The board selects the chief executive, and this hiring decision is the most significant decision a board makes. The chief executive is the one person whose abilities and talents will either make or break your organization. Care in the search, selection, and supervision of the chief executive are the major responsibilities of a board of directors. When the previous executive departs, it is an opportunity to step back and assess the state of the organization — before beginning the search. To determine the impending needs and future challenges moving forward, the board should look at:

  • Strategic goals
  • Programmatic needs
  • Constituency support
  • Financial situation
  • Prior and future leadership requirements

Once the organizational assessment has been completed, the board is then ready to prepare a profile of desired characteristics. Criteria need first be established regarding the characteristics as well as the qualifications considered most desirable in the chief executive. It is extremely important to define what you need before getting into personalities; once you focus on particular candidates, it is difficult to be objective. In addition to a description of the desired competencies, character, personality, and experience expected in the next chief executive, a position description is developed. This differs from a standard job description, as it highlights what the board expects the chief executive to accomplish, how the position relates to the board and elaborates the specific duties and expectations of the role. And then, adequate time must be provided for the process if you expect to get a winner.

The next step involves forming a search committee that manages the entire recruiting process. Depending on your organization’s size, complexity, and resources, some boards use an executive search firm. If you are not using a search firm, a staff coordinator is essential to the work of the search committee, as they manage the logistics of the search, create candidate files, respond to applicants, and organize the interviews. Serious consideration should also be given to the framework of the interviews and the thoroughness of reference checks.

Our experience is that most outstanding chief executives did not apply directly for the job, but were encouraged confidentially to apply. Contacting a broad group of people who can identify good prospects is the primary way to generate candidates with demonstrated competencies. In determining the best candidates, it is critical that serious contenders understand the present state of the organization. Any serious problems regarding such key matters as financial condition or prospective funding need to be disclosed to the leading candidates before a final hiring decision is made. A new chief executive will discover them very quickly anyway and may otherwise feel that they have been misled. We have seen organizations lose this key person as a result.

Because the role of the chief executive is so central to the success of your nonprofit, those charged with the hiring process must be prepared to negotiate adequate compensation and consider incentives to attract the really desirable candidate. Care should be taken in presenting a written offer, following a verbal offer. Once hired, the board chair should help ease the new chief executive through the transition period. How the board begins building their professional relationship during this stage has a lot to do with your new leader’s long-term success. Appointing a chief executive is truly a key task for any board.