Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thoughts on Hiring Key Staff

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………."

I think we often prioritize the wrong things in our quest to search for the best leadership for our organizations.

There is a maxim carpenters use:  'Measure twice, cut once' - meaning that to be safe you need to measure any piece of wood you are going to cut two times before you make your cut.  I can, based on personal experience, testify that this is good advice. Many times I did not follow that advice and had to re-cut to get it right.  One learns over time to be cautious.

It occurs to me that we ought to follow the same line of reasoning when we conduct interviews for our most important senior staff hires.  We need to conduct two interviews for those positions.  But for the most part no one does that.  We cull down the list of candidates and then we interview the finalists.  Once.  Both interviewees and interviewers can have off or on days, both of which may create an inaccurate impression.  Making such an important decision on one single interview seems ill advised.  It's possible to right candidate may be one that we dismiss and reject based on a single interview, when a second interview might give us a much better picture of their qualifications and whether or not they might be a good fit in our organization.  And I think this makes sense even if we engage a Search Firm and they have already done one (or more) interviews.  It might also make sense to have at least some different people doing the interview so as to get other impressions.

And on the flip side, a candidate might have a single brilliant interview, but might, in fact, turn out not be the best fit for us.  I think it incumbent on us to do that second interview to validate whatever conclusions we came to based on an initial interview.  And to get a better sense of whether or not the person we like is actually the person we think they are.  Having been in the position to make critical hires over my career, I know that to a degree, a final decision is often a crap shoot - guess work - and sometimes it turns out right, and other times it turns out wrong - very wrong.

The higher up the staff rung, the more critical is the decision.  Choosing a new Executive Director or comparable CEO is quite possibly the single most important decision a Board can ever make.  Relying on a single interview is risky.

It also occurs to me that our whole approach to finding the best candidate for our leadership might benefit from re-thinking.  I have come to the conclusion that turning the whole thing over to a Search Firm is NOT always the responsible thing to do - unless you do everything possible to help that firm help you.  While Search Firms have a valuable role to play in the process - and can save us time and yield us good results due in part to their experience in that process, simply ceding the responsibility to an outside source  - and expecting they will (or can) do it all for us - may just be an abrogation of our own responsibility to be more intimately involved at all stages of looking for someone to helm the ship.  It may just be too easy to say:  "let's get a good search firm and that will insure we do this thing right." And I think that happens far too often.

First of all, not all firms are equal.  Some are good, some very good, many others are just so-so, and some are virtually worthless.  A good firm ought to help with a situational analysis in painting an accurate picture of where the organization is on a host of fronts.  Only with an accurate picture of the real challenges it faces, can you identify the skills and qualifications you need in a hire.  How much time do we spend vetting those firms before we engage one?  How often is the decision simply that someone recommends a firm, and we just then go out and hire them.  That seems risky to me.

Second, there is no way a Search Firm can possibly know your organization from the inside, and without that perspective the search itself is quite possibly flawed from the outset.  A good Search Firm will try to get background on the organization, but that effort will be constrained by time, cost and the fact that many organizations may be, for a variety of reasons, hesitant to share a full disclosure of their situation, particularly financial matters - and, let's face it, a lot of organizations don't themselves face directly all their problems and the causes thereof.  That's assuming the organization even knows all the root causes of any problems it faces.  A lot of organizations do not.  If the organization is not painfully honest with itself, there is little the search firm can do to fully know what to look for in a candidate.  Every decision we make in the process of finding our leaders is critical. We need to get more involved and we need to be more honest.

We might also more frequently consider both promotions from within, and searching in related fields, outside of the nonprofit arts.

Several years ago I wrote a satirical blog on the typical "job description" you see in the arts - which in our field is symbolic and representative of all our job descriptions  -- unrealistic and often inaccurate portraits of the Messiah we all seem to be looking for.  It's a joke.  We need to paint a much more realistic description of the real challenges facing those we hire.  And we need to much more realistically and accurately delineate the kinds of skills we are really in search of.  The point at which a key position becomes vacant ought to signal to the organization that they need to take a long hard look at what is going right, and what is going (gone) wrong and assess very specifically what is needed in the replacement hire, but very often we don't do that either.  We create an inaccurate picture in our own minds as to what we are looking for, gloss over the mistakes made, live in a somewhat fantasy world, and in being so cavalier about the challenge, we do a tremendous disservice to our own organization's future.

Back to the building trades analogy, professional house painters will tell you that painting the house is relatively easy and quick.  The hard and time consuming work is in the preparation.  And it is that preparation that is key to a satisfactory result - a professional result.  The same is true in our candidate searches.  Once the self-assessment is done so as to determine with specificity the kind of qualities, skills and experience you are really looking for (or should be), and by inference what is not necessarily needed in a candidate, the search and decision itself need not be nearly as time consuming as we make it.  I know of numerous searches in our field that take a year or longer.  That's unhealthy for the organization, puts undue pressure on the existing staff and interim leadership, puts the organization in an unfortunate limbo, and, quite frankly, is irresponsible.

Much of the due diligence in determining, before the process starts, of what you are looking for really ought to start before the key person leaves (whether voluntarily or involuntarily).  And unless people are burying the head in the sand, more often than not, you know when a change looms on the horizon.

At the very least, I would urge everyone - at least for new Executive Director level hires - to spend a lot more time in preparation for the search.

So please consider that the essence of a good search is first and foremost in searching for the keys to where your organization is currently (and for the future) at, what you need, and how you might best find what you need.  And the critical element is honest self-assessment.  When you settle on a couple of potential candidates, don't make the final decision based on a single interview.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit