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Seven Factors for a Successful Search Committee... and a Stellar Hire

Our firm has conducted a number of searches where our client was a search committee. Most times these search committee members are geographically dispersed and, in the case of not-for-profit clients, are volunteers rather than full time employees.

Some executive recruiters love to tell stories of search committees that don’t function well or, worse yet, end up with disastrous results. We have not had that experience—in fact, quite the opposite.

Each search committee has its own personality and cadence, and provides a meaningful opportunity for its chair, members and the search firm to recruit a high-impact executive and to also have an impactful learning experience.

Here are factors for a successful search committee:

1) Search Committee Chair.

The ideal search committee chair should have experience with the organization, well established channels of communication with the board and executive team, and be ready to build a solid relationship with the search firm. The chair should be able to control the length and minutes of meetings as well as the agenda itself. And this person should be able to make decisions quickly and know when to ask for input and when to make a decision.

Case in point: We recently completed a CEO search for a national not for profit. One of the star candidates was only intermittently returning calls, inflexible on the dates he could meet, etc. I called the search committee chair, and we jointly decided to dump the candidate rather than put him in front of the committee. The indifferent candidate would have wasted time and taken our eye off the candidates who were fully engaged and 100-percent interested in the process.

2) Search Committee.

Size matters. The smaller the committee, the more nimble it can be. We have worked with committees as large as 40, and as small as three. The key is that the committee should represent a broad spectrum of constituents and that members of the committee must commit to participating in candidate interviews and deliberation meetings.

Last year, we conducted a search for a CEO of a not for profit and a committee member said she would miss the first interview day but would be at the rest. The search committee chair ruled that she could not be on the committee if she would miss interviews with half the candidates. The individual was not happy but you owe it to the people whom you are representing to be fully present.

3) Process.

The search committee should establish its process and timeline—including the days it will be in the chosen city for deliberations or interviews—prior to hiring a search firm, and communicate those deadlines to prospective search firms. Ask the search firm for a plan of how they will have candidates ready to interview by the chosen interview dates.

We recently conducted a search for a client that wanted to recruit a new president in 90 days. We received the search in part because we committed to their deadline and managed our time accordingly. Yes, it involved interviewing candidates on the weekends and flying so much we could have been contestants on the “Amazing Race,” but it was critical that the organization meet its deadline.

The search firm must do its part to maintain confidentiality by not sending candidate information to committee members to bring to meetings. All it takes is one midnight call—“I left the package of resumes on the plane"—to make you realize it is safer to bring the information to the committee meetings and collect it at the end of the meeting. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we remind search committee members of the need for confidentiality in nearly every discussion and written communication.

4) Confidentiality.

The larger a search committee, the greater the risk of a leak. At the CEO level, a leak can be devastating as the chief executive plays a critical role in the future of the organization. A rumored departure can have significant negative ramifications on the current organization, both internally and externally, as well as negatively impact the individual's career. Members of a search committee should sign a confidentiality agreement at the beginning of the search and, if it is found to have been violated, that member should be asked to leave the committee.

5) Shrinking the Committee.

Once the search committee narrows the candidate pool, establish a smaller sub-committee to make the final decision or recommendation to the board. This should include the search committee chair, the board chair and an incoming board chair if that person will take office within the next 12 months.

6) Preparation.

Search committee members should do more than read a candidate’s resume. Most search firms prepare a detailed appraisal of each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate their suitability for the position. Be willing to dig a little deeper. If the candidate is coming from a different industry, make an effort to understand the challenges of that industry and/or background of the candidate’s current position.

8) Communicating the Results.

Often search committee members are so excited about the successful candidate—a good thing—that they want to “confidentially” communicate the selection to others ahead of schedule—a bad thing. The initial timeline should include at least a rough communication schedule. Search committee members should stick to that schedule so that formal announcements can be made strategically, at the most opportune time for both the organization and the candidate.

7) Being a Good Committee Member.

Listen well and appreciate the different perspective each member brings to the committee. Be supportive of the search committee chair. Remember, though search committees come together a limited period of time, you never know when your paths will cross again.

Clearly, participating on a search committee is a demanding, time consuming venture, yet doing so means playing a key role in the future of an organization in which you are likely already heavily invested. If the mission matters—and it’s really all about the mission—then the extra time and structured process is a small price to pay for success.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director