ISO Great Leaders: A Guide to Successful CEO Searches

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This article first appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.

What would happen if your CEO resigned tomorrow?

If your organization is like most others, you probably don’t have a succession plan in place, let alone a capable replacement in the pipeline.

Fortunately, organizations typically receive more than 24 hours’ notice. But regardless of how much time they have, the point still holds: nonprofit boards are generally ill-prepared for their CEO’s departure. In fact, in a 2015 survey of nonprofits, researchers at Stanford University found that over two-thirds (69 percent) lack succession plans, a shockingly high figure given that every CEO inevitably leaves office.

The challenge is even more acute in the Jewish world. Over the next few years, the vast majority of Jewish nonprofits will need to hire new CEOs. These leaders, in turn, will set the direction of their organizations for the next decade or more. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the Jewish community depends on our ability to ensure that the best candidates are placed in these vitally important roles, and then both enabled and empowered to succeed.

Leading Edge, an organization focused on building a robust leadership pipeline for Jewish nonprofits, has just released a CEO Search Committee Guide that lays out best practices for CEO searches and applies them to the Jewish nonprofit sector. It was prepared for Leading Edge by Eben Harrell, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, a publication dedicated to using best-in-class research to improve the practice of management and leadership. The guide distills the most important elements of a search and presents them in a practical and accessible way, serving as a foundation from which boards can conduct searches with the greatest chances of success.

Over the years, I have been involved in executive searches for many important Jewish organizations and almost always found the process quite challenging. The Leading Edge guide contains a number of suggestions and recommendations that I wish my search committees had known – and followed – at the time:

  1. Most organizations employ an unstructured, conversation-style interview process. While that may allow for organic discussions, research shows that unstructured interviews are essentially useless and lead to unwitting discrimination, since interviewers tend to have more favorable impressions of candidates who resemble themselves. On the other hand, a structured process that requires the assessors to score each answer has numerous benefits, most notably the ability to compare a range of candidates using the same criteria. Unfortunately, structured interviews are rare in the Jewish nonprofit sector.
  2. It takes time to perform a search process well. In fact, most experts recommend that boards plan for a CEO hiring process to take four to six months. That will give the board sufficient time to surface qualified candidates, perform proper due diligence, and make an informed choice. The search committees responsible for the process should be comprised of five to eight people, and ideally should not include the current board chair, staff, or the incumbent CEO.
  3. Most Jewish nonprofits prefer to hire external candidates. But in the for-profit realm, the majority of companies fill CEO vacancies with candidates from their own ranks. Research shows that internal CEOs generally perform better and remain longer than outsiders. This fact underscores the need to do more to develop our internal leadership teams so that organizations have an existing pipeline of talent to consider when the time comes.
  4. A common pitfall when crafting a position description for a new CEO is to dump every desirable quality into a job profile – leading to job postings that one search consultant described as the “Messiah section of the classified pages.” Search committees should do evaluative work before crafting the job description to determine the specific skills they believe the new CEO must possess, what can be assigned to others on the executive team, and what can be developed over time.

There are many more great insights contained within the CEO Search Committee Guide. It delves into best practices for developing the search committee, building the applicant pool, screening the candidates, conducting structured interviews, rating the candidates, and closing the deal. It also helps answer key questions, such as whether to engage a search firm, what role the outgoing CEO should play in the search, and how to reduce unconscious bias in the interview process. I encourage every organization to include the guide as part of its board orientation process and refer to it again when a search becomes necessary.

Leadership transitions are a time of great opportunity and great risk for organizations; a successful search can catapult the group to the next level and a bad hire can set it back for years. That is why even the most seasoned boards should seek support with their searches, and make sure their processes are as strategic and objective as possible.

By adhering to the principles outlined in the guide, boards will give themselves the best chance to conduct successful searches. They will emerge from the process stronger and led by able executives who, with proper oversight and support, will shape the Jewish community in a positive direction for years to come.

To download the CEO Search Committee Guide, visit: leadingedge.org/lay-leadership-initiative/

Sanford “Sandy” Cardin is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Leading Edge and President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.