CommunityPam's House Blend

Think you have what it takes to run HRC? It’s a tall order.

Phil Reese of the Washington Blade kicks off a discussion about the Human Rights Campaign’s recruitment effort to replace outgoing leader Joe Solmonese. The official, extensive job description is now online. A snippet:

…The President reports to the Boards of Directors of both the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and is responsible for the overall management and leadershipof HRC’s activities and programs. The President’s job is to develop and implement HRC’sstrategic vision, its policies and programs to advance the interests of its membership and the LGBTcommunity as a whole. The new President will be charged with leading this important organizationduring a time of great change and progress in the country.

The President will be working every day to improve the lives of LGBT Americans by identifyingand overcoming societal and legislative barriers to LGBT equality. At the same time, s/he will beworking to engage, educate and empower millions of fair-minded Americans to advocate for equalrights for the LGBT community.

Specific responsibilities include [Note from Pam; I’m condensing these and numbering them, so check out the full descriptions]:

  1. Provide vision and focus for a dynamic organization.
  2. Build, maintain and continually inspire a work environment to achieve the highest standardsof performance and accountability.
  3. Manage through change.
  4. Represent and lead HRC in the most positive manner, enhancing HRC’s visibility and influencing public opinion.
  5. Lead the development and promotion of legislation and public policies that positively affect LGBT families and their children, as well as, oppose legislation and public policies that wouldadversely affect LGBT families and their children.
  6. Attract new members, allies, strategic partners, advocates, donors and volunteers.
  7. Engage diverse constituencies.
  8. Lead the development of educational programs that positively affect the societal and culturalcondition, as well as shift public opinion.

My post is going to take a look at the elements of doing a recruitment at this level, not a post-mortem on the Solmonese Years at HRC. While that leaves out opportunities for cheap shots and snark (I’m sure commenters will do that anyway, and there is likely plenty around the blogosphere), I felt it would be more thoughtful to explore just how hard it is to find good people, good leaders – so hear me out.


The above-listed responsibilities from the HRC document, aside from being tethered to LGBT matters, are about what you’d expect for the president of a large non-profit with a reputation to uphold within its sphere of interest.

That Joe Solmonese’s tenure at HRC in this position has been the subject of plenty of criticism by PHB readers (and occasionally this blogmistress as well as others in the LGBT community) is not surprising, given the volatile nature of dealing with civil rights issues of a still-oppressed, very diverse minority. Issues of race, gender, privilege — and the less discussed third rail of class — infuses much of the tension, when part of the constituency sees itself as under-represented (or worse, misrepresented) by an organization that is positioned to lobby and strategize with the powers that be (and vote) from the perspective of the President and its board with little transparency or perceived accountability.

Tensions of this kind not unique to HRC; perhaps it is more exacerbated because parts of our community are not necessarily in harmony regarding priorities related to our socioeconomic differences. the qualities that make it difficult to recruit top talent that can be effective on multiple levels, be it inside the organization or outside, raising funds to keep the financial engine going is not unique either.

I’ve participated in a number of search committees and recruitments as a senior manager at my current day job and over the years. Thankfully, I’ve not had to deal with a board; that adds a level of complexity that is fraught with conflict. Working boards of large orgs in many cases are moneyed people (and selected for their ability to raise funds), and they rarely deeply engage with mid- to lower-level staff who actually do the day-to-day work and will have to answer to the new leader. A board’s priorities can be miles away from what is the perceived needs of staff.

Trust me — recruitment war stories I’ve been privy to over the years (again, thankfully, none in my workplace), would make your hair curl.

It’s all about priorities. If a board wants to hire a controllable figurehead, and a smooth operator with media or potential donors, and a great administrator/supervisor, that’s a tall order. It’s hard to get the whole package — at large or high-profile orgs, you’re going to get a certain level of, um, egocentrism in a pool of candidates that flock to the idea of heading up a non-profit that may be great for fundraising and hobnobbing in places of political power and access, but they could have core incompetencies that are deadly for morale in an organization — poor handling of administrative detail, poor (or no) supervisory skills that are quite apparent to those who will report to him/her.

More about competencies below the fold.

The Human Rights Campaign’s Position Specification document is well-written, and the competencies as outlined are again, qualities any large organization would want in a leader. I’ve numbered them, but they are in the order as presented in the original document, my commentary is after each element in ital.

1. Strategic Vision:  The successful candidate will have a demonstrated record of setting priorities and leading organizations to success. S/he will be a strategic thinker who will work with HRC’s senior Staff and Board leadership team and Board of Directors to establish plans and methods to achieve its mission while providing the strategic direction necessary to evolve the organization. S/he will be capable of working with others to develop differentiated strategies with multifaceted approaches to address disparate audiences, cultures, and political contexts.

This competency relies heavily on past achievements by a candidate; if they’ve handled a past org successfully, it will be self-evident this person as vision and goal-setting skills at a high level. Besides, any new person is going to have the benefit of the board and leadership to get up to speed – any good candidate knows how to do their homework of an organization they want to lead.

2. Communication and Development Skills:  The successful candidate will be an inspiring and persuasive communicator who can articulate HRC’s vision and direction effectively through mass media, debate, lobbying, public speaking, writing, networking, fundraising and one-on-one discussions. S/he will have the ability to connect with and secure results from world leaders, government policy makers, corporate leaders, partners, donors, Board Members and staff.

Star power. Finding a personality type that is dynamic, outgoing and tireless, no matter whether the camera is on or off them is always a challenge. Can this person handle tough questions from reporters/new media on the fly? It’s likely at this level that you’ll find plenty of candidates who are camera ready with experience these days. If you short-shrift on this, it’s possible to boost the hire through media training, but it’s always a gamble if the person doesn’t have some innate extrovert talent.

3. Leadership: In addition to the critical, externally-focused competencies, the successful candidate must also possess outstanding leadership skills that will enable him/her to oversee the management of a complex, member-focused organization.  S/he must be an involved and inclusive manager, who will ensure HRC functions in an orderly and fiscally responsible manner.  The President will have a track record of recruiting, retaining and motivating a professional and highly performing staff.  The successful candidate must be able to set strategic direction for the organization, prioritize and define clear goals for staff, and manage performance toward achievement of those goals.  The candidate will be an inspirational leader to the staff, and encourage openness, transparency and mutual respect. Further, the candidate must have the executive skills to manage various Board and membership. constituencies as well as leverage the energy of a dedicated, diverse, and growing membership.
OY. Finding a personality type that is dynamic, outgoing and tireless, no matter whether the camera is on or off them is always a challenge. Can this person handle tough questions from reporters/new media on the fly? It’s likely at this level that you’ll find plenty of candidates who are camera ready with experience these days. If you short-shrift on this, it’s possible to boost the hire through media training, but it’s always a gamble if the person doesn’t have that natural extrovert talent and the lines I outlined in bold tell the story — you don’t want to lose trained, talented staff on board. A leader doesn’t have to know the details of every person’s daily work, but they sure as hell better be interested in the role they play in the organization’s hierarchy. Staff need to see that the selection committee and the board have the entire organization’s interests at heart — and that is an emphasis on the candidate’s ability to develop a visible relationship with staff that engenders trust. Lots of #FAIL potential exists in this aspect of the selection process.

4. Interpersonal Acumen:   The successful candidate must be a person of the utmost personal and professional integrity with a high level of energy.  Candidates must possess the right combination of self-confidence balanced with humility and a healthy sense of humor. The successful candidate needs to be gracious in manner and comfortable in any situation.   S/he will be confident enough to hire and retain strong, smart people, and possess an understanding of his/her own strengths and weaknesses.
Good grief, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this emerge as a #FAIL. And the sad truth is, you cannot always suss this out in an interview, and certainly not during reference checks (where those you call for many reasons, including legal/HR ones, aren’t going to be forthcoming). But the bottom line is if you can’t recruit someone that you want to work with, all the other skills in the world are meaningless. Part of the problem here is that some “leaders” don’t have any self-awareness, and thus are oblivious to their weaknesses; all they see is how great they are. And worse, the board does nothing to correct the situation, particularly if the lack of interpersonal skills results in frequent conflicts/altercations/abusive behavior by the hire with lower-level staff. Leadership, be it senior level staff or a board, requires accountability. That’s why a realistic, accurate, frank performance review process is so essential. If a candidate is selected and continually falls short in this area without any improvement, it’s the fault of the board or other senior staff for neglecting their responsibilities to the organization’s overall health.

5. Judgment:  The successful candidate will have the demonstrated ability to make timely and clearly communicated decisions and take appropriate risks to achieve results.  Likewise, s/he will be thoughtful about deploying the organization’s budget in a way that maximizes outcomes aligned with HRC’s strategic plan and core institutional values while managing risk.  S/he will listen to and learn from key stakeholders inside and outside of the organization and will be an inclusive and independent thinker, who can manage ambiguity and devise solutions even when a clear path is not evident.

A candidate’s track record should tell a search committee a lot about this competency. It’s pretty black and white – can they handle a budget and strategic plan sensibly? Do they make decisions that are in alignment with the organization’s mission? Is this person a “high burn rate” administrator, who spends way too much on that expense account for their position as people down the food chain don’t have the resources they need to do their jobs effectively? That stuff can be looked up; it will be pretty clear if they are a lone-wolf in decision making, or a collaborative individual.

6. Passion and Shared Values:  The successful candidate will have a passion for ending discrimination against LGBT  Americans and  an  absolute commitment towards realizing  a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.    At its heart,  HRC is about  making a difference in the lives of everyday people.   The successful candidate will not only have earned the appropriate  leadership credentials across  their career, but be implicitly anchored by  HRC’s core values.
This is about a candidate having the savvy to know their target organization well, to be a quick study if not coming from the same sphere of interest, a person who knows how to adopt the mission as part of their core being in order to excel. Generally, you’re going to see people in the non-profit activist world who are very devoted to mission-oriented work at all levels of an organization. If they wanted a real payday, they’d be out in the corporate world. In the recruiting phase, this is where the committee has to feel out whether this person wants this job as a professional stepping stone to something else (meaning a short tenure), or is committed to leading and growing with the organization, especially if it is a non-profit in transition and change management of some kind. It takes a special kind of leadership when the times are tough — and when in a growth phase.


So, you really can’t narrow it down to any one of these as deal-breakers if a candidate has weaknesses; they are all important. A well-written CV/resume with all the right experience on paper is only part of the story. HRC has its hands full with selecting its next president. There are a lot of expectations out there (many fair, some not-so-much), and how this person handles the job does have an impact on the entire LGBT community.

After all, HRC reminds us on its communications that it “is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality.” A lot of people will be interested in the outcome of this search.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding