qualities of an executive director

What to Look for in an Executive Director

After researching when to hire an Executive Director, it’s time to consider what to look for in an Executive Director. But how do you know which qualities make an Executive Director successful?

As a nonprofit executive search firm, Y Scouts looks for exceptional Executive Directors who align with an organization’s purpose, values and culture. However, there are many other personal attributes and elements of expertise that can contribute to a candidate’s success in the workplace. If you’re unsure about what to look for in an Executive Director, here are five qualities you can consider.

1. Cultural Fit

Cultural fit is one of the most important attributes to look for in an Executive Director. An ED who fits in with your organization will have an easier time adjusting to the position, and will have an easier time forming relationships with your current staff. Since your Executive Director represents the company, it’s important to hire someone who shares your organization’s mission and values.

In the research and planning phases of your search, conduct an organizational DNA survey with your staff to define your culture. Analyze your staff’s answers so that you know precisely who you are looking for.

2. Industry Understanding

If a candidate has a thorough understanding of the nonprofit world, he or she will already have a good idea of what your organization is doing and what it’s biggest challenges are. If the candidate also knows how the industry is evolving, he or she should have a general idea of what your nonprofit needs to do in order to stay on top of the changes. All of this knowledge is extremely important to look for in an Executive Director, because it shows that the candidate is capable of steering your organization in the right direction.

3. Modern Functional Expertise

An Executive Director should have a variety of functional skills and expertise. One of the areas where your candidate should excel is having excellent communication skills. Your ED will need to talk to donors, employees, and the public about who the organization is, what you are doing, and why what you are doing is important. As the main representative of your nonprofit, it is important that the Executive Director can speak with confidence, which is why communication skills are essential to the job.

In addition to communication skills, there are a variety of other areas where your Executive Director should have expertise. When you are designing the role, make sure to survey your staff to see what areas of expertise they’d like to see in an ED. By surveying your staff and analyzing their responses, you’ll be able to identify to critical elements required of every candidate.

4. Develops People

No matter what your nonprofit does, there will be always a need to develop the people who work at your organization. New developments in your industry will arise, and these developments may change the course of the industry. An exceptional Executive Director knows this, and will spend time developing staff so they can adapt to these changes quickly and effectively.

When vetting candidates, seek to learn about how they’ve developed their people at their prior organizations.

5. Drives Results

When deciding what to look for in an Executive Director, consider how a candidate will affect your nonprofit in the future. Using their knowledge of the industry, an Executive Director should be able to get a general idea of what path your nonprofit needs to follow in order to succeed. However, it is important to find an ED who not only knows where the organization needs to know, but how it is going to get there. With an Executive Director who knows how to execute ideas in order to achieve a set goal, your organization can reach the results that it sets for itself.

6. Learns Relentlessly

Nonprofit organizations know that the best staff are the ones who learn relentlessly. The traits of a leader naturally trickle down throughout the organization. If you want to breed a staff of relentless learners, find an Executive Director who invests in themselves through relentless learning.

You might be interested in these other posts about hiring an Executive Director:

How did you decide what qualities to look for in an Executive Director? Contact us to share your comments.


Y Scouts is a purpose-based, performance-proven leadership search and development firm focused on transforming how people and organizations connect to work that matters. When you’re ready to hire a new leader, Contact Y Scouts. If you are looking for your next leadership role within a purpose-driven, performance-focused organization, please join the Y Scouts Leadership Community.


Client Testimonials:

“The services Y Scouts performs are so inherently humane in nature, and that’s how they approached it from the beginning. Rather than viewing the roles we asked them to help us fill as holes in our organization chart, they realized we were really looking to add leaders with very specific talents and a passion to join our specific culture and ecosystem. Their approach to finding candidates that share our core virtues first is very similar to our proven and trusted process for finding committed faculty in our academies. Our leader they placed has already been delivering impact in ways we hadn’t expected. He’s been the absolute example of how adding the right person can be worth a multiple on the investment.”



“I have had a great experience working with Paul and Y Scouts. Paul has led our agency through the recruitment process for a new CEO with great results. He is knowledgeable, helpful, always available to support us through all of the decision points we encountered. I recommend Paul as someone who will get results, but also someone you will enjoy working with.”




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