Walking the walk...

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 - 1:00 pm EDT
Javier Alberto Soto

Anyone who has had the responsibility of putting together a team has wrestled with the challenge of determining who will be the best match for the positions that need to be filled. At the recently completed NFL draft, teams approached these decisions from one of two perspectives: Fill the needs on your team with the best player at those positions or pick the best player available regardless of position. I’ve always subscribed to the latter approach. I believe that in the long haul, teams that stock the best talent regardless of position or experience will be more creative, inspired and successful.

The key to this success is having the leadership in place that can best utilize the talents of the players on the team and put them in the best possible position to excel. While every player in the NFL draft goes through a battery of tests to measure his skill – time in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, bench press - such practical skills tests aren’t of much use when it comes to hiring the leadership that will be charged with charting a championship course. After all, every serious candidate for this type of leadership role comes with an impressive track record of achievements and experience. It’s all laid out there in black and white in their won-loss records and press clippings, and it’s all relatively easy to verify.

The same can be said about the selection of senior executives in the philanthropic arena. As the Council moves forward with the leadership transition, we are focused on determining what the most crucial qualities of leadership are for our organization and our field. The philanthropy scoreboard is often solely focused on those things that are easiest to measure – membership count, growth of foundation assets, grant amounts – while leaving out the values that define the organization, such as empathy and compassion or the purpose for which the organization was created, such as equity and fairness for all.

We in philanthropy often present ourselves as a beacon of enlightenment on the most important issues of the day. We pride ourselves on doing more than talk about making the world a better place – we walk the walk and invest real resources to make that vision a reality. Our websites feature inspiring, uplifting language about the values that inform our work – respect, accountability, diversity and empowerment. So it’s doubly important that leaders in our community reflect those values in everything we do, and be rewarded for doing so.

There’s no magical perfect interview question that will reveal how a philanthropic leader will behave under the real-world pressures of the job.  Nevertheless, I think it’s important that we spend as much time plumbing the character and values of prospective leaders as we do their lists of accolades and tangible accomplishments.

With that in mind, here are some of the questions we are likely to ask every candidate for the helm of the Council on Foundations:

  • Tell me about a time when your personal ethical limits were tested. What difficult choices did you grapple with? What did you do? Did it work out as you expected?
  • How do you measure success? Not the success of your foundation or company or organization – but rather, your personal success as a human being? At the end of the day – on your deathbed – what do you hope people will say about your leadership?
  • Define the word “integrity.” Now tell me about an example from your own career when you found it difficult to live up to the standard of integrity you set for yourself.
  • What is one bright-line standard of behavior you set for people in your organization? Have you ever fired someone for crossing that line? How do you hold yourself accountable to that same standard?
  • Tell me about a time when you treated someone in a way that, in hindsight, you regret. What would you do differently today? What would you say to that person if you could talk with them now?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of these will get at the deep values that people bring to their work. Most of us would have a hard time with the self-reflection it takes to really explore these questions. But I believe it’s important to make the effort because to maximize the talent throughout all of philanthropy, we need leaders who will ensure that the values embedded in all of our mission statements will be at the core of our strategic plans and our successful outcomes.

What would you like to ask the candidates for president of the Council on Foundations? Which values would you highlight as most pressing for leaders in our field?  

We deeply appreciate the feedback we’ve received so far. We have retained Sally Sterling to conduct our candidate search. Any inquiries can be made to Sally at Please continue to send your thoughts and ideas to

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Leadership Development