6. Hiring for relationship

Let's start by honoring what's at stake...

What if you hire the wrong person? Someone who's trouble. Someone who does more acting out than working. What price will you pay? How long will you have to pay it?

What if you find exactly the right person? Someone who puts his heart and soul into the work. Someone who is super competent. Someone who loves being on your team. How would that change your life and the life of your organization?

Now let's look at the classic Polite Interview. It's by far the easiest way to do an interview. It's an hour of social grace and soft-ball questions.

It sounds like this:

Are you a team player? Oh, yes, I am. I'm a very good team player.

Do you take initiative? Oh, yes, I'm very good at taking initiative. I do that all the time.

Are you able to do this job? Oh, yes, I can do it. I'll be very good at it.

This interview is like ships passing in the night. No one is learning anything.

Why might an ED or program director default to this approach?

Maybe she's super stressed and just can't find the time or the bandwidth to do something better. Maybe all she can handle today is a pit-stop interview.

Maybe she feels it's not okay to be pushy with a stranger.

Maybe she takes pity on this person whose future is at stake in this interview. Maybe she feels for him and wants to make it go as smoothly as possible.

Maybe she has a thing about wanting people to like her.

All these motivations are completely understandable. And they're the road to disaster.


Upfront contract—The match
Interviews are often set up as hide and seek. The candidate will tell us all kinds of good things about himself, and our job as interviewer is to seek out the person's limitations and discrepancies.

It's like behind the presentation of politeness, we're really adversaries. You're trying to hide what I'm trying to discover. I'm a detective trying to pull the veil away from the mystery of who you really are.

What I call an Advocacy Interview is very different. It comes in many different varieties, but it is founded on a few key principles.

If I'm running a sustainable or soaring organization then every staff member has to have...

A compelling need to make a significant difference in service of our mission and our team, and

The talents and strengths to be competent in making that difference.

These are essential to success. So I'm not going to be doing the applicant any favors if I let him slick by on either count. Because if he doesn't meet both of those requirements there's going to be trouble down the road, or maybe right away. And why should he work in my nonprofit for a few weeks or a couple months and then have to go job hunting again?

I'm looking for a match between what my mission needs and what this person needs. So the interview is a matter of match-making. It's as if I'm asking the candidate...

Are the two of you going to be happy together? You and this mission. You and this team. You and this job.

Sometimes I think the Polite Interview is like dating, everyone's all dressed up and putting their best foot forward. But to create a great working relationship takes relationship work.

Here's where I recommend starting, with these two questions:

1.  What does the interviewer need?
I think the hallmark of the Polite Interview is not that it's easy, but that it's a strategy of despair. Because you're not being a leader. You're not taking full command of the situation. You're putting yourself in a helpless position.

And for a social change leader, this is just not a match.

You need what you need and you need a way to make sure you get it. Or at least give yourself the very best chance of getting it. No hiring system is perfect. But some are way better than politeness.

When you're interviewing a candidate, who do you want to be?

Do you want to be in charge of your future? Or do you want to be the kind of person who is reduced to rolling the dice and hoping that maybe this time the odds are with you?

2.  What does the candidate need?
The applicant might have decided what he needs is a paycheck and he's ready to do just about anything to get one. Quite understandable. It's easy to have sympathy for anyone in that situation, especially in this economy.

But if this is an organization that operates on the basis of mission discipline, that motivation is simply not a match. It won't work.

The applicant may manage to talk his way into the job, but if he's not a match for the mission and the demands of the specific job description, he's going to be gone quickly, because sustainable and soaring organizations don't tolerate low performance staff or troublesome staff for very long at all. They're different from sacrificial organizations in that way.

When I talk about the advocacy approach or taking an advocacy stance what I mean is that we focus on real needs from the beginning of the conversation to the end. We're advocates for us getting our core needs met and for the candidate getting his core needs met.

We are taking the stand that if he is not a match for our mission and our culture, then there's no way he's going to be happy here. And there's no way the working relationship is going to be strong enough to last. So then even his urgent need for income will not be met.

If we do a Polite Interview, the truth is that we're setting up the applicant for failure, because he's not really going to know what he's getting into. So even though an Advocacy Interview feels tougher, it's actually much kinder and more considerate than the Polite Interview.

How do we get an Advocacy Interview started? We begin with an upfront contract. It may only take a few minutes, but it is significant relationship work.

You're setting the basis for the interview conversation. You're letting the candidate know that what you will be doing is something different from the conventional polite interview. You're asking him to join you in a special kind of conversation.

Here's one version of setting the contract. Depending on the personality of the interviewer and the nature of the organization and the particular job, it might sound quite different. But the underlying principle remains true: You want to invite the applicant into an honest match-making conversation.

Alison:  Hi, Tom, my name is Alison and I'm the ED of this nonprofit. Before we begin the interview itself, I want to give you a quick orientation to how we do interviews here.

We understand that for a lot of people interviews can be nerve wracking. We understand that there might be a lot at stake for you in this interview. And there's definitely a lot at stake for us, too, so I can tell you we have some anxiety when we're in a hiring process.

We're not looking for a perfect performance today. What we want to do is get to know you. We want to start by getting to know your talents and strengths.

We're going to ask lots of questions, some of them might be challenging. We'd like to ask you to please take your time and answer them as accurately as you can. We're not looking for right answers, we want to hear your answers, your genuine answers.

The way we see it, we each have a decision to make. We need to decide if you are a match for us and our work. And you need to decide if we're a match for you.

So we'll do our best to be real with you and ask that you do your best to be real with us.

We have a culture of performance here and we're really happy about this. We believe this is a great place to work because people are focused on the mission and treat each other well. We take pride in being the wind under each other's wings.

And what we've learned is that if someone is not a match, they don't last long in our organization. But if someone is a match then they really thrive here and that's why we have very little turnover.

So I'm saying these things not to scare you but to show you something important about who we are. And I want you to know that we will have plenty of time so you can ask any questions you have for us about the job or the organization, because we want you to be able to make a good decision for yourself.

Now, do you have any questions about the kind of conversation we're inviting you to have with us?

What kind of responses might you get? Quite a range. Here's an enthusiastic response...

Tom:  No questions, just a comment. I like what you're saying very much. To be honest, one of the reasons I want to leave where I've been working is that there's a lot of gossiping and acting out going on and I hate that stuff. I'm someone who is intense about whatever mission I take on. I get my pleasure from the work and from working with people who are as dedicated as I am.

I've heard good things already about this place, but hearing what you've just said makes me even more eager for this interview.

Notice that an awful lot has happened in just a couple minutes. If Tom is telling the truth, then you've discovered a really important way in which he's a match for your culture. You've gotten some very important information just in asking for the upfront contract.

But what if Tom answers like this?

Tom:  Oh, that's fine. No problem. Go ahead with your questions for me.

What does that mean? Is he really fine and ready to go with the interview? Is he playing the hide and seek game and being agreeable with everything? Does he just not get what it means to make an agreement about how you're going to have a conversation?

Is he coming from a job where he's been beaten down and his self-esteem is suffering, but he's a dedicated worker, and you'll be able to call that forth during the interview?

We don't want to jump to conclusions. An interview is a complex situation.

And it is somewhat unusual to make an upfront contract for a conversation. Lots of people don't know what that's like and the difference it can make. As you see someone open up, you can circle back to the contract again if you like. There's nothing that says you can't make an upfront contract in the middle of a conversation if that's what works.

What other kinds of reactions might you get?

Tom:  That's fine, no problem.

But you notice his body language is telling you something. He's pulling back. His facial muscles tighten. The tone of his voice is flat. Your intuition is telling you, it's actually not so fine. So maybe you ask some questions right then about the upfront contract you're offering. Or maybe you circle back later in the interview. Or maybe you add in some extra questions about staff culture.

Now just for fun, what if you got this response?

Tom:  The law says if you just carry out the job objectives and that's all you have to do. You've got a lot of nerve asking for more than that. What is all this wind and wings stuff? What are you, a cult?!

Well, that would give you a lot of information, too.

The advocacy approach is about finding out if there is enough of a match between you and the candidate so that you will be able to build a great working relationship together.

Next we're going to look at some things you can do during an Advocacy Interview.


Behavioral interviewing
Instead of engaging in verbal tap dancing with an applicant, you're asking direct questions about their behavior.

When you ask about teamwork, you ask the interviewee to tell stories of actual experiences of teamwork.

When you ask if they've done conflict resolution, you ask for an example or two or three.

And you'll likely ask follow up questions. Don't just settle for two lines about an issue as complex conflict resolution. And I say this for two reasons.

First, if you ask the applicant to tell the whole story with key details, you may discover that the story doesn't measure up to the headline. Maybe the resolution they managed was a very minor disagreement rather than a significant, challenging conflict.

But second, I have found that many people who are super effective are also surprisingly modest, and when I get them telling stories, I hear things they did not mention in their initial answer to my question. If you get actual stories of actual behavior you might see talents and strengths that are exactly what you want and that you might otherwise have missed.

I think it matters in an interview that we sniff out overstatements. But interviews are challenging for most people. I've known lots of people who are great at what they do, but do not show up at all well in a formal, stressful interview.

So in an interview I want to do everything I can to call forth the talents and strengths of the candidate. I want to put him at his ease because I want to see him at his best. This is another way in which I am his advocate.

Of course if you need someone who's going to be handling lots of tough situations, then maybe you want some of your interview time to be tough and demanding. But still I'd say, first find the personal strengths. If they don't have strengths that match the job, then you don't need to put either yourself or that person through a stressful search for overstatements and limitations.

What does a behavioral interview sound like? Here are some sample questions...

Instead of asking, "Do you take initiative?", a yes or no question, you could ask...

"Sometimes opportunities come disguised as problems. Can you tell me about a time when you realized an opportunity? What did you do? What were the results?"

"Describe some ways in which you changed your job at the last place you worked. What were the results?"

Instead of asking asking, "Are you good at crisis management?", a close-ended question, you could open it up by asking...

"Describe a recent time when your work was very hectic. What did you do to keep it under control? How many extra hours did you work? For how long?"

The questions I've just cited are taken from the book How to Choose the Right Person for the Right Job Every Time. That's one of those typical self-help titles that might sound a bit overstated, but the book is solid and substantial.

It's a favorite of mine because in Chapter 4, the authors, Lori Davila and Louise Kursmark, list 401 behavioral questions in 50 different categories.

Reading through that list is a great way to get a feel for the practice of behavioral interviewing, and you might find that you'll use many of them in your interviews.

Behavioral interviewing is a boon to people doing hiring. But there's something else I recommend adding onto that foundation to make an interview work even better.


The real-work strategy
Dating someone is one thing, actually living with them just might be a very different experience. And in terms of hiring, you want to know, not how much fun is this person to interview, but how inspiring and satisfying will it be to work with this person day in and day out possibly over a period of years.

When I started coaching nonprofit leaders about the hiring process, especially for their most important positions, I found myself asking again and again...

"How could you do real work with this applicant right now as part of the hiring process?"

Here are some examples of what I mean:

You've gotten enough funding to hire a development director for the first time in the history of your organization. But you've now been burned twice. The first person you hired was impossible to work with. The other one choked when it came time to go out and ask for money.

So you've lost precious time. Now you've got a candidate you're really interested in, but how can you be sure he's right?

Well, you could hire him on a consulting basis to come in and work with you for a day or two. And during this time, do real work.

Ask him to help you design the work plan for the first year for the DD position. You'll get to find out: Does he listen? Does he ask questions? Does he plow ahead on his own, telling you what you should do? Does he ask too many questions because he has nothing to say for himself? Does he have ideas and strategies of his own to suggest? Do you like working with him? Does he show you the kind of thinking you're looking for?

Then take him out to do a couple asks with you. Let him lead. You can be the back up person when there are specific questions about the work you do, but see how this person handles himself with donors. Will he actually ask for money? How comfortable is he with this? What's his style?

When I propose something like this, I sometimes hear objections. Like: Why should I pay someone I'm interviewing when I haven't even hired them yet?

Good question, and my answer is this. Given how important a development director might be to the future of your organization, some hundreds of dollars to check someone out in depth, might well be worth it. Especially when you think of the cost of getting the wrong person, what you're going to pay them, but even more the cost of the lost opportunity.

And yes, it's a big investment of your time if you're a super busy ED, but again...

What's the difference it will make for you if you get the person who's really right for you?

Let's try another example.

Behavioral interviews are retrospective. You're looking back at the person's history. You want to hear about things they've already done. But you can also do a prospective version of behavioral interviewing. You can ask about the future. You can essentially place them in this job they are interviewing for, and ask them to do some real work with you.

This means taking real challenges you've got and asking the applicant to work them through with you.

You might say, "We've got a coalition meeting coming up, and one of the groups in the coalition has gone off on its own and applied for a grant from the major funder of the coalition. All of the members had agreed not to do this. We need to figure out how to respond to this rogue organization."

Now you've got options on how you want to play this. You might ask, "What ideas come to mind first?"

You could say, "How about brainstorming with us? We really do have to figure this out. Imagine that we've hired you into this job where you're going to have to take the lead on this issue. Join us right now in making a plan."

You could also do a dialogue with them. You pretend to be the ED of the rogue organization and ask the applicant to have a conversation with you. In essence do a negotiation.

These are great ways to see what it's like to work with someone and to see what they're made of.

Of course, I want to add a caution again. This person is in the midst of applying for a job. They might not know a lot about your organization, they might feel some performance anxiety. So you're not looking for perfect answers. You'll cut them some slack.

What you're looking for is what is it like to work with them, and what talents and strengths show up in the course of trying to figure out a strategy.

You might have noticed also that in making the upfront contract for the interview conversation, you're actually doing real work with the candidate. You've got a goal: making an important decision. And you're talking together about how you're going to get to that decision.

This real-work strategy does indeed make the process much more challenging than the polite format. But remember the match perspective. This is good for the applicant as well as for you...

Because they also get to find out for themselves what it's like to work with you and your team.

In fact, when I'm working with a nonprofit leader who is job hunting, I often recommend using this real-work strategy in reverse. For example, Howie called me and said he was thinking about taking a DD job, but he had this hunch during the interview that made him nervous.

So I recommended he go do some real work with the ED. He called her and volunteered to spend a morning working with her to lay out the work plan for the first year for her new DD whoever she happened to hire. She was genuinely happy to have the help.

The following day, I got a call from Howie,

"I now admire this ED more than ever. But I also discovered that my hunch was telling me something. Our styles are so different that we'd drive each other crazy. I was able to give her some ideas about how to be more specific in finding a person who would be a match for her. She appreciated it, so we parted on very good terms.

"And for my part, I didn't end up spending a couple years of my life working in the wrong place because I felt responsible for the financial well being of this great organization."

More examples:

Say you're hiring a program director. Ask them to come see the program in action, then have them do a strategy session with you, evaluating what they've seen, and what improvements they could see making. This would not be a theoretical discussion, because they've now actually witnessed your work.

Or again for a program director, maybe you would ask them, or hire them on a consulting basis, to come in and do an in-service for the program staff, so you could see how they relate with the people they'd be supervising. Again, not just taking theoretical questions from them, but doing something real, something that matters.

It's not always easy to come up with ways to do real work together, but I'm surprised when my clients and I brainstorm possibilities, how often we come up with something good.


Upfront contract—The working relationship
Let's say from everything you can tell as a result of the interviewing process, you've found the right person for the job.

Now there's another piece of relationship work I recommend doing—make another upfront contract. The big one. The enduring one.

In the rush and pressure of your day, with so many things clamoring for your attention and demanding your time, in this moment when you're so delighted to have someone you believe is going to join your staff and help make your life easier, you might want to leapfrog ahead. But please don't.

This is the Moment of Commitment. I gave that phrase caps and bolding because I want to emphasize how important it is. Please give this commitment conversation absolutely as much time as it needs.

Please don't rush it or dispense with it.

This is one of the keys to building a great staff culture, that...

You take the time to make sure the foundational commitment is solid.

You might start this way...

Hi, Chelsey. We invited you back in, because we wanted to tell you that you are our first choice and we'd like to hire you for this position. We're really excited about having you join our team.

But there's just one more thing we want to do before making it official. We'd like to talk through with you in complete detail what you'll be doing in this job and we want to go into more detail about our culture.

We think of this as the final due diligence step in our hiring process. We want to make very sure that this is a match both for us and for you, because we want our staff to be really happy here and stay with us for a long time.

And as always, as we talk this through, please ask us any questions you need to ask. Don't hold back. Don't worry about being polite. We understand there's a lot at stake for you. And let us know if there's anything you think we might do to help make this a great place for you to work...

In this moment of commitment, the hiring is no longer just a possibility, it's real. And the reality of it can shift things, reveal things.

You know how sometimes a person is walking down the aisle as the wedding march is playing and they suddenly realize, "I'm marrying the wrong person." Not good. And we don't want that to happen with a hiring.

The contracting conversation...

Can reveal ambivalent feelings the candidate has but has been hiding because she's been trying to impress you so she could get the offer. But now is the time to get real. To test if this person really wants this job, as it is, not as they might want it to be, or as they might imagine it, but as it is. Are they ready to do this job in the way you need it done?

Makes sure there is no mystification. The candidate gets to see exactly—exactly—what you're asking of her. Detail by detail, so there will be no surprises. So she can't say later, "I didn't realize that you expected me to..."

Puts accountability in place. You're making it absolutely clear what you're asking of the candidate and she's agreeing. So if things start going wrong, you can refer back to this contract.

There are good due diligence reasons for having this contracting conversation. But the happier view of it is that it's a very healthy negotiation. As I say on the sustainability page, serious, respectful negotiation is the necessary basis for great working relationships.

So please think of this negotiation both as self-defense and as a gift, to yourself and to the candidate. Because again, why should someone start working for you when the two of you in a forthright conversation could discover before finalizing the deal that this deal didn't have a chance of working?

And why not take the time to have a forthright upfront conversation that will give a solid and happy basis to your working relationship for years to come?

And then one more tip about the post-hiring period after the commitment...

Keep the negotiation going.

Again, because of the pressure of the work, it's very tempting to give the new hire a quick general orientation and then dump her in her job. So much of the nonprofit life is sink-or-swim. But the beginning days and months are so crucial to forming a great working relationship between the new hire and the whole team.

This is a time when it matters that you...

Give them attention and guidance.

Mentor them on the culture they've just joined.

Help them segue into it successfully.

Make sure that right out of the gate they're meeting your performance standards.

Make sure that their relationships with other staff get off to a great start.

Like the contracting conversation, this shepherding is both self-defense and it's a great kindness that you can do for the new hire.

I've seen so many situations where a new staff is dumped or abandoned into their new job and then at evaluation time six months or even a year later they're surprised that their boss is not happy with them. And by now the relationship has probably diminished, maybe broken.

So many nonprofit supervisors are shy about giving feedback apart from formal evaluations. But the path to a top performing staff is steady feedback. On my page about staff development I give examples of how to give feed back that is done in the upbeat spirit of advocacy rather than the grinchy spirit of correction.

Great working relationships don't run themselves. They take attention, care, and negotiation, all along the way. 

And negotiation, in the way I know it and talk about it, takes work, but it's by no means just work. It's a pleasure, because it results in such enjoyable, sustaining relationships.


Recruiting by hand
How do you find top talent?

Super busy leaders often...

Send out an e-mail with the announcement to all their contacts.

And place their job announcement on the online sites.

Which are both good things to do, but I'm going to give you a caveat on each.

First, from what I hear, the great majority of people who receive job announcements by e-mail don't open them.

Second, the online sites are mostly visited by people who are unemployed or starting to think about looking for a new job.

But that leaves out all the top performers who are happily employed.

And what if one of them is just right for you?

And what if you are just right for them?

What I want to recommend to you is what I call...

The organizing approach to hiring.

Which I think is a perfect match for social change and social justice nonprofits, because we're in the organizing business. And we can use that talent we've developed for building our constituency to also build our team.

Of course recruiting by hand is labor intensive. But think how labor intensive it is to go through a firing and re-hiring.

Most social change nonprofits are in the people business. Which means our people are our most important resource. I know that's a cliche, but that doesn't mean it's not true. How can we care about social change but not make our people our priority?

And both the sustaining and soaring operating systems start with putting people first...

The people who do the work of changing the world.

And if that's not enough, I recommend checking out Good to Great by Jim Collins, who is one of my very favorite authors on the subject of leadership and the organizational life. He says that the most important thing a leader can to is to...

First get the right people on the bus.

If you have any doubts about this, I really recommend that you read Chapter 3 of Good to Great, titled "First Who...Then What." I think you'll find it compelling.

If you get the right people, people committed to your mission and with the competence to carry it out effectively, if you get people who are a match for your team and your organizational culture, then...

Your life suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.

You'll have a whole lot less disciplining and correcting to do and rarely a firing.

The productivity of your team will shoot way up.

You'll able to lead instead of running around micromanaging people because they're not really up to speed or their attitude is contrary.

Okay, how do you do recruiting by hand? How do you find top talent? How do you enrich your pool of candidates so you can find the match you need?

It's not rocket science. But...

Like any kind of organizing, it does take some time and some moxie.

As examples, here are two major strategies that might help supercharge your search for the best candidates.

Compelling asks
For instance, let's say you're an ED looking to hire a new program director. You've looked through your database of contacts and pulled out 20 names of leaders who are centers of influence in the middle of relevant networks. And you trust their judgment of people. You decide you'll call each of them and ask them who they know who you might pursue.

So far so good. With super busy people, usually an e-mail doesn't do it. You have to interrupt them and get their attention. Plus you want a personal conversation so you can make it very clear to them exactly the kind of person you're looking for.

Even so, it's hard to get and hold a busy person's attention. 

If you're feeling shy about asking for this person's time you might be tempted to take the shortcut of opening with the standard line, "I just have one small thing to ask you, can you think of anyone who might be a good program director for my organization?"

Maybe you'll get a few quick names but then hear, "I gotta run! Good luck!"

So how can you make your request more compelling?

Give it bigger and deeper meaning.

How might you do that? Here's an example...

"Hey, Jack, thanks for taking my call. I wouldn't be bothering you with this, except that I really need to talk with you, because you're someone who knows the key players in our field and you're someone whose judgement about people I trust. You're someone I look to.

"I'm taking my organization to the next level. I've seriously upgraded our program director position. If I can get the right person, this is going to be a new day for us. I believe this is probably the most important hire I'll make in the next three years and it really matters to me that I do it right.

"I'm looking for someone who's fiercely committed to our field, who's got ambition, and who's an organizer in her bones.

"I'm wondering if you would be willing to take 15 minutes to look through your database quickly, zip, zip, zip, and see if any names jump out at you that you think I should pursue.

"Please feel very free to tall me no if you're jammed and can't do this. But it would mean an awful lot to me if you could do this with me."

Now, why would Jack, a very busy leader, not just agree to do this, but be happy to do this for you?

1.  You've made it clear why you specifically want to talk to Jack. There's something special he's got that you need.

2.  You've made it clear that even though you're only asking for a few minutes of time, not a big commitment, there is big meaning for your organization in this hire. Too often we ask busy people for little things. Or minimize what we're asking.

But that makes them wonder, Why are you bothering me with something little? Someone else could do that for you. I do big things. So the rule of thumb is...

Give busy people big meaning when you ask them for something.

3.  You've made it clear that there's a lot at stake for you here. Jack might identify with your urgency and your need not to make a mistake in this hiring. He sees he can make a big difference for you personally, which will deepen his working relationship with you.

4.  Also, lots of leaders like to be matchmakers. As well as making a difference, this is a way to build their network and the constituency. If Jack gets you connected to just the right person, both you and that person will be grateful to him, and maybe talk about this favor he did you for years to come. And that's pretty sweet for a leader, to be able make that kind of difference in 15 minutes.

Discovery interviews
What about going directly to people you're curious about who are not job hunting? How can you do that discreetly?

Again, let's say you're looking for a top-notch program director.

First, you list the names of program people you know personally who have impressed you or who you've heard good things about from others. And of course you always have your talent radar switched on so you are collecting names for your talent bank all along so when it's time to hire, you've got something to work with.

Second, you put together a bunch of questions which will help you do a better job of hiring for this upgraded position.

Then you start calling people...

Hi, Stella. We haven't met, but I've heard great things about you. Really great.

And here's why I'm calling. I'm the ED of ABC which is a nonprofit that trains youth to be leaders with their peers and places them in leadership positions throughout the community. Over the next year we're taking our organization to the next level. We've got big ambitions and big plans. And as part of this we've significantly upgraded our program director position.

I know from everything I've heard that you're a very successful program director. I've heard how in just two years you've transformed the position and tripled the productivity of your staff. And when I heard that, all I could think was, I've gotta talk to this woman.

Would you be willing to take 30 minutes and tell me: 1) What you believe have been the keys to your success. 2) If you were me, what you'd look for in a candidate, what qualifications you'd require, what questions you'd ask in the interview. And 3) where you would go to find top people and maybe even who you know who you think we should take a look at.

Now, if your schedule is too jammed please feel free to tell me no. But I'm asking you because you're exactly who I need to get advice from.

Stella might say no. If so, no problem, you've got more names and you keep calling. But if she says yes, what might happen?

For example, she might ask you a bunch of questions about your organization and your plans so she can give you tailored advice. A good sign about her thoughtfulness.

Then you can start asking her the questions you have, like...

How can I tell the difference between someone who really has organizing in her bones, the feel, the shape, and the moxie of it, as opposed to someone who wants to be an organizer and sees herself as an organizer, but doesn't really get it?

What does it take to get staff to buy in deeply to a very ambitious plan?

What in your experience are the keys to building capacity?

What calls you to being the program director as opposed to ED?

What does it take to make a new program ignite?

And there are a hundred more questions you could ask, but ask the ones that are most important to you and pursue the topics Stella has the most passion about.

What's the result?

First, you might hear some new perspectives and learn some new things that will clarify or deepen your own thinking about you're hiring process and the kind of person you need.

Second, you might get some names of other excellent program directors from Stella who you could also call, so you'd be building your network and getting the word out about your position—to exactly the kind of top performers you want to connect with.

Third, some of those people Stella refers you to might decide to apply, enriching your pool of candidates.

And one more thing might happen.

Stella might be so impressed with the quality of your thinking, your passion, and your plans, that you might hear her at some point ask, "Would you ever consider me for this position?"

Maybe she's built the program department so well that it's running smoothly and she has an assistant who is ready to take her place, and she wants a new challenge because she loves to keep creating new things.

Or maybe...

You'll be so impressed with Stella, the depth of her answers and the quality of her character that at some point you'll find yourself saying, "Would you ever consider this job yourself? I'm feeling such a connection with you right now. I'm thinking you might be who we're looking for. Would you be interested in submitting an application?"

So you can see how...

The discovery interview can serve as a stealth job interview.

And the discovery interview is often so much better than a formal job interview anyway, because there's no pressure...

You get to be curious...

You get to ask lots of questions, banter with the person, see who they are and what they're made of.

You get to do real work together...

Working out real and serious answers to the questions you're dealing with.

And ultimately you get to discover...

Whether there's a match here or not.


Now, I've been advocating a very assertive style of recruiting—the organizing approach—which is undeniably proactive. And maybe you're having feelings about this, which wouldn't surprise me because I have feelings about it.

Especially when a client calls me and tells me with a touch of shakiness in her voice that her #2, a talented, hardworking, top performer, has been hired away from her.

This can really be heartbreaking, like when an ED has been through a long struggle to transform a dysfunctional organization and she's right on the verge of success and then bam, she suddenly loses her key partner.

Sometimes when I recommend the organizing approach, a client tells me...

But that's stealing! I wouldn't want anyone top do that to me, so I don't want to do that to another ED.

And I'm always touched by this response, how nonprofit leaders are so quick to think about the needs of others. And yet, it also seems unfairly limiting to make a rule about not looking at employed people.

So some leaders, not everyone by any means, but some of us bump up against an ethical issue here...

Is it okay to steal a talented staff person away from another nonprofit?

And here are some perspectives to play with in making your own decision about where you stand on this issue.

First, there's this simple reality...

People get to make their own decisions about where they want to work. And would we want it any other way?

Second, as much as we might feel for an ED losing an excellent staff person, what about what that staff person needs?

What if she's outgrown her job?

What if she's bored and needs a new challenge?

What if she feels she's wasting her gifts where she is?

What if she's gone as far as she can go in her current organization?

In that case, of course we'd want to her find a job that's a much better match for her and her future.

And what about the negatives...

What if the staff culture where she works is dragging her down?

What if there's a lot of relational aggression and gossiping and acting out  and she hates that stuff?

What if she's not appreciated by her ED?

What if she's not being treated well?

Then by all means we'd want her to go find a job where she'll thrive and be happy.

And finally, let's take a look at this question of stealing, if we even want to call it that, in the bigger picture of the nonprofit sector...

I've seen staff stay at a nonprofit, even though someone was offering them significantly more money to jump ship, because their ED mentored them, appreciated them, kept challenging them with new opportunities, and there was a strong, supportive, uplifting staff culture. There was no way more money could make up for all those things.

It seems to me that an element of competition in the hiring game is okay. If the possibility of losing top performers helps motivate nonprofits to upgrade their operating systems, to be at their best, then that pressure is actually healthy for the whole sector. It's progressive. It's moving us forward.

And the possibility of having a key staff hired away might also help motivate nonprofits to develop leadership in every staff person, to do what they can to make their organization less dependent on any one person.

Of course, great people still matter and matter a lot. And no matter how well prepared we are it can still be hard to lose someone who plays at the top of their game and who we've become attached to. But it happens and will keep happening.

Which means we want to keep doing everything we can to...

Develop a depth of leadership which will make our organization more sustainable.

And to...

Take our nonprofits soaring which will make them super appealing to top performers.

And the more nonprofits who do such proactive things...

The stronger our whole sector becomes.


One last thing about hiring. Because so much is at stake this can be a very stressful time. But one reason I urge people to always be networking, and have a vigorous hiring system, and use organizing  strategies, is that the more assertive and therefore hopeful your hiring process is...

The more fun you can have with it.

And though, this is not proven scientifically, I have a hunch, that...

The more fun you're having with the hiring process,

The more present you'll be to it,

The more spirit you'll bring to it, and

The more creative you'll be.

Which means...

You'll be more effective in your search, and

You'll also be more attractive to the best candidates.


© 2008 Rich Snowdon