Recruiting At The Elite Level

August 1, 2005       Stuart Kahan      

“When we look to propel a candidate into the elite level, we look for, among other things, some courage in judgments or decisions that are out of the ordinary,” explained Arnie Miller, former president of Isaacson, Miller, one of the premier executive recruiters for nonprofits.

At his Boston office, Miller said that he looks for candidates who are known for surrounding themselves with strong talent. “For example, we had one candidate who, in a prior job, devised an infrastructure for his company. He assembled a strong board and team to work with him. That shows accomplishment. That shows results.”

Miller pointed out that his firm looks to bring younger people into leadership positions as the older managers at many nonprofits move out. “But no matter the age, what we do is always listen to what the client is looking for in a candidate and we listen carefully so that we can strike the exact candidate for the position involved.”

There are elite jobs in the nonprofit world. You know the job. It’s the one where everyone always exclaims, “They’re paying how much?” A board just doesn’t tap a budding Jack Welch wannabe on the shoulder and hand it over.

Recruiters for those elite positions want a track record, even if it’s brief.

Criteria abound

Mary Tydings co-leads the Russell Reynolds Associates’ Not-For-Profit Practice and conducts assignments primarily for the leadership of various national and international nonprofit organizations and communications positions with corporations, associations, and public relations firms. Based in Washington, D.C., she is also active in the Government and Association Affairs Practice.

“In today’s climate, you’ve got to be noticed by being exceptional,” said Tydings. “Leadership is the primary quality. The candidate has to see the big picture to move into the elite tier. Conceptuality is a key aspect. See the mission and get the company excited.”

There is always an element of risk when you are taking a candidate to the next level, she warned. Therefore, she stressed that it is vital that you look for someone with broad experience and who understands the big picture. “You don’t need a candidate to get mired in silly details. You need imagination. After all, the best leader attracts the best people and a top- tier person knows it is always better to have the best people around.”

Larry Slesinger, founder and CEO of Slesinger Management Services in Bethesda, Md., which provides executive search and other management services to nonprofit organizations, said that when nonprofits are looking for a new CEO, boards typically want a range of leadership and management skills that include the ability to lead and motivate staff, including senior staff who often have specialized knowledge that the CEO might not possess, such as in fundraising, financial management, and program development.

In addition, he noted that such a candidate must have a commitment to the mission of the organization, preferably demonstrated by prior work that could include volunteer experience, such as board service, along with a willingness and ability to raise money. That last element is something, Slesinger said, that is highly important for the many nonprofits that depend on contributions for a significant portion of annual revenue. He also looks at the candidate’s entrepreneurial spirit, an interest in finding new and better ways to get the work done as well as an appreciation of strong financial management. “The CEO doesn’t have to be an accountant, but should value the importance of generating surpluses or at the very least, balancing the budget,” said Slesinger.

There has to be an ability to work with the governing board of directors, “in a true partnership that builds on the strengths of both the CEO and the board members,” he said. Many CEOs get into trouble when they don’t know how to work well with their boards. And finally, he stressed strong communications skills, especially in dealing with outside groups, such as fundraisers, the media, partner organizations, government leaders, and regulators.

Susan Himmelfarb, principal and founder of The Himmelfarb Group in Oak Park, Ill., said that there are five principal ideas for a candidate to move into the elite, top-tier level. “Leadership spark is vital. The candidate must possess curiosity, vision, energy, and have done something out of the ordinary — even mountain climbing — to distinguish from others. In effect, have they put their own stamp on any project?”

She also looks at the track record of accomplishments. “Is there an upward career trajectory, a lively pace of progression? In fact, are they still on that trajectory and if they have leveled off, how come?”

Moreover, Himmelfarb stressed that the top-tier candidate must possess a sense of what she calls reflectionism . “Has there been a habit of learning from past experiences? I look at what they’ve done analytically and conceptually. Stepping back. Being reflective.”

Candidates must have the ability to navigate new waters, to see new challenges, to move from working on one subject to another. “And, of course, there is fit. Do they understand the organization and what it entails? I scrutinize the candidate’s interests and work style and see if that is compatible with the organization’s style of working,” she said.

According to Robert Zimmerman, president of San Francisco-based Zimmerman Lehman, a candidate “must demonstrate that he or she has the ability to inspire loyalty and to get the best from staff. A successful nonprofit leader must understand internal organizational politics and make sure that everyone is dedicated to implementing the organization’s mission.”

Zimmerman also said that the candidate for a top position must possess the ability to motivate volunteers. “The care and feeding of the board of directors is enormously important. An effective nonprofit executive must have an excellent working relationship with the board and must command its respect. The executive needs to establish alliances with board members — particularly committee chairs — to ensure that the board is carrying its load. The effective nonprofit executive must spend a significant portion of his or her time in creating and maintaining these relationships. Furthermore, particular kinds of fundraising campaigns, capital campaigns, for example, require the active involvement of volunteers who are not board members. The executive must also cultivate those relationships.”

Zimmerman also pointed to expansive vision and attention to detail as key traits for a candidate. “It is the rare nonprofit executive who both passionately espouses the vision of the organization and makes sure that all the fundraising, public relations, and program bases are covered. I do not mean that the executive must attend to every detail himself or herself. I do mean that the executive must be aware of the day-to-day grunt work that the organization must address if it is to succeed. The elite executive lives the vision and keeps a keen eye on the details.”

Finally, Zimmerman used the word “determination” to build the organization over the long haul. He said that the nonprofit sector is filled with executive directors and development directors who shine like supernovas in their first six months on the job and “then disappear when a more attractive opportunity raises its pretty face.” When he interviews a candidate, he looks long and hard at that candidate’s willingness to plan for the organization’s future and to be there for the three, five, or more years that it will take to move the organization to the next level of prestige and funding.

Susan Egmont, principal in Boston-based Egmont Associates, said that the four main aspects of finding a CEO for a nonprofit are skills in fundraising, financial management, staff management, and program experience. She said that she believes it is imperative the candidate has a desire to mentor, to enjoy relationships with staff, to work with boards.

David Edell, president of New York City-based DRG Inc., said that he looks at both the personal presentation and the fit. “My definition of a leader has always been the person that others choose to follow. Time and again in executive transitions, I see search committee members attracted to the candidates that they connect with best. The measures might be, ‘Am I impressed with how this person describes their work, vision, or passion?’ ‘Is this a person whose call I’d like to take or to meet with regularly?’ ‘Is this a person I would send to meet with potential donors, collaborators, or the media as a representative of the organization?’”

Is it a marathon?

Miller said that his firm has a five-phase search process, which emphasizes in-depth interviewing and reference checking of candidates, along with an analysis of the fit between the client organization and candidate. Said Miller to a client, “You’re not hiring an interviewee. You’re hiring a person with a history of successes and failures. Make sure your interviews elicit these details. After the candidates talk about their experience, develop some hypotheses — rather than conclusions — about them, and then test these hypotheses by talking to people who worked closely with them.”

Tydings said that the process today is quite intense and there is due diligence done on both sides. “No sector has gotten more shoulders recently than not-for-profits. Accordingly, you really need to go through a marathon process when it comes to hiring a top- tier person. And that person must come to interviews equipped with ideas on how to run the organization and to grow it.”

Slesinger said that in his CEO searches he typically has a one-hour, face-to-face interview with the candidate. “If, based on that interview and the information I gather from references, I recommend that the search committee meet the candidate, that conversation will be about one hour, too. If they like the candidate, they will likely have a second conversation that might run from 45 to 60 minutes (and we’ll also talk to more references if necessary). That’s usually sufficient to know whether they want to offer the job to this candidate. There are no marathon sessions, but this interview process (one interview with me, two with the search committee) can span several weeks.”

Himmelfarb doesn’t put any kind of restraint on interviews. Does it become a marathon? “Yes, it often is and the candidate should welcome it. It should not be drudgery.”

With reference to the interview process, it is customary at Zimmerman Lehman for recruiters to review resumes and to discuss the best candidates with representatives from the client organization. Said Zimmerman, “Sometimes we do preliminary interviews prior to meeting with the client. At other times the client reviews the resumes prior to the preliminary interviews. In either case, the initial interviews are our responsibility.” Those who make the cut are then interviewed by a committee composed of selected board members and staff members from the client organization, as well as the Zimmerman Lehman recruiter.

“At this point, we normally narrow the field to two or three. It is then our responsibility to check references and to re-convene the committee for final interviews. In some cases, the client schedules additional interviews with the executive director, the search committee chair, and program staff,” he said.

Zimmerman said that when he is recruiting for an elite leader, he looks for both substantive expertise and fit. “For example, when recruiting a top-notch director of development for a ballet company, we must be sure both that the candidate understands the whys and wherefores of fundraising and that he or she demonstrates a profound feeling for ballet. It is simply not true that a well-trained executive can work for any nonprofit regardless of the organization’s mission. The ability to do the work must be matched by passion for the mission.”

Egmont said that the processing period usually lasts three to four months and that the candidate for a CEO position can easily go through four interviews, not including lots of background checks and due diligence work.

Working from within

“Look, recruiting excellent people to lead your organization is one of the most important contributions you can make to its success,” said Miller. “In some instances, using professional recruiters may be a wise way to proceed. In other instances, you may be better off doing it yourself. However, if you decide to do it, don’t underestimate its importance. Make sure that you devote enough time and attention to do it well.”

Miller is an advocate of organizations growing their own. “If you know you have somebody inside, try to use that person rather than expensive headhunters.” Of course, he doesn’t look upon that statement as being detrimental to his own firm. Isaacson, Miller was f ounded in 1982, at a time when nonprofit organizations and public agencies rarely used executive search firms. He has on his Web site,, a special section called “20 Ways To Get the Most out of Your Recruiters, which offers advice to search committee members and other hiring authorities on how to use search firms most effectively.

David Daniel, the CEO of Spencer Stuart, a global search firm which boasts the largest nonprofit practice in the executive search industry, pointed out that the economic turmoil of the past three years appears to have finally quelled but that as the economy continues to improve, the war for talent will only become more fierce.

“Shareholders will always push for greater results,” he concluded, “while companies will always need to hire and retain the talent who can deliver these results.” In that regard, he cited the importance of “recruiting an d retaining top executives who have a track record of being successful during times of change and ambiguity.”


Egmont said she believes strongly in a solid client presentation, no matter what the position. “You can’t really distinguish between a job for a lot of money and one for less. In every instance, the prospect must put the best foot forward on each and every interview,” she said.

But, the candidates don’t always do that, said Slesinger. He told of candidates who interviewed and have made a great leap — from a large applicant pool to a group that might represent only 10 to 20 percent of the applicants. However, so-called qualified candidates then stumble when they get to the interview process. He highlighted what can happen:

  • “They still haven’t done any research on the organization. By now, I expect people to have visited the group’s Web site, which is only a few keystrokes away, or read their annual report, which they can obtain by asking me or requesting one directly from the organization.
  • They are prepared to answer questions, but they have no questions of their own. “Frankly, I think this is odd given the importance of making a wise career decision,” he said. Without any questions of their own, the interview becomes a stilted volley of the client’s questions and the candidate’s answers, rather than a more engaging conversation that, among other things, builds rapport between the candidate and the client.
  • Following the interview, they don’t follow-up. No thank-you letter, telephone call, or email. “They sit and wait, passively, which does nothing to inspire confidence that this person has the leadership skills, initiative, and drive that senior management positions require,” he said

John Isaacson, one of the founders of Isaacson Miller, has looked at some common traits that candidates should possess. “At the sub-structure, they share some broad common qualities,” he explained and called them Hunger, Speed, and Weight.

“Hunger is fantasy about the self, dreams that a person is prepared to risk in the real world. Everybody has fantasies. Everybody has dreams, but only some people act them out,” said Isaacson. “Hunger, as I use it, means that you’re willing to take risks, that you’re willing to fail. It is the failure that teaches. We learn from our success but we learn more when we fail. There is no safety net in the positions we are trying to fill, and we want someone who has been swinging on that trapeze for a long time.”

He defined “speed” as intellectual agility, the capacity to learn foreign languages quickly, whether those languages are finance, organizational development, or biotechnology. “We look for learners not teachers, people who can listen and synthesize rather than lecture — people who ask a different question,” Isaacson said.

“Finally, weight means the capacity to use formal and informal power wisely, for moral ends. A heavyweight gets things done, and does it in a way that serves the purposes of the organization and raises its ethical aspirations,” he said. “Most heavyweights are older. They ‘gain weight’ through experience, but I have met younger people with weight. They understand their power and they understand its use.” Stuart Kahan is executive editor at the Accountants Media Group in New York City and a frequent contributor to The NonProfit Times.