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Interviewing for the big job

12 Nov

Michael Kaiser’s recent article in the Huffington Post got me thinking about what skills we need to make sure the future leaders of our arts organizations have; how can we help them be prepared to take the reins?  Then last week a friend asked for advice on interviewing for her first Executive Director position.  I’ve talked through this process with other friends over the years but this is the first time I’ve written it all down.  Much of this advice is applicable to the second round of interviews, but it is all good to think about even before your first talk with your potential new artistic home.  I hope this gives some framework to what I feel is important knowledge for an incoming ED/MD to have.

Interviewing for the job of Executive or Managing Director

Remember, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you; you need to make sure you go into any ED or MD position with your eyes wide open. They may not have everything in formal written form, but what they do have will give you a good idea of the infrastructure you would be jumping into.

  1. Most recent two years’ financial reports (Income Statement vs. Budget, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow) … what is their revenue split between earned & contributed?  Do they have consistent earned revenue or have their ticket/event sales been erratic?  Within contributed, how much is in grants, corporate, government, and individual?  Are funds from a capital campaign artificially inflating their Balance Sheet or are they making the numbers work on the operating side in a straightforward manner?
  2. Current budget (and cash flow projections for the fiscal year if they have them; it would be very helpful to know how cyclical their cash flow is and what they currently do when faced with cash troughs)
  3. Latest audit
  4. Current Strategic Plan
  5. Development and Marketing plans for the current year.  What has been their approach to marketing, both event and institutional?  Do they see any issues with their current branding or brand awareness? (or do you?)
  6. If they don’t have a formal written development plan, then you’ll need to ask if they have any special campaigns going on right now or planned in the near future (is there a balloon debt they are going to need to retire in the next two years?  Do they have their hearts set on an endowment?  That sort of thing.)  What is the average individual gift? ($200k in $50 increments takes a whole heck of a lot of time & work!)  What is their current rate of retention for patrons and donors (churn) year over year?
  7. Ask about their Board structure: number of Directors, term limits, standing committees, how active are they?  Do they have a formal Board Promise or a specific give & get?  How much of the annual fundraising comes from the Board?  What kind of pipeline do they have for future Board members?  What will be your role in cultivating new members?  What is the term for the Board Chair? (will you be training a new Board Chair as you are learning the ropes yourself?)  What is the Board orientation process?
  8. Do the ED and AD report directly to the Board?  Are both leaders voting members of the Board?  What evaluation process do they have for the executive leadership?
  9. How big is the staff and how much is the Board a “working” board?  What about performance evaluations for the rest of the staff?

Be ready to talk about your experience with fundraising A LOT.  Be sure to have examples demonstrating your comfort level with engaging folks of all backgrounds in conversation and communicating the mission.  Be ready, if asked, to give feedback on their current marketing messages & materials.  Also, give thought to where you would want to focus when you first join the team:

  • Does their budget process need to be revamped? (are they consistently coming in under projections?  Do they have an accumulated deficit?)
  • Is there a segment of their audience that needs more attention?  Have their communications been consistent?  Have they become stale?
  • Do they need to go into a strong Board development phase?
  • What role does the AD currently play in fundraising and how can you use her/his “stardust” to the greatest impact?

Do your homework and you will know if you and the organization are the right fit.  You will also show your potential employers that you are serious about the commitment you will all be making to each other if a job is offered and accepted.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on the next generation of arts leaders, if you are an emerging leader and you see items in this list that confuse you or areas in which you know you need more experience, start now.  Join a non-profit Board to see things from the other side.  Take fundraising and/or marketing courses.  Take a look at the Nonprofit Finance Fund and BoardSource for help in beefing up your financial and Board relations understanding (also, read Governance as Leadership.  Really.  Do it now.).  The great thing about being a Managing or Executive Director is that you get to be involved in every facet of the administrative side of the business.  The hard thing about being a Managing or Executive Director is that you need to be familiar and comfortable with every facet of the administrative side of the business.

Please continue this conversation in the comments below!

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