Letting go is our greatest obstacle in overcoming human nature. We covet what is familiar and often cling to relationships, ignoring the need for their evolution. We do this with our parents, our children, our possessions, and even our business practices. However, at some point, every organization, if it is going to continue to operate, has to undergo a leadership change. In the non-profit sector, it is especially challenging for founders to accept their outgoing transition.
I just wrapped up a 12-month turnaround project for an Oakland, CA, based non-profit that was founded in 1995. I was responsible for increasing revenue, expanding the organization’s territory, and securing a permanent executive director to succeed the founder. Securing a competent and effective new leader is the most important activity in your organization. Here are 8 key tips to ensure you get the right person:
1. Develop a rewritten plan for your succession process
You probably already know that you should have a business plan for your organization. You need to know your market, think through your projections, and understand how technology plays into meeting the needs of your customers. There is no substitute for actually having this written and easily accessible. Making the most important hire of your organization’s existence is no exception. Your succession plan at the very least should have these 4 components:
• Timeline (include Month, Deliverable, Owner, Completion Status)
• Candidate Sourcing Strategy and Posting Locations (include Channel (i.e. web), Resource (i.e. ndeed.com), Owner, Completion Status)
• Complete Job Description
2. Promote from within whenever possible
If it is at all possible, choose a successor from within your organization. There are two key reasons for this. First, hiring from within secures the institutional knowledge. You do not have to worry about someone learning and adopting the organizational culture or spending precious time getting up to speed on the operations and crucial relationships. Second, hiring from within is good for overall morale. It shows other team members that their work and input is valued and that their loyalty will be rewarded.
3. Do NOT hire a search firm (most times)
This is going to get me blacklisted, I’m sure.
The only organizations that should engage external search firms are those that are in complete disarray, but have substantial financial resources, which is sort of an oxymoron. Perhaps, only foundations would potentially qualify for this? A good search firm will easily run you $20K-$40K for a leadership role. If you have that money readily available, then great, but much of the work I have laid out in this blog post should really be done by you (or a team of your staff). No matter how good the search firm is, they will need to book a fair amount of your time to extract the same details from you. You will still need to conduct at least 2 rounds of interviews after they are done. Save the money and just do it internally.
4. Anchor your candidates
When posting your search online, you should post a specific compensation amount. Do NOT post a range. Why do people post ranges? Do you think this great, amazing candidate you are seeking is going to say, “I deserve less than the top quadrant”?
Posting a specific amount will not stop your candidate from trying to negotiate, but it will anchor her/him to the ballpark of your choosing. Any negotiation expert will tell you that the person who throws out the first price leads the conversation of the negotiation.
Whatever your budgeted amount for the role, you should post it at a discount of 12%-18%. For example, if the role is intended to pay $100K in your budget, consider posting it at $84K.
Anchoring is also great, because it filters out candidates who require compensation beyond your budget. If she/he sees you are posting a role at $87K, then she/he should be savvy enough to know that asking for $110K or more is out of the question.
In addition, avoid posting amounts that end in “0” or “5” (i.e. $90K, $95K, etc.). It gives the appearance that your process for establishing that amount was not very rigorous or analytical. Even if that is true, you do not want your candidate to know that. Furthermore, never post your amount at $99K or $98K. Those figures give the impression that you wanted to post $100K and tried to come in slightly under. No one is falling for it.
5. Make your job description short
I am continually baffled by how poorly organizations create and post job opportunities. The first and biggest cardinal sin is the “long” explanation of your organization. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO THIS! You are hiring for a seasoned professional. If she/he has any merit as a viable candidate, she/he will go to your website and rigorously research the organization. Instead, create a 4-6 sentence overview of the organization for your job description.
6. Be as transparent as possible
This should also go without saying.
In a recent posting I read for a leadership role at a small organization in New York City, the description of the ideal candidate included, “Must be a nice person”. This stuck with me. It spoke volumes about the personality they were seeking and the culture of the organization.
7. Use a deliverable project to evaluate your best candidates
I learned this from Teach For America. Lots of people can interview well. They can say the right thing, come across as charismatic, and bring the right network to the table. However, this really does not show you how they think or how they work on a day to day basis. Gaining prior work samples and checking references is not enough. You want to figure out a way to simulate and critique their management style. The deliverable project exercise can accomplish this for you. Even better, you can take 2 seemingly comparable candidates and see how they match up to each other when everything else is set aside.
8. Create a thoughtful hurdle for applying
Yes, if your job posting is posted on mainstream channels like indeed.com of idealist.org, you will receive lots of applicants. However, you can narrow the field by having strict instructions for applying (i.e. requiring all submissions be consolidated into 1 document). In addition, I advise you to request for four items:
• Cover Letter
• Writing Sample
• List of 3 references including contact details
Happy hunting and remember to trust in your process!
(Charon Darris is currently the Interim Executive Director for OTX West, a non-profit with a 20+ year history of addressing the digital divide in Oakland, California. Prior to joining OTX West, Darris spent 15 years in the private sector, with the later years as a nationally recognized, top performing, and award winning business development executive and strategic leader. He is a 2012 Network Journal 40 Under Forty honoree.)