Jill MacauleyBeing an internal candidate for a promotion to a nonprofit leadership position can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have the inside track. You know all the players involved and they know you. You have a behind-the-scenes understanding of how things work. It would seem you have a leg up on any outside competition for the spot. But on the other hand, being a known quantity can make you seem part of the old guard or any problems that currently exist. What will you bring that’s new and exciting?

In our role helping many different nonprofit organizations conduct succession planning and executive searches, we have had a close-up look at the search process. One recent conversation with an individual who scored a big promotion as an internal candidate—we’ll call him Joe—yielded a wealth of valuable information.

Read on to learn from Joe’s experience as a successful internal candidate.

It IS Who You Know… and Who Knows You

The first thing an internal candidate should do is to determine exactly who the decision-makers are in the search process. Sometimes it’s the full Board or a smaller working group of a larger Board. Other times, the organization sets up a search committee comprised of Board members, staff, government officials and/or community members and other stakeholders. Identify the key players and then make sure you’re on their radar.

As a staff member, you may have a better sense of who these people are than they have of you. To them, you might just be one member of a large staff. They might not even know your title or fully understand what your role is within the organization.

Joe was surprised to discover that the Board members making the hiring decision didn’t really understand the nonprofit’s organizational chart. In fact, they completely misunderstood the job responsibilities, role and reporting structure of key positions.

Take the time for as many face-to-face meetings with decision-makers as possible in order to build an understanding of who you are and what you do. Ideally, these meetings will have already been taking place over a long period of time—months or even years—as you built your career with your organization. Which brings us to our next piece of advice…

Don’t Be Shy

It’s important to be vocal about your career aspirations. Joe knew that succession planning was taking place in preparation for a leadership transition, and he was sure to communicate his desire to be the successor to the current leader. He sought opportunities to participate in meetings and events at all levels of his organization, especially those outside his standard purview. In this way, he actively built his knowledgebase and gained exposure to all facets of the organization’s operations. He didn’t become an expert in these areas, but he took in key information, and also demonstrated—just by showing up—that he cared about the organization’s whole picture. In the process, he built relationships beyond his immediate colleagues and department team members.

So, we encourage you to put yourself out there: go to meetings, get face time, seek out opportunities to learn about other functions of your organization, fill gaps in your knowledgebase, expose yourself to challenges, volunteer for working committees and avoid being siloed exclusively in your area of focus.

And a good first step is to tell your boss you want the job. Be explicit. Ask for feedback and make necessary changes. Seek the endorsement and support of the current leader.

Taking the Bad with the Good

When the organization is doing well, it’s easy to say you were part of its success and want to sustain the momentum as the new leader. But you should be able to point to your specific contributions. Having a complete timeline of your actions and their impact can go a long way in demonstrating your value to the organization.

If your organization is not doing well, it’s a little bit harder. You’ll have to walk a fine line between criticism of your predecessor and an honest assessment of weaknesses or areas in which you would have diverged with past leadership. You have to be prepared for the question, “If you had the answers, why didn’t you speak up before?” Otherwise, you will be perceived as part of the problem. Depending on your relationship with the current leadership, you must be careful not to appear disloyal or untrustworthy. It could seem like you were never playing on the same team. That same timeline of contributions mentioned above can also help show where you made an impact even through hard times.

Another way to differentiate yourself from current leadership is to talk about your vision for the organization’s future and how it might differ from the past. Perhaps differences in leadership style or personal strengths can be highlighted to show how you will bring something new to the table.

Be ready to be held accountable for any missteps that occurred during your tenure, even if you weren’t in charge. Ask yourself what you did or could have done to make things better.

Is the Grass Always Greener?

Most people assume the internal candidate has the advantage in an executive search process. However, there are a few advantages outside candidates enjoy above and beyond the allure of someone new and exciting.

Joe was dismayed to realize how much more time the Board was spending with the outside candidates than with him. They would meet candidates at the airport, drive them around the town to show them housing options and local attractions, and take them out to dinner before dropping them off at the hotel—opportunities for face time that were not available to Joe as an internal candidate.

To ensure that you get time with decision-makers in a more relaxed and personal setting, seize every opportunity to interact with Board members, not only on site at your organization, but also out in the community. Get involved with civic groups, other nonprofits and community organizations with which your Board members are involved. Be sure to choose organizations and causes in which you have a genuine interest, though, or it will be perceived, and rightly so, as self-promoting, even stalkish behavior. Not a good look.

Another possible advantage of outside candidates is that they are more of a blank slate. They do not come in with the existing relationships—both good and bad—that an internal candidate has. The successful internal candidate will be prepared to talk about the strengths of these relationships and how the shift from peer/peer to leader/subordinate dynamics will be managed.

After the Decision

The search process can be very long and daunting. And if you’re not selected for the promotion, it can seem untenable to remain at the organization. After swallowing the bitter pill of rejection, though, some find that the leadership transition offers a welcome change and new opportunities that satisfy their career aspirations, at least for the short term. Others may take what they have learned through the search process and use it to bolster their chances of landing a position at a different organization.

If you’re an internal candidate who ultimately scores the promotion, you can view the search process as a positive boost to the start of your new role. Everyone will know that you emerged as the top choice even after thoughtful consideration of other internal and external candidates. Being chosen through a careful search process validates your worth and speaks to the qualities you possess that the Board wanted in their next leader.

Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, breathe a sigh of relief and then…get to work!

Special Content: The Roadmap to Recovery

As nonprofits everywhere face unprecedented challenges, S&W is stepping forward to help—working on rapid response strategies with our clients, curating resources for easy access, offering answers from our expert team, and bringing people together from across the nonprofit world to share ideas. The point, as we say, is Powering Missions That Matter—now at the moment they matter most.

Read More