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Leadership Transition: The Candidate’s Perspective

Gemma Dunn

Executive Director

ECVO recently underwent a leadership transition, with a new Executive Director taking the position at the beginning of 2020. We understand that such an initiative can be a challenging and overwhelming for organizations. In this series, we will explore the ins and outs of leadership transition, sharing some insight from our collaborators and lessons we learned along the way. 

In Part 4, ECVO Executive Director Gemma Dunn walks through the extensive recruitment process and shares why she feels it set her up for success.

When I was a little girl dreaming of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’m not sure that non-profit professional was at the top of that list — in fact I am almost completely sure that it was not on the list at all. Yet when I saw the posting for Executive Director of ECVO, I knew that I had to apply. I had worked in sector capacity building for 15 years and specifically at ECVO for five years as the Director of Programs before taking a position with a municipal government. But I knew that working in the sector in service to other agencies was where I was supposed to be. So, I set to work, I updated my resume and spent a significant amount of time really thinking about why I wanted this position and wrote a kickass cover letter. Job done! Now, to just wait for the interview, where I would wow the committee with my passion and knowledge and the job would be mine.

But the ECVO board had other ideas. They had developed a very robust process with an external search company, Pathfind, which comprised seven key elements (not including the initial application process). Some of which were fairly standard, like a pre-screen call with the recruiter, whereas others were quite unique and required both time and thought.

Pause & Reflect

Early in the pre-screen process, candidates were asked to answer six key questions on the non-profit sector. This was brilliant. It required candidates to pause and really reflect on the scope of the position. The ECVO vision is A strong, vibrant community strengthened by an effective voluntary sector working with government and business.” At face value, the questions seemed like a knowledge test, but the more I thought about them, the more I felt that they were bigger than that. They were a chance to explore the sector, its challenges and opportunities through the lens of the ECVO vision — a vision that is set by the board in consultation with the sector. How might what I know about the sector support the organization in working towards its vision? What knowledge am I missing? And how might I develop new knowledge in this space? My answers were fueled by passion and dug into what I knew — and what I believed we still needed to know.

“At face value, the questions seemed like a knowledge test, but the more I thought about them, the more I felt that they were bigger than that. They were a chance to explore the sector, its challenges and opportunities through the lens of the ECVO vision.

This exercise really confirmed for me that I was committed to this process. It was challenging and thoughtful. So far, I had invested about 10 hours and I was still not over the first major hurdle: a guaranteed interview where I would wow the committee with my insights and brilliance! In fact, I was not even through the pre-screening process.

The final phase of the pre-screening process is an in-person coffee with the recruiter (do you remember when we could do that – meet face to face, sit together and enjoy a coffee). We met at a Starbucks and discussed why I wanted this position and what strengths I felt I would bring to the organization. Every phase in the pre-screening process was designed to have the candidates truly consider the breadth and depth of the position. This was more than simply leading an organization — it was about providing key supports to a whole sector.

On to the Next Step

I get the call. I’m in the pool. I get to meet with the hiring committee for an interview. I have graduated the prescreening process. Woo! The interview with the committee was fairly standard as far as interviews go, but the final three elements in the process all required a high level of engagement from the candidates.

My next task was to complete the Harrison Assessment, which measures 175 behavioural competencies and maps employee talents to specific job requirements. It provided key insights into my specific strengths and weaknesses against the requirements in the job description. I would recommend this step to other boards who are planning an executive transition. It not only supported the recruitment process, but it also fed into the performance evaluation process, which is really about setting the new Executive Director up for success.

A Plan for Success

The final two hurdles in the process were a meeting with the staff team, which gave both candidate and staff an opportunity to ask key questions, and a presentation to the whole board on my 100-day plan.

The 100-day plan took a lot of time and effort to develop and the expectation was that the successful candidate would execute their plan during the probationary period. I took an approach that split the 100 days in to three time periods, which focused on seeking to understand, clarifying understanding and aligning strategic priorities. This approach really supported me to think beyond the interview process to how I would integrate as the new ED and what success would look like for me.

I can honestly say that, while this process took a lot of time and at times was emotionally draining, it was designed for a successful transition. The end result was one of clarity.

The Executive Director is one of the most isolated positions in any organization. You report to a board of volunteers who very often have a hands-off approach, but having a good, robust process like this sets up everyone for success.

We hope you enjoyed Part 4 in our Leadership Transition blog series. Don’t forget to catch up with the rest of the series:

Part 1 – Leadership Transition: Start From Where You Are

Part 2 – The Challenges … and Importance of a Good CEO Transition

Part 3 – Leadership Transition: The Board’s Perspective

Part 4 – Leadership Transition: The Candidate’s Perspective

Part 5 – Emergency Leadership Change