Article originally posted in and nationally syndicated by the American City Business Journals on March 21, 2017.
Before selecting a CEO of a for-profit company or nonprofit organization, or an executive director for a government authority, its board must ask four important questions. These questions can determine whether the CEO/executive director will be successful leading the organization.
Will the CEO act in a way that reinforces the trust of the board, employees and various stakeholders? Will the CEO be transparent with the board and solicit advice, bring the right tone at the top and culture to the organization and always act in an ethical way? Does this individual have the common sense and critical judgment needed to lead the organization? Can this person be trusted to do the right thing?
Boards that don’t focus on these characteristics in the CEO or executive director selection process run the risk of a future scandal that reflects badly on the organization, the board and the leader.
Recently I wrote an article in which I described the 2016 sexual harassment and toxic culture scandal at the Philadelphia Parking Authority involving then-executive director Vincent Fenerty. A similar 2010 scandal involved Carl Greene, then director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The scandals led to questions about the board governance and oversight of these organizations.
In Oct. 2016, the Parking Authority board replaced Fenerty with Clarena Tolson as interim executive director. Tolson, with more than 30 years of public service experience, was previously deputy managing director for transportation and infrastructure for Philadelphia and is a highly-regarded leader within city government.
On March 15, it was reported that the Parking authority hired Talasia Garner, a roommate of Tolson’s daugher, for the position of administrative assistant to the director of benefits at an annual salary of $48,578, a position that did not previously exist. Due to the connection with Garner’s daughter, The Philadelphia Inquirer, along with other media organizations, raised questions about the hire.
The Inquirer quoted Tolson, saying, “[Garner] … is over-the-top bright and intelligent, so we got a good catch in her.” The Inquirer article continued, “Tolson said she did not consider the connection to her daughter a problem. Rather, she said, hiring people she trusted was part of her job in cleaning up the authority.”
Garner will not report to Tolson – she will report to the director of benefits. Garner was not hired into a policy-making position, so why is it important that she be trusted by Tolson? Does Tolson apply the “trust test” to all Parking Authority hires?
Garner’s hire and Tolson’s statement could undermine the trust that Parking Authority employees have in their executive director, damage employee morale and could adversely impact the ability of Garner to be effective in her job.
The union representing Parking Authority employees criticized Tolson, posing the question of why someone from within the organization was not hired for the position. Perhaps no one internally was qualified, but the union took the opportunity to take issue with the Parking Authority leadership anyway.
Given the history of patronage in Philadelphia – hiring relatives and friends, and due to past scandals, Philadelphia government leaders can expect intense scrutiny regarding everything they do. Why didn’t Tolson realize that she would be criticized for hiring Garner and put on the defensive regarding the hiring decision?
When Tolson was appointed Parking Authority interim director, the Inquirer reported that she said she wanted to “restore morale, integrity and professionalism” within the organization. Hiring Garner was a step in the wrong direction.
Whether an executive director or CEO, one of the things every leader needs to consider is the optics of what they do. When hiring an organization’s leader, one of the most important considerations by boards is a candidate’s common sense and critical judgment.
Boards place their trust in the leader they hire. Leaders, don’t let the board down. It will help keep uncomplimentary articles about you, the board and the organization off the front pages.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.