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  • Pat Libby

How to avoid a failed executive search

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

I am a person who loves what I do.

But I don’t love it when I am asked to re-do someone else’s failed search because I know that means the organization has invested a lot of time, money, and energy trying to make things work with the wrong person.

Nonprofits don’t have a lot of spare change to spend on anything, let alone, re-doing a search.

Equally frustrating, it’s not like the staff and board are widgets on a conveyor belt that can just roll through the emotional toll of a bad transition without any consequences.

I’ve been leading executive searches for more than 25 years and have succeeded with every CEO and COO placement I’ve made – and by success, I mean the leader has stayed with the organization for many years and has done good work.

Here are 4 ways YOU can ensure a successful CEO/COO search:

1. Agree on qualities and qualifications.

Before you write the job announcement, make sure the decision-makers spend time discussing, debating, and arriving at a consensus on the qualifications and qualities you’re looking for in a person.

This doesn’t mean creating a shopping list of skills the ideal candidate will possess, it means doing the hard work of coming to an agreement on the specifics of what your nonprofit needs in a leader.

For example, experience leading a staff team doesn’t mean anything if you don’t define it. What kind of leader do you need? Someone who can facilitate better communication and collaboration among departments? Someone who can help teams think strategically about program design and outcome measures? Someone who is adept at resolving conflict?

Once you agree on what you need, THEN you can craft the job announcement.

2. Involve the staff in the search in two ways.

Boards and CEOs sometimes forget that the staff live with the consequences of their choices. Executive transitions of all types are nerve wracking because most of the time, the staff are kept in the dark about their new team or organization leader until the very end of the process.

Staff should be involved in discussions about the qualifications and qualities they would like in a new leader. Their input will round out the perspective of the other key decision-makers who are involved in the search (see #1 above).

Staff should also have the opportunity to meet with 2-3 finalists in order to hear the candidate’s ideas and viewpoints, and to weigh in after with an opinion about each one’s relative strengths and weaknesses. That feedback avoids future surprises and empowers the staff in a real way without taking decision-making away from the “deciders.”

3. Discuss the organization with candidates.

Have in depth conversations with candidates about the organization itself – the condition that it’s in, the challenges that it’s facing, the organizational culture, etc.

Some people love building boards, some people love uniting a fractured staff, some people are visionaries who see the possibilities all around them. Every nonprofit has a story about where it is in its life as an organization. The search needs to include some time – early on in the process – to tell that story to candidates. That exchange of information helps ensure that the nonprofit’s needs are the right match for how the candidate wants to focus their skills and energy.

4. Find out what the candidate needs.

It’s critically important to make sure that out-of-town candidates understand the nature of the community they’d be moving to – its culture, housing market, schools, etc. Needless to say, make sure the salary and benefits are in the right range well before you’re at the altar of an offer.

Finally, if you’re using a search firm, please ask them about their track record. You deserve to know how they define success.

Best of luck!


Pat Libby is a nonprofit consultant and author of The Lobbying Strategy Handbook: 10 Steps to Advancing Any Cause Effectively from Oxford University Press. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

Get in touch with questions or to get more information!

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