Hiring an executive director is a high stakes proposition for many organizations. When a Board of Directors asks me to conduct an executive search, one of the ways I help them make a good hire is to incorporate activities into the selection of final candidates that reveal more about a candidate than a series of interviews ever could.

It takes more than an interview to find the most qualified candidate

During the early stages of a search, I ask my clients to think beyond interviews. Yes, traditional interviews are an essential element of the hiring process, but interviews by themselves often inaccurately predict future performance.

The next leader of your organization deserves

more of your time and attention than a couple of interviews.

Spending a day with finalists in a non-traditional interview setting provides board members, staff, and other stakeholders with a better view of how well a final candidate might fit into their organization. It’s a way to see how they handle real world situations (versus hypothetical discussions that can dominate closed door interviews).

Get creative, have some fun!

I encourage clients to be thoughtful and creative about planning a Finalist Day where they can see the finalists in action.  It’s important to give finalists an opportunity to participate in activities that demonstrate their skills and abilities in areas at are especially important for the job. Equally important, finalists can personally assess their fit with the leadership, staff, and organizational culture.

Typical activities scheduled throughout Finalist Day often include a conversation with the future leadership team, a tour of the facility, an opportunity to meet with clients, and a stakeholder Meet n’ Greet.  What really matters are those activities that reflect the unique stamp of an organization.  Here are just a couple of ways my clients have introduced finalists to the experience of being the executive director at their organization:

  • For a therapeutic riding organization:  Participate as a side-walker for a client hippotherapy session with other volunteers and professional staff.
  • For an organization serving youth experiencing homelessness:  A Youth Round Table and game of foosball in the drop in center.
  • For an organization serving people with HIV:  A ride along with the meal delivery service.

What’s it like from a candidate’s point of view?

Catherine Kilty, Executive Director, Tierra Village

Catherine Kilty is now well into her role as executive director for Tierra Village. I recently conducted the executive search for this Leavenworth nonprofit. It was the final phase of a longer consulting assignment, during which I helped the Board of Directors and Executive Director:

  • Deal gracefully with founding board and executive director issues;
  • Prepare the organization for a leadership transition (both board and executive) while retaining the talent and wisdom of the founders; and,
  • Identify their strategic direction.

Recently Catherine talked with us in a post-hire interview about what her experience was like as a finalist.  “I’ve been an HR professional for over twenty years. I’ve never experienced a more enjoyable, thorough, and personable process.”

Everything was geared to help me, as one of the finalists,and the Board of Directors to get to know each other in the right way.

As a finalist, Catherine brought significant prior experience in the field of developmental disabilities, as well as acumen in business operations, human resources, and community networking. Additionally, she had spent most of her professional life in rural communities.  Because of this, she brought a special understanding of the social, political, and business dynamics needed to thrive as an executive in a rural, fairly isolated community.

Don’t just talk – take a walk!

As one of two finalists Catherine was asked to participate in Finalist Day, an experience designed to see both candidates in action.  They had an opportunity to demonstrate their interpersonal and communication skills, as well as their genuine interest in and ability to connect with residents and families.  Catherine’s morning began not in the boardroom, but with a casual fireside chat with the Search Committee. The informal, low-key setting reflected the working style of the board of directors and organizational culture.

Catherine arrived mid-morning at Sunitsch Canyon where Tierra Village is located. The canyon is beautiful, with grassy meadows and winding gravel roads. It is surrounded by forest and mountains.

Sunitsch Canyon, nestled in the Cascade foothills and home of Tierra Village.

Catherine remembers, “I entered a beautiful, open room with a crackling fire in a wood stove. The Search Committee sat comfortably around the fire, having pleasant conversation. They all had slippers on. So, I immediately took off my boots and sat in a chair close to the fire. We began the interview, which felt more like a conversation.”

“I could tell they really wanted to get to know me as a person. It was one of the most comfortable interviews I've ever had. The Search Committee was invested in finding the right fit for the organization.”

After the fireside chat, the Board Chair invited Catherine to go on a walking tour of the grounds. They walked briskly through snow, wide meadows, up and down hills, chatting as they went. Catherine and the Board Chair, who had also founded the organization, clicked as they shared more about themselves with each other.  Catherine chuckled, “I thought, ‘this must be the fitness part of the interview.’ It’s a good thing I’m in decent shape and can keep up! As we walked and talked, I felt confident we could work well together.”

The Lodge, Tierra Retreat Center

When they got back from their walk, the Board Chair invited Catherine to lunch with the residents of Coyote House, the adult day home. She asked if she could ride in Catherine’s car. “This Search Committee is brilliant,” Catherine remembers thinking. “How many times  I wish I’d had the chance to get in an applicant’s car and really check things out. Thank goodness my car was clean and uncluttered.”

Residents warmly greeted Catherine at Coyote House and gave her an enthusiastic tour of their home. Then everyone – Search Committee, residents, staff, and even some parents – sat down at a large, community dining table for lunch. It was a boisterous, somewhat loud, and refreshing experience for Catherine. Most importantly, she was able to connect with every staff member, resident, and their parents during the lunch.

Transitioning into the Role

After a hire, Board of Directors are often so relieved the new leader is in place, they’ll step back, and say to themselves, “Whew! That’s over. Now we can rest. The executive will take it from here.” While that’s true to some degree, every new executive needs post-hire support.

In fact, many executive placements often fail

because the new hire is left  to sink or swim on their own.

To help ensure a smooth transition, I continued to work with the Board of Directors and coached Catherine during her first three-months on the job.  Each week, I provided resources and institutional knowledge for her to be successful and helped her tackle challenges as they arose.  I also continued to work with the board founders to find comfort and excitement in their new roles, while finally being able to let go of the full load of responsibilities they had carried from the beginning.

Early on, Catherine was responsible for coordinating a board retreat. “I’d only been there a couple of weeks, and I had no idea what to put in the board packets. What information do they need? Where will I be able to find it? Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without Amanda’s assistance.”

Catherine hit the ground running.  Within her first year, she not only reached all of the goals the board set for her, she helped Tierra Village accomplish things that everyone thought would be realized much farther in the future. “I was set up to succeed. Amanda’s standards are the highest of the high. She was completely invested in my success, and the success of the organization, too.”

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