Leadership transition is one of the most vulnerable times in the lifespan of an organization. When a leader announces their departure, fear, doubt, anger, optimism, relief, and other strong emotions can rise to the surface, not only among the staff but in the boardroom, with audiences, and in the community served by the organization. In that whirl of individual emotions and institutional turmoil lies an opportunity for acquiring awareness and making improvements.
Later, when a new leader is announced, a search firm is usually credited with finding the candidate. What do these paid consultants do at this consequential time? And whom do they serve? I had a chance to find out when, in April 2021, I accepted an invitation to serve as a field advisor for one of these firms, Management Consultants for the Arts (MCA). MCA created the field advisor role to diversify their team racially and include theatre artists in their practice. As a field advisor, my primary task was to help surface potential candidates for some of the searches MCA was conducting. As envisioned, this role would require approximately 10 hours of work per client organization, which allowed me to maintain my freelance directing work.
I had spent a large amount of my career working within institutions—as deputy artistic director of Arena Stage, associate artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse, and co-founder and executive artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company—so I was familiar with the search process from the vantage points of hiring manager or candidate. The invitation from MCA provided an exciting chance to learn about search from the perspective of a leading firm that specializes in the process. I served as field advisor for 20 months, until December 2022.
Early on in my time as a field advisor, I came to see that I had harbored a misconception of what search firms do. I believed then, and still believe, that leadership transition provides a golden opportunity for the board of an organization to lift their eyes and look around. So I had assumed that part of what a search firm was hired to do was to help the board understand the field locally and nationally, explore how the arts ecosystem had evolved since their last leadership transition, learn about the major conversations and concerns in the field, look internally at its existing systems, and ask tough questions about what’s working, what’s not, what the organization’s purpose currently is, and how effective it has been at achieving that purpose. I imagined that search firms facilitated this process through intentional conversations with their client that allowed the board, staff, artists, and community to hear one another. Further, I envisioned that this introspection and extrospection provided a strong foundation so the search committee—the group of volunteers handpicked by the board or other leadership to go through the search process guided by the outside search firm—understood the organization’s values. They would thus be ready to meet interesting applicants, whose ideas ranged from traditional to visionary, and the committee would have the tools to evaluate the opportunities each candidate could bring to the organization, along with the organization’s readiness to support those opportunities.
I quickly learned that was not always how it worked. The leadership of MCA gently shared with me that our charge was much more focused: simply to help the organization find their next leader, not to help them get better as an organization. Of course, the hope of everyone involved—the search firm, the search committee, and the applicants—is that the new leader will indeed have the opportunity to take the theatre to the next level and make them a better organization. But that mandate isn’t clearly stated as part of the process.
Questions swirled in my head: Are we optimizing the search process to achieve the goal of yielding new leadership best situated to take the organization to its next best level? “Next level” and “better” mean different things to everyone involved; at what point does this get defined, by whom, and how? Further, new leaders are often required to hit the ground running as theatres navigate difficult economic situations and changing cultural dynamics. Is it fair to lay all that at their feet? What if theatres, instead of expecting new leaders to fix everything, helped surface change opportunities for the next leader within the search process itself?
I could see the hard work and long hours my colleagues at MCA were sustaining. Perhaps I was being unrealistic in expecting more from search firms. I spoke to colleagues from across the theatre world, who shared my preconceived notions about the work of search firms. I realized I needed a broader sampling of search firms, so I reached out to five firms with these questions:
1) What does a search firm do? What does a search firm not do?
2) Please describe or share the steps of your search process.
3) What, if any, do you think are common pitfalls of executive search in the nonprofit American theatre?
4) How do you measure your success?
5) What advice, if any, can you give to individuals who are interested in applying for a position for which your firm is leading the search?
6) Is there anything else you would like readers to know about executive search?
Four firms responded to my questions: AlbertHall & Associates, LLC, ALJP Consulting, Arts Consulting Group, and Tom O’Connor Consulting Group. (Interestingly, MCA declined.) I want to add that there are many more search firms beyond this group. The field is deep, and I encourage interested parties to explore the full landscape. I also hope other firms will jump into this conversation.
The responses from the search firms showed some similarities in their processes, but also philosophical and practical differences. Overall, though, like MCA these firms see their function as focused on helping to find the next leader, not the betterment of the organization.
But I am unable to shake my chicken-and-egg questions, and the notion that we are not optimizing the opportunity presented by leadership transition. Perhaps a distinction should be made between the work of a search firm and the entirety of a search process. By adding to and/or enhancing some of the existing steps carried out by search firms, I believe that search committees can both find and hire new leaders and strengthen and improve their organizations.
Following are some searching opportunities to consider, some of which might be best facilitated by search firms, and some by other parties.
1. Discovering and illuminating the state of the field and surfacing the organization’s practiced values.
Boards and search committees are often composed of major donors, community leaders, executive staff, and occasionally artists and other staff members. Some of these volunteers have little understanding of the field, and this unevenness is typically unexamined and unacknowledged.
None of the search firms surveyed indicated that they include a distinct step in their process to educate the board and search committee on the state of the field, though AlbertHall & Associates noted in their email that they “also open up discussions as to the state of the profession, the organization’s relative place in the ecology of the field, and where change may be needed in organizational practices to ensure a successful search and healthy future.” It could be that many of the search firms embed this step within their initial assessment process. I propose, however, that a comprehensive dive into the state of the field for the board and search committee is vital, and we should carve out separate and intentional time for this in the search process.
This time for discovery would surface the zeitgeist of the industry, which would be useful in understanding and evaluating applicants, and eventually partnering with the newly hired leader to advance the organization.
This exploration could include, among other things:
- Recent newsworthy items from the field.
- Exposure to a wide and diverse range of theatre artists, theatre, arts education, and community engagement programs from across the sector.
- Current and common management challenges across the field.
- Conversations about and with other boards.
- Examination of staff morale.
- Issues of equity, access, diversity, and inclusion.
- A review of local and national audience numbers and trends.
- A look at local community conversations and pressing concerns.
- A survey of various financial models for producing art along with examination of the nonprofit model.
- Existential concerns, such as debt, frequent operating deficits, competition, or other perceived threats.
- Understanding foundation and government funding priorities.
- Research on innovative ideas, structures, and processes being tested in the field.
The expertise for this examination does not necessarily have to come from the search firm, though they may be best positioned to facilitate it. Within each organization are staff members who know the state of their respective departments and are in conversation with peers across the field, and who thus know where the organization stands relative to the field ecology. Some board and search committee members may hold local or financial expertise that could be shared with the group. Freelance artists who work at theatres across the country hear and experience the industry’s common complaints and can identify the outliers. If facilitated well, a state-of-the-field discovery process could have the added benefit of shrinking the dangerous gaps among staff, board, and artists that persist in most nonprofit theatres.
Against this backdrop of a solid understanding of the state of the field, a board can dig deep into the organization’s budget and practices to illuminate its current values and question or affirm them. For example, most board members don’t know how resources are distributed across departments, vendors, or the community, or the income gap between the lowest and highest wage earners at the institution, and yet this information tells a story about the theatre’s values, which may be different from those posted on the website.
2. Understanding and addressing organizational culture and leadership.
Many search firms provide assessments of the organization as part of the search process, though there is some variety in what they assess and how the information is related back to the board and search committee and then acted upon. Arts Consulting Group writes that they “assess the emotional well-being of those who will remain in the organization.” ALJP Consulting and AlbertHall & Associates begin their process with “organizational discovery and assessment” and “assessment/situational analysis,” respectively. ALJP is the only firm surveyed which includes a “Bias Awareness Workshop for all who interact with candidates, preparing the interviewers with tools to recognize bias in searches.” The other firms surveyed appear to offer similar training “if needed.”
There is a prime opportunity for boards and search committees to capitalize on the assessments conducted by the search firms, and to use these findings to achieve a clear understanding of the organization’s culture and leadership styles. Fissures in culture among board, staff, community, and artists may be unearthed, or an assessment might reveal that the governance structure itself is compromised (see Michael Bobbitt’s important article, “Boards Are Broken, So Let’s Break and Remake Them”). This may require hard conversations between the search firm and the board. Only one firm surveyed, AlbertHall & Associates, wrote about this:
We have had a number of clients over the years who wished to retain our services that we turned down for the simple reason that we didn’t see how they could be successful. In those situations, we interrupted the search process after our initial assessment to inform them of our finding that they weren’t ready for a search and had to walk them through the deficiencies we saw that required attention and change. Those were hard conversations and sometimes they resulted in a parting of the ways. However, in those instances in which a client was willing to do the hard work to achieve stronger organizational practices and a healthy organizational culture, we supported those efforts as needed, and all of them eventually conducted a successful search and welcomed new leadership to a collaborative, transparent and much higher-performing workplace. In many ways, those engagements for us were the pinnacle of our success.
At minimum, understanding and conveying the existing organizational culture and leadership style to prospective applicants is critical for determining the right fit. Are the board and search committee seeking a leader who shares the existing culture and leadership style, one who expands upon it—or are they looking for a leader who will reshape things? If it’s the latter, how can the organization prepare and support this reshaping?
3. Avoiding pitfalls and holding each other accountable.
The search firms had no trouble identifying common pitfalls in the search process. These included organizations not taking the time to prepare, failure to do due diligence before beginning the search, lack of expertise and knowledge of the field on the part of the board, failure to include diverse representation among decision-makers, bias, white supremacist culture, lack of transparency or honesty in the process, and a lack of institutional support for a new leader.
I hope that search firms share these common pitfalls with their clients and engage them in reflective conversation about how to avoid them. There is an opportunity here for search committee members to create a practice and agree to stay vigilant, hold one another accountable, and work together to reroute when they veer or stumble into one of these pitfalls.
Arts Consulting Group identified “not addressing power dynamics” as a common pitfall, and I’d like to expand on this. It is essential that all involved, particularly the search committee and board, recognize their positional power. I have heard stories about, and observed firsthand, search consultants taking abuse and condescension from a board or search committee, who apparently think they can behave this way because they are the client and they’re paying the bill. I have observed search consultants using diplomatic language to address an issue, and have seen that sometimes diplomatic language clouds hard truths that clients and candidates need to hear. Diplomacy that sacrifices honesty is a disservice to the search process.
4. Writing the first draft.
After conducting interviews with key stakeholders, reviewing important organizational documents, and receiving input from the search committee, the lead consultant from the search firm typically pens the first draft of the position description following the preferred format of that search firm. I would say, however, that this only serves to imprint the job description with the culture and language of the search firm and consultant, not that of the organization. Though the search committee will collectively edit the draft, the anchor is cast with the first effort. I was excited to hear about a theatre that asked its dramaturg to contribute to the first draft of the position description. There is an opportunity here to think carefully about the initial authorship of this important document based on what is learned about the values, culture, and leadership of the organization.
5. Sharing information equally with prospective candidates.
What I haven’t heard from any of the firms is how they ensure that all candidates have access to the same information. Beyond the position profile, information about opportunities is shared with prospective candidates in meetings and phone conversations. I suggested to my colleagues at MCA that we create a unified list of the information we share with candidates verbally. This should be an iterative document, with additions from subsequent candidate conversations shared with candidates who continue through the process. This list would also be shared with the search committee and board so that everyone knows what information is being conveyed about the opportunity—or, even better, this list could be co-created with the search committee.
Often there are internal candidates in a search, or others who have worked with the institution before as a visiting director or in another capacity. That individual does not necessarily have an advantage—indeed sometimes these prior relationships can be a disadvantage. What they do have, however, is knowledge of the culture of the board and organization. A position profile, no matter who authors it, won’t fully convey the culture of the search committee with whom a candidate will interview. I recommend that the search firm record a Zoom meeting with the search committee where each committee member introduces themselves, followed by a facilitated conversation about the job opportunity. This video could be shared with all the candidates to level the playing field and capture some of the culture which can’t be conveyed through a written document. Such a video would also have the added benefit of demystifying and humanizing the search committee, which, I propose, will lead to more substantial interviews with candidates.
6. Rehearsing with mock interviews.
Though many on the search committee may run companies in which they have top hiring roles, most will be new to doing group interviews for positions in the arts. The search committee could benefit from a mock interview followed by a group debrief. In first round interviews, search committees are often provided with the interview questions by the search firms. These are typically the same questions for all the candidates, but I believe individuals get better at listening to the answers once they have greater understanding of the questions they are asking. A mock interview plus debrief conversation could grease these wheels, thus ensuring that the first interviewee isn’t disadvantaged by an unpracticed search committee.
Further, these mock interviews could be purposefully designed to practice the search committee’s ability to avoid pitfalls and to hold each other accountable. I learned of one candidate interview in which a search committee member, unhappy with a candidate’s response to a question, proceeded to lecture and berate the candidate. Neither the search committee chair nor any of the fellow search committee members intervened, and it took some time before the search firm consultant interrupted. By then harm had already been done to the candidate and to the entire process. A mock interview can preemptively surface pitfalls and the search committee can practice intervening and helping one another bring integrity back to the process—not to mention that a stray or careless comment by a search committee member could lead to litigation.
7. Some thoughts for candidates.
If you are on a slate of candidates being presented to a search committee, ask to see the information the search firm is sharing about you (outside of confidential references) to learn how they will describe you. In addition to your cover letter and résumé, they may be including a document the consultant has written about your candidacy or notes from screening interviews. You should have an opportunity to correct anything they have misinterpreted or misrepresented about you.
Years ago, I was a candidate for a position for which the search firm did a screening interview. The consultant told me he would be typing “a transcript” as we spoke. When we got to the end of the screening interview, I asked who the transcript is shared with and requested that the consultant send it to me for proofreading. He was taken aback, but he sent it. I’m glad I asked for it, as I could see it was not in fact a “transcript” but notes, and the consultant had put some things I had said into his own language, not mine; there were words in the so-called “transcript” that I know I never use. During my time at MCA, I saw the amount of time, energy, and care many candidates put into their cover letters and résumés. A search firm consultant’s capacity to understand and convey who you are is limited by their own human experience. The stakes are too high to allow a consultant’s misinterpretation, lack of lived experience, lack of exposure, or bias to derail your candidacy.
Also, as discussed above, you may not know if you have been provided with the same information verbally about an opportunity as another applicant. Ask the search firm consultant if there is anything else they have shared with others.
The Start of a Conversation
Identifying the process by which a new executive leader is selected is among the most critical and vital tasks undertaken by a nonprofit board. For those who serve on boards and are confronted with leadership change, I urge you to think critically about the search process. I recall one experience at MCA in which an arts organization’s board was exemplary in its approach: They interviewed MCA multiple times before hiring the firm, including interviews with the full board as well as a smaller team of board and community members focused on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. They asked good and hard questions of the firm, then followed up with even better questions at subsequent meetings. I was impressed with how thoughtfully they were evaluating search firms. When MCA was at last hired to facilitate their search, the search committee’s thoroughness and care was apparent at every step. MCA’s leadership would later tell me that this was an outlier—that most search committees aren’t this thoughtful and deliberate.
We have an opportunity to make that level of discernment the norm. Leadership change is a significant pivot point, an unrivaled time for board, staff, artists, and community to examine, explore, learn, question, and transform. My wish is that this article will be the beginning of a robust and scrupulous conversation. I’ve identified some benchmarks for strengthening the search process. I have no doubt there are many more. Opportunities are available to all of us to do better in search, and to ensure that we don’t miss the chance this process provides for us to become better organizations.
Seema Sueko (she/her) is a director and arts administrator. She thanks Daniel Banks, Gail Lopes, Jessica Kubzansky, Jeremy D. Mayer, and Gregory Keng Strasser for their valuable feedback on early drafts, and the search firms for responding to her questions.
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