The Right Match. Working with Search Firms


Association of Children's Museums | May 20, 2016

​ ​

The Children's Museums published a Q&A with Russell Reynolds Associates' consultants Laurie Nash and Mirah Horowitz and Laura Huerta Migus from the Association of Children’s Museums. ​The article, "The Right Match. Working with Search Firms," provides insights into the executive search process. The article is excerpted below.​

Children’s museums are incredibly dynamic organizations, often moving from an idea to a highly-valued community resource in less than a decade. This arc of development, while exciting, also presents real leadership challenges. The leadership skills required during a startup phase can be vastly different from those needed in the operational phase, and again different ten or even twenty years down the road. This results in a relatively high turnover in executive leadership positions within a single children’s museum, and thus across the field. ACM’s internal tracking showed that in 2015 alone there were thirty new executive leaders hired in children’s museums in the United States. That represents nearly ten percent of our museum membership.

As the professional association serving children’s museums, ACM is often called on during the search process with questions on how executive search processes work: What are the benefits of hiring a search firm? Will a firm really find a better candidate? Why can’t we just hire an internal candidate? Why can’t we just advertise? In order to delve more deeply into what working with a search firm entails (and what it does not), I spoke with Laurie Nash and Mirah Horowitz of Russell Reynolds Associates, a global consulting firm specializing in executive searches.

Based in Palo Alto, CA, Mirah Horowitz works with nonprofit organizations on assessing leadership needs and recruiting senior leaders. Prior to joining Russell Reynolds, Horowitz served as senior counsel in the Office of Legal Policy, United States Department of Justice, where she developed strategy for many projects, drafted regulations, and vetted nominees for the federal judiciary. San Francisco-based Laurie Nash advises nonprofit organizations in the recruitment of senior leadership, with a particular focus on cultural, philanthropic, and environmental arenas. Nash’s fifteen years of experience partnering with institutional search committees, along with her global network, enables her to counsel clients in identifying and engaging top talent in a rapidly changing industry.

Huerta Migus: How does the typical search process for a new executive director begin? Is there is a “typical” search process?

Horowitz: Every search firm does things differently but we start by learning about the culture of the organization. The first step is a leadership needs assessment, which shows us the organization’s needs and where the gaps are. It also gives the institution’s constituencies an opportunity to be heard, which provides some comfort as we head into the “silent” phase of the search. (We conduct “closed searches”— meaning the client museum’s community (board, staff, stakeholders) doesn’t know who the candidates are as they make their way through the process.) During the assessment we spend time with senior staff, donors, board members, and in fact any group the client thinks should have input. As a museum’s advocate and representative in the job market, we need to be able convey a clear understanding of the organization. Sometimes what the staff wants for the next director and what the board wants are not aligned. So this process allows us to identify areas of misalignment, and helps the groups reach consensus before we start looking for a leader.

Huerta Migus: To begin a search who reaches out to you first? A board member? The outgoing CEO?

Nash: Contact is initiated in one of three ways: 1) personal recommendation from the outgoing CEO or someone on staff; 2) board research; or 3) referrals from peers or colleagues in the field. A board might assign a couple people to a search committee to identify a good fit among the different search firms. Typically our firm is recommended through word of mouth. In the course of our work, we get to know talented people in the field and they get to know us. And that’s not a bad way to get a recommendation because it indicates a history of positive experiences among people with whom we’ve interacted.

Huerta Migus: Tell us about the range of search firms and how they work.

Nash: There are a handful of search firms that focus on museum searches. Some firms have practices in the nonprofit arena that include museums of all types. There are large national/international firms, regional players, or specialty players, “boutique firms” that work only with cultural institutions but cut across a whole range. There are also locally-focused firms—one or two person shops. Search firms have varying degrees of breadth and depth in certain areas of the market, different familiarity with certain locales, and different pricing. There are also two different types of search firms—retained and contingency. The larger global firms operate as “retained search firms” and charge a retainer, based on an upfront estimate of the final fee, to engage in the work. There are “contingency firms” that more or less shop candidates rather than work for the organization itself. Contingency firms only get paid if they get a candidate hired. The risk with a contingency operation is that all of their financial incentive is on getting someone—and not necessarily the right someone—hired. At the level of search we conduct at Russell Reynolds, we see mostly retained firms and not contingency firms.

Huerta Migus: Are museums different from other types of nonprofit organizations when it comes to searches?

Nash: Every nonprofit is distinct in its relationship between the CEO and board, the mutual understanding of that relationship, and how it plays out in the institution. Museums are distinct in their institutional focus on the connection between object or experience and education. Not all organizations have that clarity of mission, and it creates a dynamic set of strategic needs that is different from any other kind of organization. Successful museum leaders have content expertise, which varies among different types of museums, whether that’s child development, education, art, history, science, natural history. But museums today require leaders to have a deep commitment to education and understanding of the public mission on top of this content expertise. Museums are recommitting to the changing demographics in the world and the realities of a shifting audience and donor base.

Huerta Migus: How long does a typical search take?

Horowitz: Normally four to six months. Usually the biggest challenge is finding time in the search committee’s schedules to get everyone in the same room for interviews, and then lining interviews up with the candidates’ schedules. We try to block out everyone’s calendars a couple of months in advance and then work the search process backwards from the proposed start date. However, this four-to-six-month period excludes the front-end work the board should be doing to get the organization ready to hire a search firm, and the transition planning once a candidate is named but before he/she actually starts the job.

Huerta Migus: What is the ideal state for a museum to be in when you come on board to look for a new leader?

Nash: That’s a really good question. How a museum prepares for a search depends to some extent on how long the incumbent has been in place. In an organization led by a very long-term leader—twenty years and up—the board might need to become more educated about the current state of museums and their strategic and operating realities. This enables board members to better understand their leadership needs by placing their institutional experience in the broader context of the museum field. The board could also start a discussion about the impending transition, not only the mechanics of it, but more broadly about what they think the institution needs in a new leader (as opposed to what has been needed under the soon-to-be-departing leader). It sounds trite, but leadership is tied to a time and a place. Can the board step back and ask “What’s really needed now? And do we have the broader industry context and view that allows us to think in new ways?”

Huerta Migus: What are some of the challenges that can make the search process less efficient? What do you look out for?

Horowitz: There are a couple of risk factors in any search, the biggest being confidentiality breeches. After regular update calls with the search committee, there is sometimes a desire for committee members to call people they know and ask questions about the candidates. Normally when we’re recruiting a candidate they’re already gainfully employed, usually quite happy, and not looking to move, so that breech of confidentially will make them pull out of the search pretty quickly. The search committee must be scrupulous about confidentiality.

A second risk could arise from adhering to an established process so strictly that we miss a good candidate. We establish a time- line and we work against it. But sometimes an amazing candidate emerges that has a different window of opportunity. Maybe they have another offer out there. Maybe they have children in school and can’t relocate until the end of the school year. Things in real life impact the search process. We always advise clients to never let the process get in the way of getting the best candidate. If the best candidate emerges at the last moment, you bring her into the process. If the best candidate arises early in the process and needs you to accelerate the search to meet his tim​eline, you accelerate the search. You need to have a schedule and a timeline, but you need to maintain flexibility to do the best for the search and for the organization. A third challenge arises from our role as search consultants in probing and sometimes pushing our clients’ thinking a little bit. Some clients can have a very narrow concept of acceptable new leaders, which is often a reaction to the current executive director. So we try to challenge our clients’ assumptions, and get them to consider candidates that are maybe a little bit further outside the box but possess all of the relevant skill sets and might be good fits. If they keep an open mind and meet a couple extra people, they might find a great “non-traditional” candidate who’s just what they need.​

To read the full article, click here​. ​

Sign up for our newsletter

Get the newsletter that prepares you for what's next with valuable insights across industries and geographies.
The Right Match. Working with Search Firms