Rationale and considerations when designing your ED search

If you’ve ever been on a nonprofit Board during an ED transition, one of the first questions you are likely to tackle is whether and how staff members should be involved in the search.  At Clover Search Works, we get asked about this a lot, and we do have a point of view!  So, I’m sharing the advice we give to our clients when it comes to engaging staff teams in an Executive Director search, and the reasoning and rationale behind it. 

Why include staff?

The vast majority of organizations are clear that the job of hiring the Executive Director rests firmly in the Board’s job description as one of their essential fiduciary duties. The final decision of who is hired is the Board’s. That said, staff members can play a critical role in an executive search because they are so familiar with the organization’s work, and its culture, on the ground level. While the ground level is not the only important perspective to have when conducting a search, without that perspective it is easier to place a leader in the job who turns out to be the wrong fit.  

While ED transitions can be taxing on both Board and staff teams, staff teams tend to feel stress about this in a way that board members don’t because staff are confronting the uncertainty for 40+ hours a week for multiple months. Staff members can feel vulnerable about the Board, who they may not know well (or at all), making decisions that will impact their lives so hugely.  We’ve also found that candidates want to meet the staff during the search, and often interpret staff engagement as an indicator of trust, collaboration, and general organizational health. 

For all these reasons, when designing a search process we recommend proactively and explicitly engaging and utilizing staff expertise in a way that is beneficial to both the process and end result. 

At the outset, get clear about how your hiring decision(s) will be made

At the outset of any organizational process, it’s always a good idea to get clear on how decisions will be made.  This is especially true in ED searches, where anxiety about the future can lead to confusion, misunderstanding, or mistrust between nonprofit Boards and staff teams. Typically, when an ED search is at its very beginning stages, the Board forms a search committee whose job it is to do the heavy lifting of the search process, including deciding who to interview, conducting the interviews, deciding who to advance as finalists, and formulating a hiring recommendation to the Board (often with the support and facilitation of a search firm like Clover!)

Decisions about who gets to sit on the search committee and whether staff will have a say or be represented are all important decisions that should be made intentionally, carefully, and transparently from the beginning. Clarifying how decisions will be made and having a clear rationale for who gets to be involved is an important way to maintain a high degree of integrity and trust in the process and experience the least amount of drama and turmoil.

With clarity on how decisions will be made and the role of a search committee, the next big question is: “Should we have staff on our search committee?” 

Should staff be, or not be, on the search committee?

We almost always recommend having a staff member sit on the search committee.  There are other ways to engage staff in an ED search, which are outlined at the end of this article, but simply put, a staff member brings a staff person’s perspective of what’s needed and they tend to have the clearest picture of what it’s really like to work there. We’ve found that staff teams have greater trust in and less anxiety about a search when they know their perspective is being represented and considered in the recruitment and interviewing phases of a search, and we believe final hiring decisions are better when a staff member has been part of the search committee deliberations. 

That said, it’s worth thinking through the common and understandable concerns that accompany having staff on a search committee.  It’s not uncommon for Board members to express fear and worry:

  • Is it even appropriate? This is a board decision!
  • Can we be candid with a staff member in the room about what we need in an ED that may be different from the current ED, without sounding disrespectful?
  • What if they don’t agree with who we think is the best person for the job?
  • What if they hear negative things about their future boss?
  • What if they don’t keep our discussions confidential?

These are very real, and important to address head-on.  It is absolutely true that a staff member on a search committee will be part of conversations that require discretion during and after the search is over.  For staff, it can be hard feeling like you’re “holding secrets” from your colleagues, and it is challenging to be privy to delicate conversations about someone’s leadership deficits. Staff who sit on the committee should expect to be asked numerous times by their co-workers about how the search is going, what they think of the applicant pool, who has applied, etc. 

For these reasons, we advise our clients to choose someone who is mature enough to engage in these kinds of conversations, able maintain confidentiality without fail, and able to keep perspective, remembering they are not there just to represent ‘what the staff want’ but to hold ‘what’s best for the organization’ as well.  In general, we are sticklers for confidentiality – continually reminding all search committee members that all applicant information is held confidentially within the committee and that committee deliberations about candidates are strictly confidential. We encourage and coach committee members to share details about the process and search timeline, but to avoid sharing anything about the applicant pool specifically. 

Special consideration – when you have an internal candidate

Sometimes you know you’ll have an internal candidate from the outset, and sometimes you discover you have one half-way through.  Regardless, this doesn’t change our stance on staff involvement: more often than not we still recommend having a staff person on the search committee.  I won’t lie, it’s trickier.  We spend extra time helping both internal candidates and staff members on search committees carefully navigate the situation.  Emily Anthony wrote an article on including an internal candidate in a search, with lots of helpful insights and advice. 

What we mean by “equal and participating” search committee members

We recommend that staff members who are serving on search committees participate as equals with all other search committee members. That is, we recommend designing a process where Board member viewpoints aren’t more heavily weighted than staff member viewpoints when it comes to discussions and deliberations.  While we recognize the positional power and responsibilities that Board members have in a nonprofit’s hierarchy, creating different “classes” of participation within a search committee invites in an unhealthy power dynamic that can erode trust in the process.  Staff members on search committees are privy to all the input gathered during the process from start to finish, and as such we invite them to dialogue and participate just as other search committee members in the consensus-building process along the way.  We see this as an issue of equity and inclusion, and work to mitigate the ways power and privilege play out in organizational decision making. In a world where nonprofit staff teams tend to be more diverse and representative of the communities being served than Board teams, this is especially important.    

Other ways it’s helpful to include staff in a search

In addition to having a staff member sit on the search committee, there are other ways to engage the rest of the staff team in the ED search process.  Here are some of the ways we typically do it at Clover:

  1. Gather input from the staff to help define your ideal candidate profile. On the front end of your search, seek input from the staff on the background, experience, and leadership qualities they feel are important for the next ED to possess. We often do this via a confidential online survey, key informant interviews, and/or as a group at a staff meeting.  We also do these things with the Board team and other key stakeholders, but don’t forget the staff team, too!
  2. Leverage staff connections during the recruitment phase of the search. The staff team tends to have broad and deep relationships with the personal and professional communities where you’ll be recruiting.  Tap into these networks and ask them to share the announcement far and wide (this means all staff, not just the senior staff or the one staff person who sits on the search committee).  It’s not uncommon for the eventual hire to have first heard about the position from a staff person. In the modern era of job recruitment, the vast distributed networks of board and staff teams, so easily reached through social media channels and followed up with personal outreach, make it possible to reach deep into talent pools that were much harder to reach in the not-so-distant past.
  3. Give the full staff team an opportunity to meet finalists. We like to give staff teams the opportunity to have a ‘meet and greet’ with the top finalists near the end of the process and share their feedback afterwards with the search committee.  This is NOT to ‘vote’ on who they want to hire, but to provide input to the search committee, which considers it, within the context of ALL the other information collected over the course of a search, when formulating its hiring recommendation. Doing this has the added benefit of giving finalists the opportunity to meet the staff (who they would be working with for 40+ hours each week!), which is something they always want to do.
  4. Give the outgoing ED an opportunity to participate. Rarely, if ever, do we recommend the outgoing ED actually sits on the search committee because we find it hampers candid discussions about the search, candidates, and the organization’s needs. However, we do like to ask the outgoing ED on the front-end to share their perspective on what the job is like day-to-day and what they think is most important to be recruiting for in the next ED, and at the tail-end to meet with finalists and share their feedback afterwards with the committee. This meeting is less an interview, and more a conversation, with the added benefit of providing finalists with the opportunity to pick the brain of the outgoing ED – which is something we’ve found all candidates desperately want to do.  The outgoing ED has a really important perspective on what it takes to do the job and search committees do better work with that perspective in the mix. Even if you’re wanting to take the organization in a new direction with the ED transition, unless you’ve fired your ED, ask them to participate in these ways. 

There are lots of considerations when designing an ED search process and figuring out how staff will be involved is an important one.  Spend time on the front end of your search discussing the pros and cons of different approaches, engage staff leadership in exploring what makes sense for your specific organization – based upon the organizational culture and expectations – and communicate clearly about whatever you decide.