Finding Your Next “Head Coach”: No One-Size-Fits-All Model

It’s the season of the coach search in the NFL, as teams seek to replace low performers with new, more inspiring leaders. Just as teams take different approaches to finding their next head coach, associations have several options when it comes to hiring a new CEO.

NFL coaches—at least those whose teams performed poorly—must dread “Black Monday,” the day when they learn their fate: invited back or fired. This year, seven teams decided to switch gears and are searching for new leaders.

While association CEOs don’t have a Black Monday circled on their calendars, there are plenty of parallels between an NFL team’s search for a new head coach and association’s search for its next CEO.

“Every single search has its own nuances. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of doing these things.”

“Every single search has its own nuances,” said executive recruiter Carol Barber. “There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of doing these things.”

Some NFL teams know exactly who they want to fill a head coaching vacancy and will hire the first or second person they interview, a practice that Barber said also happens in associations but doesn’t necessarily recommend.

“Associations are within pretty defined sectors, and because those sectors overlap in terms of the connections, an association may know of a sitting executive that they would dearly love to target,” she said. “But in my experience, you don’t necessarily want to think of only one or two people. The easy part is finding a person with the hard skills for the job. The harder part is really finding that cultural fit, the personality that will blend in with the membership and be accepted by the membership and by stakeholders.”

But if the net the association casts is too wide, the search committee’s job can be difficult. That’s where a recruiter might come in handy.

“I look at it like a funnel,” Barber said. “When you’re out publicly advertising an open position, you are going to get a lot that just simply don’t fit the bill, but it’s the recruiter’s job to weed those out as the first part of that funnel. It has to come to a manageable group of people who truly do possess the qualifications and the characteristics that the association needs.”

Search committees also shouldn’t be afraid to venture outside the association world when looking for a candidate, Barber said—similar to how some NFL teams reach down to the college ranks to pluck their next head coach. Associations are increasingly being pressed to act more like for-profit companies, and bringing in a fresh perspective can have real benefits.

While every executive search is different, Barber said two things will help make the process a smooth one for all associations.

“Having a thorough job description well help the search committee understand exactly what they’re looking for in their next CEO,” she said. “And ask staff and strategic partners and other stakeholders for their feedback throughout the search. They’ll feel an ownership and feel that their voice has been heard. To go at it without that kind of information is really setting up for failure.”

The Washington Redskins' Mike Shanahan, shown with star quarterback Robert Griffin III, was one of the NFL coaches shown the door on "Black Monday." (photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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