When a nonprofit board announces that it is looking for its next executive director, president or CEO, it’s not unusual for one or more longtime senior-level professionals within the organization to approach the board for the top spot.
But not everyone is fit to take on a leadership role.
With help from a recruiter; your board can assess a qualified internal candidate and compare that individual with external candidates who have proven success in a leadership role.
Weighing your options
There are advantages and disadvantages of considering both internal and external candidates. Viable internal candidates are familiar with the organization, its culture, staff and community. While external candidates might lack those familiarities, they have years of experience leading an organization. They may also energize your team with creative ideas that have the potential to grow the organization in new ways.
Board members must decide if they want to stay the course with an internal candidate or take a chance with an external candidate who might take the organization on a different path.
During the search process, both internal and external candidates are carefully screened to assess how their qualifications, experience, fit and backgrounds measure up with the demands of the position.
Sometimes there is a misconception that recruiting an internal candidate requires less work on the search firm’s part since the recruiter did not identify them. But in fact, the evaluation of internal candidates requires just as much work- regardless of who is ultimately asked to lead the organization.
Internal candidates undergo the same performance assessments as external candidates and are asked similar open-ended questions, including why they are interested in the role and how their track record, accomplishments or management skills have prepared them to lead. Learning what they might have done differently in their climb up the career ladder at their organization may also reveal their leadership readiness.
Identifying the skills your internal candidate lacks
Internal candidates who are typically up for consideration for the top staff position, regardless of their titles, tend to be executives who are involved in the management of an organization’s operations and programs, including chief operating officers and chief program officers. While these professionals might have a wealth of experience in working with staff members and the community in which the organization works, boards must be aware that candidates who have never led an organization often lack fundraising knowledge and experience working with the board-both of which are important to spur outcomes. This may put internal candidates at a disadvantage since the external candidates that a recruiter discovers will probably already have a successful track record of leading an organization, working with the board and fundraising.
If internal candidates lack fundraising experience, they might still be able to advance in the process by emphasizing their interpersonal and negotiation skills as well as their passion for building relationships. These attributes are the underpinnings of successful fundraising.
Positive relations with the board can determine a new leader’s ability to succeed in an executive director position. Boards should also pay special attention to how an internal candidate gets along with other people on the staff, especially other members of the executive team.
If an internal candidate has little experience working with the board, it could lead to his or her downfall. Working with the board of directors requires a comfort level in a consensus-driven, collaborative environment. The candidate that your board chooses must be an individual who is skilled at sharing leadership and experienced in facilitating consensus. This could also apply to external candidates who have trouble interacting with a new board of directors.
Measuring internal candidates with the outside world
It’s important to compare internal candidates with strong external candidates to determine if they should move forward in the process. How an internal candidate compares to strong external candidates is an important step in determining if they should move forward in the process. Sometimes organizations can become so insular that they are not aware of the talent that is available and the leadership necessary to achieve their goals.
In order to properly gauge the internal candidate’s chances of success as an executive director, the board must measure the internal candidate with the outside world. This is one of the top advantages of teaming up with a search firm. The recruiter will find external candidates that either match up against the internal candidate or outperform them. This gives the board options that they might not have considered.
Whether you decide to move ahead with an internal or external hire during the selection process, make sure that you select a leader who is capable of taking your organization where it wants to go in the future.