Nonprofit Executive Assessment: A Study in Contrasts

March 15, 2010

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work with nonprofit boards and CEO’s as they hire new C-level staff.  Each of these selection assignments is unique but there are some common challenges that emerge as organizations narrow down their applicant pool.

For the last decade or so, nonprofit agencies have said they wanted people with a business mindset.  When a Board Chair, volunteer, or nonprofit professional says this, you really need to dig below the surface.  Often, they mean that they are looking for someone with a good sense of urgency who keeps his/her eye on the bottom line.  It also often leads to a person whose experience may have been predominantly in the for-profit world.  This is where it starts to get tricky.

Many times the person with the extremely high sense of urgency is appealing to an interviewing committee.  Also, this person frequently comes across as passionate and willing to stir things up.   These qualities may indeed be positive but they are only part of the answer.  I remember a phrase from my training (too many years ago) where it was said that a person’s strength, taken to the extreme, can eventually turn and become a liability.  What do I mean by this?  The person with a great sense of urgency may be impatient for process and may get very frustrated working with a Board or committee.

I have frequently seen the independent person described as the change agent who is willing to challenge the status quo.  Independence is a good thing, I agree.  Too much independence can lead to a lack of collaboration and buy-in.  When a nonprofit executive is too independent, the Board can become disengaged.  It is typically a recipe for disaster when the overly independent nonprofit professional believes he/she alone should be setting the strategic direction of the agency.

What can one do in these situations?  You need to step back and describe in behavioral terms what type of leader you are looking for.  In my work at PRADCO, we always have this discussion with the nonprofit entity.  You really need to dig down and agree on what the most critical leadership behaviors are for the agency.  Beyond the description of the leader, it is always vital to have an understanding of the lay-professional relationship in the organization.  Some boards can have 100 members and other may have a dozen or so.   This often impacts the relationship between the C-level executive and the Board Chair.  Some boards may look to the top professionals for fundraising abilities while others may want the professional to be focused mostly on internal operations.

Another challenge with these assessments is that they are typically high profile in nature.  If a COO or a VP of Sales does not succeed, the public is unlikely to know.  If a nonprofit executive fails, is can be in the newspaper or talked about by leaders in the community.  You may ask why a company like PRADCO would want to deal with all of these complexities.  The answer is two-fold.  The challenge is exciting, but more importantly, nonprofit organizations in a certain sense, serve as the conscience of society.  I would hate to think where our society would be if these mission-based organizations did not exist.


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