By Mark Oppenheim
Sometimes in the latter stages of a CEO search (or other major transition), a nonprofit will experience leading indicators of fear, uncertainty and doubt among staff and board members. In a search, this kind of response is generally driven by anxiety over what a future leader might change or a direction that might be taken that could cause discomfort among important constituents. Functioning as a kind of “canary in the coal mine” for problems, anxieties and behavior that might affect chances of later success, such signs in the midst of a CEO search can include:
- a slowing of decision processes (which can take the form of delayed feedback, difficulty in scheduling meetings, etc.);
- otherwise legitimate concerns about candidates, but distinguished by the practice of holding different candidates to different standards in different areas;
- a focus on candidate style that is not balanced by a focus on candidate substance;
- advancing management initiatives, job descriptions, org charts or governance models that would complicate later efforts to enact changes; or
- a retreat into critique that makes “the perfect” the enemy of “the good”.
In a CEO/ED executive search, a sharp definition of what constitutes success for the organization over the next years can help bring needed focus to evaluation of candidates; however, it is not always possible to reach consensus on such definitions. Under these circumstances, a practical way forward for Search Committees, boards and management teams is to simply agree that: a) all real-world decisions are imperfect and there are always trade-offs, and b) adhering to a tight schedule of purposeful activity will help to drive to the best possible, albeit imperfect, decision.
When CEO searches hit a particular state, the order of the next steps is less important than that they happen with reasonable speed. We often will urge Search Committees to tighten timeframes so that the group commits to systematically resolve urgent issues that must be settled in order to drive the process to some sort of conclusion. There might be discussion of whether some change to governance or management responsibilities might help or hinder whatever transformation agenda there is. Either before or through the interview process, the Search Committee is encouraged to set forth success metrics for the CEO and his or her staff, because good definitions of success that are embraced and actively supported by the board bring clarity to the search process and attract no-nonsense, outcome-oriented leaders as candidates.
As part of the CEO selection process, it is also important that the board: surfaces possible impediments to the future CEO’s success, openly discusses actions that the board can take to help the new CEO acclimate to the organization, and develop board roles (including board committees) that help the CEO to achieve the organization’s long range objectives.
Such tactics help Search Committee Chairs to shape a CEO/ED search endgame that is purpose-built to deal with uncertainty and that engages finalists suited to driving effective outcomes.
Mark Oppenheim is an unrepentant nonprofit wonk who runs nonprofit search and media organizations.
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