The Hard Skills That Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Nov. 29, 2016

David Edell


When boards are considering the skills that they need in their next leader, most of the time, the hard skills are the focus of the first set of interviews. Can the candidate raise money for the organization? Do they have experience working with the board? Can they manage large, complex issues? Do they understand finance?

Interestingly, those desired hard skills, are rarely deciding factors in the selection process.

Leaders certainly need the technical skills to perform this complex role, but their ability to convey confidence, courage, and emotional intelligence- while leading from the front and behind and envisioning and articulating a direction and opportunity for the future- are the core competencies that boards seek in selecting new professional leaders.

You should be aware of these soft skills so that you can be a stronger candidate in the talent pool, and achieve success if you are selected for a leadership position.

Communicating a clear vision

During a leadership transition, boards often struggle to be clear about what, if any, change they hope will occur with new leadership.

They usually seek a CEO who has the leadership capacity to look at the field, their organization’s challenges and assets, and then develop a strategy for the future: “We need to diversify our donor base and complete a $10M capital campaign commitment over the next two years.”

Leaders must understand what growth, opportunity and risks look like. They need to also possess a degree of confidence and knowledge of the field since they will be expected to communicate important information about the organization to the board, volunteers and other stakeholders.

One of your many tests as a leader will be to simplify complex issues and articulate a clear vision that unites staff and inspires donors to support the organization.

Exhibiting executive presence

When search committees meet with candidates who they are considering for a high-ranking position, they want to be able to imagine them in the role to determine how they fit in the organization’s culture and how they will be viewed by people in and outside of the organization’s circle.

Experts have described a leader with executive presence as a professional that commands attention. Without an executive presence, a candidate with a strong resume can easily be knocked out of the running since senior-level positions are highly visible roles. In most, if not all cases, the CEO is expected to serve as the “voice” or spokesperson for an organization and is responsible for communicating a compelling vision for the organizations work and achievements.

Leaders need to be able to confidently engage staff to buy into new challenges and directions and inspire funders to think about the opportunities that exist with the organization. Search committees are assessing whether a candidate can deliver a compelling presentation, host the organization’s annual gala, meet with their biggest donor, and represent the organization to government officials and other partners. Highlighting experience in these areas on your resume isn’t enough. Boards must feel and see your presence the moment you enter the room.

Displaying emotional intelligence

Are you interesting, well informed and connected?

Put simply, board members consider whether a candidate for a leadership role will be someone that they will enjoy working with or would introduce to friends and colleagues.

While you might have the political and diplomatic acumen to lead an organization, how you communicate and engage during an interview and after you are selected for the position matters too. Show that you are reflective and thoughtful. It is especially important to show a range of emotions, including passion and courage.

During your interactions with the board, show them that they can trust your judgement, counsel and advice. Remember, it isn’t just about what you say. It’s about how you say it.

Board members often reflect on the tone of the professional leader. Leading change and guiding staff and volunteers through the “messiness” of change, staff transitions, strategic planning and inevitable crisis, requires a leader with the temperament and focus to keep people connected and motivated as they move through change.

Leading from the front and behind

Nonprofit CEOs must be able to take charge, but they also need to know how to share action and recognition with volunteers and staff.

This is a special skill that helps organizations retain talent and encourage staff to continue doing great work.

Board members are cognizant of the behaviors and qualities that could make a difference in their organizational culture. Although the results and outcomes of your prior work are important, the questions that search committees think about often evolves into a definition of leadership and they’re much more about how a person uses him or herself to influence others and create impact than they are about his or her technical skills.