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Board Decisions About Dismissal and Conducting a Search

Posted by Grace Lee on Jul 30, 2013 8:26:00 AM

Board SecretWhat should a board do when it has reached the conclusion that the chief administrator is no longer considered capable of leading the organization? Making a public move now could disrupt everything. Waiting only prolongs the inevitable, further stressing the relationship between the board and the chief.

One option the board has is to start a secret or covert search for a new chief administrator. A search firm could conduct a confidential collection of applications from qualified applicants with on-line and off-site interviews so as not to distract the current chief from his/her duties. Once a new chief is under contract, the old one can be dismissed immediately followed by the announcement of the new leader. Wouldn't this cause the least conflict and protect the most stakeholders? 

Recognizing the high value of integrity and trust, most boards would not choose this option--and this is not an option that we recommend. Despite even aggressive efforts to enforce confidentiality, others in the organization will learn about such a secret coup. The resulting degradation in commitment to the leadership, culture and mission will be devastating in the long-run. The chief administrator, and every other employee and client of the organization, needs to be able to trust the board of trustees. No secrets, No surprises. That doesn't mean total "transparency" is called for with no confidential data or information. This is still a non-profit business, not a democratically operated commune. It does mean, however, that the board is appropriately communicating with its chief administrator to provide support, accountability, and coaching. 

Timing is Important

If, after extensive efforts of support and coaching, the board has collectively and responsibly reached the conclusion that the current chief is incapable of leading the organization forward, then timing of the dismissal becomes important. For a school board, the search for a new chief ideally should begin early in the fall semester (August-September). This is also the best time for the outgoing chief to begin looking for employment elsewhere. It is difficult to have a lame duck leader, especially while a new search is being conducted, but such a transition has been completed many many times and may be facilitated with outside coaching for the chief and board.

An interim chief is also an option to consider, especially if the outgoing leader had a longer tenure or the organization experienced some trauma due to unfortunate decisions or external factors. We have used a good interim leader to effectively resolve some of the issues with the board and other influencers to lay the groundwork for the new chief. The interim relieves some of the discomfort and distractions from having an outgoing chief continue through the end of the year.

Core Competencies

The board doesn't want to be experts at searching for a new chief--if you're replacing the chief that frequently you have other problems! Remember that School Growth's research has shown that to reach a level of sustained greatness (in terms of enrollment, fundraising, and organizational health) the same chief administrator must be in place a minimum of eight years. This doesn't mean that long tenure guarantees a high level of performance, but the board does want to find a leader with the strengths, traits and capacities that are most likely to lead to long-term productivity.

Chief administrators are not a disposable commodity. Strong non-profit and school chiefs are hard to find, and require investment in a process to assess alignment of potential candidates with the organization's mission, culture, strategies, and position. We encourage boards to look beyond the typical "head-hunters" who rely on their same network of people to disruptively move leaders from one organization to the next. You want someone who is passionate about your mission and vision, which sometimes means investing in a leadership development process to cultivate and grow new leaders. 

If you're part of a board that has previously replaced the chief administrator, what recommendations do you have for other boards to consider?

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