Taking the Time to Learn in Transition: How the Ford Foundation Board Revamped the Traditional CEO Search

GEO recently convened a diverse group of foundation trustees and CEOs at the Ford Foundation in New York. This meeting was constructed as an opportunity for peers to share what matters and what is hard when it comes to leading productive change in philanthropy. This topic was quite fresh for Kofi Appenteng, chair of the CEO search committee and newly-elected board chair of the Ford Foundation. He shared reflections about how the Ford Foundation board approached the search that culminated in the appointment of Darren Walker as CEO. Kofi's story highlights many key points about the role of foundation boards and how boards can capitalize on opportunities such as an executive search to gain greater clarity about their own work. We're very grateful to Kofi for sharing his experience with us and for providing real leadership to the Ford Foundation and the field.

Kathleen: Tell us a bit about the early process when the board first understood that they would be entering a search for the new CEO.

Kofi: When the previous CEO announced he was leaving, the board had to address the question of how we would manage the transition. The board chair needed to focus on working with the CEO during the transition and so she asked me to chair the search committee. Going into it, we assumed we had consensus on the board about some basic things, but we were wrong. In fact, there were a wide range of misunderstandings. So it became clear that we needed to come together in a series of retreats to get to consensus and clarify expectations.

In addition, we realized we needed to have a deeper understanding of what was going on inside the foundation so that we would have the ability to be transparent with candidates. So we set about having 40 small group and one-on-one conversations with staff at different levels, locations and tenures in the foundation. We asked them: What are you looking for in a new leader? What direction do you think Ford should take? During that process we learned a lot more about the organization's culture and also heard some things we, as a board, could have done better. For instance, we heard that there was a lack of clarity about the role and function of the board. As a consequence, some of the decisions we made in the wake of the financial crisis had been misunderstood.

How did all of this pre-work by the board and feedback from the staff play into the search process for the next CEO?

Ultimately the board came to believe that we needed to do a search based on the basic attributes we sought in a leader that were critical for success rather than a more traditional search based on education, background, experience and the like. The board specifically discussed the critical qualities we were looking for. We prioritized finding someone very comfortable in their own skin; someone who brings both intellectual brio and humility. We wanted a really good builder and manager of relationships with people, as well as someone who is equally comfortable in the Amazon talking with indigenous groups and in boardrooms talking with executives. We sought a CEO eager to share both successes and challenges with the board.

We were flooded with hundreds of suggestions and great resumes, but as we started following up with people who gave suggestions and reviewed for them our specifications about the basic traits of the leader we were seeking, the list shrank dramatically. This enabled us to focus a significant amount of time in the search on getting to know a few people well. We felt that this was really important because we had all been part of searches that spent too much time discussing eliminating candidates with impressive resumes and inadequate time getting to know the people with the right qualities well.

Once we were down to a short list, we wanted to understand how they behaved in multiple settings -- in their current role, one-on-one with different board members, with their husband/wife/partner if they had one. All of the finalists the committee brought to the full board were incredibly qualified, had the qualities or attributes that we were seeking and the whole search committee felt confident that all of them would be good presidents. We believe we had this level of consensus because we spent so much time focused on the short list.

Looking back, how did this process change the way the board operates?

The search process made it clear that we needed to gain agreement about how we as a board wanted to relate to the next CEO. When Darren started, we handed him two sheets of paper: one describing how we understood our role and what we expected of ourselves as a board, and one for how we understood his role and what we expected from him. We used these papers to start a dialogue with him so that we could face the issues that are traditionally impediments between the board and CEO. We keep looking back to that to make sure that it's working.

My sense is that the board emerged stronger with greater clarity about our role. We believe we are doing our job better. The process also highlighted the attributes that good board members need. A well-designed process led by people who have the right attributes is the goal, but a poorly designed process run by people with the right attributes is the next best option.

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Is your organization in a time of transition? What do you need to better understand to effectively guide your organization through transition? As you reflect on your work and culture, what lessons are you learning that might inform this change?