Been Barking Up the Wrong Tree For a New CEO?


By Chris Gandy

As a not for profit board member what is your most important and probably most difficult task? Most board members I speak to say it is finding and recruiting a new CEO. I totally agree but at the same time find it a bit weird that quite often the Board’s actions don’t seem to reflect the critical nature of the task.

The problem is that, in my view, Boards generally put a great deal of thought and effort into the recruitment process – it is just that they are “barking up the wrong tree” when looking for a new CEO.

Joan Garry recently posted an entertaining article on this where she describes how organisations seem to set themselves up to make poor recruitment decisions. Her argument being that if a Board does the direct opposite it has a good chance of finding the right leader for the organisation. In other words, if a Board barks up the right trees and not the wrong ones they are likely to find an outstanding candidate.

Which Trees Should You Bark Up?

Consternation Tree or Opportunity Tree

Typically when a CEO departs there is a degree on consternation among Board members. This usually leads to a common belief that a replacement needs to be recruited as a matter of absolute urgency. Whether this results in the right person being selected is highly questionable and in the haste more often than not ends up with the “best of a bad lot” being recruited.

On the other hand, if the Board were to view a CEO’s departure as an opportunity for the organisation the result could be entirely different. Board’s that take this approach usually decide to appoint an Interim CEO and productively use the time to reflect on the organisation, fully understand its present position, where it seeks to go and what is needed to get it there. Only when these questions have been fully answered does the recruitment process begin.

Clone Tree or Need Tree

I shudder to think of the number of times a board Recruitment Committee has framed their thinking around the skill set of the previous incumbent. “We need another person just like Jane” or “Jane was hopeless we need someone completely different”. Instead the Committee would be better served by sitting down and answering such questions as: What are the organisations current needs? Where do we expect to be in 5 years’ time? What are the unique circumstances that the new leader will face? What are the knowledge, skills and other characteristics needed in this position?

Experience Tree or Attribute Tree

How often do you see CEO advertisements which state things like:  “Must have experience in providing services to people with a disability” or “ Five years’ experience in the Aged Cared sector is essential”?

OK, sector experience is helpful particularly with the level of bureaucratic red tape proliferating in so many areas let alone the unique jargon that seems to be exploding on the back of social media. But this doesn’t trump a candidate with the necessary leadership attributes – no matter where these were developed.

Style Tree or Substance Tree

There are any number of candidates on the market these days that can knock a Board’s socks off with vision, charisma and panache. A Board needs to be able to go beyond this and look for substance in their candidate. As one wise Board Chair once told me: “We had a clear choice between a meteor and a planet. We chose the one who will shine brightly on a daily basis rather than someone who could only offer a flash of absolute brilliance”

Referee Tree or Verification Tree

Despite the recent media about questionable reference checking, it is still surprising how poorly this important step in the recruitment process is conducted. At best Boards seem to rely on talking to the candidate’s self-selected “cheer squad”. To ensure we select the right candidate we need to do a lot better than this. An extensive reference and verification process should be instituted for every shortlisted candidate, which includes confirming employment history, verifying academic credentials, and conducting extensive reference conversations.

Solo Tree or Support Tree

I have seen some Board’s conduct wonderfully successful recruitment processes without external help. But these tend to be the exception and in all cases they had a member with a strong professional recruiting background. Wise Boards will assess their own strengths and limitations in this area and engage external resources as appropriate. A word of advice here. If you do engage a recruitment firm to help with all or part of the process, work closely with them. Your Board is a great source of information and guidance and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Share with us the trees you barked up to find your ideal CEO.

About Chris:  Chris Gandy is the founder and a director of Cause and Effective – a provider of contingent resourcing and leadership search services to cause-based organisations.


About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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