Choosing an association’s next executive is one of the most important decisions that a Board of Directors will make. If you are the outgoing executive, you may not (and probably should not) have a say in who will be the next executive. However, you can make it easier for your board to hire the next executive if you develop a succession plan. Recently, Mark Graham of CEO Update has noted that CEO turnover is accelerating. The recession is slowly lifting and some executives are retiring after delaying the process for a few years. Given that more executives may now be leaving their jobs, an organization needs to be prepared to hire a new executive.
A good succession plan will outline a process for choosing a new executive. It will outline who will serve as interim, whether that interim is internal or external, whether a search firm will be employed to help with the search and who among the board members will serve on the search committee. If an outside interim or search firm is the method by which a new executive will be chosen, then some suggestions for names of firms will be outlined in the document. Also, the manual should really be an operations guide for the organization and include information and time lines on various aspects of the association.
Especially with the loss of a long-term executive, it is important that the organization take time to re-evaluate or update its strategic plan and look strategically at what type of leader is needed for the organization given the phase of the organization. For example, is the organization in a period of restructuring and does it need someone who is able to be a turnaround specialist? Or has the organization been doing well but needs a new bold direction and therefore is looking for a visionary? Hiring a new executive should be viewed as an opportunity to move the organization forward and in a new direction.
Here are some suggestions for having a more successful search:
- Don’t rush the search. This is the most important decision an organization will make and if the wrong leader is chosen it can be the most costly mistake that an organization can make. Not only will there be costs associated with redoing a search, but there are also many opportunity costs.
- It is best to hire an outside interim so the organization can take time to re-evaluate its strategic plan and determine the best type of leader for the organization. Hiring an internal interim for any more than a few months can be extremely detrimental even if that person chooses not to be considered for the job. When a new executive comes in, you may lose a very good staff member. Or if the internal interim applies for the executive director position and does not get it, he or she may leave.
- Try and avoid hiring someone in the industry, profession and field. Hire someone with association management experience. It is a bonus if someone knows the industry and is an association executive but there is plenty of expertise about the industry, profession or field on the board and among other volunteers. Encourage the board to search for someone with a CAE.
- It may be beneficial to hire a search firm to conduct the search. They can, however, help the search committee navigate many human resource issues and can be invaluable in helping interview candidates and determine if the candidates really are qualified to do the tasks at hand. However, interview the search firms carefully and make sure the one you choose is the right fit for the organization and understands the nonprofit sector. Avoid search firms that use their list of possible candidates for the position without advertising for it. There are plenty of places to advertise the position including in CEO Opportunities, with the local association executive society (like ISAE) and with ASAE.
- A search firm can also help you develop an employment agreement for the new CEO.
- Avoid hiring either a clone of the current executive or the exact opposite. Again, take stock of where the organization is and what is needed in that point of the organization’s history.
- Re-examine the job description for the executive director and determine if it needs to be changed. Determine what skills are most important and hire accordingly.
- After hiring the new executive, you might think about hiring a coach or having the interim stay on for a month or so the new executive becomes acquainted with the staff and all the organization’s procedures and programs. Also, it is helpful to have a committee of the board work with the executive to better understand the culture and various relationships of the organization.
For further reading:
Allison M. Into the fire: boards and executive transition. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, (12(4), 2002), 341-51.
Cook, J. Where to find your next executive. Associations Now (November 2011).
Elder-Van Hook, J. How to welcome your new executive. Associations Now (April 2011).
Finley, K. M. What’s wrong with executive succession in associations? Journal of Association Leadership (Spring 2009), 50-73.
Hinden, D. R. and Hull, P. Executive leadership transition: what we know. The Nonprofit Quarterly (Winter 2002), 24-29.
Johnson, E.M., Five musts for employment agreements. Associations Now (December 2012).