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How to Hire Top Leadership Talent—Before Someone Else Does

To build the strongest organization, you need the strongest organizational leaders. So take a hard look at your recruitment process to ensure you're well positioned to attract the best leadership talent.

By Alex Beall

Recruiting top talent, especially the most in-demand candidates sought by multiple organizations at the same time, is a challenge facing both for-profit and nonprofit employers. When looking for new executive leadership, associations need to attract candidates who can both fulfill the mission and prepare the organization for the future. Here's how you can make sure you're drawing the best people and are nimble enough to snap up a great candidate before someone else does.

Building Your Brand

Attracting top talent begins before a position even opens by building your association's good reputation. A first step is creating strong brand recognition, starting with the messaging conveyed on your association's website or in an organizational profile on sites like Glassdoor.

Any executive who's thinking they might have to hire senior staff for their organization should start networking as soon as possible.

— Liz Ruble, Naylor Association Solutions

Bolstering that brand requires active involvement of your staff and volunteer leadership, says ASAE executive recruitment concierge Dany Bourjolly Smith. Work to establish your senior staff and board members as experts and thought leaders in your industry through news coverage and community engagement. Top candidates for executive positions want to work in an organization with other industry leaders who will help them learn and grow professionally, Smith notes.

Current executives also need to help with brand awareness by attending professional development events and leveraging other networking opportunities to create relationships within the industry.

"Any executive who's thinking they might have to hire senior staff for their organization should start networking as soon as possible," says Liz Ruble, corporate recruiter at Naylor Association Solutions and an ASAE executive recruitment concierge. "Then, when the position opens up, you already have people that you've maybe worked with a little bit, that you're familiar with, that you know by reputation, and you would know a little bit about whether or not they would be a fit."

Nurturing the Right Culture

These efforts should be reinforced by an organizational culture that benefits staff and is attractive to highly sought-after candidates.

"People are looking for places where they can grow, where there's going to be leadership opportunities, where they can really make contributions," says Carol Vernon, a certified executive coach with Communication Matters. "When talking about a culture that really attracts top talent, really step back and be very clear on your association's values so that you can be clear about what they are as you're talking with people."

Creating this kind of culture includes pursuing a meaningful mission, supporting staff and their work, and offering benefits that align with the organization's values and allow staff to focus on all parts of their lives.

The association community "has a very unique opportunity in terms of attracting and retaining top talent," Vernon says. "Associations more naturally are places that people that are interested in purposeful, meaningful work are attracted."

Winning the Talent

Once you've found your ideal candidate, the challenge of closing the deal begins.

"Always be ready to close. Always have that end goal in mind that you want to sell them on the opportunity and you want them to accept an offer, but don't go in with an offer prepared," Ruble says. "It's really impersonal. You definitely want to give them a more personal touch."

Instead of walking into the negotiating room with a prepackaged offer, listen carefully to the applicant's needs. Find his or her personal tie to the organization, and ask questions regarding the benefits, development opportunities, and other perks the candidate wants.

"A lot of people aren't just interested in salary, particularly in the association world where people are very focused on mission as well," Ruble says. "So you have to see what they're looking for, what's making them consider a potential change, and then tailor your offer around that."

Overall, it's important to make the hiring process as personal as possible so that candidates "feel very special and unique to the process, that they would be a big win and benefit for the organization as opposed to feeling like one of many candidates that you're fielding," Smith says.

During the recruitment process, introduce the applicant to the team he or she would be working with, making sure the candidate understands the organizational culture and department dynamic. Inviting the candidate to staff events or happy hours is one way to make that process personal and welcoming.

A finalist for an executive role also needs to be fully aware of how your organization will set him or her up for success. Be clear upfront about the onboarding process, and outline what the work will look like once the candidate enters the role.

And make the recruitment process from application to job offer as streamlined as possible. "You don't want someone hanging out in the job market too long, or they'll get snatched up by someone else, particularly if they're a really excellent candidate," Ruble says. "Those folks are not available for long."

Alex Beall is an associate editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]