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How to Match an Institution’s Requirements with an Executive Candidate’s Skill Set

Assessing the array of requirements against the experienced candidate’s skills, successes, and specific career goals helps the board to define the ideal director. Undoubtedly, specific functional expertise can always be located to support the director: a project manager and capital campaign consultant for the building project; an experienced public relations spokesperson; a chief curator for contemporary European art.

But ultimately, it must be the director who, understanding the strategic direction of the museum, embraces it and has the skills to lead. But what if the institution does not have a strategic plan? Or if the plan was written simply to satisfy a funding source or a grant application and has been only a permanent and untouched fixture on the director’s credenza? In many institutions where directors have enjoyed long tenures (over ten years), the museum’s direction and strategy have become an extension of the director’s vision. How does a board, short of engaging in a lengthy strategic-planning process, develop a position charter for the new director? How do its members develop a list of priorities of objectives that a new director must buy into, accomplish, and ultimately be measured on?

There are a number of metrics or diagnostics that can be utilized to help describe the best and most effective director. First, although finding a director is the board’s most important responsibility, the board must realize that it is but one group of stakeholders and that other stakeholders should have a part in the process. What are the museum’s major funders, private and public, looking for in the museum and therefore in the next director?

What is the staff’s point of view? Ask the visitor, the press, the other cultural institutions, and other professionals. Also, this is the time for board leadership to take a cold, hard look at its strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. What kind of director would best help the board that does not fund raise, or that needs renewed leadership, or that must diversify?

Museums with collections are usually dedicated to increasing those collections. But what if the museum is not in a position to do so? Clearly, a director who wishes to spend his or her time buying art and whose skill and contacts are in this area would be unhappy and unfulfilled at this museum and perhaps more satisfied and fulfilled at another institution.

Utilizing these diagnostics, quantitative and evaluative, the board may then determine both a “position charter” and a detailed list of traits, experiences, and proven capabilities it seeks in its new director. Communicating that list to a candidate and evaluating candidates based on that charter will ensure that the search will end with an effective director.

There are three other simple steps that a board can take to assure that their choice in a director is ideal for their museum:

Check References -Not only should written references be checked, but detailed, comprehensive conversations should be had with those who have managed and worked with and for the potential candidate. And check college degrees and publications. When possible, visit the potential candidate’s current institution and get a feel of how the person interacts with guards, visitors, etc.

Understand the Candidate’s Motivation -The ideal director is one who is challenged and stretched by the new leadership position. Although not always an indicator, the new position is often in a larger institution as measured by annual budget size, nature of the collection, exhibition schedule, or level of the staff. Make sure the challenge, compensation, and other intangibles (such as quality of life) for the potential candidate and family will keep that person pleased and motivated to succeed.

Manage the Transition- The first few months following the completion of the search can be difficult for the incumbent. The director will be preoccupied with the details of the transition, selling and buying homes, selecting schools for the children, and a new job for the spouse. Members of the search committee and the board chairperson have a responsibility to the new director during this transition to assure that the direction may be successful.

James Abruzzo, Consultant, Consulting, Executive Search, Nonprofit Compensation, Expert Witness, Match Requirements

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