Nonprofit boards might want to focus on hiring a first-timer rather than someone with experience when filling executive openings—at least according to a recent Harvard Business Review article. Recruiting firm Stuart Spencer looked at more than 800 CEOs hired by S&P 500 companies over the past 20 years and found that the firms led by “rookies” consistently outperformed those led by individuals with previous executive experience. Even more interesting was the fact that rookies often couldn’t repeat their success: only 30 percent did a better job in their second executive role.
Why did the first-timers do so well? Researchers said that the rookies were generally more adaptable in their approach, while experienced execs tended to fall back on ideas that had worked in the past but which often didn’t fit for their new organizations. Rookies also tended to stay in their jobs—50 percent longer than the experienced execs.
Even though this research comes from the for-profit sector, nonprofit boards should take note First-time nonprofit executive directors often bring a fresh-eye approach to their new role that can be transformational. Many also display a stronger drive to succeed. And the promise of a long tenure is something that every board dreams of when they hire a new executive.
But nonprofit boards shouldn’t immediately dismiss those experienced executives. The researchers said that most arrived with better developed networks than newbies—critical in the competitive world of fundraising. The experienced execs also showed an ability to put their plans into action more quickly than first-time executives.
The findings resonated with me as I considered my own nonprofit executive search practice. Of the 16 searches I’ve led since 2018, more than half resulted in boards hiring a first-time nonprofit executive. In many cases, the boards were intentionally seeking a new and innovative approach to leadership—often after the retirement of a longtime executive.
I’ve worked with other organizations, though, that were facing unique challenges and put a high premium on previous executive experience. These boards were elated to hire leaders who had “been there, done that.”
The critical first step in both of these scenarios—and in all nonprofit executive searches—is a thoughtful analysis of the current organization and the board’s strategic vision for the future. With the results in hand, search consultants can help the organization craft an opportunity profile that identifies critical skills, traits and experiences for success. This concrete vision for a successful hire makes it a lot easier to find a new leader who is a great fit for the organization—and not just “new and different” or “experienced.”