In episode 27 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Carlyn Madden discussed include:
Carlyn Madden helps nonprofits find new leaders. She is the CEO of Good Insight, a national executive search firm and governance consultancy that focuses on small nonprofits. Good Insight is committed to becoming an anti-racist search firm and she is a sought-after speaker and adviser on the nonprofit workforce’s generational and demographic shifts. She comes to this work through philanthropy, beginning her career at The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, where she managed a portfolio of grants that spanned education, the arts, human services, and the environment.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Carlyn Madden. She is the CEO of Good Insight, a national executive search firm and governance consultancy that focuses on small nonprofits. Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. Carlyn and I talk about why smaller organizations can benefit from the support of a search firm for their leadership searches. She describes some of the newer good practices to ensure that a search is equitable. We talk about how to avoid being an accidental interim executive director and what aspiring executive directors can do to start now to get ready for a future leadership role
Welcome, Carlyn. And it's great to have you on the podcast.
Carlyn Madden: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Carol: So I love, I like to get started just by asking a question about what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Carlyn: Yeah, great question. So, I started my nonprofit career in philanthropy, which means that I have a bird's eye perspective on what happens in the nonprofit sector, particularly with community-based organizations. And so after being in philanthropy for almost a decade, I started consulting and did a little bit of everything for a while and saw a number of my former grantees and clients go through adverse executive transitions. So some of the organizations, unfortunately had founders pass away, unexpectedly. Others had hired the wrong person and really the organization took a nosedive. And so as I was building my own consulting practice, I kept being a sounding board for the boards of these nonprofits and thought. Gosh, I think I have a different vision for how organizations can tackle this and started designing a executive server executive search services that embedded a more racial equity approach to the work and started rolling that out in 2018 and have been really fully focused on that in the last few years.
Carol: So, Yeah, it seems like there's, there's been a body of work around leadership transitions that probably started, I don't know, maybe 20 years ago. And it's been the standard of how you do things. So I'm really curious to hear more about, what, how, how you were seeing and how you are approaching those transitions differently.
Carlyn: Great question. there was an interesting article a couple years ago, maybe, and Carol, I'll send this to you so you can include it in the notes, from Jeanne Bell who talks about, I think it's called hire by hire and talks about, some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographics have not actually changed. And so what is required is are the conditions of executive search have to change. And so while the model that you're talking about, the last 20 years, it's called executive transition management and they talk about, How does it prepare pivot and thrive or something of that nature, that Don Tevye and Tom Adams and Annie E Casey foundation and Compass Point, all of these organizations came together to design this model, which is an effective model at the base of it. But the conditions around the model have changed. And so things that we do that are a little bit different or, or, a lot of my colleagues are starting to do the same, but we're, we're very firm in this. Salary transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not thinking actually building out networks multi-racial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying who do you know in this space, that would be a good executive director. Because there are so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles, our networks are very homogenous. We know that I'm a white lady, you know where this is it podcast, but I'm a white lady. We're two white ladies talking to each other. but our networks are very diverse.
And so we have an open door policy that anybody that has questions about a search can call us, can talk to one of our associates about their interest in the role so that they can really prepare their materials to be successful in front of that transition committee. We're also coaching transition committees on what are some best practices. So if a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for this. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors. And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Some like even subtle things, right? How are we, how are we gender coding? Job descriptions. We know the studies say not just in the nonprofit sector, but HR writ large say women are less likely to apply to a job that is masculine coded. So if your job description says things like. Aggressive goal achievement. Yeah. women, or, women read that as like, well, can I aggressively achieve goals? So we use words like collaborate, not compete, thinking really about gender coding there. So it's a really cool tool. And again, I'll send this to you. You can include in the notes that will read your job descriptions for gender coding and tell you if it's a feminized or masculinized job description, which is really neat. We also avoid militarized language, like execute. We don't say execute, we say implement. And we don't say targets. We say focus, all of these sorts of things that are really subtle, but affect how people are receiving a job description and think about themselves in that position.
Carol: And it seems like, you, you are, are really focused in, on the search phase of that transition.And what misconceptions do you think, you've seen that people have about working with someone on S H working with an outside party to support that search process?
Carlyn: Gosh, I think they think it's really expensive. Right. Like most of my clients are under 5 million. That was the area that, so while I was at, I was at a regional foundation called the Cambridge foundation. I had a portfolio that covered indications with domestic violence survivors, homelessness, and the environment just like a broad generalist. But the thing that they all had in common is that they were relatively small, right. There are under 3 million and we say our ideal clients are under five. And we say that because they don't have, HR apparatus, right? There's not a strong internal system, multiple people they're really helping develop out job descriptions and search services internally. There's no internal strategy around it. So yeah. Our clients are best served. When they're small, we provide good services to small clients, but small clients also lack fewer resources. There's a reason that they're small. And so boards often think that they can do it themselves. But again, what do we know about boards? Many of them are predominantly white led. So we look again at these imaginative networks. they don't have the time to, to do the search themselves. So they're not communicating back to the candidates. And so people don't know where they stand that affects the organization's reputation, all sorts of things like that. So I think a common misconception is that it's really expensive and it's not worth the cost that they can find the executive director themselves. That might be absolutely true. However, the ability, particularly with long tenured and founder transitions, long-tenured executive and founder transitions, is the ability to have a partner that understands where the organization's capacity is.
Can explain that clearly both to the board and to candidates and finding a candidate that doesn't just check all the boxes, but really can meet the organization in this exact moment in time is really crucial. So one of the things that we also know is implicit bias is a big thing. We all carry implicit bias. And so you'll receive a resume from somebody and they'll be like, well, they worked at all the right organizations to successfully lead this nonprofit. But maybe they didn't hold the right roles in those organizations. If you are preparing to launch a capital campaign and somebody has come from a competitor organization, but only worked on the program side, they're not going to have necessarily the skill sets necessary to. Be able to launch that capital campaign that's not going to be their area of expertise. So what we help our clients do is really hone in on the key skills and hire for skills and capacity for that organization's next chapter and boards just don't, aren't going to necessarily understand where the organization is in its life cycle and what's next. And because we are experts in the nonprofit sector, we have a clear vision for that.
Carol: And you talked about, I think, one of those really hard transitions, from a founder and, and how you witnessed, a number of specific examples where that, where that didn't go well, what, what have you seen a transition from, from the founder? Go better or go more smoothly?
Carlyn: Well once they’ve decided that they're going to transition, they do need to identify what the date is of that transition. So, whether that person is leaving in a year, six months, three months, all sorts of, it doesn't, it doesn't matter. But having a firm date in mind and working backwards from that with some succession planning, Carol, I know succession planning is also an area of topic that you care a lot about too. And then the organization can make a decision. Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys, or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because. This person can help steward and steer the organization's operations and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their positions, they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's this accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there much longer term, maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of, of opportunity. And so you need somebody in there for six months to a year, maybe even 18 months in order to make sure that all the systems are go and the fundraising relationships are strong and, All of the things that, that next executive director would otherwise work on and take up a lot of time, rather than being able to implement a bigger vision for the organization.
Carol: And I could imagine, as, or as organizations are becoming more aware and centering, equity and racial equity that. an unfortunate offshoot of that might be that, they rushed to hire a person of color where they've, where there's been a white founder. And then just because of all the founders and plus many other things, that person becomes that accidental, inner, accidental interim. And I'm, I'm just it. I can imagine that it could have an even greater detrimental effect on that person's career than it might be. For a white accidental interim.
Carlyn: Yeah, it's a good point, Carol. And again, we're dealing with individuals so individual by individual basis. Certainly. but I have seen some very specific scenarios where. That has really torpedoed somebody's career, women of color's career. and then she had a successive accidental interim tenure. And then, as people are reviewing a resume, well, why was so-and-so there for just nine months? Well, so-and-so walked into a really terrible situation, but it's hard to communicate that to, a set of board members that are thinking about, gosh, are we going to take quote unquote, a risk? It's like, you're not taking a risk, but. A resume does not show a holistic vision of who a person is. And that's really unfortunate. So it's a good point. It can be very detrimental, particularly for women of color who are already up against it. A lot of implicit bias that comes up during the hiring process.
Carol: It almost reminds me of that. I don't know. What did they call it? The glass cliff? Not just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, women, women of color, especially being offered the impossible job. Yeah. And then people wondered why they couldn't complete it.
Carlyn: There's a really interesting, I can send this to you so you can share, really interesting podcasts and possibly a company article. And I think it's from Forbes or possibly a fast company that talks about this in the for-profit sector. but this exact same thing where women are called in to clean up a mess and then have an impossible job ahead of them. And then their performance is managed in a way that. Is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, right. Or the challenge ahead. So I think it's a very good thing to be thinking about that glass clip. And what does it mean to take over, particularly from a founder who is doing more than an executive director, would traditionally, do you have to reshape that role?
Carol: Yeah. And I think for any role, an executive director or any role when an organization is looking at a job description, especially if someone's been in the role for a long time. and of course a founder has, has its own particular set of circumstances or, or impact on the organization. But, anytime someone's been in a role for awhile, though, if the organization has done a good job of maximizing that person's strengths, the role starts to morph into what works for that person. And then you have to separate it from that person and think, well, what do we need from an organizational point of view? And what is realistic? What, what can really one person take on, how do you help boards walk through that process? So it isn't, and, and identify what those really key competencies are. It's not necessarily something that most people think about on a day-to-day basis. Yeah.
Carlyn: That's a great question as well. So it goes back to the, again, to the common misconceptions about why use a search firm. Versus being able to self administer a search. One of the things that we do for all of our clients is stakeholder engagement. So on the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents to get a sense of the lay of the land, or what does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, key staff members from membership associations, the actual members of the association, key volunteers. Possibly even program participants, we're talking to funders, we're doing surveys. We're doing one-on-one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It’s just going to depend on what the organization's needs are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what was. What was really stellar about the last person in this position? What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is next? What's on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that needs to, often staff culture is a big piece. I think we're really going through a. Tumultuous time. Rightly so.
In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader and what hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect images, visual organizations. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the, The theses banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon. but enables the search firm to play this intermediary buffer zone and then communicate between the two parties about what are the needs of the organization. What's surfacing? We'll also hear from funders or other key stakeholders. What role does this organization play in the community and what, what gaps exist? So are there things that the organization could be doing that it's not, are there needs of the community that aren't being fulfilled? So it's the chance to do a, I even hate to say it like mini strategic plan, to really understand what are the opportunities ahead, what are the challenges that exist at this organization? And then we can effectively communicate reality to the potential candidates so that the board is choosing a candidate that can deal with the circumstances ahead.
Carol: No. I mean, the way you described it, it really is, essentially a mini strategic plan because all those stakeholder engagement is, is key to, any, any strategic process. And the, the, the timeframe may not be quite as long. To really help the board identify, what is this moment in time? Where are we in our life cycle? and then, what do we need from the person immediately? And then in the, in the short to long-term.
Carlyn: Yeah. And it also has helped them actually in conversation with a client that I've had over the number of years and their founders transitioning. And, we were talking about like, What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible Heights in a very small period of time for a period of time. But there are also things that are pet projects and the board. Recognizes it to some extent, but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay. But what is essential to the mission of the organization and what would be nice to have, but it's not urgent.
Carol: Yeah. I feel like so many of my conversations come down to that. What's truly essential and what's nice to have.
Carlyn: I think the pandemic has helped us get clarity around that. Hopefully as well, maybe not complete clarity, but.
Carol: At least realizing that that would be a good thing. If we can, if we can identify with the essential items, what mistakes do you see organizations making when they, when they're managing these later leadership transitions?
Carlyn: It’s all about timing. It's all about timing. So I'll often talk to people. That'll say. We're looking for the next person to be here by our gala, which is about two and a half months. And, yeah, I'm going to announce them there. Well, that's going to be tough if, if we work together, that's going to be tough. I'm not saying another search firm couldn't do it, but you're not going to have that stakeholder engagement. You're not going to have that reality check. You're not going to have that candidate care that comes through the process so often. Particularly for executive search at executive director or CEO searches boards are unaware of how long the process is actually going to take, which is usually about four to six months and most often six months. and that's from initiation to. Nope start date. So it's not necessarily from like, I, starting the search, the actual recruitment process to the offer, but that's from the stakeholder engagement to the person, actually walking in the front door. When you're dealing with executive directors, they need at least a month to be able to exit their organization and particularly, it's such a. It's going to sound funny to even say this, but it's a really tight job market right now. Like there are people who are very eager to depart their job and there are people that are very eager to hire new people.
I think I've never seen so many calls that we're getting that are going through executive transitions. I think it's a little bit of the baby boomer retirement. People are excited for new opportunities or maybe executive directors are exiting to take care of elder parents or child care. They scale back. They're so burnt out. And so it's just, there's a lot of things that are going to be floating around the market. So if you're an aspiring ed, this is your time to shine. But, if you're a board member, know that that is going to be very competitive to get the right person. And so you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple of different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in the situation where they're. They're negotiating parallel job offers, and you have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table. All sorts of things. People aren't just thankful for a new job. They are careerists that are really thinking about how this fits into their personal and professional trajectories.
Carol: And what would you say to those aspiring executive directors? What are some things that they might start doing now to prepare themselves and help them be well positioned to apply for a leadership role?
Carlyn: Yeah. As much as somebody can do to shadow. The development function of an organization. So if somebody is looking to ascend into an exhibit creative director role, the board is paying close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing experience? I think, unfortunately, and I say this as an introvert, extroverts are rewarded in a search, right. Somebody that can come in and really wow. Somebody, but research shows that introverts are actually better suited for executive director positions or leadership positions. So don't take that. But even introverted people enjoy connecting with others and, Thinking about the fundraising functions of an organization are going to be really key to aspiring executive directors. So even if you are not a development director, looking to move up, if you're a program person, we'll have you start shadowing, start having conversations with fundraising colleagues so that you understand the soup to nuts fundraising process, join a board so that you get hands-on experience of soliciting donations. Those are going to be key for you to be successful in an executive director interview. I tease, I have a colleague that works in a fundraising space and I was like, whenever you're ready to do something like an Institute for fundraising, like a three-day long weekend seminar to help fundraisers understand fundraising too. Do executive director positions. I was like, I will invest in that idea. So anybody has an idea you can call me. I will invest in that idea because it is so important. And it's, it, it really is lacking, unfortunately, in a lot of, a lot of potential, really awesome executive directors. And it's hard to change the board's mind around that because fundraising is so essential to an executive director position.
Carol: And then, once the search process is over, the person has accepted the role, what are some things to help set them up for success?
Carlyn: Yeah. So one of the things we do, bi-fold our onboarding plan with the transition committee and some staff members, so that there's 90 days worth of activities that are happening for that person. Now we can all remember an occasion where we've walked into an office and so much just like. Glad to have you, you sit here. Well, we don't want that to happen. We want everything to start off on a good foot, particularly for those executive directors. So, what are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first few weeks? How are they? Let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members. That's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I’ll meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to have a happy hour, blah, blah, blah, have all of that. Go ahead and set that up for them. So that it's really clear what they're supposed to be working on. how they're going to communicate what the organization's communication is to the community about the arrival, blah, blah, blah. And then what we also do is 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director and the board chair. And we do that for two reasons. One helps us transfer all of this great knowledge that we've received about the organization, through the stakeholder surveys, through people's individual perceptions of the organization, as we're going through the candidate process, tricky board relationships that you might need to navigate, all the things that we've, we've learned. As well as for the board chair, it helps us understand if there are hiccups along the way with that executive director so that we can bring in resources to course-correct if we need to, or if at the end of 90 days, things look like they're going to go sideways, it allows the, the board chair to understand what their options are. And if we need to replace that person, we can always go back to the candidate pool before starting a search. Good search firms are going to give a guarantee of their work that they'll replace the NEC the executive director within a year. we have not had to do that, but it's inevitable it's going to happen. And so, our guarantee is after a year, if within a year, somebody either resigns or is fired, we would start a search for free and. That 90 days helps us do that on the earlier side than like 360 days into that person's tenure.
Carol: Well, at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask a somewhat random, icebreaker question. And so, if you were right, if you were to write a book, what would it be about,
Carlyn: Oh gosh, I mean work is such a big part of my life. I'd like to think I would write like a non-work book. Right. But so if, if I had to write a work-related book, I think we would really feature some of the great nonprofits that we're, that we're working with and use that as case studies. I think there's so many lessons to learn about. The executive search process, but the process happens in a vacuright? We don't get a lot of information about what's happening behind the scenes. Other than an email to say so-and-so is leaving and look so-and-so has arrived. And so what are some of the dynamics that are happening in nonprofits today and what are the different things that are needed that are different than 20 years ago? So what's the contemporary viewpoint on executive search might be my next book. We'll see if I can find time.
Carol: All right. Well, we'll look for that in bookstores.
Carlyn: Coming to a bookstore near you, coming to a bookstore and meeting you.
Carol: And, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Carlyn: It’s been, it's been a really interesting spring into summer. I mean, we're getting so many requests for searches, which is great. so we're building the team, so we'll have two new hires coming on this summer. and so thinking about how we build a team that represents the type of placements that we want to make. So no differentiating, and the nonprofit will only work in the nonprofit sector, but who are people in housing who are people in community development and all of those sorts of things that we're building those skills into the team are looking at racial diversity of our own team. we're looking at gender diversity, age diversity, all of these different elements for us so that we can serve our clients. Well, And I think we're really in just the beginning of a big way for executive transition. So we're trying to wax a surfboard and swim on out and get ready for the wave.
Carol: Sounds great. Well, thank you so much.
Carlyn: Thanks so much, Carol. I appreciate it.
Carol: I appreciated how our conversation about how too often people of color, especially women get handed a “glass cliff” assignment in leadership. This could be succeeding a founder or being hired to turn around an organization. These glass cliff assignments not only serves to hurt the individual’s career, they really do a to the sector more broadly. As organizations prioritize racial equity in their hiring, they need to do the work that ensures that their focus on equity is beyond just the hiring process. That they are doing the work internally to ensure new leaders of color have the resources they need to succeed in their roles and they are not being expected to do all the work of anti-racism for the organization on their own. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Carlyn as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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