Using Search as a Tool to Energize, Excite and Engage Your Board and Staff

Katherine E. Jacobs
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Change is scary, so it is understandable that during a leadership transition, the first emotion experienced by those who work for or care about the organization is often fear. Leadership transitions can be smooth or bumpy, but even the most thoughtful transition is rife with the insecurity of an uncertain future, making even the most loyal staff member consider refreshing his or her resume. This, in turn, can cause anxiety among the other major stakeholders including board members, funders, and partner organizations about the organization’s ability to maintain stability and retain key staff during the transition. The chair of the board of trustees, the ‘number two’ in the organization, or often the chair of the search committee – left to operate in the void of leadership – needs to ask, “How can we help keep people excited, engaged, and energized about our future until we find our next leader?

When done well, a search for a new leader not only can combat the natural anxieties that arise during times of uncertainty, but can also serve to reenergize and recommit staff, board members, funders, and other constituent groups to the mission and work of the organization. Over decades of leading mission driven organizations through leadership transition we at the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group have learned some best practices about using the search process to refresh staff engagement in and enthusiasm about both the day-to-day work of the organization and its future. For organizations facing a leadership transition, the following principles can help interim leadership launch the search on a positive note and bring the staff together in the celebration of the organization’s potential for a bright new future.

  • Get to know your organization anew. Many committees, board members, or staff members charged with managing a leadership transition fail to appreciate the importance of, or the opportunity in, a fresh 360 degree overview of the organization that includes both its past and its future. Splitting staff members, key leaders, and even key external partners into small groups and talking openly with them about why they first joined in the work of the organization, what they still love about the work, and what challenges if addressed by the new leader could help ensure a successful future not only helps develop a positive and engaged team from the start, but also identifies synergies and/or differences in perception around the important challenges that the organization has ahead.
  • Engage staff in the transition process. While staff members do not often have the perspective necessary to manage a leadership transition or search for a new leader on their own, a committee or board is well-served to consider how staff might assist and enrich their process. Generally speaking, organizations benefit from transparency; offering staff members a voice in the process by engaging staff representatives on the selection committee, interviewing staff groups for their feedback on desired qualities in the new leader or suggestions for networking at the launch of a search, or selecting staff members to meet with a finalist candidate once the selection committee has narrowed down are all ways of enabling staff members to assist the process in valuable ways. Staff members, after all, are often highly insightful contributors to questions of organizational fit and readiness to meet the internal challenges of the organization. Talented staff members might also be tapped to help lead the organization through the transition by taking over aspects of the previous leader’s work load, enabling them to grow and the organization to maintain a measure of stability during an otherwise uncertain time.
  • Use the transition to build your organizational capacity. A leadership transition need not be a time for an organization to hold its breath. A savvy organization and its interim leadership will use the transition period to address internal challenges, to begin movement toward any necessary professional development in the staff or in the board, and to prepare the staff and the board for a positive working relationship with new leadership. For example, a board chair might seize opportunity in the transition to celebrate and phase out inactive board members clearing the way for new, more active membership in the next phase of the organization’s future. A clever interim director might utilize the transition to bring in consulting or a board member to conduct a fresh strategic analysis of the organization’s challenges and opportunities. As a result, interim leadership can not only begin to address outdated staffing structures and professional development needs, enabling employees who are outdated in their roles to take on new responsibilities and new training, but s/he can also better articulate problem areas, opportunities, and recommendations for the new leader to consider in the first few months on the job.
  • Redefine roles, set clear expectations, and capitalize on new opportunity. Expectations are a big part of a new leader’s ability to succeed and of a staff’s ability to help him or her succeed. Defining roles and setting realistic expectations not only among staff and other constituent groups, but also with each prospective candidate is critical to starting things off on the right foot with each other. As the committee or interim leadership talks with each group and gets to know the organization anew, a draft job description should emerge that highlights not only the positive aspects of the job opportunity, but also the realistic challenges and the qualifications needed in a leader to meet those challenges. Setting expectations realistically and tying them to the specific challenges of the organization will help everyone to chart a united path for steady organizational growth and improvement.
  • Considerthedepthofyourinternalbench.Asthispositiondescriptionisdeveloped,anorganizationwouldbewisetoreflectupon what strengths it already has on its team. An organization in financial crisis due to a drop in external funds may realistically need a strong external fundraiser more than it needs a strong internal manager, particularly if key staff members can step up to assist with internal operations. Likewise, an organization that has fairly stable finances but internal communications issues needs someone with strong management experience as opposed to an externally focused leader. Often an organization with strong internal leaders is surprised to learn in this process that the ideal next leader is someone already on staff.

Your decision to employ some or all of these methods of staff and board engagement should be dictated by your organization’s culture and current context. Doing so will both respect your organization’s history while also planning, thoughtfully, about its future. Your staff and board will come through the process more energized, excited, and engaged than before.