Executive Search: The Critical Missing Piece


There is substantial research on the key components of executive search, from the nature and role of the selection committee through to interviews and reference checking, predictors of success and onboarding. It is well worth checking the research as it often bears no resemblance to current practice.

But one essential piece is too often missing from the research, from the decision-making process and from deliberations.

What do you precisely expect the new Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director to do?

This is different from the job description and profile, and the basic elements of management and leadership. It is different from the community profile. And each of these is, of course, important.

What type of person with what background will have the greatest chance of success? What does that success look like? How will you know if it is achieved?  By what measures?

We have labelled this the candidate profile. It involves four critical (questions. These will be asked of stakeholders (board members, senior staff) and key informants (civic leaders, partner groups).


What do you expect the successful candidate to achieve over the next three to five years?

Surely you want more than a placeholder. More than someone who can just “do the job.” What do you want them to accomplish? What are the major issues? What is facing your organization now and in the near future? What are the internal issues? What are the external needs?

Potential Barriers:

What do you see as the barriers to success?

These could be financial, political, organizational culture, history, etc. There may be a history of bad relations between the CEO and staff. Or between the staff and the Board. There may be financial challenges. Or distrust between and among units. They could also be external, such as issues with major funders or the municipality. These barriers should inform not only the issues being faced but also the type of candidate you require.

Professional Competencies/ Personal Qualities:

What knowledge, skills and abilities do you think will be necessary to achieve success? To overcome these barriers?

These may include particular expertise or credentials related to your industry or sector, for achievement, or even simple credibility with staff. These are rarely related to experience in your specific sector or a prescribed number of years in a particular role. Requirements such as nine years of senior experience in our sector are rarely based on evidence. Why nine? Why not seven or eleven? You are eliminating candidates based on an arbitrary requirement, which is silly unless that is your intention.

What personal qualities will be necessary to achieve success?

Depending on the nature of the organization’s plans for change, you may need someone who is capable of building teams and resilient or with exceptional communication skills. Or political acumen. Sometimes these are professional abilities, and sometimes “soft skills” through nature or nurture.

Evaluation Criteria:

If you consider this person to be successful in five years, how will you have judged? What will be your criteria?

This is the truth-in-telling question. The obvious answer is that the major priorities were achieved. But often, respondents propose criteria with no relationship to the desired achievements. For example, you may want a change agent capable of making tough personnel decisions but will evaluate them based on harmonious staff relations and satisfaction. The two may not match and need probing. These criteria need to be known to candidates and of course to the selection committee.

And one more — Community:

One last question—why do you enjoy living in your community? What are the main selling points of living there? How can we convince potential candidates that this is a great place to live and work? Each search will include a community profile, of course. But separate from that profile, ask key informants: what do you value most about living and working in your community?

From responses to the questions, themes and patterns will develop, leading to the development of a draft profile for review by the Board. This is the basis for candidate recruitment and reviews. There may also be inconsistencies and disagreements. These can be issues for the Board to discuss and review separate from the consensus areas and the search but critical to development.

Here is a sample profile for an urban public library:

With a fully renovated and expanded downtown library, four community libraries and another under discussion, Urban Public Library connects our community to a world of imagination, information, and discovery. Through responsive collections and popular programs and services, we provide a high level of customer and staff satisfaction. Building on a strong tradition and a record of innovation, our new CEO will continue to position the Library as a critical community player.

You understand that urban public libraries are in the community development business. You are eager to identify changing community needs, form workable partnerships to address these needs and keep us at the forefront of community engagement and technological change. You will develop a strong leadership team and involve our staff in new and creative ways with our communities.

Comfortable with a public presence and profile, you delight in attending community events, developing relationships with elected politicians and their senior staff and other community leaders, and speaking with vision and passion about the Library.

Financial constraints are everyone’s reality, but with the current level of municipal investment, effective collaborations, fiscal stewardship and political acumen, progress is always possible. The Board values its constructive partnership with the CEO to ensure resources for growth.

Close to both outdoor recreational opportunities and one of the world’s outstanding cities, Urban offers affordable housing, exceptional arts, culture and recreation, award-winning public schools, colleges and universities and an internationally renowned tech sector. Downtown has been rejuvenated and the Library is a cornerstone. If big city amenities with a small town feel reflect your preferred setting, Urban would be ideal.

If this profile appeals to you, the Board offers a highly competitive salary and benefits package. For further information, Library and community profiles and detailed position description, contact:

This is obviously not the job description or a four-page institutional and community profile, but rather a clear statement of what the organization needs in a new CEO and the skill set and personal qualities required. It also includes a brief comment on the attractiveness of the community.

It is critical for the Board, the search committee and the candidate to be clear about the achievements expected, the best professional and personal fit and the criteria for evaluation of success.

A better talent pool and eventual match will be the result.

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