlap. Beyond a week or two of transition support, it is better to establish an off-site consulting arrangement between the retiring CEO and the new leader. Do not set up your new leader and the staff to have the confusion of the former CEO interacting directly with them.
When you introduce the new CEO to the full board, the staff and your members, you can assure them:
- Your new leader is in place as the result of a robust process;
- They have the full confidence and support of the board; and
- A transition committee is supporting the new CEO.
Now you can take a well-deserved break!