Five Mistakes Nonprofits Make when Managing Internal Candidates in an Executive Search

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Navigating an internal candidate through an executive search process can be challenging. In my years working within organizations experiencing leadership transitions—as well as my years leading organizations through the search process for a new leader—I have seen what works and what doesn’t when organizations manage internal candidates in a search. Here are five common mistakes that nonprofits make when managing internal candidates in an executive search process—and how to avoid them.
  1. Lack of Transparency: Nonprofits sometimes fail to communicate openly and honestly with internal candidates throughout a search process. This lack of transparency can create confusion, anxiety, and mistrust. To avoid this, it is essential for leadership to keep internal candidates informed about the progress, stages, and expectations of the search process to maintain their engagement and confidence.
  2. Inadequate Assessment: Nonprofits may assume they already know the qualifications, performance, and competencies of their internal candidates and skip the rigorous assessment phase. However, it is crucial to assess internal candidates against the same criteria used for external candidates. Failing to conduct a comprehensive evaluation can undermine the integrity of the search process and potentially overlook the best candidate for the role.
  3. Unfair Advantage or Bias: Giving internal candidates an unfair advantage or showing bias towards them can undermine the credibility of the search process. While internal candidates may have certain advantages, such as institutional knowledge, it is essential to maintain a level playing field for all candidates. Fairness and objectivity should be maintained throughout the process to ensure a merit-based selection. To ensure bias mitigation, encourage search committees to administer the same interview process for all candidates, regardless of whether they are an internal or external candidate.
  4. Inadequate Internal Communication: Navigating an internal candidate through an executive search process can create uncertainty and speculation among other staff members: search committees often fail to communicate proactively with the wider team, causing rumors and concerns to spread. Maintaining clear and regular communication with staff regarding the process, timeline, and—when appropriate—the consideration of internal candidates can help alleviate anxiety and maintain morale.
  5. Lack of Support for Unsuccessful Internal Candidates: An internal candidate may not be selected for the role, and nonprofits should be thoughtful about how to support that candidate after a decision has been reached. The candidate should have the opportunity to hear directly from the hiring manager about the decision—or from the Board of Directors, for a CEO/ED position. It is critical to communicate the organization’s respect for that individual and interest in retaining them.
Successfully managing internal candidates through an executive search process is an art that requires a balance of transparency, fairness, comprehensive assessment, effective communication, and thoughtful support. By being mindful of these five common mistakes, search committees will be better prepared to manage internal candidates in a search process. At DRG Talent, we believe that—with a committed and methodical approach—nonprofits can not only find the right leader for their organization but can also enhance trust and morale within their team at the same time.

Jessica Hammerman, Managing Director, Search

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