By Joe McCormack
A successful search for an executive director requires an effective partnership between a search consultant and the client. That’s a statement so obviously true it hardly seems worth saying.
The problem is that such partnerships seldom work out successfully.
I know this from experience. I’m Joe McCormack, founding partner of McCormack+Kristel, the first openly gay-owned retained search firm in the US. We’ve been assisting our clients for almost 30 years, and in that time, we’ve been fortunate to be involved with a wide range of searches.
Some clients think the search consultant should shoulder the entire burden of the search, from the identification of sources and prospects through final reference checks. In their minds, that is what we are paid to do.
Other clients lack confidence in the partnership. They often compete with the search firm and conduct their own independent outreach efforts to identify and evaluate candidates. This leads to unnecessary confusion on the part of all prospects.
What follows, however, is a story about a partnership that did work — and why.
Gearing Up for a Challenging Search
A year ago, we were retained by TransForm, a progressive advocacy organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, to recruit an executive director. We were excited to work with TransForm; we loved its mission and its long history of impact in advocating for walkable communities with excellent transportation choices for people of all incomes. But we also recognized the search for a new executive director posed several challenges.
First, we were seeking a successor to the organization’s long-serving and beloved founder. The organization was being led at the time by interim co-directors, which could add some complexity to the process if adopted as a permanent leadership structure (some organizations do that). The organization was in its last year of several multi-year grants that would have to be renewed or replaced, which would be a daunting task for the new executive director. The client, which views its mission through an equity and inclusion lens, was determined to hire an executive director (or directors) with a deep commitment to those values. Add to these factors the regional cost of living — among the highest in the country — and this was not going to be easy search.
However, what distinguished this partnership from other client relationships was the wholehearted involvement of TransForm’s board and staff — including the staff representative on the search committee — in leveraging their relationships to provide valuable sources and possible candidates for us. There were no hidden agendas, nor was there any distrust of our capabilities — only the desire to achieve a common goal of finding the best person for the job, without regard for who would get the credit for success.
When Recruiters and Clients Work Together, Everyone Wins
A mentor once told me a search consultant’s experience is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” meaning we know what to look for in a candidate, but we also know the client is the expert in its program area and strategic goals. We recognized that TransForm’s board and executive team had long-lasting relationships with funders, advocates, and sector leaders, whose recommendations were worth countless hours of the data mining we could engage in for a search. Indeed, some candidates could only be persuaded to apply with a direct approach from TansForm’s leadership, which they were happy to supply. When we needed a quick informal reference, our client could speak candidly and confidentially to a trusted source, who would likely be more open with them than with us. As a result, we decided the best course of action was to initiate open weekly communications with the client that helped us refine our focus at every stage of the process.
With the arrival of COVID-19, the work-from-home directives, and the racial justice uprisings, TransForm experienced financial and morale challenges, like many organizations. Could TransForm’s work be continued remotely? Was the organization effectively serving low-income communities? Was it practicing equity and inclusion internally? These pressing questions weighed on the client and threw a wrench into the process.
We were also being outbid for talent by wealthier organizations, like consulting firms. Our client drafted talking points to respond to the issue and distributed them to everyone on the board and staff and those involved in the search. This enabled all of us as a team to deliver a consistent and credible message to prospects and candidates. When we worked as one, we all worked more effectively.
Everyone on the board and staff played an important and constructive role in the recruiting and evaluation process. Once we were able to narrow the search down to five very capable candidate, the final round of assessment was conducted via several Zoom interviews: one with each of three staff teams, one with the board of directors, and one “ask me anything” session with the outgoing interim executive director. I was happy to see that the extra time and effort it took to set up multiple meetings with each of the finalists ensured buy-in from everyone before reaching a final decision.
When the final candidate was selected and the offer accepted, TransForm’s staff made a video recording, which they shared with us, where they cheered the hard-working search committee and welcomed their new leader with a happy dance.
It is rare to see such a joyous outcome to a lengthy search. We always do our best to add value to the search process for our clients, and we are well paid for our work. But the happy dance was a heart-warming reward and a tribute to the success of one of the best executive search partnerships I’ve experienced.
What made this partnership so different from the rest? If I had to summarize, I’d say there was a healthy distribution of work, enormous patience, acknowledgement of expertise on behalf of both partners, and an approach to problem-solving that was never finger-pointing and only constructive.
If you want to do your own happy dance the next time you hire, take a lesson from TransForm: Be clear about your intentions and goals, trust the search consultants working with you, create a collaborative environment that draws on the strengths of all parties, regularly and openly communicate with the entire search team, and welcome your new hire warmly.
Oh, and feel free to dance!
Joe McCormack is the founding partner of McCormack+Kristel.