Advancement Trailblazers: Recruiting Mission and Purpose Driven Leaders

December 13, 2016 – An extension of development and fundraising in academic and non-profit organizations, ‘advancement’ leadership represents not only a change in the wording, but also in the skill set that is now required at the highest levels of these leading institutions.

In recent years, both sectors have shifted toward more integrated models of collaboration between communications, marketing, branding and development. To keep up, incoming leaders have brought along skill sets from the for-profit sector, including strategic planning, financial & operational expertise, and people management proficiency.

A Higher Calling

But when it comes to delivering on some of the more immeasurable goals of organizations within these two sectors, leaders who bring passion and purpose for a mission seem to be the ones winning more of these highly coveted top jobs. Managing the heightened demand are executive recruiters. Once considered an afterthought or adjunct service at larger search firms, recruiting for educational institutions and non-profits is now viewed as one of the most expansive sectors providing serious career paths for top industry leaders. As a result, it is now big business for search outfits, notably boutiques that specialize.

In academia, presidents and chancellors are selected from a broadrange of areas, but most have come from the corporate world. Now, as the call for mission-driven leaders rises, candidates are surfacing from some of the unlikeliest of places, including the military and religious communities, among others, where passion seems to be a part of their built-in DNA.

“Most search committees seek leaders who can advance both the business side and academic side of the institution to ensure a strong future,” said Emily Parker Myers, CEO of Myers McRae Executive Search and Consulting, a specialist in the field serving clients in higher education and the non-profit sector. Still, Ms. Myers said, while there is fierce competition for talent who can deliver measurable results, it is those offering a track record of managing a mission with conviction who are in highest demand.

Even when an institution has a strong internal candidate, said Ms. Myers, the college or university will often enlist a search firm to conduct a national search. “It eliminates the question of whether there was a better candidate outside the institution that should have been considered,” said Ms. Myers. But, she added, “an outside search can build confidence in the internal candidate if selected.” Either way, the hunt is on for fresh thinking and new approaches as institutions, and people themselves, evolve with a focus put on integrity and being able to inspire.

Bridging a Widening Talent Gap

Search firms of every stripe seem to be getting in on the action to help bridge a widening talent gap. Since launching its dedicated non-profit search practice, Harvard Group International has completed a number of key placements, including for Make-A-Wish Foundation chapters, the ALS Association, United Way Worldwide, and Boys & Girls Clubs chapters. “As the non-profit sector continues to grow and becomes exceedingly more complicated, we felt the need to establish a division that combines our non-profit search expertise with our expanding network of for-profit leaders,” said founding partner Jeff McMahon.

The non-profit practice at DHR International provides senior level executive searches to a growing client list that now includes cultural organizations, international development and social service organizations, zoos and aquariums, gardens and arboreta, economic development organizations and trade association, foundations and educational organizations.

For universities, it is no different. “Institutions of higher learning are turning to executive search firms in droves to fill their top roles,” said Diversified Search CEO Dale Jones. At a time with many academic leaders are retiring or leaving their posts to pursue other interests, he said, competition to replace them is intense.

“Recruiters have the requisite skills to manage a process that at times can be unwieldy, but more importantly they can help to expand a university’s reach and use their well-honed assessment skills to find the very best leaders in and out of higher education,” said Mr. Jones. He said not only can recruiters consistently enhance candidate pools, but the best ones can bring individuals to the table who otherwise might not have entertained a new opportunity. Diversified Search has worked with more than 300 educational institutions and not-for-profit organizations over a 40-year span.

“The market for executive search in the university and college sector has expanded dramatically over the last 25 years,” said Vivian Brocard, president of Isaacson, Miller, one of the leading recruiting specialists serving the needs of higher education institutional leadership. Nationally recognized for finding transformative leaders for mission-driven organizations, Isaacson, Miller has conducted some 5,600 placements over 34 years. Of those, about 2,800, or roughly half, have been in the education sector. It expects overall demand to increase in the coming decade as baby boomers retire and there remains continued flux within the higher education sector.

Mission Drives Strategy

“Historically, the concept of a ‘mission’ has been associated with faith-based organizations,” said Quick Leonard Kieffer president and CEO Roger Quick. “Today, however, all types of organizations have recognized that a clear mission provides consistency, purpose and clarity and is an essential part of any strategic plan.” Missions in and of themselves, he added, not only attract, engage and retain talent, “they help strengthen organizational culture, improve decision-making, enhance relationships and increase productivity.” As a result, he said, “organizations across the academic and non-profit world are putting weight on recruiting leaders who recognize the importance of a strong mission, are committed to upholding that mission, and are capable of utilizing it to drive strategy and success.” And this emphasis is not just limited to these two sectors, and this is driving demand way beyond the current talent supply lines.

One of the most recent examples occurred last month when the Girl Scouts of America retained Diversified Search to lead its search for a new executive officer. Founder and chairman Judith M. von Seldeneck is leading the assignment. It’s a natural fit considering the search firm’s track record with not-for-profit organizations over four decades. Just recently, the firm placed Stacey D. Stewart as president of the March of Dimes Foundation. She became the organization’s first black president.

Diversified has a woman chair and founder and an African-American CEO. “It’s a mission for us,” said Ms. von Seldeneck. “We care deeply about what we do and we see where it makes a difference as an organization in terms of quality of people. Making a culture match at the end of the day is still the name of this game.”

The Girl Scouts is a youth organization for girls in the U.S. and American girls living abroad. The 104 year-old organization is looking for someone who can lead it while displaying compassion and inspiring a growing membership base. But candidates will be highly scrutinized for strong interpersonal and leadership skills who can also help expand its mission.

“This is a complex organization that needs people that have the basic skill sets in terms of finance, strategy, marketing and communications,” said Ms. von Seldeneck. “They’re looking for the same leadership qualities and competencies the for-profit sector is looking for. And today that includes being mission-driven as well as everything else.”

Leaders Flocking

With a flurry of non-profits seeking top leaders in recent years, executives from all walks of corporate life continue to flock to the sector, hoping to transfer the skills they’ve honed in traditional business. That’s led to complications for recruiters. Under varying degrees of pressure for fundraising, non-profits are pressed to find leaders who can play a major role driving that agenda.

“Non-profits are in many ways even more demanding than the private sector,” said Vetted Solutions president and founder Jim Zaniello, whose executive search firm counts non-profits among its client roster. “They have large staffs, large memberships and large constituencies often with competing interests.”

Nor is it totally understood just how much the non-profit sector has changed in recent years, said Kevin Chase, founder of the Kevin Chase Executive Search Group that works exclusively with not-forprofit clients. “There’s a broader understanding of non-profit work,” said Mr. Chase. “There’s still a perception that you can go from corporate to non-profit because it’s not as demanding. I think the opposite is true. Non-profit has become a more valid strategic career decision for people thinking about longtime career and impact.”

Individuals focused on salary won’t make good candidates for mission-driven jobs, according to Mr. Quick, whose executive search firm specializes in healthcare, academia and non-profits. “There is a dichotomy between being driven by mission and being driven by money,” he said.

Mr. Quick added that mission-driven individuals are more likely to view that same job as their calling. “They are rarely doing these jobs for the money,” he said. “In fact, we have seen many people willing to take a huge pay cut for a position that speaks to their passion. Faced with this financial risk, individuals in other industries who wish to focus on their passion must also wait until they are financially secure.” If you’re taking a job just for the money, added Ms. von Seldeneck, “the not-for-profit world is not for you.”

Most candidates, and especially those with impressive credentials, will of course seek competitive salaries and benefits. Like everyone else, they have families to support and continue to view compensation as an indicator of career progress and organizational recognition.

“Non-profits recognize that in order to attract the caliber of leadership talent they need, market level compensation levels must be paid,” said Mr. Zaniello. “Salaries, benefits and other forms of compensation must keep pace with the corporate sector.” Search professionals, he said, must be an astute judge of this increasingly complex mix needed to land the ideal candidate.

At research colleges and universities where success relies on inspiring or motivating a faculty, it is rare to find a non-academic candidate. But not all candidates fit one size. Top university positions, which consist of largely political roles, attract candidates with public service backgrounds, said Isaacson, Miller chair John Isaacson, an academic search specialist.

Mr. Isaacson cited the recent appointments of University of Texas System chairman William H. McRaven, a former United States Navy Admiral; University of North Carolina president Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush; and University of California System president Janet Napolitano, former United States Secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama.

“There are several thousand colleges and universities. It is a distributed industry of small, even tiny players, relative to the market,” said Mr. Isaacson. “Contrast that to aluminum or cars, where somewhere from one to four or five companies handle the whole market. Those are consolidated industries and very large companies, so succession planning is far easier. In a small place, it can be an accident of timing and talent if you happen to have a president of the right age and experience waiting in the wings. It’s much easier in a big enterprise.”

To ensure for a more successful recruitment process, search firms such as Gilman Partners – which has a 15-year track-record of working with a broad mix of non-profit clients for mission critical roles, including CEO, COO, CFO, executive director and chief development officer – provide hands-on support, from creating the job profile all the way through offer acceptance and onboarding. Gilman Partners also uses an online behavioral assessment and targeted interview questions to address any red flags along the hiring process chain. Of the senior leaders placed by Gilman, 96 percent are still with the same organization three years later, according to the firm, which formed a non-profit leadership practice under partners Barry Elkus and Karen Finan in August.

According to recruiters, effective leaders in the non-profit sector need to be creative and innovative visionaries who stay true to their organization’s mission. But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. They also need to be strategic business minds who can identify and motivate the key stakeholders whose philanthropy powers the engine. You can’t just be one or the other anymore. “Many of the key skills that translate from the corporate world to the non-profit sector are related to relationship building and collaboration,” said Mr. Quick. “And to mission.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief and John Harris, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media

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