Do you have the best CEO for the job?

Have you ever faced a problem at work that everyone was convinced couldn’t be solved? Then a new supervisor or office manager or even database coordinator is hired, and suddenly those seemingly insurmountable barriers vanished.

That’s the difference the right person can make.

From time to time, I run into organizations that have developed an internal narrative that says they will always be stuck where they are. They will never raise more money than they are, or run better programs or have better relationships with their community. In many of those organizations, it eventually becomes clear that they don’t have the leadership skills at the top that they need to move forward.

When you consider how much of your organization’s success depends on your Executive Director, it’s essential to have the best person in the job.

What do you need in your ideal CEO?

Knowledge, skills, ability and personality are on the list, of course. And I’d underscore the ability to make good things happen. But you need to be clear on what your organization specifically needs from its leadership to accomplish your strategy.

Consider this imaginary scenario:

Your technology school hires a well-known engineer as its head. She wowed the board with her expertise and innovative ideas. But as the board soon learned, the new executive didn’t have the political savvy to get her ideas past the faculty senate or the interpersonal skills to generate alumni gifts.

What made this individual a great engineer, and a terrific interviewee, didn’t translate into being a great leader. She lacked what human resource professionals call the right competencies for the job – the blend of behaviors and actions that allow people to perform in the position successfully.

Whether you are hiring a new CEO or examining the performance of your current one (or a development director for that matter), you’ve got to identify the leadership qualities that will enable your organization to thrive. Maybe you need an entrepreneur who can overhaul a moribund program or funding model. Or perhaps you’ve experienced rapid growth and need a skilled executive to build the systems to sustain it.

Other qualities that I personally think are essential in a CEO are a deep-seated passion for the mission, a fervent commitment to your organization’s values, the ability to respond to the unexpected, an uncanny knack for securing support from all quarters, and a heaping dose of self-motivation and self-discipline.

I’m with business guru Jim Collins who says the best people “wake up every day, compulsively driven to do the best they can because it is simply part of their DNA.”

How can you be sure you have found the right person if you are looking? You can’t really — only time will tell. But certainly it’ll help if you verify — thoroughly and exhaustively — your candidate’s achievements in his or her last few positions.
And if you are assessing your current CEO, it’s going to take true grit to decide if he or she is capable of leading you where you want to go.

But remember, once you have the right person, even a superhero would find it hard to spearhead an organization where board members meddle in operational details, strip the CEO of power and authority, or allow the board chair to unilaterally direct what is really management’s bailiwick.


Adapted from Gayle’s new book:

How to make your board dramatically more effective, starting today.

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