Conducting a search for a senior-level leader is an exciting and daunting task. Forming and effectively managing a search committee can be key to ensuring an equitable, thorough process, internal alignment, and a successful outcome. In this article, we hope to answer all of your questions about when and how to form a search committee, who to include, and how to understand their role.
Question #1: When Should We Form a Search Committee?
As mentioned above, a search committee is most crucial when you’re conducting a search for a senior-level position. A search committee is also important when there are numerous stakeholders from various constituencies who will have a vested interest in the search process and outcome, e.g., when seeking a new CEO or Executive Director, or a new Chief Development Officer who will need to engage Trustees, senior leaders, and volunteers in the fundraising process.
In contrast, there are searches where it makes more sense to forego forming a committee. Namely, a search for a mid- or junior-level position, or if there’s an urgent need to fill the role quickly, as a search committee’s involvement can extend and complicate the process. Instead consider having key stakeholders engaged by interviewing finalist(s).
Question #2: Who Should Form and Chair the Committee?
If the search is for the new leader of an organization, the Chair of the Board most often recruits the search committee and names the chair. The Board Chair can name themself Search Committee chair or can appoint another key leader to lead the effort. In either case, the Search Committee Chair should be someone highly regarded and trusted by the organization’s internal and external stakeholders.
The Search Committee Chair will then invite others to serve and will also decide if the search would be best served by retaining an outside executive search firm.
Question #3: Who Should be Part of the Search Committee?
A search committee should be comprised of trusted representatives of your organization—both volunteer and senior staff—and limited to 5-7 members (though you may call on others as needed for specific expertise). Doing so makes it easier to manage the committee, reach agreement, and handle scheduling. A smaller group also ensures that everyone will be able to participate and contribute in a meaningful way. And of course, all potential members should be deeply invested in the search’s success and organization’s future, and well positioned to share their enthusiasm for your mission so that they can recruit as well as evaluate candidates.
Keep in mind too that being part of a search committee requires a significant time commitment as the recruitment of a senior-level leader often takes 4-6 months. Committee members can expect to commit the most time during the mid-late stages of the process with interviewing candidates, determining finalists and monitoring the negotiations leading to an accepted offer. It’s also important that your search committee reflects the diversity of your organization’s staff, volunteer leadership, and the constituencies you serve. This will ensure the search process is viewed as credible to those who are not on the committee, and balanced, and that the selected leader will be able to represent and value varying priorities
Lastly, a few suggestions on who not to include:
- We do not recommend that anyone who will report directly to the new hire be a part of the committee. Staff can meet a finalist as part of the final phase of a search but providing staff with the opportunity to choose one’s next boss can hurt your organization’s chances of achieving internal alignment during decision-making.
- We would also advise against having your outgoing leader serve on a committee as it can be challenging to choose the “next you”.
- Lastly, we recommend that anyone who might be a candidate for the open position not serve on the committee in order to prevent any conflict of interest or perceived “insider” advantage.
Question #4: What Role Should the Search Committee Play?
In several cases (especially CEO/Executive Director searches), the search committee will play a role in selecting an executive search firm. Search firms can serve as valuable partners to search committees—especially for C-suite positions—by providing a structured process, developing a qualified candidate pool, and serving as a sounding board and source of advice throughout the interview, selection, and negotiation process.
In partnership with the search firm, the search committee should:
- Define the position, including the required experience, skills, and characteristics to be successful in the role, as well as the responsibilities and expectations for meeting goals
- Take part in an assessment process at the start of the search, in order to ensure agreement on the profile and priorities for the position
- Endorse a search process, which includes detailing who will be involved with the interviews, the decision-making process, and the anticipated timeline of the search
- Review, interview and assess candidates presented by the executive search firm
- Ensure an inclusive and consistent interview process – all while maintaining the highest level of confidentiality
- Reach internal alignment around the selection of a new leader
- Determine how staff and other key stakeholders (who are not on the committee) will be updated on the progress of the search at appropriate touch points along the way
While the search firm can provide counsel regarding how to select the finalist and navigate negotiations, the committee will always be the one to extend the offer.
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We hope that this overview provides you with helpful ways to think about when and how to use a search committee.