Before Creating a Job Description: Purge, Then Draft

Your trusted Chief Operations Officer has taken a dream job at an international organization, and your local not-for-profit needs to rehire someone to take her place.  What steps can you take to create a space for her successor?  How do you draft the position description to attract and explain the role to the next COO?

This scenario is actually quite complex.  Every departure holds a multi-part story.   It does not really matter whether a professional was asked to resign, voluntarily took cues or moved on to wonderful new opportunity.  No matter the details leading to the departure, in the background are some unspoken goals and expectations that were probably not met.

In the case of the employee who accepted another opportunity, the unmet goal probably had to do with her own career prospects within the organization.  She rightly sensed her opportunities to move up in her current role were limited, so, she joined an organization that seemed to meet the immediate goal for upward mobility and affirmation.

In the case of less pleasant separations, there may be many unmet (unspoken) goals at hand.  The employer organization may have had performance expectations that weren’t met. On the side of the employee, the unmet or mismatched expectations may have involved reporting relationships, professional development opportunities, compensation, overall morale or the corporate culture.  Such factors directly impact employee performance and perceptions of the workplace.    As painful as it might be, it is healthy to confront any and all of these issues prior to taking on the new hire.

The organization needs to candidly assess all factors that played into less-than-optimal performance.  Was it lack of financial resources, key management skills or an overarching plan with concrete deliverables?  Or, was the undesired outcome attributable to personality or organizational “quirks?”  Given the current structure/operating norms, was it even realistic to expect achieve measurable success? Some of the questions can be uncomfortable and disconcerting because they make all of the senior leaders accountable and responsible for performance and outcomes.  Poor performance is seldom the result of one person’s foibles.  Similarly, success is frequently the result of collaboration and smart, shared leadership.  Confronting what went wrong is the best way to regroup and reconfigure to attract someone right.

After reflecting on what happened to create a vacancy, it is time to put what was learned directly in to drafting a new position description. At this point, shift your focus from what went wrong to what a transformational leader could achieve. Draft the position description looking ahead to the bright future you see for the organization.  Now that you have dealt with the past mistakes, errors in judgment or non-working structures/attitudes, you are in a wonderful position to support a new leader’s success.

With that focus in mind, ask even more probing questions.  The answers will create the platform for an upbeat position description designed to attract leadership talent with the skills needed to take your organization to higher levels of performance. Questions should include:

  • Is the current organization structure viable given the most urgent priorities?  If not, make adjustments needed to create a structure that supports success.
  • Is there any organizational resistance to change and/or to the high priority goals?  Define and consider what you can do to reduce internal friction or morale issues.
  • Is this role, as lived out by the predecessor, the right role for the organization? Does the role itself need to be reconfigured to meet the new challenges?  If so, what is involved?
  • What are the benchmarks for success in this role?  What measures are used to hold the new hire accountable?  Is there a way to quantify these expectations and communicate them directly and clearly?
  • Will this require new title(s) or a reallocation of responsibilities within the organization?  Can this be achieved prior to the new hire coming on board?
  • What salary and financial considerations will come with the new hire?  Can you offer more money to attract the right talent?  What is your financial bandwidth?
  • What did the predecessor leader do well?   How can the incoming leader maximize those gains?
  • Where does the incoming leader need to focus to see immediate additional gains?  Which skills are most important for this to occur?

In drafting the description, be careful about using cautionary language, commands or negative words that communicate the organization’s dissatisfaction with past leadership.  Savvy candidates will read right through your word choices and will conclude that your organization is NOT a healthy career destination.  It might even be worthwhile to outsource the drafting to ensure the verbiage is fresh, forward-looking and positive.

The position description brands your organization and presents the face of the future to the leaders you want to attract.  An energetic, hopeful document will attract your leaders with the inclination to really move your organization forward.

Karen Alphonse and ExecSearches provides various recruitment and executive search services for nonprofits. is a job board for nonprofit job seekers interested in fundraising, management and executive nonprofit jobs.

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