Successful Successions

Nonprofit Quarterly, April 2014

Succession from one generation of leadership to the next is a period of opportunity, and risk. Common sense, an inclusive listening tour, frank dialogue that invites all views within the board, and from other key players, and a robust analysis of what the organization needs going forward are the essential ingredients for this process.

But also be aware that many challenging and critical needs can be in plain sight, and still go unaddressed. Why? Because boards and their executive leadership can settle on an equilibrium – accepting or implicitly agreeing to work around fundamental tensions and difficulties, like the frog in a slowly heating pan of water. Sadly, these unspoken challenges can substantially undermine the vision of the organization and the hopeful rhetoric of the search. If they are not addressed in the succession process, they will still be present when the new team is in place. Having missed the opportunity to vet them, they will be that much more entrenched.

Examples of these unspoken challenges are revealed in these stories of our experience recruiting chief executives and their successors for three different organizations. In the first two examples, there was a span of about eight years between the searches. In the third example, it was less than two years, for reasons that are explained. The contrast in what was needed the first and second time around is striking.

These are mostly happy stories. In each case our client was prepared for an unvarnished look at the circumstances that would likely shape the next chief executive’s tenure. As they signaled that readiness and welcomed a frank give and take during the recruiting process, strong candidates stepped forward. Before hiring the new CEO, they were able to establish a common understanding of the challenges they would face together. Those foundations paid dividends in the performance of the organization and the chief executive, sooner or – as shown in the third example – later.

Leveraging a unified board and a favorable funding environment.

Eight years ago we were engaged to recruit the President of a nationally renowned public/private partnership, known for innovation, solid research and an effective, community based service delivery model. The founding President was retiring. She had built a solid foundation, and felt it was time for fresh energy and growth. All in all, it was a stable and happy organization. Most of their funding came from government. The board members were in alignment with the political party in power, and the programmatic agenda dovetailed with the ideology of that party. A large board, which shared a common vision of the organization and its strategies, had fully supported the outgoing President and was disposed to continue with this model of governance.

We recruited a strong and vocal advocate. She was highly skilled at promoting the agenda of the organization, in the media and with funders and community leaders. She was active in partisan politics in alliance with the party in power. The board, which shared her philosophy, granted her considerable license to occupy a visible bully pulpit, and she did it well. The organization prospered and grew during most of her eight-year term. Innovative programming based on solid research and development, and growth, marked her tenure.

More recently the party in power, and the ideology and public policy that shaped this organization’s funding, changed. Board members are appointed by elected officials, and a number of new board members were appointed by the party newly in power. What had been a monolithic board was suddenly no longer so, and the political activism of the President was suddenly a liability. The President retired, and we were engaged to find her successor.

We look back on this placement as a success. The person we recruited was well matched to the needs of the organization – until she wasn’t.

Adapting to partisan conflict and an unfavorable funding environment

When we were invited back eight years later we found a very different set of circumstances. There was growing tension between newly appointed and long-term board members. Long-term board members, and the outgoing President, were angry over what they felt were inappropriate behaviors from the new board leadership. The new board leaders wanted to be fully involved in setting the board agenda, and no longer just accept the agenda proposed by the President. These new board members were meeting with staff to learn about the organization, and were attending conferences and public sessions. Previous board leaders had not been active in this manner and some people saw this activism as crossing the boundary in to the staff role.

The new board leaders supported the vision and mission of the organization. They were intent on protecting and growing the programs, but they wanted to govern in a different way. Depending on whom you spoke with, the new board members were destroying a highly effective system of (staff driven) governance, or they were promoting a rich, board level strategic and policy governance model that would strengthen the organization’s ability to operate in a more partisan political environment.

Our judgment was that the board needed to contend with the issue of board governance as a precursor to and within the chief executive search. Were the new board members overreaching, or were they promoting a different, legitimate approach to board governance? If legitimate, was the new approach the best for the times? The dialogue we led resulted in a common view that the organization needed to present a bipartisan front, but that dialogue also left some key long-term board members worried that the result would be a weak chief executive, with the new board leadership dominating the organization.

As a part of the recruiting process, we introduced our top candidates to this dynamic, somewhat messy dialogue about board governance. Our experience is that hiding issues of this nature imbues them with a power and influence that is harmful and counterproductive. And while some experienced this debate as being about personalities and personal agendas, these issues, in their impact, were about organizational performance and governance.

This topic, and many others like it, has a great deal to do with defining the assignment for the next chief executive. We encouraged open give and take between board members on both sides of the issue with our top candidates. How would they work with the board? What would they, as candidates, want to hear from parties on both sides of the question at hand, and what would their advice be? How would they draw the line between the board role and the chief executive/staff role?

The successful candidate had previously worked effectively with engaged, policy-making boards. She favored a richer and deeper dialogue with the board, but she was also very clear about boundaries. Unlike her predecessor, she brought staff in to that engagement, broadening their skills and stimulating a more substantive staff/board dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, the organization adopted a new strategy for advocacy, fund raising and government relations. Where in the past the President was the face of the organization, now a bipartisan coalition of board members, the President and staff experts would appear together in key forums. In the present circumstances, this is politically and professionally a much stronger strategy for the organization. In the past opponents could attack the President as a partisan, now they are presented with a bipartisan committee of informed citizens (board members), working in concert with staff experts. This is proving to be a powerful force for growth.

The predecessor was a strong and effective President in her time and circumstances; the successor is a strong and effective President in her time and circumstances.

Educating poor board leadership and adapting to changes in funding and the marketplace.

We were first engaged to recruit the chief executive of a large, historically influential and well-endowed urban child and family service organization over eight years ago. We discovered that the agency had run through a series of three-year-term executive directors. While nothing seemed wrong outwardly, the organization presented difficult governance challenges. Board members regularly introduced confusing and contradictory expectations. Some established relationships with staff members in which they acted as managers or advocates within the organization for their favorite programs. Some board chairs considered themselves CEOs and gave direct orders to staff, while others played a more facilitative role. Executive directors, who had been hired primarily for their skills in program and operations, generally reacted by “working” the board–developing relationships one at a time with board members in a piecemeal effort to sustain majority support.

The uneven and unsafe leadership the board presented to the executive director and staff did not lend itself to tracking and adapting to a changing environment. Rather the focus was on adjusting to and accommodating the internal drama presented by this board. Not surprisingly, the organization was not staying current with major changes in the marketplace. The full census the organization had historically enjoyed in its residential programs was shrinking. The organization had not developed a continuum of care, so many graduates of the residential programs moved on to other organizations for community based and follow up support.
What marked this search was the need to confront the boundary-violating behaviors of the board and its impact on the organization’s ability to adapt to a dynamic environment. Some long-term “legacy” board members were of the view that they were the stewards of the organization, and their lengthy service entitled them to guide and even confront staff and weigh in on management and program decisions. Some of these same members were also major donors, which, in part, explained why their overreaching had not been confronted. They had the best of intentions, and they were able to cite a host of bad behaviors and incompetence in staff as justification for their activism.

Our guidance was to agree on the importance of examining uneven staff performance, but also to consider the effect of staff receiving different, sometimes contradictory, directions from the chief executive and board members. Taken together, these were challenges worth introducing into the dialogue with top candidates.

We have learned that hiding these (boundary violating) behaviors gives them a power greater than they deserve. Naming such behaviors, and encouraging top candidates and the board to begin a dialogue about how best to address them, is a constructive exercise. The successful candidate made the case for investing in a clear management structure and team, for providing the board with complete and timely information, being fully accountable and also insisting on well defined boundaries and appropriate board involvement in decision-making.

The person we recruited had a very successful tenure. One reason he was attracted to this opportunity was that the dialogue of the search process demonstrated the willingness of the board to support effective management leadership. He created a strong, well-integrated management team and culture. He helped the board focus on key strategic and policy matters. Under his watch, the organization grew from a $25 million enterprise to an $80 million enterprise through a combination of program development, diversification and acquisitions.

Building on a strong foundation.

When the chief executive we recruited retired, eight years later, we stepped back into an organization that had been transformed. The CEO had built a strong management team. They worked together very well. Decision-making was based on a through review of the data and a robust debate. They trusted one another, they encouraged creativity, they learned from their mistakes. The organization had grown and adapted to market demands. Through mergers and internal growth, they were constantly looking for economies of scale and competitive advantage, while paying close attention to the quality of service and caring values. They were early adaptors of the Sanctuary Model and it was showing strong results.

The CEO had also ‘trained’ the board. He had kept his commitment to bring solid and timely information to them – good news and bad. He helped them focus on the critical, strategic decisions that are best vetted by an informed board. The board truly owned the organization. Everyone understood their role and they helped each other stay in their lane.

The tension as we began the second CEO search was in whether and how we could keep this going. And while it may seem counter intuitive, and perhaps even perverse, our answer was to narrow the scope of the CEO’s assignment.

The “objective” circumstances were that we had a strong, high performing and happy management team and organizational culture. The board was also strong and happy. The board had adapted excellent governance and strategic oversight standards and it wanted to continue to have this type of relationship with another strong and capable chief executive and their team. The organization was prospering. It had finished its growth spurt. The business plan was strong. More growth and change was unlikely. The task ahead was to continue to polish a highly effective program. Status quo, or rather status quo plus, was the call to arms.

The perversity of these circumstances is that there was not the opportunity for growth and change that motivates many leaders. At the same time, all were concerned that a maintainer-type chief executive would not motivate the “search for excellence” standard the organization knew it needed to continue.

And while this may seem like “good trouble”, it was a genuine tension in our effort to find the best candidate.

But this is a happy story.

The person we recruited fit just right. She was (is) a great face for the organization: articulate, a strong communicator and a passionate advocate. She is an experienced fundraiser. She has strong academic credentials and the ability to understand the complex programmatic and clinical issues that are the bread and butter of the organization’s work. But she was not an experienced big-organization manager like her predecessor. While her instincts were good, she didn’t have the time in service, the hands-on experience, or the gravitas that comes with that.

In retrospect, it may appear that we just figured out what kind of person would fit with the organization’s needs and we went out to find that person. But it doesn’t work that way. Our search rhetoric was consistent with what is described above, i.e. we were looking for status-quo-plus. These were truly the “objective” challenges, and we needed to tease them out with candidates in a search process.

Among others, we met with very strong and accomplished executives who were successfully leading other big institutions. Those conversations went flat because they were about change and growth, and we didn’t have that to offer. The match was based on an honest negotiation about the board’s desire for continuity in those parts of the organization that were clearly working. Trust and respect, which may seem like hokey terms, were fundamental to making this work. What we offered the candidate was the following:

“We see that you can be a powerful face for this organization, and we want you out there. We are due for a capital campaign. Work with us to prepare the board and staff for that. You are inheriting a very capable and high performing executive team. While you need to run this organization without our (the board’s) interference, we ask that you embrace this team, at least initially. Count on them to maintain strong performance and account to you. Also, count on us (the board) to not permit ourselves to get between you and them.

Further, with your appointment, we would like to create a small board management committee. We want the committee to work with you and support you quietly, and we want it to be composed of a few experienced managers. We will welcome your suggestions about which members you would like to work with. Our proposal is that you use this committee to review key management questions and decisions that arise in your leadership of the executive team. We hope that through the support of this committee you can climb the learning curve on overall organizational leadership and avoid early mistakes that could interrupt your autonomy as chief executive. We understand that in the final analysis, you need to be in control, so we commit to using this (board management committee) as a safe harbor to achieve that end.”

What mattered here is that we established a frank assessment of the organization’s needs and circumstances from the get-go. As we came to know her as a candidate, and as we were equally frank with her about her possible fit, we had a foundation upon which to build an honest and successful relationship. We celebrated and empowered her leadership and at the same time built a plan for her learning and her growth in a rigorous (and relatively safe) forum in which to hold her accountable. Needless to say, a lot of mutual trust was needed – but we had built that trust in the process and, again, it paid dividends.

And by the way, this happened eight years ago! She has prospered, as has the agency. We hope she won’t get the eight-year itch, but if she does, we will adapt again!

Change is hard.

About five years ago we were engaged to recruit the executive director of a prominent anti-slavery organization. The founders were in various stages of departing. The board had been pretty much hands off (as founder’s boards tend to be). There was a controversial split over two competing agendas within the organization – building programs to demonstrate a viable alternative to culturally embedded slavery practices and confronting supply chain dynamics, or promoting awareness, education and policy reforms in first world countries.

It was quickly evident that the combination of semi-retired founders, a weak board, and this division, was going to be very unattractive to any experienced candidate who had ambition to build the organization. Our advice, which our client accepted, was to first identify a few new board members who had strong subject matter expertise and who were open minded about the debate over the programmatic agenda. With their arrival, and a pledge within the board that this was a moment for the board to assert strong control over the organization, we began our search.

What became clear over the course of the search was that the agenda to “promote awareness, education and policy reforms in first world countries” was not viable. A major funder had originally underwritten this initiative, but the efforts to sustain it through (expensive) media and public events were bleeding the organization – its finances, staff and volunteer time, and opportunity costs. However, there were very vocal and aggressive board members (and one of the remaining founders) who were passionate about the need to continue to invest in this media initiative. The new board members, who brought tremendous insight and skills to the conversation, were inclined towards pulling back on the media program. But as new members, and given the passion of the media program advocates, they were not ready to promote a radical solution.

These issues were in the forefront of the search, as they needed to be. We selected an executive director who we felt could do the analysis needed to later decide on a course of action. Over time she did, and the analysis pointed to what our instincts had suggested. The media program was not viable.

What is hard to capture in this dry rendering is the passion felt on both sides of this issue. There really were two cultures within the organization and board. One was the culture of international development; the other was a Hollywood media culture. One hopes to see strong passion in an organization that is fighting against overwhelming historical and social forces. However, that same passion turned inward can undo an organization. As they say, the revolution eats its children.

The person we recruited lasted about 18 months. Under her watch, the organization made the difficult choice to do away with the media program. But she was badly beaten up in the process. Some of the issues were of her making, but she was also caught up in a period of bitter and toxic recriminations from those who were aggrieved over this dramatic decision. She left.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

We were engaged again by this anti-slavery organization. This part of the story is pretty simple. The decision for the organization to focus on changing culturally embedded slavery practices had been made. This focus was based on well-founded research and best practices. The board was united. The staff, absent the media program staff that had left, was united. What we had to offer was unanimity and a body of research and programs already working that represented a tremendous foundation for growth and impact.

Having made the (objective) case for this new focus, and with an organization in alignment to move in this direction, we were presented with a marvelous slate of candidates – very unlike what we had seen in the first round. The person we chose has been just tremendous. Board, staff and executive director are united in purpose. This organization is on track to achieve its best potential.

I do not see our first search with this group as a failure. (Nor, apparently did they – as they reengaged us). In the first search, we called out the right issues and took positive steps to address what needed to be addressed. We found the best candidates, from a field that (correctly) looked askance at the issues confounding this organization. We laid a solid foundation for more work to be done to set the organization on the right course. Ultimately that work bore fruit. But change is hard.

A chief executive transition is a powerful moment for an organization. At its best, it can be the vehicle for a great leap forward. But it is not uncommon in the course of these transitions to find deep fractures and unmovable opposition to change. As was the case here, naming these fractures and encouraging that they be dealt with openly in this process was the means to a better end. In this instance, it took time and effort. One consequence was the short and difficult tenure of the person who followed the founder. In the end, we stood on her shoulders. She helped create the setting for strong leadership to follow, for a healthy organizational culture and a unified agenda.

The point.

These examples may seem idiosyncratic. To a degree, they are. However, the universal truth that runs though these and all leadership transitions is the tremendous value of honesty. No candidate, no board, no organization is without challenges and limitations. Celebrating our commitments and our values is the first order of business, but then we must run towards whatever will get in the way of achieving those commitments. Honestly sorting out, together, how we will overcome these barriers are both the means and the ends to success.

Ted Ford Webb is a principal at Ford Webb Associates, a leading nonprofit search firm based in Concord, Massachusetts.

Living the Soaps

Non Profit Quarterly 

by Ted Ford Webb

“A problem well defined is half solved.”

–Edwin Herbert Land, inventor of Polaroid instant photography

Editors’ note: One of the more interesting benefits of being an organizational development consultant is the stories you accumulate. They are all full of intentional and unintentional legacies, intrigue, relationship issues, passion, and complexity–like soap operas. This is the stuff of which our organizations are made. When you work with an organization while it is undergoing or wants to undergo a major transition, a good piece of the work is helping the system to understand itself and its position in the world to make well-considered choices out of that understanding. Research findings referred to in the article by Hinden and Hull reinforce the fact that transitions are generally more successful when they are grounded in holistic organizational development work. In this article Ted Ford Webb, a well-known figure in the field of nonprofit executive search, vivifies this important point, beginning with a set of stories about the complexities in executive transitions.


Organizational Form and Intention

A family planning organization prospered under the long tenure of its outgoing president. Her effectiveness as a spokesperson, advocate, and fundraiser transformed the organization from being affiliate-based and decentralized to a more uniform, centrally controlled franchise.

With her departure, the national office staff aspired to continue its dominance and the board of directors, which had been largely controlled by the president, expressed its desire for a more board-centered leadership. The affiliates sought a return to the more varied, grassroots, affiliate-based approach of the past. In addition, there were critical strategic issues pressing on the organization. Should they continue their primary emphasis on reproductive rights advocacy, or should they seek to define themselves as a broad-based health care program for women?

At the time of the search, the board and various other interests had strongly held opinions on these critical questions and with little consensus.

Sustainability of the Administrative Model

A small, economic justice advocacy organization grew successfully under the founder’s effective leadership. His expertise on the issues made him a leading spokesperson in media and public policy forums. His team-building style encouraged rigorous debate and give and take within the organization. The founding board members had a regular presence in the organization, and participated as equals with staff on internal projects and committees. Conflict among staff and board was minimal, due largely to the collaborative style and skill of the founder.

When drafting the job description for the next executive director, the board began to wonder how to diagram the relationships and accountabilities among staff and board, and whether the new executive director was likely to have the moral and intellectual authority of the founder that made it possible to operate with so little hierarchy among the staff and board.

Viability of Board/Executive Partnership

A child welfare organization with a long tradition of service and commitment to children had a series of three-to-five-year term executive directors. While nothing seemed wrong outwardly, the organization presented difficult governance challenges. Board members regularly introduced confusing and contradictory expectations. Some established relationships with staff members in which they acted as managers or advocates within the organization for their favorite part of the program. Some board chairs considered themselves CEOs and gave direct orders to staff, while others played a more facilitative role at the policy level. Executive directors, who had been hired mostly for their skills in program and operations, generally reacted by “working” the board–developing relationships one at a time with board members in a piecemeal effort to sustain majority support.

Faced with external pressures for better performance and accountability, the board sought an executive director who would make this a first class operation. Given the culture and approach of the board, would it be able to attract candidates who could do this?

Philosophy of Practice

A Fortune 500 company had industry-leading profitability and paid uninterrupted dividends throughout the tenure of its retiring CEO. The CEO had built a powerful team of executives and the company grew through acquisitions, technological and workforce innovations, and strategic purchasing. The team culture was one of demanding standards. The board, uniformly pleased with the company’s performance, had been hands-off.

The board came to realize that the next CEO would face a powerful team of executives who exhibited disdain for the regulators who set its rates, had taken an aggressive approach to its rate filings, and had also alienated many of its major ‘captured’ customers.

At the time of the search, regulators proposed a rate increase that would put an end to the high dividends and likely result in an immediate downgrade of the company’s Wall Street rating. The executive team, which had mostly had its way with the board, aggressively demanded a CEO who would fit with their philosophy and approach. Legal counsel thought the company would likely lose any rate lawsuit. The board was not close to these issues.

Does the board select a CEO who concurs with the litigious strategy of the executive team, or does it modify the company’s regulatory strategy, and risk undoing a highly refined plan and possibly losing its senior management team?

In each of these stories, internal situations underlying the search came to light in early dialogue with board and staff members. Inevitably, more complexity, conflict, and contradiction exist than are revealed by formal job descriptions and by-the- (human resources)-book recruiting processes. Ultimately, the new executive director will confront (or be undone by) this complexity and contradiction.

Nonprofit, corporate, and government organizations alike are challenged by the kind of politics illustrated in these examples. A transition process that takes these politics into account is equally powerful and effective in any of them. We know, because we have applied this precept consistently and successfully in all of them. And, conversely in our experience, organizations that haven’t, have consistently had an unpleasant result.

Boards that understand the complexities of their organizations and share these with candidates take a crucial opportunity to clarify direction, among themselves and with their candidates. It is often difficult and uncomfortable for boards to acknowledge internal politics and personalities, but it is helpful to recognize them immediately because the issues never go away by themselves with the mere insertion of a new personality.

In the above examples, as each board explained the organization’s challenges to the candidates, the board exhibited its readiness to engage on the critical issues as well as its capacity to work in partnership with the executive director. Testing the candidate’s ability to engage constructively on volatile, difficult matters within the organization (or board) in the relative privacy of the search process was also a superb technique for evaluating a key criterion for successful leadership.

At a more subtle level, the board’s gesture of directness and truthfulness on the issues, in turn insisting on candor and truthfulness from candidates, laid the foundation for a successful relationship with the chief executive. A relationship of trust and integrity, which all would agree is essential, was begun in the selection process, not after the person was hired.

Overcoming Painful Legacies

Boards and staffs tend to be passionate about avoiding old “mistakes.” An executive transition when they have been unhappy with a current state of affairs often drives them to seek an apparently quick fix to resolve the pain and take care of the “problem.” Without a complete understanding of how the whole system works, this can lead to a seesawing effect and rapid repeat transitions or a general lack of focused progress.

We recently recruited the president of a large state university. The outgoing president had successfully promoted the university’s growth, though was Machiavellian in his tactics. He had been careful to limit the autonomy and authority of his provost and senior managers, manipulated the faculty, and limited the information shared with the board. The university’s growth had enabled him to evade each group’s percolating issues.

With his departure, all were passionate about correcting what he had done to them. The board wanted to maintain the pace of fundraising; managers were concerned about chronically weak managerial leadership; the faculty, understandably angry, insisted the next president be scholarly–“one of theirs, for a change.” Each group had good reasons to feel righteous about their needs. Each group had their (righteous, and contradictory) definitions of the most desirable primary skill and orientation of the next president–fundraiser, manager, scholar.

Two of the most serious mistakes a board can make are: (1) to opt for the opposite of a leader who is seen as having failed, at least in the latter portion of his/her tenure; or (2), if there is something about the current leader that is highly valued, to try to replicate it. For instance, they might have selected another fundraising-focused president. If the faculty’s concerns were not recognized, discontent would build. The new president–who knows he/she has been chosen by the board for his/her fundraising skills–might tend to discount other portions of the job as less important or might not have the skills or orientation to work with them, worsening the situation considerably.

In this particular case, board members, faculty, administrators, and alumni, on reflection, recognized that their circumstances were a logical outgrowth of the leadership technique of the outgoing president–even as they celebrated his notable success and highly skilled performance in leading the university to growth and prosperity. In examining their discontents openly, all parties concluded that most leadership styles have their upsides and downsides and that what they needed to look for was balance; then they were able to come to terms in selecting the next president.

There is also something else, perhaps less obvious, which makes this approach very effective. For a board or a board/staff search committee, coming together and acknowledging hard felt issues and differences of opinion among themselves, and then putting the burden of constructively addressing those issues onto the candidates, can be a cleansing and cathartic act.

The Search

Prescriptions and formulas don’t work in executive search.

We reached out to people most likely to have all the skills and knowledge necessary to negotiate such a search effectively–a military commander, a former governor, a fundraising-oriented college president, a university vice president for administration, an eminent scholar and researcher, a provost, and sitting university presidents. They suggested different analyses and approaches. Ultimately, the successful candidate offered the best solution to address the complexity and contradiction (and opportunity) inherent in the position. The board made a better decision by virtue of being able to draw from a variety of approaches.

Attracting Stronger Candidates

The system dynamics in these situations are such that the strong president is usually followed by a weak president. Why? The field of stronger (potential) candidates, typically sitting presidents in other universities, will recognize when the organization is not reconciling tensions and will decline candidacy. The weaker field–those who do not understand these dynamics, or who are prepared to take their chances in order to rise to the presidency–will apply.

By definition, they are less well equipped to reconcile these tensions, so they tend to have a short, unhappy tenure, and in a sense their failure clears the way for the next president to be successful. That’s how it usually works.

In this instance, our client, the board, recognized they had to resolve these issues. This university was operating in a tremendously competitive environment, and it needed a strong president to follow a strong president. To every candidate we said, in effect, “Please come and work with us to find a solution.”

The honesty of this approach had a potent effect. A number of sitting university presidents became candidates, and stated quite clearly that they would not have, had we not been clear about our resolve to address these issues.

This medium is the message, and any overture to a candidate that does not acknowledge the elephant in the room implies that the organization is not going to engage on these problems. The wiser candidates will see that, if not initially, then eventually. (If they don’t, they are not the wiser candidates.)

The circumstances I have described are particularly transparent in a university president search, where everyone has an opinion and readily shares it through the grapevine. But insights of this nature are generally knowable in almost any chief executive search.

Reality-Based Search

The instinct of organizations, and boards, is to avoid that which causes the most discomfort, even what is often the most vital to success. We have found a consistent pattern over the course of hundreds of chief executive searches in the nonprofit and public sectors, and with publicly held and private companies. It is the nature of organizations to produce these contradictions, and it is the obligation of boards to address them.

Realize experienced leaders in any field recognize there are challenges in every organization, and generally have a good idea of what they can be.  If they are close to the operations of a given organization, they often have an exact sense of the issues. They are not shocked to learn that these issues are present.

In our experience, they are only shocked when an organization has used the executive transition to step back and reflect and analyze themselves. As experienced leaders they have come to expect a formal, ceremonial selection process, driven by a traditional, candidate strengths-and-weaknesses approach. As candidates they expect to struggle to detect the underlying truth of the situation, and in the end make a leap of faith to accept a position–only then discover what is really going on.

As for those candidates who are turned off by this, and by being tested for their ability to address them–they were the wrong candidates for the job anyway!

Conducting the search based on what is “really going on” absolutely changes the paradigm. The result is to attract the more thoughtful candidates, to draw out their ability to address the real challenges of the position, to produce an executive director and a board with a common mandate.

About the Author

Ted Ford Webb is a principal at Ford Webb Associates, a Concord, Massachusetts based firm that has merged traditional executive search with a rigorous management consultancy and multi-disciplinary experience to achieve maximum results from critical executive searches.

Flying Monkeys


Non Profit Quarterly 

by Ted Ford Webb 

Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the all-knowing Oz is revealed to be an uncertain man behind the curtain? So often the instinct of organizations when embarking on a chief executive search is to remain behind that curtain and declare that all is as it should be…when it isn’t. Absent Toto tugging on the curtain, the conversation with chief executive candidates often fails to address what are the most challenging and important issues in play. Is it any surprise that misunderstanding and conflict result?

It is in the nature of every organization to struggle with contradictions. Anyone who is equipped to be a chief executive knows that there are complications. Board politics. Destructive competition and conflict among silos or ambitious staff members. Funding requirements that skew the original mission and strategies of the organization. Staff managing complex programs without proper training or supervision. These and other contradictions are often present, and await the new chief executive.

The ideal forum in which to determine how difficult issues will be solved—and a promising vision fulfilled—is in that space between the chief executive and the Board. It is for the Board, which governs the organization, to establish whether that space is one in which the critical issues will be faced—whether there are sacred cows and elephants in the room that are not to be acknowledged, even though they truly define what is possible. There is no better time to address this than when searching for a new chief executive.

Here’s an example: A local arts organization had been a vital part of the community for decades, providing inexpensive space and support for artists, opportunities for children and others to explore art, and a stage for local theatre. A new chief executive was to be recruited, and the organization aspired to find someone who would revitalize the organization and its capacity to attract relevant and inspiring art. The major contribution this organization had to offer was space for artists, and the community that grew in that space. However, the artists who had been present at the founding of the organization, 25 years prior, occupied over 90 percent of the space. While a few were very active, the majority of them were semiretired or used their spaces sparingly, but were unwilling to give them up. The unspoken “plan” was for space to be occupied by new artists only as people died or retired fully. The rhetoric of the search was for a new vitality, but the reality was something else. The dynamic executive director who was recruited did not understand this, and she quickly was undone when she proposed a criterion that all resident artists must be accepted into at least three juried shows each year.

When embarking on the search, the Board implicitly understood that the precious studio space was going to be defended by the founding artists. They imagined that this new executive director would somehow find a way around this. The opportunity missed by the Board was that it could have used the search, and particularly the conversation with top candidates, to explore the difficult question of how to revitalize the organization when the space was so jealously guarded. Assuming that the top candidates are the experts, the Board had a chance to grapple with how this issue might be solved. They missed an important opportunity to come to terms with a new chief executive who made the best case as to how she and the Board would overcome this barrier together.

There is yet a larger and more dramatic point here. The demon or “third rail” of this issue was powerful in part because it was only acknowledged offline and in whispers, though anybody familiar with the organization understood the circumstances. A personnel process provides a discrete forum in which to address difficult, defining issues. It is, ideally, a forum in which the Board can raise these questions in a constructive manner, challenging candidates to provide advice and insight. These open conversations often liberate the Board from the burden of unspoken but critical issues. With this action, the Board is establishing a critical standard: the issues and challenges most material to the success of the organization are going to be front and center in the relationship between the Board and the chief executive.

One would like to think that this is always the case, but most readers of this article will understand that, sadly, it is not. The Board, which is the supervisor of the chief executive, often signals, intentionally or by default, that there are certain issues that the chief executive should not confront—even, as in the example above, when those issues are central to the rhetoric of the organization. The result is that the Board, as it shapes its relationship with the new chief executive, begins that relationship by being less than fully honest. This begins the cycle. Is it any wonder when Boards later complain that their chief executive is not being fully open with them?

Dorothy couldn’t get back to Kansas until she and the man behind the curtain together acknowledged the reality of their circumstances. After that revelation, they were able to solve the problem. Dorothy had spent most of her journey seeking the wrong source, and the man behind the curtain had spent his energy pretending to have the answer. Both would have gotten there sooner, and avoided that unfortunate incident with the flying monkeys, had Oz signaled that he was ready to deal with reality from the start.

Ted Ford Webb is a principal at Ford Webb Associates, a leading nonprofit executive search firm based in Concord, Massachusetts. Merging traditional executive search with a rigorous management consultancy, he has recruited cabinet officers for 47 governors and over 250 CEOs for nonprofit organizations, Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, universities, national membership organizations, and many others.   



How to Recruit a Cabinet

 How to Recruit a Cabinet

by Ted Ford Webb

Finding the Perfect Match:  A Governor’s Guide to Executive Recruiting


A strong management team doesn’t just happen.  Building an effective team requires a thoughtful process of recruitment, screening, and decision-making.  The challenge is particularly difficult for a new governor-elect who will be expected to make dozens of key appointments within a few weeks or months.  Experienced governors urge governors-elect to make key personnel decision a high priority and assign clear responsibility to a trusted senior staff member for developing and managing the recruitment process that will be use during the transition and through the early days of a new administration.

This management brief discusses one approach to the recruitment process that has proved successful in numerous administrations.  Unlike some approaches that begin by describing the ideal candidate, the approach first examines the agency, diagnoses its past flaws, and articulates its future promise, before starting a search.

A new start: Searching for the right match

You ran, and you won.  Now you have to figure out how to govern.  What you do with your time in office, and how you do it, will in large part be determined by the team you hire.  From your central office to your cabinet, your staff can make-or-break your term—so you want to choose wisely.

My philosophy of hiring emphasizes finding the right match over the finding the right credentials.  What constitutes the right credentials for any cabinet office varies according to needs and circumstances.  Finding the best candidate requires your administration to do the hard work of evaluating an agency’s real needs, without shirking away from the divisions, the politics, and the problems inherent in any organization.  The best search confronts these problems head on and uses them as the basis for finding the right candidate.  The worst hopes naively that the right candidate will solve all the agency’s problems.  You will find the best match by following what you probably already know intuitively: that the best results are driven by open communication.

The hiring process is the first—and probably the best—chance you get to set your priorities as governor.  Think of each person you hire as an opportunity to clarify your objectives—and to begin to define your legacy.

The basics: Five principles to guide your search

1)    The hiring process is an educational process.  It is as much about you—and determining what type of administration you want to run—as it is about the candidates.

2)    Be clinical.  This is a diagnostic process, one that benefits above all from objectivity.

3)    Engage stakeholders.  The dialogue among them, your team, and others who understand the circumstances of the agency will help you to determine that agency’s true needs.

4)    Expect contradiction.  The process will inevitably generate it—and it is far easier politically to unearth it now than down the line.

5)    Above all, be open with all participants in this process.  Direct communication now is the best strategy for generating the results you want later.

The game plan: Designing the hiring process

Before you recruit your star team, you will want to devote some time to thinking about the design of the hiring process itself.  Two basic questions you will need to answer are: how much control do you want to have over the process, and how public do you want it to be?

Most governors choose to delegate control over the hiring process to a trusted advisor.  It could be a chief-of-staff, a campaign manager, or even an old friend.  Some governors hire executive recruiters, but that is not absolutely necessary.  What is necessary is to place someone in charge of the process who can remain an objective third party.  That person must focus on presenting you with the best set of possible options—a set of options that you can use to help you determine the future direction of the agency.  Without good leadership in the hiring process, your choices may be narrowed in a way that does not serve your best interests.

Recognize that early on in your administration, and to a degree through your entire term, members of your core team will engage in power plays as they struggle to establish their domains.  Will policy be set in your office, or will it be driven by cabinet officers?  What type of access will your cabinet officers have to you, and to your chief-of-staff?  The person you place in charge of hiring should be ready to parse out these internal divisions in a rational fashion—with you as the final arbitrator.  Otherwise, you risk each new hire reflecting the winner of that day’s power struggle.  Ultimately you will delegate to your team responsibility for running day-to-day operations, but as you are hiring your cabinet you are also setting a precedent for how your team will support your governance throughout your term in office.

How much input the public—including interest groups, advocacy groups, and the general public—should have in the process is usually a matter of ideology.  For some administrations, control, and the efficiency that follows, is a hallmark of their particular management style.  For others, transparency and public input are worth the tradeoff in efficiency.  But custom can also play a role in the decision.  If every modern governor has consulted with the public employees union and small business association before appointing the state secretary of labor, you should take that into account as you begin your search.  You are not bound to follow those traditions, but breaking them should reflect a well-reasoned decision.

While I cannot tell you how public to make your search, I will say that a more public approach can affect the level of candor and rigor that allows your administration to develop a clear understanding of its priorities.  A big process—which typically includes public input at the start and some type of public review of candidates at the end, on top of the internal reviews suggested by this memo—can be done, and has benefits.  But it can also become unwieldy and run long.

This note aims to help guide you through the search for a member of your cabinet.  While it describes a single search, this formula also applies to the larger task of organizing a new cabinet at the start of your administration.  A large transition simply requires a higher level of organizing and management, in which the transition director assigns a single recruiting team to each cabinet position, and that team then follows the approach described in this note.

When appointing your new cabinet, you will also find that there is a logical hierarchy to hiring.  Large agencies that are more closely scrutinized demand the most thoughtful review.  If you have already decided on certain appointments (or reappointments), moving on those early can relieve pressure on the transition team and can appease a hungry media.  But remember, too, that ‘big’ searches can also benefit smaller ones—your search for a secretary for human services, for instance, may help you to identify candidates for non-cabinet-level positions in public health, child welfare and other such agencies.

Before we move on, a quick stylistic note.  Throughout this essay, I will differentiate between “you,” the governor, and the “recruiter,” a term which I use to refer to the advisor you put in charge of the hiring process.  The same philosophy can be applied no matter who guides the hiring process, and no matter who you are trying to hire: use openness to get the best results.

Starting your search: The Rolodex fallacy

The best searches begin with internal diagnosis: what is going on in the agency now, and why?  A recruiter needs to know what circumstances the new leader will be asked to handle before s/he can figure out what type of candidate can handle them.  What was the previous head of the agency like?  Was s/he a strong manager?  What forces, internally and externally, prevented the achievement of critical goals?  Where are the fault lines within the organization?  A good search is an educational process—it allows the recruiter to learn the strengths and weaknesses of an agency, and to present them to you at the point in your tenure that you are best equipped to address those needs.

Do not allow your recruiter to commit the fatal mistake: what I call “the Rolodex fallacy.”  This is the belief that that some magical person exists whose qualifications will meet all your needs—if only your recruiter had a Rolodex thick enough to find him or her.  Many recruiters deal in “talent,” finding you the best match to a fixed set of criteria.  But a recruiter’s real value to you is as an objective party: one who can help you to diagnose an agency’s illness, and to use that diagnosis to find the candidate to cure it.

Using a set of fixed qualifications as a starting point rarely results in successful hires.  Instead, hiring should be a dynamic process that engages with an agency’s particular needs at a given point in time.  No fixed set of criteria will work.  A good recruiter will help you to find a person who can address those specific needs.

Finally, a legal (and political) caution.  A recruiter must know the statutory requirements related to the position for which s/he is hiring.  S/he must understand the enabling legislation for that agency, any legal requirements associated with the position, and the relevant statutory policies—and political considerations—related to equal opportunity hiring and community input.  I was once hired by a state’s personnel board to recruit the director of a major state agency.  But a quick read of the statutory requirements related to that agency revealed that the board had no authority over the position—it was a gubernatorial appointment.  Three directors had been appointed without anyone realizing the error.  Misinformation, even mythology, can build around these appointments.  Knowing the facts matters.

Diagnosis: The doctor is in

A recruiter’s first task on the job is to look behind the defining set of circumstances in an agency and name them.  The first thing I do when I start a search is to approach the agency’s various stakeholders, everyone from the senior management team to the office staff to the unions and advocacy groups who interact with the agency.  I make the same simple request of them: “I know nothing.  Fill me in.”  With that request, I want to understand the context the next agency head will be coming into.  What are the circumstances here?  What is the history?  What is the past performance of the agency?  What has led to this scandal?  To that missed opportunity?

The previous administration generally leaves a briefing book that reports on the state of the agency.  But these books only address the formal circumstances.  To get a real sense of what is going on, your recruiter must also listen to individuals, both employees of the agency and members of the outside groups that interact with it.  I stick to small conversations (generally one-on-one) in which people can feel certain that they will face no consequences for honesty.  This allows full disclosure, and helps your recruiter to learn about the real circumstances in the agency.

Over time, these conversations lead to hypotheses that a good recruiter will use to help focus future conversations.  I once recruited a state secretary of transportation.  The more people I talked to, the more it became clear that the previous leader had been brought in because of his political skills and was a poor manager who had lost control over his senior management team.  As a result, the agency had evolved into a nation of Balkan states with no strong central leader.  I used that hypothesis in future conversations to tighten my analysis.  I learned that the agency was also under the sway of an overpowering legislative leader, and that the staff members would defer to whomever was more threatening to them at the time, the cabinet official or the legislator.  That knowledge allowed me to address the tension over the agency’s leadership with the governor, and to be able to offer a comprehensive assessment of the real-life conditions a future agency head could expect to face.  Most importantly, it allowed me to recruit a candidate who was up to the agency’s specific challenges.

Knowing the problems an agency faces helps your recruiter to find a candidate who is best able to fix them, as I will discuss in the next section.  But it also plays a vital role in the dialogue your recruiter—and later you—are going to have with that candidate.  Diagnosing the problems up-front is the only way your candidate will be able to offer you targeted, real-world solutions.

This diagnosis should be brought to you before the search is launched.  It is a moment for you to hear about circumstances which may affect the search and to give your input and direction to the recruiter.  You may have explicit expectations to impose (‘it must be an MD; I want someone from within the state business community; it must be someone who agrees with my position on…’).  Alternatively, you may ask for more of an exploration (‘let’s consider the different schools of thought about prison expansion and alternatives to incarceration; let’s focus on finding a strong manager, but I am open to a visionary if they will work closely with a strong COO-type’).  Ultimately, this is an abstract conversation, but it provides a guide to your recruiter to serve your specific interests.  When you see your recruiter at the end of the search, he/she should be able to report about how these ideas played out in the marketplace for talent and the networks explored in the process.

Finding a candidate: Skip the game of cat-and-mouse

A recruiter’s next step is to bring in a group of candidates who personify the strategic and policy choices that the agency is facing.  In the case of that same transportation department, I knew that the governor was facing distinct choices.  Should I suggest a former politician who could serve as a political counterpoint to the overreaching legislative leader?  Address the situation with an unflappable manager who could ease away from the legislature without confrontation?  Propose a deal to share power with the legislator, and bring in someone whose technical qualifications set them apart?  I decided to bring in all three candidates, each of whom became a distinct choice for the governor in terms of management and policy direction.

How did we find each candidate?  The answer is networking.  As s/he begins the candidate search, your recruiter should, once again, avoid the Rolodex fallacy and abandon the idea that a good search results from a Rolodex full of contacts.  Even as a professional executive recruiter, I start every search from a zero point: I have no built in list of “talent” that I turn to.  Instead, I use existing professional networks to seek out candidates—and do something that surprises them.  Most recruiters work by naming a list of qualifications they seek.  I name the circumstances within the organization that a successful candidate will have to address.

Over the course of your recruiter’s conversations with individual stakeholders, s/he will have identified key organizations that now become good places to start the candidate search.  National membership organizations, advocacy groups, leaders in the field, and even well regarded academics generally comprise the first round of calls a recruiter makes.  For the transportation secretary search, for example, I started by calling the American Public Transit Association, a professional membership organization, but person-to-person networking soon led me to construction companies, highway safety advocacy groups, design firms, rail transit advocates, and federal bureaucrats.  I wanted to speak with a representative spectrum of the groups associated with the agency.  While each group has its own interests to promote, it can also lead a recruiter to some of the best contacts.

When I approached these groups, I informed them openly and honestly about the situation in the transportation agency: “In our state, the legislature has reached over the line, and we’re losing direction. We’re looking to address these and other critical circumstances.”  When people are treated with that kind of directness and integrity, they tend to respond in kind.  They are generally more than happy to suggest candidates or, if they can offer no recommendations themselves, to suggest someone who can.  Recognize, too, that most “news” about the real politics within the agency is no news at all.  People close to the agency already know this information, and it is only one degree removed from outsiders close to the agency.  For the referrer, the only surprise in the equation is that the recruiter shows a willingness to discuss these challenges.

Defining the environment in an organization—rather than listing a specific set of qualifications a candidate must meet—is a very seductive way of recruiting.  “I’ve talked to you about the challenges facing our agency.  Do you know anyone you think might be able to meet those challenges?”  Asking this kind of open-ended question opens people’s minds in a way that asking them to track down qualifications on a resume does not.  It leads to very different kinds of candidates, candidates who tend to end up representing the universe of choice for an agency’s future—the political expert, the managerial expert, the engineer, and so on.

This approach to recruiting ultimately takes no more time or energy than conventional recruiting methods.  It is, in essence, person-to-person networking.  One group of people makes recommendations for who else to call, and the tree grows very quickly.  It takes 80 calls, not 150 or 1500.

Laying it bare: Naming without blaming

As we have seen above, a good search will bring out the tensions inherent in any organization.  The key is to be willing to name these tensions openly during the search process, rather than hiding them away in the hopes the candidate will be able to fix them after the fact.  Once your recruiter has identified a list of potential candidates for a position, it is crucial to bring the candidate into the discussion of the agency’s problems.

I was once hired to recruit the new president of a national family planning organization. The organization had started as a loose affiliation of independent affiliates, and had become much more centralized under the previous leader.  But during the search, it became clear that the organization was in the midst of a major identity crisis.  Some factions wanted to maintain the organization’s role as a national advocacy organization.  Others wanted to turn it into more of a women’s health practitioner.  Still others wanted to return to the original model, in which each of its affiliates acted autonomously.

Rather than hide these divisions, the hiring process became a discussion and growth process in which I encouraged the organization’s board to use the search to determine which path they wanted to follow.  When they found they could not determine that path on their own, it became the task of each candidate to show how s/he would manage these divisions.

Because we were clear about the challenges, we attracted candidates who sought to tackle the challenges from different perspectives—an activist who promoted a strong national advocacy organization, a health care expert who wanted to reposition the organization as a business devoted to women’s health, and a leader who encouraged a strategy of each affiliate on its own bottom.  This gave the board the opportunity to test out different strategies as well as different candidates.  What makes for the most successful search is one in which those things that cannot be resolved are named and talked about.  This is the type of conversation, and these are the types of choices, that you want to have at the end of this process.

Talking points: How to structure an interview

By the time your recruiter brings candidates in, the organization has already engaged in a lot of learning and discussion.  Each candidate becomes a choice to be considered, a different approach for the agency to take.  For the transportation department, we ended up considering a former elected official, an attorney who had led a large utility and had long-term experience in policy planning and project management, the head of a state highway system with an engineering background, and the head of a mass transit system.  We assembled a group of the most qualified candidates, but from a range of approaches.

Once your hiring team has chosen its candidates, it will have a limited amount of time to get to know each of them.  In that time, the team needs to get a real sense of what each candidate can do for your agency.  The best—and only—way to accomplish that is to provide the candidates who make it to this point in the process all possible access, to fill them up with information.  By the time the candidate walks into the interview, s/he should know what your team has learned over the course of its diagnosis of the agency.

Psychologists believe that the ideal size for a group exchange is between seven and nine people.  Ideally, the interview panel should include no more than that—generally the head recruiter plus your chief-of-staff, several other members of your core team (policy director, political advisor, budget director, etc.), and one or two trusted outside advisors.  If you are following a more public citizen approach, you will also want to invite one or two representatives from key stakeholder groups—on the condition that they take part in the direct and open exchange that this type of hiring process requires.

The recruiter should take time at the beginning of the interview to acknowledge the dynamics that are at play within the room.  S/he should be prepared to identify who comes from which faction—“he favors a strong manager, she is hoping for someone who can get the agency’s science in order,” and so on.  There should be no secrets as you go in; whatever is not acknowledged now will only come out, more uncomfortably, later.

An interview is not a game show.  A candidate should get few points for being able to answer things on the spot.  Instead, the interview should reflect the real challenges and opportunities awaiting the successful candidate and allow him or her to give real-world solutions to those challenges.

The Sequence

I always start by asking the candidate to speak about herself—her background, experience, and what interests her about the job.  This serves both as an icebreaker and a chance to get to know the candidate as an individual.

Then I head right into the nitty gritty: How will she do this job?  Because the candidate already understands the agency’s dynamics, this is not an abstract question.  It is an open-book test that gives her the opportunity to start sizing up the organization.  Your recruiter should make it clear that the candidate is expected to confront the organization’s problems head on.

During the interview, I always offer the candidate the option of asking any questions she still has about the agency, and about the points of view represented at the table.  The fewer constraints a candidate faces, the easier it is for a very candid exchange to take place—one that allows the candidate to make the case directly for what she plans to do with the position.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

An effective interview takes time, and it takes strategy.  Forget gut reactions and snap judgments.  Interviewers tend to form their opinions of a candidate in the first half of a discussion, and then turn off.  The result is that they waste the second half of the interview entirely—and realize as soon as they emerge the questions they should have asked.  They then take it upon themselves to answer those questions as they believe the candidate would have responded.

The second half of the interview should be used as a reaction to the questions and the negatives that emerge in the first half.  Rather than holding fast to an initial judgment—the engineer under consideration, for instance, does not seem like she will be a persuasive public speaker—the interviewers should acknowledge that judgment and give the candidate a chance to address their concerns.  Be blunt.  It is not about disrespect—it is about insisting on a truthful exchange.  This is how you will want to work with your team in the future, and it matters to set that standard during the hiring process.

The interview team should also be prepared to discuss the potential need for future hires who will supplement—and complement—the candidate.  The greatest visionary may still need a good deputy manager to execute that vision; the long-time politico with little executive experience may need strong deputies on both the strategic and managerial ends to be able to put his political expertise to work.  A part of an open exchange with a candidate is to challenge them as to how they will compensate for their weaknesses.  Everyone has them, and better to wrestle with them now in the interview room than three months later in the press.

The interview team should never couch things in vague language.  It should express its questions and concerns up front.  This allows your team to know what the candidate’s responses are to those concerns rather than having to guess at them.  Every candidate you will meet has some strengths and some weaknesses.  In the end, a big part of what you are looking for is the quality of self-understanding that will allow someone to be effective in spite of those weaknesses.

Finally, one generally accepted rule of interviewing is that the interviews have to be consistent.  But that does not necessarily mean following an identical structure.  The interview team should create a similar platform for each candidate, but each person will, inevitably, address the same problems differently.  The team should explore what those differences are, not hide from them for the sake of perfect consistency.  In doing so, they are trying to match the candidate with your expectations of what the job requires, which address the spirit of that standard.

The Friends-and-Family Dilemma

It is not uncommon to have a devoted political loyalist, or even a personal friend, in the candidate pool.  In that situation, loyalty and familiarity do have real value, especially over a pool of candidates whom you do not know personally.  This process allows you to give weight to those qualities, but also to tailor the questioning to that person’s potential weaknesses.  For example, in the case of a longtime ally and prominent environmentalist, your interview team might ask how he would mediate his position as an environmental advocate with the administration’s obligation to create (sometimes less-than-environmentally-friendly) business growth and community development.  How will he deal with his former allies when this happens?  What will his loyalty be to the administration—and what decisions would bring about a break with your administration and a resignation?  Raise the issues that will likely confront that person in the job, and recognize that some of those issues are particular to that individual.  Your environmental advocate friend is likely to find different challenges than a lifelong bureaucrat.  Each will be tested differently.  It is better to test their ability to handle those issues now.

The Payoff

Out of this process arises a set of candidates who fit into the range of organizational directions you are considering.  There are, for instance, candidates who will comfortably conform to a policy and budget agenda controlled by your staff.  Others will only join your team if they drive that agenda, but promise big payoffs in return.  You benefit from a process that offers you those choices, and that also helps you to clarify how you want your administration to run.

The additional payoff comes in the form of the education you and your interview team have just received.  In the course of the interview process, you have heard from five or six different experts about the different strategies they would use to deal with an agency’s particular challenges.  By bringing into this debate real flesh and blood, real choices, you have made possible a set of governance and policy choices that also reflect the character and abilities of the person you choose, and that acknowledge the complexities of the relationships within the organization.

Soliciting referrals: (Once again) honesty is the best policy

References are a necessary part of making a final selection.  But many people are hesitant to provide a truthful assessment of a candidate’s past performance.  While there is no exact formula to getting a helpful reference, as with everything in this process, directness and openness at the outset will help your recruiter get the information you will need on the other side.

The recruiter should include the candidate in the discussion from the start of the referral process.  People who run a cabinet agency need to be able to deal with criticism and opposition.  If they have held previous leadership positions, critics of their performance should exist.  They key is to gauge the nature of the criticism—is it about poor performance, or about making the best of difficult choices?  Candidates need to accept this review, and participate in it even when it is uncomfortable.  Once again, any criticism that comes up now will come up again if they are hired—so it is better to wrest with it now.

The recruiter should follow the same candidness mandate that s/he followed in the interviews, and speak openly with the candidate about the questions s/he wants to ask referrers.  For a candidate whose treatment of co-workers is in doubt, s/he might ask: “We want to talk to people who can comment on your creativity and brilliance.  We also want to talk to people who have worked under you, and we’re going to ask how you treated them.  Are you okay with that?  What do you think we’re going to hear?”

The recruiter should use the same directness when speaking to the referrer.  The key is to corner him or her through honesty.  Rather than asking whether the candidate gets along well with co-workers, be direct.  “We have an impression that he might not treat co-workers well when he’s under pressure.  Can you comment on that?”  With such a direct question, even a non-answer (“I don’t want to talk about it”) helps give you the answer you need.  Your recruiter may strike out five times out of ten, but people will often be responsive.

Making your decision: Finding the pattern

When you make your final choice, you are choosing among different strategies for the agency.  None of them is going to meet every exact need.  But the advantage of the learning process the recruiter has led you through is that you have already fully considered the implications of the tradeoffs you are making.

In the end, your search team should present you with a pattern.  You want to know the nature of this person’s approach, to have this person marked and defined.  Ideally, the candidate knows how they have been marked and defined as well.  At this stage, you as governor should have a good sense of who this person is and how they are going to do their job.  And you should be able to use this information as you narrow down your candidates and prepare for the final interview.

That final interview will generally take place in your presence, and present you with a few, well-defined leadership options.  The interview should be used to deepen your understanding of the final candidates’ plans for the office—but you are well advised to stick to the same direct, reactive format as earlier interviews.

Investing in future harmony

This is a process that in a sense is not sophisticated—it takes on very few airs.  Instead, it is built on frankness and humility, on the recognition that this is a process of discovery.  It is, ultimately, a way to fill in those parts that a new administration does not know, and needs to know, about itself.

You will figure out the same things about your organization using the more conventional approach to recruiting—but you will figure them out farther down the line, in a far more brutal, and less controlled, fashion. Dealing with the loss of efficiency, internal battles, and even scandal that can result from not hiring the right person is far more costly than the initial time investment at the beginning.

But the best payoffs from this process are the positive ones.  I once worked to hire the head of a human services system for a Western governor.  The previous leader had been an efficiency expert, to mixed results: He had cut costs, but morale in the organization was low.  When we started our search, we acknowledged the fragility of the agency and found two very different candidates to fill the role.  One was an effective manager, more balanced than the last, who would provide stability for the agency.  The other was more of a visionary, who wanted to point the organization to big new ideas, but who would use up more of the governor’s precious political capital in doing so.  Both demonstrated the ability to move the agency forward, but in ways that suggested very different demands on resources.  The question came down to the governor’s vision for his administration.  As a recruiter, all I could do was present him with a set of clearly defined options.  In the end, he chose vision over stability.

That decision paid off.  When I returned to his statehouse, years after he left office, I stumbled upon a small bronze plaque that hung under his portrait.  Out of all his myriad accomplishments, the plaque recognized, above all, the work he had done to reform human services.  With clear choices in front of him, the governor was able to make the decision that became his legacy.


Ted Ford Webb is the founder of Ford Webb Associates, Inc., a leading nonprofit executive search firm. He has recruited cabinet officers for 47 governors and over 200 CEOs for nonprofit organizations, Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, universities, national membership organizations, and many others.