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Centering Humanity in Executive Search

Updated: Jan 12

Traditional Executive Search processes for cultural nonprofits, while often robust and detailed and with increasing emphasis on bias training, have five common problems that lead to ineffective placements and, in some cases, organizational trauma or conflict.

The ecosystem of thoughtful innovators working with Creative Evolutions have examined these common issues and are implementing a process with a set of new solutions in searches across the country. If you are interested in discussing these further or have a need for a more human-centered approach to your next executive search, let us know!

Problem #1: Many searches do not include important constituents who will work closely with the new executive.

A search that does not actively include the perspectives of the entire staff, entire board, and regularly engaged artists or company members, is setting up the new leader for challenges and can sow distrust and division.

Solution: Our process heavily emphasizes inclusion for anyone who needs to trust and collaborate with the new executive at the outset of the process and then again with the same people in the meeting and consideration of finalists. Building trust with these individuals in the process itself is essential, so regular communication and updates are also a must.

Problem #2: Search processes often start with giant laundry lists or dozens of boxes for candidates to check, which creates false and misleading expectations.

Organizations that create a description of a ‘unicorn’ they are seeking find themselves frustrated and disappointed with candidates later in the process. Over-loading expectations can result in the elimination of candidates with stellar abilities in key areas who may not have had a wide range of experiences. This has a particular impact on the consideration of candidates from traditionally excluded demographics who may not have had the opportunities to ‘check every box’ in a career path.

Solution: Instead of a giant list of capabilities, we thoughtfully discuss with the staff, board, and artists a) how the new executive should be truly exceptional, b) what the new executive will need to handle basically on their own, c) what the new executive needs to understand or have experience in to be able to work well with the rest of the team, and d) what the new executive doesn’t really need to have experience in as long as they have respect for others in the company.

Problem #3: Most searches shift a group of board members from their governance and oversight role into a practical hiring role they have not adequately prepared for.

While the board usually holds the positional authority to make the executive hire, board members often find themselves in awkward positions where they evaluate candidates in areas where the board members do not have expertise. This often makes them uncertain and sometimes overly reliant on the executive search consultants who have been engaged. (Those consultants may also not be experts in the particular essential areas that need to be evaluated given the role and organization.)

Additionally, since the power to authorize the hire often lives with the Board as a whole or an Executive Committee, the creation of a Search Committee opens the possibility for the Board to overrule the Search Committee, which has happened in some organizations and can cause permanent schism and resignations.

Solutions: To address this, we prefer to have a main point of contact for the search on the board (essentially a Committee chair) but then to include all board members in the initial discussions of the needs of the role, and for all board members to have the opportunity to meet and interview finalists. All board members are also present for the final deliberation and vote on the selection of the new executive.

In the middle of a process, where often a Search Committee is winnowing down a set of semi-finalists, we recruit and utilize a paid industry panel. This could be three other executives of similarly sized companies around the country, other cultural nonprofits in the region, or a combination. This panel brings the most direct expertise and deepest knowledge of how to evaluate individuals for this role. It adds immeasurably to the perspectives that already exist of the consultants, board, staff, and artists.

The industry panel conducts semifinalist interviews of up to ten semifinalists and selects a slate of three finalists to advance to the final round. The entire board is invited to meet the industry panel and to observe the semifinalist interviews for depth of knowledge and educational purposes. (The industry panel also becomes another vehicle for promoting the position and identifying potential new candidates.)

Problem #4: Valuable candidates, who are potential new leaders for the organization and likely leaders in the national and local communities, are often not treated with respect.

Candidates can be asked to do excessive numbers of interviews, can sit for months at a time without communication, and can sometimes be treated as second-class participants in a process that elevates the organization, consultants, or board members over them instead of equitably seeking a new partner for organizational leadership.

Solutions: First, our team commits to regular and personal communication with every applicant. Anyone who takes the time to submit their materials for consideration will know at all times where the process is and where they are in terms of advancing.

Secondly, we compensate candidates financially for semi-finalist and finalist interviews. This directly acknowledges the time, expertise, and value that all of those candidates bring to the organization and the process, even though only one will be offered the position. Depending on the size of the organization hiring, a fee of several hundred dollars for semifinalist candidates and $1,000+ for finalist candidates (plus expenses) is a good starting place. This practice of compensating expert individuals for their time transforms the dynamics in the process in ways that shift the level of value and respect accorded to the candidates for everything they are bringing to the table.

Problem #5: New Executives are not well supported in transition and in their first year of employment.

A search process often ends with the press release, and the board, staff, and consulting teams do not often put an appropriate amount of effort into supporting the onboarding and norming of the new hire into the organization, which usually takes six to twelve months.

Solutions: Our process includes supporting the board in creating the employment agreement

and onboarding process in the early stages of the search, so those are clearly defined before reaching the finalist stage. This ensures that appropriate time and energy have been spent thinking through the nuances of those steps well in advance.

Secondly, both the consultants and the three industry panelists commit to being available for up to three calls each with the new executive or the board of directors during the first year of employment, to act as mentors or colleagues or supporters, as is most useful.

What questions or thoughts do you have about these solutions and new ways of bringing new leaders into our organizations?

Let us know, or share with your networks and start a conversation! If you'd like our help in your next Executive Search, reach out and we are happy to talk to you!

Read More: Strategic Pathways Lead to Living Visions by Rebecca Novick

Calida N. Jones is an accomplished musician, social justice advocate, and educator with more than 25 years of experience in performance planning, workshop and curriculum development, volunteerism, project management, and teaching in  private and public institutions.

Douglas brings more than 25 years of experience in the arts and culture industry, specifically within opera, theater, and arts service organizations. Passionate about innovative business models in the arts and culture sector, his driving purpose is to create more equitable and effective ways for talented and committed people to be creative and successful in our society.

Image Credit: Canva, Douglas Clayton, Calida N. Jones

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