Is it feasible to conduct a search, make a decision and integrate a new leader when work is virtual and all staff are working remotely? You bet.
Hiring and on-boarding a new executive director in the best of times requires thoughtful planning, clear expectations, strategic public relations, transparent communications and a serious time commitment. In this virtual world of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, introducing and supporting a new leader can seem overwhelming. Is it possible to bring on a key executive who is the new face and voice of your organization when your entire operation has been shifted to ZOOM meetings and working from home?
Done properly, the answer is yes.There are some hints that can support a successful transition.
We've done this now with three organizations: Saturday Academy, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and The Wetlands Conservancy.
After twenty years at the helm, the executive director of The Wetlands Conservancy retired, but with a year’s notice, the board had the time to be prepared.
The board made two critical decisions to assist them in this process:
- They hired an interim executive director to conduct an organizational assessment, lead overall operations during the transition period, and begin a strategic planning process with board, staff and key stakeholders. An interim can bridge that time, giving the board and staff breathing space to decide on new directions and plan for the future. These actions were well-underway when all operations went virtual in late March due to COVID-19.
- They used a professional nonprofit search consultant to help facilitate the process for finding a new leader.
That process had resulted in two impressive finalist executive director candidates. As COVID-19 expanded, the final interviews were conducted by video conference with all staff and board participating. With guidance from the consultant, the interviews were conducted in a format that mirrored one in which the candidates and interviewers were physically together. The board and the candidate felt comfortable making a decision through this process and the new director was hired and brought in to the organization
How did it workout?
With all staff working from home, operations had already shifted significantly, and this new virtual working environment created opportunities to re-think how programs could be effectively managed in this new reality.
Even before the new director started, the team had established a twice-weekly zoom check in schedule to share news, brainstorm new ways of working together and address priorities as they arose.The format enabled the integration of a new leader without undue pressure. The interim executive director facilitated a smooth transition supported by a clear on-boarding plan with board and staff support.
A FEW TIPS:
- Conduct the search and interview process as you would normally, facilitated by a professional who can anticipate pitfalls and guide the search committee and the candidates to make the most of their interview time.
- Train board members on how to effectively conduct virtual interviews. Mute participants unless they are asking a question, be clear how someone may ask follow-up questions, make sure board members don’t get distracted or check their email while on line.
- Go through a test run to make sure all board interviewers know what they’re doing before the interview starts.
- Recognize that it may take a little more time to get to know candidates when you can’t meet them in person. Ask them an extra question about adaptability and crisis management.
- Confirm video conferencing is a possibility and the candidate is comfortable being interviewed online. Do a trial run, if necessary, with any candidate who is not familiar with the technology.
- Create time before and after to assure all participants - staff, board and others -understand the interviewing process, have the evaluation criteria, participate in the questioning, and follow the timeline for feedback.
- Don’t rush. Take the time you need for the committee to talk about and feel comfortable with their decisions interviews before rejecting candidates.
- Require confidentiality from search committee participants and staff throughout the process.
On-boarding - Communications & Expectations
- Designate a transition committee, often the executive committee, to work with the new director and be clear on their role and how often they will meet. Identify key point person to go to for critical questions.
- Create an on-boarding plan. Work with the new director to establish a clear schedule for the first few days and decide on goals for first weeks as well as more in-depth three, six- and twelve-month goals.
- Don’t start someone at 8:00 am on a Monday morning (virtually or physically). Have them start at a time when the majority of the staff are available so you can welcome them properly.
- If they are working remotely, make sure that they have the proper equipment to connect with the rest of the team (for example, do they have a computer with a camera?). Make sure they know about any file sharing systems that they will need to access.
- Don't pack their schedule with Zoom meetings with no breaks in between. Give time in between to allow the new person to digest all of the new information they are receiving.
- Work with the new director to roll out a communications plan and a sequence of meetings and communications – board, staff, key donors and friends of the organization and then a public announcement.
- Help the director set up welcoming events and presentations by zoom with key loyal donors.
- Set up clear communication channels between designated board members and the new executive director.
- Feedback is crucial in this time of virtual meetings. Make sure that staff are being heard and that staff meetings are working as well as possible. Realize this is a work in progress and it will take some fine tuning to make it work well.
This transition time is a critical period of responsibility for board members. The search already took a lot of extra time. You don’t want to repeat the process in 6 months.
Doing work from your own home and communicating virtually can give you space to be more thoughtful than when you were rushing around a crowded office. Use this time to enable the inspiration, innovation and infusion of energy needed to create new opportunities for how your organization can function more effectively and make greater impact.