Searching for the Right ED

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 26th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I’m frequently asked about the best way to build a board, but rarely about how to effectively find a new executive director.  With the continued warnings about retiring baby boomers and the growing need for new executive directors that the sector will be facing, I feel compelled to share some advice, build on observing, talking with and mentoring hundreds of executive directors.

So, here is my list:  short but important, based on observing, talking with and/or mentoring hundreds of nonprofit executive directors.  In  no order of importance, things to avoid in your next executive director.

  • No egomaniacs.  Egomania, defined, in medical terms, as “the quality or state of being extremely egocentric.”  Egocentric, in case you are unsure, is being “limited in outlook or concern to one’s own activities or needs.” This is very different from having a strong sense of self, which is invaluable in a leader.

I can hear the pushback already:  how can you tell whether someone is trying to demonstrate confidence in an interview, as opposed to be being egocentric?  Your search process should consist of a series of interviews (with different folk or the same) formats and settings so you see each candidate in as many situations as possible, including, to the extent possible, in situ.


To this day, despite it being more than 30 years ago, I remember with extreme detail the “class” that I had to teach as part of the hiring process to become a university teacher.  You are “teaching a class”—albeit on a topic of your own choosing—in front of, among others, full professors, associate professors, deans, students, the whole time knowing that you are being judged on your content, presentation, style, engagement, etc.   But it makes such sense:  why would you hire someone without getting a demonstration of how she would do the job for which she is being hired.  In the old days, a secretary was never hired without testing her shorthand and typing abilities, yet the boss was never tested in being a boss.

But stop your laughing and start your thinking:  how might you test a candidate for executive director without going overboard?  See how he runs a staff meeting? Work with the board president on setting a board meeting agenda? Watch her in a public setting? Even just having him spend unstructured time with some board members or staff or clients? Presenting scenarios on how they’d deal with specific challenges or crises?

The point is that even though we are all taught to sell ourselves in a job interview and, thus, “I” comes out disproportionately, there are ways to easily discern whether what you are seeing is egocentrism or confidence.

  • All of life is not a competition, so avoid those who always have to win (and love to keep score).  In other words, do not hire those who have no sense of self and, therefore, gain affirmation by beating others.  Being an executive director is not about always being right; it is about doing what is best for the mission, organization, clients, and the people who make it all happen.  If you know anyone who must always be right, you know it is exhausting work that takes its toll not only on the individual but on all those around him.  Remember that a truly good and successful executive director is always working in partnership:  partnership with the board president and the rest of the board; partnership with staff; partnership with donors, and the list could go on.  In a healthy partnership, no one half can or should always win.  Scenarios that examine that partnership reveal a lot.
  • Control freaks need not apply!  If I had a nickel for every executive director who has laughed defensively (see last item) while saying, “I am a control freak,” The Nonprofit Center would be endowed for the future and I could retire.  Control freaks are micromanagers, and how many of us love to work for them?

One of the very important jobs of an executive director, that almost no search committee considers, is to develop talent, particularly, leadership talent in an organization.  Talent doesn’t blossom under the thumb of people who think they do everything better, who believe something is only done well if it is done as they would do it, who are always looking over others’ shoulders, always checking up.

If as a board member, however, you don’t want to have to do your own job, then hire a control freak, as s/he will enable you not to have to do your work.  It will be done for you.   But be forewarned:  there will be consequences.  Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but at some point.  Just remember Penn State.

  • Know-it-alls should also look elsewhere.  I have known some incredibly smart people in my life time.  In fact, I grew up with a certified genius who for the longest time I thought did know it all, and not because he told me—or anyone—he did; he simply was that smart and a voracious reader.  He loved to learn, asking questions of others all of the time, synthesizing and going on to the next.  A non-academic who loved the Socratic Method.  My point is no one knows everything, no matter how frequently they want to tell you they do, insinuate they do, try to trump you.  (And, yes, there is a relationship between know-it-alls and megalomaniacs.)  Remember that partnership discussed above?  Partnerships involve learning from one another, sometimes being the teacher, other times the student.  If you know it all, there is no room for others’ input.  And, as much as I dislike this phase, I’ll say it:  it takes a village to make a nonprofit strong.
  • Do not hire someone who cannot take responsibility but who must always blame someone/thing else.  It is never their wrongdoing; it is always someone else’s error, personality that just can’t get along, failure to understand, etc.  If the person values Teflon more than what is good for the whole, do not hire that person.
  • Finally, look for the tells:  “cover-up laughter” (remember that laughter that accompanies the admission of being a control freak?), inability to look people in the eyes when having a conversation, too much eye closing (which some do when they are thinking and trying to collect their thoughts, which is fine, but shouldn’t happen when actually talking to someone), the under- or over-aggressive handshake, are all tells.

So now I have a topic for a future blog:  Characteristics to seek out when hiring an executive director.

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