Considering Fit for Executive Hires

Mar. 29, 2016

David Edell

Finding the right fit when recruiting an executive to lead an organization can be a defining moment in its history. Studies show that professional leadership is a key factor in determining whether an organization will advance towards its goals and mission or fall further behind.

In her op-ed article for the New York Times, Lauren A. Rivera, an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the author of “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs,” wrote that the assessment of a candidate’s cultural fit has “shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with.” Her findings demonstrate why it’s important to develop standardized procedures that can best assess cultural fit- a hiring practice that considers how a candidate’s behavior, values and characteristics mesh with a company’s culture and mission.

By relying too much on chemistry and unstructured interviews to assess a potential hire, organizations run the risk of choosing a hire that might be the best fit to socialize with, but not necessarily the best fit to move the organization toward its goals.

Getting it Wrong

There are many consequences of a bad hiring decision, especially in leadership positions. It can be disruptive to the staff and staff operations-and even cause the staff, board of directors, volunteers and funders to be mistrustful of the work that the organization is doing, and thus affect fundraising results. Altogether, this can prevent an organization and its agenda from moving forward.

How to Get it Right

Volunteer boards and hiring executives must come up with a detailed plan that outlines how they will measure functional and cultural fit. These measures of fit should also weigh how a candidate’s leadership qualities or characteristics align with the challenges of the position.

Structured Interviews and Supplementary Data. It’s easy to assume that you’ll know instinctively if an executive is the right fit, but discovering whether a candidate is a match for an organization transcends likeability. A good fit isn’t like a billboard: You won’t always know it’s a match even if you think it’s loud and clear. This is where structured interviews come in. They are a great indicator of how well a candidate will do on the job when they become part of the team. It starts with asking detailed questions about their values, behavior and skills and how they have handled specific challenges in the past. Then, verifying their responses with people who have worked with them. Professional assessments, such as computerized psychological and personality tests, also provide additional data that allows recruiters to gain a deeper understanding of the person’s fit. The Hogan Personality Inventory and Profile XT are examples of tools that may give insights on how a candidate works or leads.

Considering an executive’s emotional intelligence is important.  Asking about leadership style and how candidates have functioned as a leader in the past may help predict how he or she might be able to balance pressures from multiple constituents as well as the responsibility of leading and inspiring the staff and board to change and accomplish the organization’s goals.

Asking the Right Questions. While it’s vital that recruiters and nonprofits engage in systematic questioning during the interview process, it’s imperative that those responsible for hiring consider if the potential hire is someone that they are prepared to put out as the public face of the organization. Does his or her style and approach represent the organization well? If your goal is to build upon your fundraising efforts, do you feel confident about having the executive represent your organization in front of funders? The executive’s relationship with the people who will be working under his or her leadership should consider whether the executive is someone that they can imagine communicating with every day and actually feel compelled to listen to and take directions from. It is also important not to be seduced by good chemistry and fit and therefore not focus on assessing relevant professional skills and experience.

Where the Team Fits In The old adage that “there is no ‘I’ in team” applies to hiring decisions too: No one member or boss should be left to interview a candidate or decide who gets the offer in the end without some input from other members on the team or board. Using Google’s hiring practices, Laszlo Bock, the head of People Operations at Google, in his book, “Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead,” encourages bosses to pass the baton to other employees during the interviewing process, and even suggests “cross-functional interviews” with members from other departments. “This sends a strong signal to candidates about Google being nonhierarchical, and it also helps prevent cronyism, where managers hire their old buddies for their new teams,” he writes. I believe that these practices are also effective in the nonprofit world.

In many organizations, candidates are not only interviewed by the search committee or hiring executive but also by other senior staff and volunteer leaders. While they might not be on the search committee, they are in key positions to interact with the candidate. Feedback from these meetings helps to form a variety of perspectives, which ensures that the fit and skills are in line with the expectations of the position. It also helps to conduct interviews in different size groups and venues that doesn’t just involve the traditional office setting. Seeing the candidate’s interactions with different people in diverse settings can be a window into who they are as a person and a leader.

Remember why you’re hiring an executive to lead your organization in the first place. It’s about productivity and growth. The decision to extend an offer or not, to an executive based on his or her fit should be a strategic one. Ultimately, the combination of related professional skills and experience, together with cultural fit, are required to lead an organization to new heights and protect its future.