Non-Profit Leadership: How to Hire Chemistry

Group of three people interviewing a candidate and shaking their hand.
Group of three people interviewing a candidate and shaking their hand.

In the world of hiring we recognize there are many challenges that face non-profit organizations. We typically cannot compete with the higher salaries that are available for similar positions, particularly in leadership. At Lakeside, we have attempted to develop our leadership from within but in some situations that is just not possible, forcing us to look outside the organization.

Another hard reality is what I read some time ago from personnel research. It concluded that we can’t really know someone unless we work with them for approximately 2 years. I find that to be a good gauge for establishing an authentic relationship. It just takes time! Yet we have to make rather subjective and expedient decisions when we hire leaders for our non-profit organizations.

I recognize that we need to find competence for their role as a basic qualification. Their education, experience, references, and command of the knowledge and skills that the job requires are essential to a positive hiring process. This is where any interview process begins and I have found it is not as easy as one would think to find that level of competence.

I also believe the individual must have a passion for the mission and values of the organization. They should be able to evoke compassionate responses to how we have impact to our clients and communities. In fact, it needs to be a core belief that energizes them. There needs to be a true alignment of their strengths, passions, and their sense of creating an impact that matters to them.

Significant to their ability to work in a non-profit is chemistry. There needs to be a resonant connection with current leadership, within the organizational culture, and their ability to build strong relationships with staff and those we serve as a part of our everyday relationships. This is where we try to envision how our working and personal relationships will fit into a cohesive sense of functioning together as a team.

This is not an easy process for our leadership or for the candidate. I believe it should be a mutual process. Therefore, I find it helpful to include them in multi-level interviews so we can assess several types of responses and get a sense of how they react to different individuals over time. All of the factors I have mentioned are significant to assess.

However, the chemistry is an absolute essential. My most helpful moments in the interview process is after they have been through a great deal of exposure over several rounds of interviews. I attempt to take a very long time over dinner to have an open, two-way, and authentic discussion about who they are, who we are, and what our future will be together. I want to join with them prior to the hiring process in their perspectives, beliefs, and ways of handling problems and stress how they will be able to manage the multi-dimensional challenges that we will handle together.

The important thing to remember is that it takes time to assess any individual to determine who they are and where they will lead the organization. Their character is hard to measure quickly but that comfortability of chemistry is key to building a good beginning and on-going relationship.

Nothing can be absolute, but every exposure, observation, connection, and conversation enlightens and gives us confidence that a person is a viable candidate who will help us grow our mission and impact.

It can be scary, but also very exciting to see the potential of what someone can bring to our chemistry to make us more effective and stronger as a leadership team!

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO

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