A successful search for an executive director requires an effective partnership between a search consultant and the client. That’s a statement so obviously true it hardly seems worth saying.
The problem is that such partnerships seldom work out successfully.
Some clients think the search consultant should shoulder the entire burden of the search, from the identification of sources and prospects through final reference checks. In their minds, that is what we are paid to do.
Other clients lack confidence in the partnership. They often compete with the search firm and conduct their own independent outreach efforts to identify and evaluate candidates. This leads to unnecessary confusion on the part of all prospects.
Gearing Up for a Challenging Search
A year ago, we were retained by TransForm, a progressive advocacy organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, to recruit an executive director. We were excited to work with TransForm; we loved its mission and its long history of impact in advocating for walkable communities with excellent transportation choices for people of all incomes. But we also recognized the search for a new executive director posed several challenges.
First, we were seeking a successor to the organization’s long-serving and beloved founder. The organization was being led at the time by interim co-directors, which could add some complexity to the process if adopted as a permanent leadership structure . The organization was in its last year of several multi-year grants that would have to be renewed or replaced, which would be a daunting task for the new executive director. The client, which views its mission through an equity and inclusion lens, was determined to hire an executive director with a deep commitment to those values. Add to these factors the regional cost of living — among the highest in the country — and this was not going to be easy search.
When Recruiters and Clients Work Together, Everyone Wins
A mentor once told me a search consultant’s experience is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” meaning we know what to look for in a candidate, but we also know the client is the expert in its program area and strategic goals. We recognized that TransForm’s board and executive team had long-lasting relationships with funders, advocates, and sector leaders, whose recommendations were worth countless hours of the data mining we could engage in for a search. Indeed, some candidates could only be persuaded to apply with a direct approach from TansForm’s leadership, which they were happy to supply. When we needed a quick informal reference, our client could speak candidly and confidentially to a trusted source, who would likely be more open with them than with us. As a result, we decided the best course of action was to initiate open weekly communications with the client that helped us refine our focus at every stage of the process.
It is rare to see such a joyous outcome to a lengthy search. We always do our best to add value to the search process for our clients, and we are well paid for our work. But the happy dance was a heart-warming reward and a tribute to the success of one of the best executive search partnerships I’ve experienced.
What made this partnership so different from the rest? If I had to summarize, I’d say there was a healthy distribution of work, enormous patience, acknowledgement of expertise on behalf of both partners, and an approach to problem-solving that was never finger-pointing and only constructive.