Equity-Grounded ED Search Processes


Note: this blog has been excerpted, with permission, from an interview by Columbia Legal Services Director Merf Ehman of ada shen-jaffe, published in the Spring 2023 Issue of the Management Information Exchange (MIE) Journal[1])

About JustLead Blogs[2]:

JustLead’s “WHY,” the transcendent universal value that grounds all of its work, is taken from Professor john a. powell’s articulation that “everyone belongs in the circle of human concern.” [3] JustLead’s Leadership Academy (Academy)and Race Equity & Justice Initiative (REJI) are key component parts of our state’s equity & justice community infrastructure.

Our Blog Space features learnings gained from the “living lab” of our pro-equity leadership and anti-oppression community-building efforts.

The Role of White Supremacy Culture in Many Traditional ED Search Processes:

Historically, our law and justice systems were founded based on dominant white cultural norms and power dynamics.[4] In order to deliver on our collective law and justice system pro-equity/anti-racism commitments, the default norms must be challenged when they operate in ways that perpetuate structural racism as well as other forms of structural bias and oppression.


What work should a board do first when hiring a new ED?

A successful process will rest 85% on front-end load work and only 15% on specific tasks and timeline. What do I mean by front-end loading? This is the preliminary work necessary to successfully launch a search process. The process may be led by a Board member or a small team of Board members sharing the work, and if the organization’s size and budget allow, facilitation and organizational tasks may be outsourced.

First, ensure that there is a deep, shared understanding of the organization’s past, present and aspirational future context. Start by reviewing and refreshing the organization’s “WHY” – recommit to or change the universal, transcendent core values that undergird the organization’s reason to exist. The WHY should crystallize the reasons for the organization’s existence.

The next step for the Board is to examine how well the organization’s mission statement and current way of operating align with its WHY–does it need to be updated or revised to keep up with changes both external and internal (e.g., the shattering race disparities revealed by COVID, the global anti-racism protest ignited by the murder of George Floyd and unrelenting horrific sequelae, etc.)?

Note that here, I’d like to take a quick detour into a few challenging reflections:

First, in some ways, those of us who have served under the umbrella of a civil legal aid not-for-profit framework have been unintentionally a part of the so-called “Not-for-profit Industrial Complex”—the land of 501(c)3 entities, initially set up so that wealthy (largely white) people could feel virtuous about and in charge of how they chose to dispose of some of their wealth.[5] We need to understand the limitations and opportunities underlying the waters in which we are swimming lest we unwittingly internalize the origin values of the system under which we operate.

Second, in the wake of the massive disruptions to the status quo motivated by the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and what Professor Ibram X. Kendi has described as “The End of Denial”[6] (by white people, that racism is systemic), I believe we need to recognize the ways in which our collective acceptance of the default anti-poverty framework has at times operated as an insidious form of “colorblindness”, justifying an “All Lives Matter” retort to pro-equity/anti-racism forces. I say this as a person who has been actively challenged by treasured white colleagues calling me out in the following ways, “Race, race, race! All you ever think about is race! You know white people suffer from poverty, too.” (otherwise known as a deflection from acknowledging that Black and Indigenous populations continue to face state-sanctioned harm and lethality in ways unique to their histories of chattel slavery and genocide).

Third, as a consequence of the anti-poverty framework, for many of us, the singular focus of our advocacy throughout our history has been on the civil side of the law & justice system. We must recognize that this artificial “silo-ing” of the civil side as wholly separate from and unrelated to the juvenile justice, criminal justice, and so-called child welfare systems is a white supremacy-grounded construction. The silo-ing of the four systems has operated in ways that amplify harm, often intergenerationally, especially for communities of color, who are often involuntarily and disproportionally entangled in multiple of the four “silos.” Going forward, we need to promote the dismantling of these harmful silos, replacing them with a holistic, pro-equity/anti-oppression approach that reckons with the harm being done when the law & justice system perpetuates the fiction that these systems are not inextricably entwined.

Should the Board determine that the organization needs realignment, it can engage (with or without a facilitator) in an assessment process such as the so-called “SWOT” analysis.[7]

Make an updated assessment of the position. Depending on the size of the program, this task could be outsourced. Assessing roles and functions includes reality-checking whether expectations are realistic and achievable, and do not assume that the person is an endless pit of capacity. As one long-time colleague once said, “Our expectations of our leaders are wildly unrealistic and unfair. Even Nelson Mandela couldn’t meet them, and when he was still with us, he was otherwise occupied.

Here’s another brief detour before we move on:

I want to flag the growing desire, especially in pro-equity/anti-racism committed organizations, to reorient past and current status quo positional authority models in favor of new models that move away from traditional hierarchical approaches and towards shared leadership roles and functions. Many organizations have been trying to realign themselves in this way. Not surprisingly, they have faced some significant challenges. Thus, it is essential to identify and set in motion the support and power shifts necessary to maximize chances of success in such a shift, otherwise, problems may arise due to a lack of clarity about where decision making authority and accountability reside. The motivation for such reorienting is good, particularly when it creates intentional space for pro-equity change. All of us should be looking for and learning from places experiencing success with shared leadership models. All this is to say that significant groundwork should be done by the board prior to making a shift towards shared leadership.

Next, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the prior (or current but departing) positional authority person(s) in delivering on organizational mission and fidelity to core values. This may include review of that person’s roles and functions, prior job descriptions, performance reviews, and so on. This will help the Board understand whether there is any negative “overhang” from a prior ED – e.g., issues that are unresolved, aspects of the organizational culture that are counterproductive or even harmful, etc. It is a recipe for failure if you don’t know about the issues that remain in the air. A great example of a board not knowing about these types of challenges is set out in an article about a legal advocacy organization in the Non-Profit Quarterly https://nonprofitquarterly.org/splc-in-turmoil-as-problems-festered-where-was-its-board/. In this case the board eventually hired an interim ED before hiring a permanent ED.

Here are some of the ways to determine if you have “red flag” issues:

  1. Check out the current or departing ED’s history with performance reviews and the results. Be sure to provide newer board members with results of reviews predating their service.
  2. Exercise due diligence in unearthing any complaints from staff or grievances if the organization is unionized as well as files indicating unresolved problems or issues that have affected or could affect the organization.
  3. If no complaints, is there a retaliatory culture of fear that may be contributing to the lack of feedback from staff—translation: it is not necessarily a badge of honor or an indication of positive work culture that no grievances get filed.
  4. Has there been a recent staff engagement survey or race equity assessment that you can review as part of this assessment?
  5. What are the successes and failures of this particular leader? What are the racial and other marginalization dynamics contributing to the successes and failures?
  6. What progress has the organization made in its pro-equity journey and what has the ED’s role in it been?

The “front-end load” also includes a solid understanding of the organization’s culture, track record, external reputation, and relationships with and accountability to collaborative partners and most importantly, to the communities it serves.

If the person who has served in the ED role and the mission and culture are all on track, count yourselves most fortunate. The board can identify guideposts based on the organization’s successes, and these will be valuable for the new positional authority leader.

How should the board communicate and involve or not involve staff and others in the process?

How much?

My motto when facing organizational transitions is to “overcommunicate by a factor of ten.”

To whom?

The Board should develop a specific, detailed plan and timeline for staff involvement, including a staff union, if applicable. You will want to have representation across organizational roles and functions, including support staff, advocates, managers, and so on. The legitimacy of your search process will be strengthened if you broaden engagement to include external community partners including community-led organizations, funders/supporters, and members of the general public who are connected with the organization’s work.

What gets communicated?

Strategic communication is about managing expectations in a respectful yet realistic way, and committing yourself to meeting whatever expectations you set. In this way, you build trust in the face of transitional uncertainty. Frequency and level of communication should vary based on the level of interest and attachment to the organization of various audiences. For instance, those with incidental, loose attachments can be periodically updated on the process and asked for input. Involving those with the greatest levels of direct engagement should happen on a frequent and regular basis, with clearly communicated and specific opportunities to provide input and feedback. When you start getting feedback that there is too much communication, you’ll know you got it about right!

I recommend the convening of an Advisory Team to help guide the Board’s Search Committee. Such an advisory team can be comprised of staff representatives and external partners. Eight to twelve members is a good number, large enough to achieve critical mass and diversity, yet not too big to be unwieldy and unmanageable. The Advisory Team will be invaluable when the time comes to get the word out about the position.

What will be the timelines?

Good strategic communication plans specify timelines. In order to manage expectations, I recommend very conservative, generous time ranges rather than specific target dates because of the many factors outside of your control. Identify time ranges for the following tasks:

  1. Identifying members and setting a regular schedule for convening the Board’s Search Committee;
  2. Identifying members and setting a regular schedule for convening the Advisory Team;
  3. Circulating drafts of a job description for input;
  4. Perfecting the job description;
  5. Drafting and perfecting the public notice;
  6. Widely circulating the job notice;
  7. Receiving and culling through (meaning weeding out those immediately recognizable as unqualified, e.g., just graduated from relevant training the year before, or candidates with zero frames of reference or motivation, which can include lived experience, for equity and justice related work) qualified candidate applications to be reviewed by Advisory Team and Board Search Committee members; note that all members of the Advisory Team and Board Search Committee have access to all applications submitted at any time;
  8. Reopening and reposting application period if pool insufficiently qualified and diverse;
  9. Advisory Team reviewing applications and sending input/recommendations to Board Search Committee;
  10. Board Search Committee reviewing applications and Advisory Team input/recommendations;
  11. Having one or two Board Search Committee members conduct preliminary phone screening interviews to gauge candidate strength and level of interest, etc.;
  12. With Advisory Team input, selecting candidates to be interviewed;
  13. Assigning and reviewing brief written assignments asking candidates to describe their approach to strengthening the organization’s pro-equity/anti-racism commitments;
  14. Scheduling and holding candidate interviews, first with the Advisory Team;
  15. Scheduling and holding candidate interviews with Board Search Committee and other interviewers designated by the Search Committee, if any;
  16. Board Search Committee receiving input/feedback on candidates from the Advisory Team;
  17. Board Search Committee conducting candidate reference checks;
  18. Conducting second round interviews/call-backs if needed;
  19. Search Committee transmitting its recommendations to full Board and Advisory Team with rationale;
  20. Board determining framing and specifics of offer;
  21. Offering position and any negotiations;
  22. Etc.

Who will manage coordination and logistics of communications and meetings?

It will be helpful if you have someone or can hire or sequester an existing support staff member who can be placed into a “confidentiality cocoon.” That person receives all communications and applications, reference check information, etc., through a special protected email address. Confidentiality protection is particularly important if you have internal candidates as well as outside candidates not initially ready to have their application made public. It is important to make clear at the outset what information can be kept confidential and what will be disclosed. People understand confidentiality issues. Building the broadest and most diverse possible list of places to circulate the job notice should be the shared work of all invested in the organization’s success.

One person from the Board Search Committee should be responsible for keeping the full Board up to date every step of the way. If there is not a diverse enough pool, keep looking. This eventuality should be built into the timeline.

What are the challenges in this process and the opportunities?

It is essential that members of the Board use the search process as an opportunity to build trust. Whether there has been reputational damage needing repair, or dissension among staff or the prior ED was the greatest person on the planet, people can often react to change and uncertainty with fear. I like this quote from Dr. Ron Heifetz, who has taught leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “What people resist is not change per se, but the loss that accompanies any change.” Even positive change that everyone wants or is excited about (retirement, a needed change, founder leaving) can still elicit feelings of grief and loss.

Another challenge is “founder’s syndrome” – the loss of an iconic founder who has taken up much of the “oxygen.” Note that this is often a sign that the departing ED did not adequately nurture and develop next-generation leaders who don’t look like themselves. A closely related challenge is what I call “Cult of Personality Culture,” where ED’s have allowed (or even encouraged) their persona to become synonymous with the entity itself—another indicator of an ED’s leadership failure to nurture next-generation organizational leadership. If such challenges exist, the Board needs to assess the organization’s strengths without the presence of the venerated leader, and determine what extra supports a successor ED will require to overcome these challenges.

It is important for all engaged in the search process to help normalize the community’s  feelings of loss and uncertainty, while clearly laying out a path to a positive future.

What should a Board think about when creating a job description?

A good job description will balance specific desirable skill sets and experience with other important attributes such as self and other awareness, a demonstrated commitment to lifelong learning, high “E.Q”, a deep understanding of the importance of respectful and pro-equity workplace culture and lived experience relevant to the issues the organization has been tackling or needs to tackle, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the client communities it is charged with serving. Be sure that you leave room for candidates who may not already possess all specific skills and experiential qualifications (lack of opportunity for non-traditional applicants, for example) by anticipating areas for growth and development to be supported by the Board in the future should such a candidate be selected. This is especially important for racial and other forms of equity for those from communities that have been marginalized.

The Board should also consider looking for candidates with the ability to conquer fear with courage given the many difficult challenges they are certain to face. It is also important to find a candidate who will not shy away from finding the most constructive possible ways to be intentional about managing interpersonal conflict.

What tools do you suggest or what advice would you give?

Check out the updated version of “Managing Transitions” by William Bridges.[8] It is in a workbook format and offers suggestions for navigating the psychology and phases of transition, and the importance of expressly naming the phases experienced in a period of transition.

Another tool in managing expectations about decision making is a simple graph in which the ordinate (left side vertical line “y” axis, low to high) represents the degree of engagement and potential impact of a decision on a person, and the abscissa (bottom horizontal line moving from left to right or “x” axis) represents the amount of process and resources the organization will invest in the decision. Moving from the bottom left (little or no engagement or interest, no process) is the process point called “Decide & Inform” (e.g., we are getting a new water cooler on Tuesday-the old one broke). Diagonally upwards to the right (increasing degrees of interest, increasing amount of process and  resources, comes the next process point, “Advise the Decisionmaker”—the key to this point on the trajectory is clarity that the advisors are NOT the decisionmakers—they are advisors only, and the decisionmaker may decide to use or set aside the advisors’ recommendations for various reasons, which should be explained (e.g., not feasible budgetarily, or within needed regulatory timetables, or inconsistent with various requirements faced by the organization, etc.). Continuing upwards towards the right, the next process point is “Decisionmaker (or designee) Decides.” The last process point, top right, is “Consensus.” For decisions with the greatest impact on the organization, there can be a kind of groupthink hope that consensus can be reached. My cautionary note about what I call “The Devil Consensus” is that it can serve as the comfortable resting place for those intent on maintaining the status quo—i.e., they will never allow consensus to be reached. In this case, you will have stated in advance that if there is a failure to reach consensus within X amount of time, the decision reverts to the identified decision maker. This prevents the status quotitians from standing in the way of any change.

The front-end loading processes described earlier are all about managing people’s expectations about who and how decisions will be made. Transparency and persistent communications are essential to trust and community-building.

Why is it important for the board to regularly review the ED? And why is it hard for boards to do this?

Board members are often volunteers with lots on their plates. Unless they already have experience with performance management, they may require clear guidance on how to review and manage the Director’s performance. One particularly useful tool that can be outsourced is called a “360-Degree Feedback Review”[9] that collects data based on feedback on the ED’s performance from all levels of the organization as well as externally. This feedback is accompanied by a self-assessment component. In my experience, most equity & justice community ED’s are self-effacing to a fault. Note that for equity & justice-based organizations, I have recognized a clear pattern of discrepancy between low scores ED’s give themselves compared to much higher scores generated by colleagues and other partners.

When there are serious problems with the ED, Boards will sometimes resort to using a review to address the problem, but this is not a correct use of what should be an ongoing, periodic performance management system. Reviews should be consistently done over time to prevent these problems or to identify them early so they can be addressed. Should this fail, at least there will be a record to support disciplinary resolution if that becomes necessary.

What do you see as the Board’s role in supporting a new ED?

The selection process itself should have informed the Board of the kinds of support the new ED will need to grow and thrive. This is particularly true if the new ED needs help upgrading certain specific skills sets and/or experience gaps. The Board and the new ED should jointly design a plan for the upgrading necessary to ensure the sustainable success of the new ED and the organization.

A good search process calls on the Board to find a positional authority leader who either already possesses important skills sets and competencies, or who shows strong potential to acquire them, while not failing to give great weight to the invaluable assets of lived experience, emotional intelligence, resilience and grit.

[1] The Management Information Exchange Journal is the premiere voice of the civil legal aid community for sharing and exchanging information and ideas about the current and emerging issues facing legal aid leadership, management and advocates working to further justice for people in poverty, https://mielegalaid.org

[2] https://JustLeadWA.org and JustLead’s Race Equity & Justice Initiative, https://WAREJI.org

[3] Professor john a. powell’s “Othering & Belonging Institute” at UC Berkeley Law School, https://belonging.berkeley.edu

[4]Tema Okun, https://www.dismantlingracism.org

[5] Paul Kivel, “Social Service or Social Change?,” https://paulkivel.com

[6] https://www.theatlantic.com/press-releases/archive/2020/08/ibram-x-kendi-on-the-end-of-denial/614962/

[7] SWOT Analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, https://www.mindtools.com

[8] “Managing Transitions,” https://wmbridges.com

[9] For an example of such a resource, https://www.echospan.com; https://www.cultureamp.com

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