When hiring a new leader many boards like the idea of promoting from within their organization. Nonetheless, experience has taught LeaderFit that in order have a successful search, and for the sake of objectivity and transparency, hiring organizations need to go through all the steps of a thorough search, especially when internal candidates are involved. We recommend that all internal candidates (including interim directors) candidate for any open position just as outside applicants.

Because internal candidates already work at the hiring organization these situations can be extremely delicate and must be handled with care. Internal candidates must be treated with dignity and respect in order to maintain productive, healthy working relationships. Throughout the search, every effort should be made to set clear expectations and maintain open communication. To this end, LeaderFit recommends:

Avoid ‘throw your hat in the ring’ mentality.

Often internal candidates are encouraged to ‘go ahead and apply’ if there is any expression of interest in an open position. While there may be appreciation of an internal candidate’s interest and ambition, this approach can lead to unnecessary pain and embarrassment if the candidate is obviously not qualified for the position. If this is the case, LeaderFit recommends that an under-qualified internal candidate not be encouraged to go through the whole application process. Instead, we recommend that a frank, honest conversation be had informing the internal candidate that their resume has been evaluated and that the committee has deemed that they are not ready for this role at this time. The search committee should use this demonstrated interest as a professional development opportunity to:

  • Express gratitude and appreciation for the employee’s interest and desire to grow within the organization,
  • Provide substantive feedback about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to the job description, and
  • Develop a plan for what the employee can do to grow towards their desired role within the organization.

Commit to an open and unbiased evaluation process.

If the internal candidate possesses the necessary qualifications, it is important that the board communicate that there is no ‘heir apparent’ for the position. Internal candidates must not believe that the job is ‘theirs to lose’. Instead, like all other applicants, internal candidates must submit their resume, sit for an interview, be evaluated by the scorecard, etc. If a board member or someone on the search committee is close to an internal candidate, this member must recuse themselves or pledge to strict confidentiality during the portion of the process involving this candidate.

Conduct due diligence.

It is critical to ensure that the board or search committee not have rose-colored glasses with regard their internal candidate. Boards members will likely have had experience with an internal candidate and will have pre-existing impressions of him or her. Note, however, that board members often see just one side of an internal candidate. It therefore will be necessary for the board to get a well-founded, full picture of the candidate’s leadership abilities. Just as boards require, and check, references for all external applicants, boards must have a way to capture feedback from others within the organization. At LeaderFit, we often conduct anonymous internal surveys involving the whole staff in evaluating an internal candidate’s leadership abilities. Another way to get internal feedback from within the organization is to ask senior leadership to interview the candidates and provide their feedback to the board either jointly or individually.


LeaderFit has learned that providing honest communication and clear expectations is the best way to handle internal candidates. The combination of giving honest feedback about whether an internal candidate should apply for a position, followed by an open and rigorous evaluation process has enabled organizations to identify the most qualified candidates for an open position while protecting the dignity and reputations of those already on staff.