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The Value of a Consensus-Based Search Process

The Value of a Consensus-Based Search Process

If the leadership of a nonprofit or association is not on the same page prior to launching a search for a new team member, there's a high probability the search will go awry. Therefore, it's essential that everyone involved in the search — directors, members of the search committee, key management expected to work with or report to the new person, etc. — begins the process with an agreed-upon set of requirements and qualifications for the position, general agreement as to prior experience needed for the job, and first-year deliverables.  

Recently, my firm, Battalia Winston, was working with a client that found itself in this very predicament. The organization — a nonprofit focused on supporting the arts — had recently hired a CFO who was failing to meet expectations. His failure to deliver as expected was frustrating for everyone across the organization. As soon as my firm was brought in, I realized the newly hired CFO wasn't meeting the organization's objectives for the position simply because they had never been clearly established or communicated to him.

I see this a great deal when recruiting new leadership for mature nonprofit organizations. In many cases, the incumbent leader has been with the organization for many years, even decades. When a long-time leader retires, the role he or she has been playing may be dramatically different than what the organization now requires. Or, the incumbent's position may have evolved so much over time that it is difficult for anyone but the incumbent to fully describe it, much less be able to wear all those hats. Without a clear understanding of the role as it has been performed, each person involved in the search process tends to develop his or her own opinion about the ideal candidate and vets candidates against those criteria.  

To help nonprofits avoid such situations, Battalia Winston has developed a unique service, the Consensus Based Search Process, that eliminates potential roadblocks to a successful search process, establishes clear expectations for all parties, and helps to ensure a smoother recruitment effort.   

First, we gather all decision makers together for a facilitation meeting. The sixty- to ninety-minute meeting is designed to help the group come to an agreement on the critical requirements of the search. (Even if your organization is not using an executive search firm, it is important that a third party leads the process to ensure its objectivity and neutrality.)  

During the facilitation meeting, we ask each committee member to write down his or her understanding of:

  • day-to-day responsibilities of the position;
  • key qualifications candidates must have to be considered; and
  • year-one objectives and deliverables.

Then, each team member is asked to read his or her responses aloud. We write all the responses on a white board so that everyone can see the common themes. The session allows search committee members to express their thoughts and concerns while moving toward common ground regarding the essential criteria for a successful candidate.

The process is simple and highly effective. We focus the group on the three most important elements of the position, thereby avoiding meandering conversations that may or may not lead to consensus. The process also quickly identifies outlier opinions and serves to encourage dialogue between members of the group so that each member understands the perspective of the others.  

After discussing common themes and excising the outlier opinions, we evaluate and prioritize the remaining metrics.  

At the conclusion of the meeting, a clear, agreed-upon set of specifications has been established for the search. This is helpful to us, the recruiters, because it provides a clear mandate. For the search committee, it provides a clear set of criteria by which to evaluate candidates as they move through the interview process. And for the candidates, it provides clarity regarding expectations and deliverables.

There are many risks associated with a misdirected search effort. Without clearly defined expectations and benchmarks, nonprofits risk losing qualified candidates. Internal conflict and a lack of agreement and understanding between search committee members also can lead to unnecessary rounds of interviews and drawn-out searches — an incredibly frustrating process for candidates that can hurt an organization's reputation. To protect your organization's brand and ensure that it is positioned to secure top talent, you should begin with a consensus-building process.

Dale Winston is chair and chief executive officer of Battalia Winston, one of the largest woman-owned executive search firms in the United States. Winston’s career in executive search spans more than twenty-five years, and she has successfully recruited board members and high-profile CEOs, CFOs, and senior managers to successful nonprofits, associations, and publicly and privately held companies in North America and abroad.