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Happy hunting, and how it's done

The most important part of any leadership search is having a consistent process: Whether the search is on for an executive director or other members of your leadership team, the same principles apply.

For us, that’s referring back at every stage—identifying candidates, screening them, interviewing them, checking references, getting the new leader started—to a behaviorally-defined, competency-based job description. That’s the key: Asking ourselves, at every stage of the search, “Are we basing this activity on what we outlined in the job description?” It’s a model that’s easy to implement, and robust in its application—as long as you get it right from the outset, with a job description that speaks to your specific needs.

Getting the job description right

So how do we get one of these “behaviorally-defined, competency-based job descriptions? First, let’s define our terms.

Competency, in the context of human resources, is a combination of talent, skill, education, experience, success, and motivation to continue learning and im­proving. Competency can center around a function like communications, planning, or program implementation, or it can center around a quality like leadership or innovation.

Because any particular competency can mean different things to each person hearing or using it, we also need to behaviorally define those competencies. “Leadership,” for example, could mean “responsible for energizing and motivating,” like the figure people follow into battle. Or, leadership could refer to a turnaround specialist: someone who understands how to redirect an organization struggling in its mission or with financial survival. The need for leadership is different in each case, which is why it’s vital to define the behaviors you’re looking for—and make sure everyone involved in the hunt has the same definition.

To create the job description, we first look at three areas:

The strategic plan: Where do you stand in the plan? Are your mission, vision, and goals still relevant, or do they need updating?

External forces: What are the factors outside your organization’s control that you need to respond to for your organization or the people you serve? Those could include political, economic, technical, environmental, and sociological forces.

Internal operations: What are some of the current day-to-day challenges you’re facing? Considering those questions together, we  determine what competencies someone coming into the organization needs and what those competencies look like in action, in terms of  behaviors. The result is a com­petency-based, behaviorally-defined job description.

For GCN Consulting client C5 Georgia Youth Foundation, the process yielded a clear list of requirements for their next ED: “Through the process of identifying leader­ship needs, we recognized that our efforts in working with GCN needed to focus on recruiting an executive director who demon­strated strategic vision, had proven busi­ness savvy, a history of building long-term relationships, and a demonstrated passion for youth leadership development with real outcomes,” reported C5 Board Chair Dwayne Irvin.

Using a competency-centered approach also makes background and education far less important. That’s by design: familiarity with your particular cause area, while nice, doesn’t alone fulfill any of your organizational needs. Focusing on competencies opens up your candidate pool to other sectors and subsectors, enabling you to find candidates you would have been blind to in a search restricted to your cause area.

Full Search, Guided Search, and the DIY option

Getting the job description right is worth it, because it keeps everyone from drifting or getting distracted from what the organi­zation needs. In one of GCN Consulting’s typical Full-Service Searches, we might see 175 resumes, speak to 50 candidates, interview eight in person, and present five for the search committee to see. At every point along the way—screening resumes, interviewing over the phone and in person, deciding who the client sees, developing the questions they’ll ask each candidate, doing reference checks, and conducting a second round of interviews—that job description is the guide.

The need for leadership is different in each case, which is why it's vital to define the behaviors you're looking for—and make sure everyone involved in the hunt has the same definition.

In a Guided Search—where we’re consulting with a search committee that’s going to do the work themselves—we start by helping them develop a timeline, so the client knows the process will be complet­ed in a reasonable time frame, and what steps must be taken. After that, we help them create their competency-based job description. The next step is to establish a communication plan, covering who needs to know what, and when. The communication plan includes prompts for keeping every stakeholder updated and involved, includ­ing service recipients, donors, staff, board, executive committee, community partners, and key influencers: “In week two, send the job description to these 12 donors and request their recommendations;” “Once we’ve narrowed it down to five candidates, send update to all staff.”

With a job description, timeline, and com­munication plan in place, we have reference points for recruiting and to see whether the search is proceeding according to schedule, or whether we need a course correction— that is, to refine the job description, alter the compensation package, or tweak some other factor.

The biggest challenge for organizations conducting a search on their own: relying too heavily on advertising the position and passively receiving resumes. Rather than de­pending solely on posting a job description to a relevant website or job board and waiting for people to find you, it’s much more effective to ask board members to send the job descrip­tion to their colleagues and to actively use your own network, including those outside your specific area of work. (Worried about the same people receiving the job description from multiple board members? Don’t be: mul­tiple prompts not only show how seriously you’re taking the search, but also frequently provoke action.)

In fact, the most promising candidates come from what we call “third-generation sources.” For example: A board member recommends someone as a candidate; when contacted, that person isn’t interested in the job, but has two suggested colleagues for us to pursue. One of these “third generation sources” recommends someone who be­comes a candidate the search committee will meet. 

The Good-Candidate Gestation Period

The typical executive director search takes 20 weeks, start to finish. To most, that seems like a long time (Every organization wants to find someone in six weeks!), but the reality is that there’s a certain amount of “market percolation” required. That is, to get the de­scription out there—to make the initial calls, to make the next round of calls, and to get to a sufficient pool of high-quality candidates—it takes a certain amount of time. Think of it as the Good-Candidate Gestation Period: if you want strong candidates, you have to take the time to find them. (This is one reason, in an executive director search, an interim ED can be very useful.)

That said, we have completed successful leader searches in less time. GCN Consulting client Emmaus House, which engaged us for a Guided Search, completed their search in under 20 weeks—largely because they followed every step, as listed above, and used all the resources we made available (including phone screening scripts, tactics for reaching the person you actually want to talk to, when to leave a voicemail and when not to, what kind of information to share up front and what to share further along in the process, and how to make the most of a reference call).

Committing to a clear, standardized process doesn't just mean you reduce the risk of each hiring decision, but also that you're able to access the best possible candidate pool for your needs.

Clint Deveaux was search committee chair for Emmaus House. His take: “GCN helped guide us through a very helpful rethinking of our ED’s job description, from which we could easily extract key competencies. For­mulating questions around those key com­petencies gave us the tools, in each round of interviews—through 119 applicants, 27 phone interviews, and 12 in-person committee inter­views—to extract actual experiences from the candidates that reflected their strengths and abilities.”

The ED they found, Joseph Mole, said that from his perspective as a candidate, the process provided “clarity” in both commu­nication and progress: “Since I was involved in multiple searches at the same time, it was very helpful to have next steps outlined, and to have access to a search committee chair who could address any questions I had.”

A model for hiring

Though GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group only performs searches for CEO-level positions, this approach can be applied in any hiring situation. Committing to a clear, standardized process doesn’t just mean you reduce the risk of each hiring decision, but also that you’re able to access the best possi­ble candidate pool for your needs.

We’ve helped nonprofits of all sizes and development stages—including Emmaus House, C5 Georgia Youth Foundation, Habitat for Humanity of Dekalb County, and Scottdale Child Development & Family Resource Center—with this important work. With or without our help, however, the most important thing you can do is define your needs and be consistent. Otherwise, you run the danger of going with the candidate who is most charismatic in the interview, or the one who best speaks the language of your industry, rather than the best candidate for your organization’s needs.

A Word on Pricing


The cost of leadership search consultation depends on how much the search committee wants to take on themselves. At the high end of committee engagement, they can use our coaching to create the timeline and communication plan. We can facilitate identification of competencies, so that they can write the job description themselves and develop candidates on their own. They can interview candidates, make reference calls, negotiate the offer and establish an onboarding plan based on our templates. With a client-led approach, the more work the client does, the lower the cost, and the high the risk of recruiting a new leader who does not work out. we help clients divide the work between the committee and GCN, so they gain maximum transition assistance in a way that meets their budget.

Mary Bear Hughes is a senior consultant with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, specializing in succession planning, executive search, and transition success.

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