Three Steps to Making a Great External Hire

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Summary

Making a great external hire requires thoughtful action throughout the hiring process. In this article, adapted from Chapter 4 of Bridgespan's Nonprofit Leadership Development: What's Your "Plan A" for Growing Future Leaders?, we look at three steps that are important to a good process—defining the role, assessing fit and designing a good on–boarding process—that can help you hire the best candidate and help him or her quickly get up to speed.

By its nature, the hiring and on-boarding process is full of doubts and uncertainty, particularly when that hire will be taking on a leadership role within your organization. One article can't eliminate the difficulty. But we can offer some practical advice that can help you and your organization hire the right leader in the first place and help him or her make the transition into the new job and start living into your Plan A on Day One. Our advice is based largely on our executive-search work with more than 200 nonprofits, which has taught us a great deal about what goes into a great hire. Of course, we can't cover the entire topic of hiring in this article. Instead, we'll focus on several essential processes that many nonprofits overlook or underplay. (See "More Help with Hiring Externally" for a variety of resources on this topic.)

You may discover, after drawing up a Plan A for your organization or department, that for one reason or another you cannot fill a critical leadership position internally and need to hire externally. Judging from our diagnostic survey, most nonprofit leaders aren't fully confident that they're up to the task. Seventy-six percent agree or strongly agree that external candidates seeking leadership roles are attracted to the organization. Yet 40 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that their organizations "on-board and successfully integrate external leadership hires."

In our experience, successful on-boarding calls for thoughtful action throughout the hiring process. Well before the search begins, organizations that on-board successfully have formed a small search committee (ideally three or four people) to lead the process, and committee members have reached clear internal agreement about what's required in a given role. They rigorously vet job candidates and engage in on-boarding practices that build the new hire's capability and credibility. (See "Are You Hiring and On-boarding Outside Leaders Effectively? An Excerpt From Our Leadership Development Diagnostic Survey" to help judge how well you hire and on-board external leaders.)With those requirements in mind, we focus on three key steps to making a great external hire:

  • Step 1: Define Requirements for the Role
  • Step 2: Create Opportunities for Both the Organization and the Candidate to Assess Whether the Candidate Is a Good Fit
  • Step 3: Design an On-boarding Process that Supports the New Hire's Capabilities and Relationship Development

Step 1: Define Requirements of the Role

Success in external leadership hiring begins with a statement of the requirements for the role your organization is trying to fill – a statement that everyone involved in the hiring process buys into. Without a shared understanding of what your organization needs to fill a given role successfully, you will have a hard time sourcing high-quality candidates and selecting promising candidates for further consideration.

Your list of job requirements will be rooted in the skills and competencies the leaders of your organization will need as it evolves, based on the Plan A you have created. But it's often not possible to find one person who embodies everything the committee is looking for. It may be necessary to make tradeoffs in the course of whittling down the list to the five or six critical attributes that a person must possess just to be considered a plausible candidate.

Cultural considerations should play a large role in determining the nonnegotiable requirements for the role you want to fill. As important as functional skills and competency requirements are, cultural fit often determines whether a hire is successful.

But how does an organization arrive at a shared understanding of its culture? At the very least, the search committee leading the process will want to think about the organization's work environment and the norms that govern interactions between people in the organization. Leaders whose style of working and personal interaction clashes with those norms and expectations will be a poor fit with the organization, no matter how well they might perform the job's functional requirements. (Read "Determining a Candidate's Cultural Fit" for a series of questions that can help you define your organization's culture and determine whether a candidate is likely to fit within it.)

Step 2: Create Opportunities for the Organization and the Candidate to Assess Whether the Candidate Is a Good Fit

One of the most important lessons we've learned through our work is that successful searches go beyond the standard interview questions and give decision makers a chance to learn about how a candidate might actually operate. Once your search committee has winnowed down the roster of candidates to a short list of two or three finalists, you can start to probe candidates' operating styles. One approach would be to ask each finalist to study detailed information about the organization, such as its strategic plan, operating statements, and records of board deliberations. Then the committee could ask each finalist questions like the following:

  • If you got the job, what would be your priorities in your first 90 days? In your first year?
  • After a year on the job, how would you know if you were on the right track? How would you measure your progress?
  • Given what you know about our organization, what is your vision of where we could be in five years?

The candidates' answers should give a good indication of their understanding of the organization's mission and culture and can give your committee a sense of their strategic focus and overall fit for the role. They can also weed out any candidates who offer only boilerplate replies or whose vision for the organization diverges sharply from that of its leadership.

Inviting a candidate to join in a working session with the senior leadership team is another good way to measure potential. By participating in a real meeting to solve actual problems, the candidate gets a chance to interact with other people and contribute to the group's work. How does the candidate influence the group dynamic? Does the candidate improve the team's performance or disrupt it? The answers to these questions will help the committee decide whether the candidate is right for the role.

In addition to assessing what the candidate has to offer the organization, communicate what the organization has to offer the right candidate. Financial compensation and the opportunity to advance the organization's mission will be a part of this discussion, of course, but many other factors can influence a candidate's decision, such as the opportunity to work with other senior leaders to develop a particular skill, exercise autonomy in an entrepreneurial role, or advance his or her long-term career plans.

Step 3: Design an On-boarding Process that Supports the New Hire's Capabilities and Relationship Development

Some of your most important work begins after a candidate accepts your offer. Even the most promising career can be short-circuited if the on-boarding process goes awry. That's why it's crucial to approach on-boarding thoughtfully and systematically, surrounding the new leader with support during the transition period. Be prepared to offer support for at least the first 30 to 90 days of your new senior leader's transition.

Even before your new hire arrives, you can begin passing along information about your organization, such as minutes from your last management meeting. And you can arrange opportunities for the successful candidate to meet key employees and board members. Invite your new hire to any special events where he or she will have a chance to interact with staff members. Such interactions facilitate understanding of the organization's activities and concerns before Day One.

If circumstances permit, it's often helpful for your new hire's tenure to overlap with that of his or her predecessor. During this period of overlap, the newcomer can solidify relationships with key colleagues and become more familiar with the organizational culture. It's important, though, not to prolong the transition period unnecessarily. By the end of the month, the new hire should be visibly in charge and the predecessor out the door, although of course they can continue to communicate.

The new hire also should work with his or her supervisor early on to establish three to five key goals. Supervisors can help their new hires succeed by regularly checking in with them to learn how they're progressing against those goals. During the busy on-boarding period, when new hires are drinking from the proverbial fire hose, these check-ins help them set priorities and start making a visible contribution to the organization.

Some of the best-regarded nonprofits facilitate the on-boarding process by assigning advocates to help new hires find their bearings in the organization. The advocates' job titles are of secondary importance. What matters more is their understanding of the organizational culture and familiarity with the leadership team.

Are You Hiring and On-boarding Outside Leaders Effectively?

An Excerpt From Our Leadership Development Diagnostic Survey

Below is an excerpt from our leadership development diagnostic survey. Are these statements true of your organization? If yes, then you likely have a good idea of what it takes to hire external talent and have a process for getting them up to speed. If no, consider taking the steps we describe in this article.

  • We have achieved the right balance between developing leaders internally and hiring leaders externally.
  • External candidates seeking leadership roles are attracted to our organization.
  • We effectively screen external leadership candidates to ensure they are correct for the role and organization.
  • We on-board and successfully integrate external leadership hires.

More Help with External Hiring

To learn more about making a great external hire, consult our library of resources on the topic. These resources include:

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