Opinion

10 ways to make executive leadership searches and transitions better and more equitable

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, quick announcement before we dive into this week’s exciting topic about executive search. If you’re free this Wednesday, April 21st, at 10am PT, please join me in this discussion “Moving to Racial Equity: What’s Getting in the Way!?! | A Conversation with Nonprofit Leaders.” It is cosponsored by Castellano Family Foundation and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I’ll be flipping over tables as usual, but I’m trying to cut back on swearing, gosh darn it. It’s free; register here. Captions will be provided.

Last week, I got this note from a colleague: “I work in philanthropy and was talking with a friend working at a non-profit, and we were sharing our frustrations about how opaque the search process was/is for new leaders at both our orgs, and how little staff and community involvement there was in the decision-making process. I’d love to see you tackle the way these searches happen and search firms and Board committees work currently, and suggest ways that we might work differently (even given the need for confidentiality about candidates to a point, etc).”

This has been on my list of stuff to rant about for a while, so I appreciate the nudge. Last August, Nonprofit Quarterly’s Editor-in-Chief Cyndi Suarez wrote this brilliant piece on the topic, “What Does an Equitable Executive Leadership Transition Look Like?” It points out the inequity of our current philosophies and practices and proposes some new ways of doing things. I highly recommend everyone reads it.

Unfortunately, like asking funders to increase payout rates, organizers of virtual conferences to add captions, and everyone to use the Oxford Comma, these critical points have to be brought up over and over again by many different voices before we see change. I’m going to reinforce some of the key messages in Cyndi’s article, while adding a few thoughts, because this is a serious issue in our sector, and it hasn’t been getting better (it seems to be getting worse?), so we need to talk about it more.

Basically, the way our sector does executive searches and leadership transitions sucks. Many current Human Resources practices in general are inequitable, but that’s for another time. Leadership transitions and executive searches are often led by clueless mostly white boards that often default to hiring white search firms to reinforce inequitable white corporate philosophies. The entire process is usually expensive for the org, fraught with tension, and demoralizing for everyone, especially internal candidates who are often treated like chopped liver in the process.

Yes, there are transitions and searches that do go well. There are also some great boards as well as some great search firms, including white-led ones. But overall, the way we’ve been doing this has not kept up with the conversations and evolution of our sector and world. It’s archaic, and worse, perpetuating inequity. If you are involved with leadership transition and hiring, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Determine whether your org may need a new structure: The hierarchical leadership model, where there’s one person at the top with vast power, is falling out of favor. This is good. As Ananda Valenzuela writes in this piece, the Executive Director Job Is Impossible. It is way too much burden to put on one person, and it leads to frustration and high turnovers. There are more and more conversations now about flat structures, distributed power, self-managing organizations, etc. Co-directorships, once unthinkable, are being adopted more and more. Building Movement ProjectCompassPoint, and RVC are a few orgs in the growing list of organizations using co-leadership models. Get out of the mindset that you can only have a solitary magical unicorn leader.
  2. Enable staff to play a significant part in the decision: The traditional thinking is that hiring the ED/CEO is the board’s responsibility and final decision. Thus, many boards jealously guard it; imagine Gollum in Lord of the Rings sitting in the conference room, whispering “It’s ours, Precious, our decision! We gets to makes it!” But think about it. This person (or co-leaders), is someone the staff has to work with significantly more than the board does. It is archaic and nonsensical that the board hoards all this power to hire, when this is just a tradition. If you want staff to not hate board members’ guts, don’t just superficially “involve” staff, but discuss authentic collaboration and sharing of power regarding this decision. This is especially vital when so many boards are so white.
  3. Stop assuming an external search is needed: There is a very strong philosophy we’ve internalized, probably from the corporate sector, that competitive processes will yield the best candidates. I once strongly believed in this, to the point that when I founded RVC, after spending years laying the groundwork for it and raising enough money to hire its first staff member, I insisted on “competing” in an open process to be that person, and the board agreed. But now, I’m not sure that made any sense. The board spent months on this hiring process, and so many external candidates threw their hats in the ring. The desire to have an aura of “legitimacy” means we often waste so much time, resources, and energy, often for the same results, and sometimes worse.
  4. Seriously consider your internal leaders: I’ve seen so many amazing internal leaders across the sector get treated like crap after putting in years of dedication, their service rewarded with having to report to an outsider the board hired whom the internal leaders also have to teach the ropes to. Many of these leaders end up leaving. And who could blame them? Our sector keeps pontificating about succession planning while treating our internal leaders like trash. Don’t just give them the opportunity to compete like everyone else, but seriously assess whether the internal leader(s) would not only advance the work of the orgs. And be thoughtful about whether your bias toward open processes is based on what you’ve been taught to believe, not what the staff may want, or what may be good for the organization.
  5. Work with search firms led by Black, Indigenous, People of Color: If you are using a search firm, spend time and money finding BIPOC-led companies, especially if you are trying to be thoughtful about hiring leaders who come from communities of color or other marginalized communities. Again, there are some good white-led consulting firms, I’m not dismissing everyone. But more often than not, I encounter white-led firms sending me emails asking me for help finding candidates of color. And I’m like “I noticed you didn’t disclose the salary range in this posting; please disclose it, because not doing so reinforces racial and gender wage gaps, here’s some resources,” and they’re like, “Thank you for educating us.” You’re the hiring firm! You’re paid for this! People of color shouldn’t have to educate hiring firms on this or other equitable hiring practices! Anyway, I asked colleagues on Twitter for some recommendations on BIPOC-led search firms, so here are a few.
  6. Stop using white-determined standards of qualifications: We are still stuck in many traditional inequitable philosophies and practices that have been chosen by white people over decades, and these practices are particularly sticky when it comes to hiring the “top” positions. For instance, requiring a formal degree for jobs that are not specialized (like counselors, lawyers, CPAs, etc.) is inequitable, yet many positions still require formal degrees, and for ED/CEO positions, this is even more of a deal-breaker. We have to move out of these white-determined proxies for qualification that rely on formal credentials, technical skills, the ability to code-switch, be “professional,” etc. Consider different standards of qualifications: Direct experience being affected by systemic injustice, connections and relationships with communities being served, etc.
  7. Examine your biases toward certain types of leaders: This article by Community Wealth Partners lays out the problem of the self-reinforcing cycle that leads to a majority white staff. This is vital for boards to understand, because many boards are white, so they tend to hire white EDs/CEOs, who then hire white staff. As another example, many boards, because they are full of corporate folks, tend to gravitate toward leaders from the corporate sector, even if those leaders have no experience running a nonprofit. I wrote about this earlier; it is insulting and annoying. These biases prevent boards from seeing and appreciating candidates, especially if these candidates are BIPOC, disabled, etc. We need to break out of these cycles by doing some self-reflecting and by hiring people from marginalized communities to help us think and act differently than what we’re unconsciously used to.
  8. Be transparent about your process and progress: Transitions can take a long time, especially if you’re exploring different leadership models and trying to be inclusive and equitable. You may need to hire an interim leader. Whatever you’re doing, be clear about it as you go along, especially when it comes to staff. Remember, this new leader or co-leaders will be overseeing them, and nothing is more frustrating and anxiety-inducing than having no clue who or when or what the hell is coming down the line. It’s disrespectful. Many orgs hire someone, and then within months the rest of the team quits because the process was so opaque and insulting.
  9. Engage the community in the process: Every couple of years, Seattle Public Schools searches for a new superintendent. It’s a grueling process. A common complaint from students and parents is that people don’t get engaged enough in the decision, and then bam, we’re stuck with someone the board chose. Of course, few nonprofits are as big as a school district, but even so, the people we serve have a right to be informed and engaged in this process of choosing the leader(s) who will affect services and programs. Again, when boards are often so white and full of well-meaning-but-out-of-touch people, meaningful community involvement in hiring leaders is not just a nice-to-have, but essential.
  10. Prepare your organization if you’re bringing in BIPOC, disabled, trans, and other leaders from marginalized communities: Many organizations are so focused on the hiring process itself and making sure it goes well based on white-determined standards that they don’t devote enough time and energy into ensuring the org won’t drive the new leader(s) away. This topic warrants its own post, but so many leaders from marginalized communities are set up for failure because the org hasn’t done its work before the leader(s) arrives. Like an org that’s historically white-led bringing in its first leader of color. The preemptive work includes assessing for equity gaps (such as gender and racial pay disparity, lack of accessibility, etc.), having discussions about how to intentionally support the new leader, reflecting on what happens when the new leader proposes ideas that may clash with the board, and preparing for pushbacks from donors who are still “on the journey toward equity” or whatever.

The process we’ve been taught for doing executive searches is often inequitable. Like many other things in our sector, it tends to reward white, male, neurotypical, extroverted, external, corporate-minded candidates and reinforces crappy systems. In the words of Gollum: “Curse it and crush it! We hates it forever!” It’s time for a change. As we work to better align fundraising, evaluation, grantmaking, capacity building, etc., with equity, so must we do this with our leadership transition and executive search practices.

About the author

Vu Le