The Hunt for Red October: How to Find a Great Executive Director

I love movies and one of my favorite movies is The Hunt for Red October adapted from Tom Clancy’s bestselling book.  You remember it – Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris and James Earl Jones.  The plot is about the search for a submarine equipped with a stealth propulsion system that makes detection by sonar extremely difficult.  Hiring an Executive Director can feel like a difficult hunt but if the right steps are taken – this journey for a Board of Directors can turn into a great fit for all.  In North Carolina and in the nation the turnover rate for Executive Directors continues to be high moving every three to six years.

The board is responsible for hiring an Executive Director and finding a skilled leader to implement the organization's mission, vision and strategic plan.  Whether the search process is initiated voluntarily or involuntarily, managing the departure of an Executive Director or President and the recruitment and hiring of a new leader is a complicated process that requires months of work. The transition might fail because of a bad fit between the new executive and the organization or because the board didn’t prepare itself to work effectively with its new President. These failures can be very costly to the organization.  Direct costs of a “hunt” include advertising, consulting fees and relocation expenses. Nonprofit boards need to take advantage of this important transition as it could create an opportunity to move the organization in a new direction or growth model.  

I’m also a big fan of Penelope Burk and her books on philanthropy.  Burk says each hire should be part of an organization’s net profit strategy and nonprofits should maximize their return on investment after orientation and a probationary period.  The Board of Directors needs to discuss and agree on a process for the search.  The board should recruit a search committee of board members and possibly non board members.  The search committee meets to discuss the skills and experience needed in an Executive Director. The skills and experience dictates the salary range and benefits offered.  The committee should also decide how wide a net to cast and whether the organization is willing to pay for relocation expenses.  The search committee can ask for input from board members, staff and other stakeholders.  Depending on the size of your organization and the length of notice given by the outgoing Executive Director, the board may need to appoint a current staff member as an Interim Executive Director or hire an Interim Executive Director. A board member should meet with the outgoing Executive Director to learn about important upcoming events, deadlines and where needed files are kept. The board should decide who should take care of check signing, staff requests and media communication during the transition.  Funders and key stakeholders will appreciate being told personally of the transition rather than reading about it in the paper or through social media.  When an Executive Director announces their departure:

  • The board should create a plan and communicate it to the staff, funders, stakeholders and organizational partners;
  • If a succession plan is not in place, the board can recruit or name an Interim Executive Director;
  • Create a search committee;
  • Identify what skills and knowledge is needed in a new Executive Director;
  • Hire a search firm to conduct the search;
  • Create an onboarding plan;
  • Make an offer; and,
  • Ensure orientation, the onboarding plan and any coaching takes place during the first six months.

The best way to “hunt” for a great Executive Director is to create a succession plan.  Senior managers can be trained by the existing Executive Director by being involved in key projects, strategic planning, mentoring, and coaching and leadership development opportunities. It is very important for boards to spend some time reflecting on what they would do if, or when, the Executive Director leaves. There are many examples of an Executive Director leaving and the organization falls into disarray, donors withdraw support and other key staff members leave due to lack of leadership. Finding a great Executive Director takes time, a clear plan and patience.

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