Finding a new executive director is a challenging task in the best of times. Page Two Partners is in the middle of a few searches that started before this crisis started, and we are also working with organizations that are trying to decide what to do now. Here are a few things we have learned, and perhaps more importantly some of the questions we are asking?
So far we have been able to move forward with searches by utilizing video conferencing, which actually works well for the initial screening and the first round of interviews. And we are starting to get more creative in how to allow the candidates to see and experience the office and meet the staff for the final interviews. We've had solid candidates in our candidate pool ...so while there is plenty of uncertainty about the future, finding a new leader during the pandemic is still viable.
But, there are some meta level questions to consider if you haven't yet started the search process.
1. Is it important to do your search right now?
If it’s possible to delay your search, either by having your current director stay longer or having a good temporary solution, that’s definitely worth considering. But be clear about what you’re asking of people. One month? Three months? Until everything is back to normal? Good communication, always important, is especially crucial now to set clear expectations and reduce surprises.
2. What is your financial situation?
Perhaps you’ve already lined up your income for the year and this crisis may not affect you too much this year. What if, however, your income comes from admission fees? What if you are unable to have your annual fundraiser that supplies 30%of your yearly budget? What if you can’t actually fulfill your grant requirements; do you need to return the money? Can you afford to keep your full staff? Can you afford a new director? Is this position as desirable as it was before the crisis because of budget issues?
3. If we’ve already started the search, should we just keep going?
Perhaps you’ve already done your outreach and have identified, and even interviewed some of your candidates already. It’s still good to re-assess to make sure it makes sense to move forward. Can you use this situation as a good way to assess a candidate's leadership as well as management capacity by asking what they would be doing right now if they were the leader facing this crisis?
4. What should we keep in mind for video conferencing interviews?
Not everyone is experienced in doing video conferencing yet, so it’s easy to embarrass yourself if you don’t know how the technology works. If you are doing a group interview with candidates using this technology, we recommend a practice session for the group so everyone is clear about muting when they’re not talking, how to make sure their camera and microphones are working, how they will get attention if they want to ask a question and who will moderate the meeting. Participants should also realize that they will be in view, often with a fairly close up camera -- so everyone should check their teeth, put on a fresh shirt (and pants-you would be surprised!), comb their hair, don’t eat during the meeting, and stay engaged during the conversation, because people can see if you’re bored or distractedly doing something else. Make sure you have a way to ensure the candidate is no longer participating (like zoom’s virtual waiting room) before you begin discussions, and recognize that things might take a little longer than if you were all in the same room, especially when it comes to making decisions.
5. How is your staff going to be involved?
Staff need to meet the candidates, both for their own input into the process, and also because it is hard to imagine a director willing to take a new position without having a sense of the staff with whom they will be working. Can you do this through video conferencing? Should you wait until it is safe to do the interviews in person? The same question applies to board members making the decision. Can your group feel comfortable hiring someone without actually meeting them in person?
6. What about reference checking?
Reference checking is always a crucial part of this process. How someone did or didn’t accomplish what they claim to have done is the best predictor you have of how they will do in a new position. In a situation where your time with a candidate is more limited, this part of the process becomes even more essential. Don’t hesitate to ask for additional references until you feel that you have talked to people who can reflect on the skill sets you’ve outlined as necessary for the position. Feel free to be specific. “I would like to talk to someone you have supervised who can speak to your experience doing…” or someone to whom you've reported. I would like to talk to your previous board chair. Keep calling references until you get the information you need.
A global pandemic creates a new situation for all of us in conducting searches for new leadership using virtual tools. We’re looking for answers ourselves as we test out new methods. Different groups will have different answers to some of the questions above. We’ll keep providing suggestions as we learn more about what works in the COVID-19 time period.