Searching for Mr. or Ms. Right

I have a friend who works as the second-in-command at a very small nonprofit. Her longtime and very effective executive director is retiring, and the board is searching for a replacement. I asked my friend if she was nervous about the transition, and she expressed not the slightest worry. She has faith in the board and feels confident that things will work out well.

If I were in my friend’s shoes, I’d be much less calm and trusting. Even the best board makes mistakes in executive searches. Interviews and references and resumes might give every indication of a good match – and then the reality turns out to be very different.

It strikes me that disastrous picks often occur when search committees focus on credentials, rather than on the core issues of maturity, intelligence, and character. This is not to say that credentials don’t matter – obviously, they do – but degrees and experience are not necessarily an indicator of the skills and attitude required in a leader.

Leaders who lack maturity and confidence tend to make it all about themselves. They dictate rather than listen; they talk down to staff, rather than seeking input; and they set goals and create systems of external rewards rather than inspiring the staff to motivate themselves.They hog the glory. They like to surround themselves with yes-people. Good people flee.

In other cases, a leader lacking maturity and confidence will try to please everyone, will equivocate, will refuse to make the hard decision. Here too, the organization fails. I am struck by how quickly bad leaders can ruin a healthy organizational culture. It doesn’t take more than a few weeks. A few days, even.

Of course, new leadership can have an equally dramatic positive effect. I know of a small public library where a dictatorial and erratic director was succeeded by a sensitive, thoughtful, and empowering director. I happened to be in the building one day about six weeks into the new director’s term, when an elderly man came in. After conversing for a minute or two with the staffer at the front desk, he said. “My! This is a friendlier place now! Things have really changed! I love it!” What’s notable about the story is that this man who could sense instantly that it was a happier, better place was blind.

I’m not usually one to recommend TED Talks, but Dan Pink’s presentation on motivation in the workplace is a good one. Pink gives evidence to show that the greatest motivator for workforce productivity and satisfaction is providing employees with a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Not an end-of-year bonus or a birthday party or a special parking spot or permission to dress casually on Fridays. No gimmicks required. It mostly boils down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Or, in a word, respect.

This resonates with my experience. When I was a young executive director, I was an ineffective micromanager. I remember the relief (mine, and everyone else’s) when I evolved into a more respectful and empowering boss. This transformation came about after what was essentially an intervention from the people I supervised – and I’m grateful to them to this day for having the courage to tell me the truth about my disastrous management style. I have also experienced the highs and lows of being led by others: the excitement of working for people who trusted and supported me and let me call the shots, and the dispiriting feeling of being second-guessed and disrespected and patronized and hobbled.

I have yet to meet anyone in a nonprofit leadership position who is not well-intentioned. The question is, does a particular person have the maturity and character and intelligence to lead, trust, and encourage? Or will that person feel threatened by competence and initiative?

How does a search committee avoid making the wrong choice? Well, there’s no sure way. But let’s say the candidate spends a lot of time talking about how she shook up her last place of employment, how she was a force for change, how she cleared out the dead wood. A lot of people may see strength and moxie in that kind of attitude, but in fact it may be a warning sign, depending on whether that last place truly needed to be changed, and whether there was dead wood that in fact needed clearing. Another tip may be the language she uses. Possessive pronouns can be so revealing. If I hear someone referring to “my staff,” as opposed to “our team,” I run for cover.

But there’s honestly no way to know for sure. And so it’s important for the search committee to explain in the interview and hiring process that the organization values collaboration, staff participation in decision-making, and a free exchange of ideas. The search committee should make clear that there is an annual executive review process, and it should emphasize that as part of the review the board will seek the staff’s input. This clarity may help bring out the best in the new executive, and it sets up the board to act upon problems if they arise.

I wish my friend the very best. Let’s hope she’ll land a great boss, one who respects her institutional knowledge, who works together with her and the rest of the staff to understand the organization and to plan the best new path. And if not – well, the penalty for a search committee choosing the wrong person… is having to do it all over again. That’s a good bit of incentive to get it right the first time.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “Searching for Mr. or Ms. Right”

  1. What a wonderful post, Al. I only wish that more boards truly understood their needs and searched accordingly. I recently came across a leadership position posting whose first qualification was “sound judgment.” Everything else came after it and very little of the requirements were for experience with specific software or degrees in particular fields. I found it bracingly refreshing.

    1. Thanks for the terrific and generous comment, Michele! Yes — who can argue with the need for sound judgment?

      Since posting this I’ve heard from several folks about how they regretted ignoring their intuition during the search process. Also, people have written about the need to have a diverse committee, so that very different folks can get a sense (and I mean that literally) for the candidate.

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