Throughout my time at Citygate Network (and at Christian Camp and Conference Association before that), I’ve seen scores of leaders exit the ministry highway — some from the proper lane, at the recommended speed, with their blinkers on, and others leaving tire marks as they careen across three lanes of asphalt, bounce off the guardrail, and roll down the ramp. (In a lot of those situations, Citygate Network has been asked to help clean up the debris.)
Fortunately, with the information we’ve been including in Instigate, as well as in some of our conference seminars and our Ripple Effect program, many of our member organizations now have excellent succession plans in place and are ready for both planned and emergency leadership transitions. (If you want help in this area, please let us know.)
For missions and kindred ministries that are still writing their succession plans, the question I am most often asked is this: Do we need to hire a search firm? Contracting with one seems to have become the norm these days. My answer: I do recommend it, but a lot depends on your circumstances.
Online, there is no shortage of sites that tout the benefits of using such outside assistance (most of them written and hosted by recruiters advertising their services). We have a list of about a dozen firms we’ve had experience with — from large, high-end companies that do global searches, to consultants that specialize in HR and help boards over the bigger bumps of transition. (Let us know if you want to see the list.)
Over the past year, I compared notes concerning search firms with a trusted colleague who serves with me on the National Association of Evangelicals board. We both have engaged with numerous agencies. From our conversations, I wrote the following cautions that Citygate Network now sends to members, along with that list I mentioned. Keep in mind that these are observations born from experience. I offer these paragraphs, generally speaking. The firm you select might tell you that these won’t be areas of concern when you use their services. But I’m flagging them here to cause you to ask…and them to answer.
Searching organizations think search firms can do more than they actually can. Keep in mind that search firms are relatively mechanical — they have to be if they are going to serve multiple clients. Firms have an established process, and they don’t like to deviate from it. Customized, personalized searches are not their thing.
A search firm’s level of due diligence, when it comes to exploring candidates, is based on a standard script. All individuals tapped to vouch for a candidate are asked the same questions. It falls to the searching organization to go deeper in regard to references. For example, a searching organization usually needs to dig on its own if it wants to find out how a candidate has functioned under intense, prolonged stress. The searching organization should come up with and pursue secondary references (i.e., those not listed by the candidate).
Search firms rarely consider how much of a candidate’s strength has come from the C-suite he or she has had in the past. The excellent reputation some CEOs enjoy is often thanks to a team they have inherited or slowly built — and you’re not hiring the team. Separate the team from the CEO, and it could take him or her at least a year to gain balance and move forward. And if the searching organization’s own C-suite team starts to break up when the outgoing CEO leaves — it happens quite often — it could take even longer.
Search firms don’t usually ask about a candidate’s history when it comes to integrity. If it should be brought to light that a candidate had a personal failure in the past, the search firm will likely not pursue it if things appear to be fine in the present day. But someone needs to ask what walls of protection the candidate has built and how those walls are being maintained. The searching organization needs to consider its enduring reputation.
This is information you will want to pass on to your board when the time is right. Tell them that, just like with any product or service, they need to study what they are getting for the money they are spending. Many search firms offer a guarantee of some kind, but there is always fine print. Our advice to all members is to read it carefully.