Classic NPO mistakes in hiring a CEO

March 25th, 2013

I recently got this question from one of my professors in I-O Psychology:

“Have you noticed that non-profit organizations tend to write vague job descriptions, even when looking for an executive director? Perhaps it is due to the fact that most non-profits operate with limited funds.

Recently I found out about an executive director position for a local non-profit. When I read the description, it was lacking detailed information especially important interpersonal characteristics. Although these characteristics are important to the executive director role, the job description lacked these characteristics and it was vague. As a result of this, the organization generated over twenty-five candidates. Before they started interviewing candidates, the search committee ended up sifting through all of the applications to narrow down the list. However, what would have happened if the interim director had decided to write a more detailed job description, including interpersonal characteristics. Do you think they would have generated fewer and more qualified applicants?”

NPOs are my area of expertise and I have several answers to this question. Let’s begin by understanding the context. Often board members’ tenure is shorter than the CEO (e.g., they don’t have the institutional history or understanding that the CEO does). The long-term CEO often could not begin to describe in detail what he/she does (e.g., growth and development over time led to professional or personal changes that she/he has not devoted conscious thought to). Priorities can shift with the economic conditions. Depending on the type of organization (e.g., charitable, trade association, foundation), culture often dictates desired characteristics. Also depending on the type of organization, board member volunteers vary in expertise, background, and skills. Even the most gifted human resources person or bank manager will not have the depth of understanding to write the job description that will lead to hiring an effective NPO CEO. Volunteer board members tend to want to adapt what they know about hiring and employment to hiring a NPO CEO. It is not the same situation.

One board I worked with was faced with the retirement of a long-term CEO. When I asked what attributes or characteristics they were looking for, the chairman said (in all seriousness), “We don’t know, but we’ll know what we’re looking for when we see it.” Good thing I kept listening. I had to suppress my astonishment because I almost laughed and asked if that was a joke. The next comments left no doubt that the board intended to go on a fishing expedition. That’s likely why the NPO my professor asked about got what they got. Classic mistakes by NPO boards in hiring a CEO:

1) Hiring on the rebound. Like a recent breakup, losing a long-term CEO is a gut-wrenching affair. Boards inevitably will try to hire someone as quickly as possible to avoid the pain of loss. Rather than think through strategically what type of leader is needed for the future, the board seeks to replace what was lost. Bad idea. I’ve seen these rebound hires time and again. They never last (usually not past six months). Just like dating on the rebound, the board can never replicate what they once had. Besides, organizations change. What the organization needed in a leader 20 years ago is likely not the same as what the organization needs today.

2) Hiring someone from the board ranks. Familiarity and cameraderie with a person is never a good reason to hire that person for the top job. Boards think it a great/smart idea because they don’t need to wrestle with messy stuff like job descriptions and interviews and background checks. Yuck! However, the relationship changes the minute the person goes from “peer leader” to “employee”. Intimacy and trust turn to fear (and sometimes loathing) when expectations are not made clear. Another problem is when new members come on the board, they may not be so enamored with the other board members’ good buddy…I’ve seen this happen at least a dozen times. None but one worked out.

3) Going on a fishing expedition. This is what the board client I already mentioned did. Boards end up writing a job description that in no way resembles what the board needs and/or only vaguely describes what it wants. This one is classic because it’s similar to writing an RFP for services without thinking through what outcomes one expects and articulating those into specific skills or experience needed. One small staff (3) organization board thought they wanted a great financial manager because of increasing revenues and organizational complexity (investments and such). They got one. Only one teensy problem: this is a community entity that also needs a charismatic leader who will interact with the public and members. The new CEO is an introvert. Not gonna happen. But the books and investments are in great shape! Which set of skills/characteristics would have been easier to outsource — charismatic leader or introverted financial guru?

What do I think about writing a detailed job description? Do it. But hire someone who can be objective and ask critical questions to help. My favorite saying is, “What will end up biting you in the butt are the things you don’t know you don’t know.” No one knows everything and not even the smartest collection of board members will know everything. A healthy dose of outside perspective can cause light bulbs to light all over the boardroom.

I need someone to organize my virtual social life

February 8th, 2013

Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, Google Plus, groups, followers, followings, likes/dislikes….AAAGGGGHHH! I can’t keep track. Oh yeah, and there’s YouTube and all the other media content sites like LiveStream. One needs a social network data assistant to stay on top of it all. Why, oh why, isn’t there one solution to make them all connect with each other? For example, I’d like to go to LinkedIn (my preferred site for fascinating dialog and connections with other professionals), enter one post, and have a pop-up box ask me to check all the other social networking sites I want to have that post referenced in. I’ve learned a few of them do work together, but it’s not a system.

Here’s what I mean:

Say I post something brilliant in the Boards and Advisors group on LinkedIn. I would like some of the other groups I’m in to see it too. Couldn’t there just be a way for an app to pop up with a message like this:

“Sherry just posted something you should see here: [insert appropriate link]”

Obviously, I would want to select (check all that apply?) which groups or sites (e.g., EIGA group on LinkedIn, FB, Twitter, Google Plus) are appropriate. The African Grey group on FB probably doesn’t care about the lastest trends in corporate governance. Also, I’d want to select which social networking site. I pretty much keep my personal and volunteer social networking (FB) and business networking (all others) separate.

And then, as long as I’m wishing, I would have a summary of all my activity tracked by this app solution. Maybe LinkedIn Premium does some of this but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t act as my personal virtual life organizer for everything I do online…

Thoughts? Solutions?

Policy Governance Drove Me to…

January 15th, 2013

Psychology. Why is it difficult for many?/most? boards to move to a comprehensive, logical system of governing? What’s that old joke: “Why did the man stop hitting himself with a hammer? Because it felt so good when he stopped.” See my blog post about 30-year-old technology. Why would good, smart board members subject themselves to something klunky, old-fashioned, cumbersome, time consuming, frustrating….when it can stop? See the LinkedIn discussion.

Diary Doodles of a Distracted Blogger

January 14th, 2013

Decided that diary is the wrong word. Even though I’m chronicling my foibles and attempts at online networking, the day of the post doesn’t imply any real order. The day of posting only illustrates what oozed to the top of my brain. The Free Dictionary defines doodle as scribbling absentmindedly. Verbal doodles are more appropriate to describe my blogging.

Prior to exploring (lurking) on various discussion boards at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), I actually started posting some responses. A recent one discussed the appropriate/inappropriate use of social media for screening potential employees. Because I love taking the opposite view, I posited a different scenario and asked:

…finding the right fit in any recruiting and hiring situation is a two-way street. As the economy improves (albeit slowly there are signs), key employees who have the skills, experience, and knowledge that make the organization hum may choose to leave.

Potential applicants to your organization, too, can explore multiple job opportunities without personally speaking to anyone in your organization. What if a really good potential applicant decided to explore your organization’s website and social media before applying? How comfortable is it when the shoe is on the other foot?

Not only that, but it seems prudent for prospective employers to mind their Ps and Qs when using social media. Michael Wyland said:

My partner is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a certified senior professional in human resources (SPHR). I asked her about this issue, and she was adamant that, based on her training (including recent training), that those involved in hiring should avoid social media searches. Her opinion is that this is one of many areas of the law where the law has not kept up with technology access and capabilities.

One reason for avoiding social media searches, as has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, is that such searches allow prospective employers to access information legally prohibited from being considered in hiring decisions. If it can be proven that a social media search was conducted, it becomes more difficult for the prospective employer to protect themselves from a hiring discrimination suit brought by an unsuccessful applicant.

The “safety valve” some employers use is to employ third-party recruiting firms to screen applicants. Some employers use temp-to-hire arrangements to allow them to see a person not *their* employee and learn all about them before making a formal hiring decision. Most of the laws and regulations protecting employment applicants envision the employer doing the hiring directly; they rarely address the actions of third parties in the hiring process.

I went to Michael’s bio and profile on ASAE to let him know about this post and realized…aaagghhh! I don’t have any Twitter or LinkedIn widgets anywhere on my own stuff! Well, maybe tomorrow.

Diary of a distracted blogger

January 12th, 2013

The first thing you’ll note about my blogroll is that until this post, my home page is like Grandma’s attic: full of stuff from long ago…

With so many social media opportunities, I’m the epitome of a kid in a candy store with a quarter in my pocket. So many choices, but which is the best one? Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, MyLife. Oh yeah. And Facebook. Each offers a different flavor and connection sensation. Distractions abound.

My next few blog posts (who knows how many I’ll actually do?) will be dedicated to my exploration of the social networking candy store. Most readers are going to be far more savvy than I am and they will get a chuckle. Some people might gain a new idea or two. I invite your responses for the good of all.

Mostly, it just needs to be fun or it’s not worth doing!!

Oh, and check me out here: Sherry’s picture to End Polio Now. Couldn’t resist being part of the world’s largest commercial. Why am I pictured in front of a partially open door? Because polio still has it’s foot in it and we need to slam the door shut — NOW!

See what I mean? I’m like Dana Carvey’s portrayal of George Bush speaking about a dire national issue and in the middle saying, “Oh! Look at the kitty!”

Would you buy 30-year-old technology?

March 3rd, 2012

The ad reads: “Car ‘phones. They’re no longer the privilege of the chosen few.” In 1982, I actually had one of these Vodaphone babies. I was climbing the corporate ladder of a Fortune 500 company in Chicago and got one installed in my company car. Yes, the company provided me with a personal car (every 50,000 miles I got a new one) and all the gas and maintenance (those really were the good old days). My employer was on the cutting edge of management effectiveness and efficiency. I was part of testing the technology.

My “mobile” car phone was the size and weight of a very large brick. And it was truly a car phone because the base was mounted to (and used power from) the car. I didn’t need to go to the gym to lift weights because the handset provided a good deal of dead weight training. Those of us testing the Vodaphone used to joke that if it quit working, it would make a great boat anchor. I’m surprised I never got whiplash from lifting the handset to my ear while driving. Okay, so yeah. If using your cellphone with your bluetooth is a driving hazard, just imagine how dangerous I was on Lakeshore Drive!

Now here’s what I carry around today: a phone that is not tethered to anything (except maybe my hand or earbuds). It’s about the weight of a pair of scissors and about the size of three packs of dental floss laid side-by-side. And it doesn’t merely connect me by voice-to-voice over cellular. It’s my personal data assistant, office manager, and personal entertainment center. It also responds to my whims. (Siri is my new love, but don’t tell my husband!)

So why do boards of all types and sizes still run with 30-year-old technology? Yes, the basics are still sound. Compare today’s smart phones with my car phone 30 years ago. Why would you choose to carry around a big, old brick that doesn’t do much versus a small, sleek device that caters to your every whim? Is your board functioning with a mindset from 30 years ago? Before you say no, consider this.  Nonprofit organizations proliferated in the 1980’s (Board Source, 2003). Much nonprofit regulation did too. Not surprising that governance structure, culture, and practices emanated from that period. Businessmen populated boards and they brought their management expertise to the boardroom. Unfortunately, management expertise does not necessarily translate to governing expertise. In the management mindset, governing is typically viewed as “management one level up” and tethers a board to the past instead of creating the future.

Why does it seem like transformational governance is still the privilege of the chosen few? Board members and executives, please throw the 30-year-old+ mindset out the window. C’mon now. Don’t say that you don’t know what I’m talking about. At association and nonprofit organization conferences, I still hear the same complaints that I was hearing 20 years ago. Here’s the chronic complaint: why does my board micromanage (i.e., get caught up in administrivia)? Because they don’t have anything more important to do. Because they haven’t found a way to delegate effectively and know their wishes for the organization will be fulfilled. Or, the board recently had a crisis that involved a major financial risk (e.g., embezzlement, lawsuit, the ED who was the “rainmaker” just left). The list goes on and on. People tend to revert to old, dysfunctional behaviors when they feel unsure or threatened or are just plain bored. Governing from this mindset is like picking up the Vodaphone and expecting to have Siri grant your next wish. Remember the implication when you expect different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

The magic of smart phone technology did not happen because Steve Jobs said, “Let’s redesign the Vodaphone!” The magic happened because Steve Jobs had a vision of something sleek, powerful, and ready to go to work for you out of the box. Why would you buy 30-year-old technology when you could have an iPhone?

Unleash the power of your board and explore how you can best use the collective wisdom of all those smart minds in the room. Don’t make them sit through one more staff report or approve one more budget until you think about why you’re asking them to do it. What is the value added? What magic could they envison if given the time?


Geographically dispersed boards

March 1st, 2012


Most of my client teams (board and staff leaders) are geographically dispersed. As an organizational and governance consultant, I give them the value of my expertise in organizational structure, policy development, and implementation. Usually I end up working as a leadership coach as well. When the client board and staff meet face-to-face only once or twice a year, communications and consistency is a challenge. In some cases, the entire board never gets together face-to-face.

I talked with Keith Ferrazzi who is an expert on relationship development. When I asked him if geographically dispersed teams can work together effectively, he asserted it was absolutely essential for the team to get together face-to-face at least once (personal communication, June 15, 2010). I believe he is correct. The ability to see someone’s facial expressions, gestures, and body language helps you interpret what you hear in that person’s voice and read in their emails. It’s also more difficult to get angry with someone you’ve met.

Working with a board is challenging in the best of circumstances, but working with a virtual, geographically dispersed, or technology-networked board creates unique group process problems leaders need to recognize. Forging a cohesive team from individuals in the same building is challenging. A dispersed board team faces multiple difficulties of time, distance, social, and cultural differences. Subgroups form and sometimes this leads to in-group versus out-group conflict and competition. Dispersed teams need to establish shared norms and agreement for common action toward overarching (i.e., superordinate) goals.

Shared norms start with setting ground rules about communication and how conflicts will be resolved. Conflict is normal. That’s why it’s so important to establish how your board will deal with conflict before it happens. One rule you should have is to avoid prejudging each other. Listen first (or read email first) as an advocate, as though you will need to defend your fellow board member’s position.

Everyone on the board brings a unique set of information, resources and knowledge. After setting the ground rules, the board needs to fully discuss the benefits of sharing mutually. The enhanced ability to generate knowledge, stimulate creativity, and increase efficiency through diversity is a major advantage. Diverse points-of-view make for better decision-making. A full discussion helps board members learn how to value diversity and share the wealth of knowledge and skills available. From this sharing, trust is built.

Setting ground rules, communicating and sharing mutual knowledge help create trust. But for everything to work, everyone on the team needs to take responsibility for the board’s success. If things aren’t going well, take the initiative to suggest an alternative communication tool — teleconference, data conferencing (Skype, NetMeeting, etc.) — that allows for simultaneous discussion. The more variety, the better.

No matter what’s going on, be sure that you stay upbeat. Nothing helps a board work together better than proactive, positive board members!

ROI on Social Media?

February 14th, 2012

Reading Scott Stratten’s book on Unmarketing. His take on ROI for social media (about it giving him ulcers!) resonates with me. As it did with many folks on the ASAE executive management section listserv. The thread was titled “Why is everyone making this so damned complicated?” As Stratten pointed out in his book, why is the right question. ROI is the wrong answer.

As a former trade association exec, my team constantly struggled with determining the ROI or value of various member relations tactics. Newsletters, websites, direct mail, workshops, speakers bureaus, social media are all tactics that are tied to strategic goals. All tactics are part of the overall strategy for an association to be visible and approachable, friendly and trustworthy. Selecting the right metrics to measure ROI stems from business objectives and strategies — not from the tactics. Resources should be organized around the strategic metrics — not around tactics. The challenge is determining the goal and coming up with an operational definition of how achieving the goal will look. If the goal is a birthday cake, then the operational definition is the recipe. But first you need to decide: what flavor and texture of cake do you want?

Susan Etlinger conducted qualitative research with 60 social media marketers and vendors. The purpose of her research was to tie social media performance to business goals. She identified six business goal categories: brand health, innovation, customer experience, marketing optimization, operational efficiency, and revenue generation. For some associations, brand health may be the goal (i.e., understanding how people talk about the services, products, and other selections available).

The social experience is an important component of any association. Revenue is not a transaction. It is a relationship. Associations need to know how their online actions are affecting those relationships. One interesting finding of Etlinger’s is improved brand health and increased revenues had a direct correlation with social media and customer experience. If you want to know what people are saying about your organization, google analytics probably won’t provide the data you need.

One benefit of social media is fulfillment of a need for members to have an online community of like-minded professionals. Which, in turn, can attract other birds of a feather. When people cannot come together face to face, social media provides a substitute for the proverbial water cooler. Social media forums provide proximity for people of similar attitudes to come together virtually. Attitude similarity is one of the most consistent factors of attraction in social psychology research.

Social media is a tactic to engage members and fulfill a need for affiliation and dialogue with like-minded others. If this is the only “outcome” of this tactic, it has value. Measurable? Perhaps not in traditional terms. However, we all know it is more costly to get a new member than to keep an existing member. If members are retained because they feel connected and engaged, social media may be a contributor. But an added benefit is dynamic social media forums may also attract some new lurkers, fans, and eventual members.

Social media is part of the entire recipe relative to an association’s business goals for membership retention and recruitment, product and service sales, or public relations. Start with what you want to measure before you choose a measurement tool.

It gets complicated when you’re trying to measure how good a chocolate cake tastes when carrot cake was what you wanted.

Lessons on Policy Governance® from The Little Red Hen

January 24th, 2011

The Little Red Hen was an industrious little hen. From a few seeds, she had a vision of a beautifully golden, richly fragrant loaf of bread.

Along the way, she tried to enlist others in the barnyard for help to plant the seeds, take the wheat to the mill, and bake the bread. All who were asked said, “Not I!”

When the bread was done, she asked who would help her eat it. Of course, everyone wanted a piece.

The course of Policy Governance can look much the same. In the beginning, planting the seeds and developing the framework for better governing practices is a lot of work. But in the end, the board has a practical and robust system for managing its work. In the end, everyone wants on board!

A client said, “We had trouble filling board seats and getting board members excited and engaged before we started governing by policy. Now that we’ve had a few years of success, everyone wants to be a part of it.”

One person had the vision of how governing by policy could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of board’s work and create a transformed, successful organization. Once the seeds were planted and the bread was baked, the sweet smell of success attracted everyone.

Does Policy Governance take a lot of work? Yes.

Will Policy Governance make a difference in your success? Yes.

Will everyone take part in the creation of a transformed organization? No. (Just ask The Little Red Hen).

Is having a board organization that everyone wants to be part of worth it?

Well, you need to answer that question for yourself.

Update to: Cooperation, collaboration, or coopetition…whatever works.

May 16th, 2010

An update to what was written here. This group is still together but we’ve moved beyond Policy Governance to conceptualizing what it takes to create beneficial change in organizations that results in better communities and healthy societies. We are now called The Xylem Group and our new website will be live soon!! If you are a thought leader about what it takes to measure corporate accountability and sustainability, please stay tuned. I want to invite you to join the dialog and discussion with Xylem. In upcoming blogs, I’ll show you where I’m going to join dialog started by others.

Policy Governance practitioners and users are a small ecosystem in the realm of governance. To move Policy Governance consulting from a collection of individual consultants into the next generation, several individuals have banded together in a cooperation experiment called The Governance Corporation. What is behind our cooperative enterprise is developing and evolving the practice of Policy Governance. The main idea is investing in expanding core capabilities through collaborative learning and reinvesting returns into the ecosystem to provide a place for future generations of practitioners.

By pooling development of leading edge governance practices, we believe clients will receive the benefits. Our collaboration will lead to clients having a competitive edge through effective governance. We believe the rewards to the client are products, services, and practices that no one of us could bring individually; or at an affordable price to the client. Our cooperation, collaboration, or coopetition is not just for our mutual benefit but for the benefit of the clients. It’s a win-win-win situation. I win, my colleagues win, you win.

Go to the Governance Corporation website, if you’re interested in watching our experiment unfold. Check out our blog. I’ve started a rant on the current state of governance. Add your comments, join the dialog, or start a debate! All are welcome.