The Search Plan: Your Road Map to the Candidate Pool

Laura Gassner Otting
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An executive search can be a harrowing endeavor. In fact, filling a job often becomes a full time job in itself. But, like any overwhelming project, this one can be made less so by dividing the project into smaller tasks, with the most important coming first. The search plan is the foundation upon which your search will be built and therefore, must be given due time and thought before the search is begun in earnest.

Job Descriptions that Sell

Job descriptions that merely laundry list responsibilities do a great disservice to the organization that wrote it. Larry Slesinger, a Washington, DC, based nonprofit management consultant with 21 years of experience explains that “Job announcements are marketing pieces that need to both accurately describe the job AND motivate good candidates to apply AND help potential sources to recommend the right candidates.” In order to set your job description multitasking, you’ll need to follow a couple of Larry’s tips, such as “Don’t make it an exhaustive and exhausting list of duties and tasks,” and “Make sure that the description outlines why this particular job is important for the organization and its future.”

A job description should be written after consultation with all the relevant stakeholders to an organization, including key staff, board members, funders and clients. This process, almost a mini- strategic planning session, brings consensus to an organization at a time of transition, and more often that not, becomes a stabilizer in a leadership vacuum. The job description, when complete, should describe the organization’s history, where it imagines its future, and the kind of personal and professional characteristics that will bring it there.

Finding the Candidates

Once you’ve gotten your job description finalized, accepted and owned internally, it’s time to show it to the world. Each of your stakeholders in the job description writing process should have been asked for ideas for candidates and sources of potential candidate names, as well as organizations in which your candidates might be lurking or websites, listservs or newspapers that they may be reading.

Use the Internet to conduct research on the best places to post your job description; it’s fast and easy and renders fact-finding phone tag obsolete. Worthwhile sites allow multiple pages of text and the ability to choose more than one of each of industry, function and geographic region categories. Equally important, make sure the site factors both the active and the passive job seeker into their service, i.e., they should have an easy to navigate database used by daily surfers as well as a newsletter which can be read casually by those who are only beginning to explore.

Gather the prices, traffic and niche data for all of the potential sites before placing job announcements online. Most websites offer an option of a simple online form or an e-mail address to which postings may be sent. Keep in mind that website postings tend to be cheaper and faster than print, although some of the industry papers have web components as well.

Finally, any headhunter will tell you that networking is an essential way to reach prospective candidates. Create master lists of industry leaders and other sources of ideas from colleagues; develop a plan for contacting these people in a systematic method. Be prepared to share your job description with them through snail mail, e-mail, on the Internet and by fax. Follow up on every good lead; some of the best candidates are often within a few degrees of separation from you.

Should you hire a professional?

Most search firms present a final pool of 6-8 qualified, interested candidates from which the search committee may choose to interview. Typically, these candidates come, in equal thirds, from advertising, their database and from new networking. Not using a search firm may limit your pool by one to two thirds.

“An executive search consultant proactively recruits the most talented professionals, extending a non-profit’s pool of potential candidates far beyond inbound applicants,” according to Mary T. Wheeler, Consultant with the Development Resource Group, an executive search firm based in New York City which has worked exclusively with nonprofit organizations throughout the United States since 1987. “Many of these candidates,” she continues, “are professionals fruitfully working and developing their careers. And, as a result, the type of candidates generated through a consultant’s proactive search process includes those who, although content, are willing to entertain a new opportunity.” It is specifically these individuals, those who could be tempted but not reading the classifieds or surfing the job posting sites, that will extend your pool to its full potential.

Organizations looking for executives in specific functions, development for example, may also benefit from utilizing a combination of advertising outreach and a headhunter’s savvy. Katina Leodas of Leodas Solymar, a Boston-based national firm specializing in advancement touts, among a search firm’s merits, “a nationwide network of contacts in the field; the ability to successfully market positions to high quality prospects and candidates; time and willingness to make literally hundreds of cold calls; excellent interviewing and deep reference checking skills; a ‘sixth sense’ about character and integrity; and the kind of attention to detail that leaves candidates feeling that they have been communicated with honestly and treated fairly.”

When creating your search plan, make sure it encompasses ideas from each of these avenues of outreach:
  1. Organizations and associations of organizations within the same industry area
  2. Niche online recruiting sites
  3. Referral network: Social, board, staff, funder and academic connections
  4. Membership associations and trade groups of those within the same functional area
  5. Industry or regional newspapers
  6. Niche web sites, listservs, forums, news and discussion group threads
  7. Alumni and membership directories
  8. Mailing lists
  9. Conferences programs with presentation descriptions
  10. Master e-mail announcements to internal/external constituencies, clients, customers, partners