Alessandra Zielinski is an executive coach and consultant dedicated to capacity building for mission-driven organizations. Her executive coaching focuses on helping rising leaders navigate the complexity of senior roles. As a consultant, she has worked with nonprofit organizations and social enterprises on topics including growth strategy, program development, operational improvement, community engagement, and board governance.
We are in the midst of a generational shift in leadership across the social sector, with many organizations seeking to diversify their teams as turnover occurs. More and more, organizations are considering candidates with different backgrounds. And many are hiring leaders for the top job who have never been an Executive Director (ED) before. This makes sense and is exciting; it also needs to be set up for success. The interview process itself is part of setting up for success. It should become a two-way conversation past a certain point. As a candidate in a recruitment process, you of course want to put your best foot forward, marketing yourself and your capabilities as well as you can. In today’s marketplace, if you do not lean in, you may not get far. But the interview process should also be a time of discernment. And this is crucial. If you win the role, you will be working closely with a board of directors. So have a plan. “Do you have any questions for us?” Thoughtful candidates always do.
Hopefully, the following areas of exploration lead to a better starting point for success and provide information on what you can expect from the Board as you embark on your journey together.
- Strategy. How much alignment exists around strategy? The question here is not whether the organization has a strategy, or even what the strategy is. Rather, the question is: does the organization generally have consensus? A well-articulated mission on an organization’s website may excite you. However, if strategy is in flux, or if there are real differences about direction, you need to know. In the absence of alignment, much of your success may depend on internal facilitation and driving for agreement on the path forward. You should also understand the timing of the last in-depth review of the organization’s strategy. How dated is the current plan, and who was involved? A strategy refresh can be a great opportunity for a new ED to understand the perspectives and priorities of the staff and the Board, as well as a way to rally the team around the path forward. Some leaders love this kind of work; others prefer a stable situation with an existing roadmap. Know which camp you sit in, and what you would be stepping into.
- Equity. Where is the Board on the topic of equity? The current spotlight on long-standing racial injustices in the United States is generating board conversations everywhere. Recognizing this can be a challenging topic to navigate – one that merits an entire article on its own – here are a few things you can look for and ways to focus the conversation. First, is there an active and open conversation about equity happening in the organization where you are interviewing? Who is driving that conversation? How does the Board assess themselves on the journey toward becoming an equitable organization? Does the Board see a connection between equity and their core mission? Compare what you hear with what you observe during the interview process. Also, it’s ok (or should be) to ask about DEI policies and practices, plans for training and improvement, and how progress might be measured. The key is getting to an honest assessment of the current state and understanding the willingness to embrace change. If the organization is planning, needing, or expecting significant transformation, make sure this feels sponsored.
- Funding. How is the organization funded, and what is the role of the Board in fundraising? The Board may think the ED will change the fundraising performance of the organization. The ED may assume the Board will play a very active role in development support. Get a clear understanding of expectations, because mission and money are connected. If the Board hopes to grow the organization, but that growth requires a step change in fundraising performance, are they willing to invest in a Development Officer to support the ED? What is the Board’s development track record? If a few funders are key to the budget, are they solid? Are there any known or expected changes in the current donor mix or funding level? If the outgoing ED is long-tenured and has personal followership among funders, what is the continuity plan? Because most EDs are also effectively the Chief Revenue Officer, just make sure you understand how heavy the lift may be, and how much allyship you might be starting off with from the Board.
- Governance. How is the Board managed and run? First, understand who you would be working with most closely. Who is the chair and how does s/he like to work and engage with the ED? Is there a vice-chair or other named successor to the chair? Spend time with these people, one-on-one and/or informally if possible, to gauge rapport and how well you communicate with one another. If the Board is large, is there an Executive Committee where most of the “action” occurs? Meet as many ExCom members as you can. Second, ask about governance norms. Are board responsibilities documented? Are there term limits, and are they observed? If the Board is more static (like some founder- or family-led organizations can be), try to get a feel for dynamics and informal decision-making structures. If the Board turns over every several years, understand the process and priorities for adding new members. Be sure to clarify the role board members play in board development and how you, as the Executive Director, would be involved.
- Support. In what ways can/will the Board support the ED? First, what is the Board’s capacity as an advisor to the ED? Are there board members with professional skills in finance, legal matters, and communications? Even if the organization has a CFO, for instance, you still want board members who understand financial statements and have budgeting experience. Second, how much reach or convening power does the Board have? If the Board is influential and highly networked into the communities served, it can open doors and be “wind in the sails” of the new ED. In addition to the skills and influence of the Board, explore how they see their role vis-à-vis the ED. Are they part of the ED’s extended success team? Ideally, the Board (or a subset of active board members) has a track record of supportive partnership with the prior ED. Lastly, does the Board support ongoing professional development for the ED? This can take the shape of thoughtful performance reviews, executive mentorship, and valuing professional networking.
These five conversation areas are not exhaustive, and you may not be able to get into detailed discussion in every instance. However, if you ask the right questions in the spirit of building understanding, a picture will start to emerge. You will develop a sense for the Board, its priorities and personality, how the opportunity matches your skills and interests, what level of partnership you may have in tackling known challenges, and whether you might also enjoy the experience along the way.