• Talbott Team

How to Successfully Search for Your Next CEO

Author: Erica Poff, CAE, PMP, IOM; Director, Association Solutions, Talbott Talent


This article was published in Associations Now by the American Society of Association Executives.

Searching for a new executive director requires more than putting an ad on a job board. Four tips to help your association undertake an effective search with the help of an executive recruiter.


Leadership transitions are inevitable. Whether your association’s CEO gave advance notice of their impending retirement or the vacancy was sudden and unexpected, hiring a new chief executive can be a daunting task. The recruitment process requires a significant investment of financial and human resources, so it’s important to get the search right the first time.

To ease the burden of an involved search process and improve the odds of successful placement, boards regularly turn to executive recruiting services to lead their search and hiring efforts. However, not all recruiters are created equal. Before you hire a recruiter to lead your next executive search, consider the following to set up your board for success.

Ask About Experience

Understanding the needs of an association and how to lead one successfully are obvious prerequisites for your next CEO, and it should be a prerequisite for your executive recruiter as well. “Whenever I bring in an expert to help advance an association, I want someone who has first-hand experience and understands associations from the inside out,” said Jeff Brown, CAE, retired executive director of the American Legion and past president of the Indiana Society of Association Executives.

When considering prospective recruiters, find out if they have experience placing executive candidates successfully at organizations like yours. Inquire about your recruiter’s individual experience, as well as anyone from their team involved with your search—have they previously worked in or led an association? The more directly relevant the recruiter’s experience to your organization, the more efficient your search.

Identify Their Added Value

Your recruiter should bring something to your search that you would not have been able to do or otherwise had without them. Understanding their process can define the added value they provide.

“Recruiting is the difference between actively seeking out and bringing in the right candidate for the position versus just choosing the best candidate who submitted their resume,” said Leah York, CAE, president of Talbott Talent, a national executive recruiting firm for nonprofits. “Ask the recruiter whether they post job ads, and how much they rely upon them for candidates. Then ask yourself—does that really add value to our search?” The choice to hire a recruiter is to gain access to their expertise, their network, and their ability to bring in passive candidates—those highly qualified executives who may not be actively looking at job ads for a new position.

Understand Your Role in Their Process

A recruiter should ease the burden of conducting an executive search. It’s important to have clearly defined roles from the outset so you understand the responsibilities for your board. Before you sign the search agreement, ask the recruiter to identify what they will ask of your board members and the time commitment required. By setting expectations for a board’s involvement from the outset, the search is more likely to be completed successfully and on time.

A recruiter should ease the burden of conducting an executive search. It’s important to have clearly defined roles from the outset so you understand the responsibilities for your board.

Trust Your Recruiter

A key component to any successful relationship—trust—is no less true for your relationship with your recruiter. J. Alex Tarquinio, past president of the Society of Professional Journalists and the interim executive director during the vacancy for that position, noted that being open and transparent with their recruiter was crucial to their successful search.

“To identify candidates who accurately matched SPJ’s needs, it was vital we provide our recruiter with all the information they requested about our organization, including our long-term strategic objectives, staffing challenges, stakeholder relationships, and more,” she said.

If your board isn’t prepared or willing to be open and honest about the state of the association and permit unfettered access to key stakeholders, you’re less likely to get the right candidate—even with the best recruiter.

In identifying candidates, your recruiter may recommend individuals your board would have never otherwise considered, like a non-industry professional.

“Too many boards are married to the idea that their chief executive must come from their association’s industry. There are many more qualified association executives outside of their industry’s network than within,” said David Westman, MBA, CPA, CAE, CEO of Westman & Associates Consulting, LLC, and executive director of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.

If your board isn’t open-minded throughout the search, the number of qualified candidates for consideration will be limited, which may result in a less favorable search outcome. One way to help ease reservations is to ask prospective recruiters about their policy for how they will support your board in the event the selected candidate doesn’t work out. Many recruiters will offer a guarantee, frequently in the form of conducting a new search for no additional charge.