**originally published in 2017, updated with new information in 2023
If you are the chair of a search committee, you have a daunting list of factors to consider, including governance questions and the enormous amount of preparation required to launch the search. This upfront work includes selecting an executive search firm, deciding who will be involved in each round of interviews, agreeing upon the search timeline, considering whether interim CEO support will be required, and beginning to consider how you will onboard the new CEO and measure their performance. Here’s a comprehensive checklist to guide through through each stage of the search.
Although deciding how to decide can sound bureaucratic, being attentive to this governance question is vital to ensuring buy-in and support for the final decision.
- How will you maintain confidentiality with candidates and transparency with the board?
- How will you coordinate on compensation and performance expectations with the executive committee?
- How will you involve and communicate with senior staff members, the outgoing CEO, and other external stakeholders?
- How will you handle “internal” candidates or an application from a board member?
You will also need to decide if candidate interviews will be in-person or virtual. In-person interviews with executive search consultants are rare in 2024 and have been out of step with the research for far longer. Although video interviews are practically ubiquitous now, they come with their own set of challenges. Here is some guidance to avoid the pitfalls inherent in virtual interviews.
Assembling the Search Committee
In assembling the search committee, you need a blend of people who are well-respected and who represent both the past traditions and future goals of the organization. Ideally, you want to include 4-6 people with different cognitive styles and from diverse backgrounds. Larger committees can make it difficult to schedule meetings, and smaller committees risk becoming too insular. Be aware that when you invite people to become part of the process, you are asking for a significant time commitment. Their involvement could easily require 8-10 hours each month over a 4 to 6-month timeframe.
The Search Committee Chair
Typically, the search committee chair spends 50% more time on the search than other committee members and is actively involved with several preparation meetings prior to each conference call with the search committee. They will also be a key point of contact for the search firm, the board, and potentially for internal candidates. They should not be the scheduler or “wrangler” of details—a significant amount of administrative support is needed to triage communications, assist with meeting logistics, arrange conference rooms, and gather input. Look for:
- A strong listener who actively solicits input from all perspectives and is willing to call for decisions in a respectful way
- Someone who actively manages the search timeline, calling for key decisions to be made, even in the face of disagreement and conflict.
- Someone who seeks unanimity and consensus but is willing to move forward without it
Search Committee Members
Search committee members should be deeply knowledgeable about the organization (current board members, senior leaders, and other key stakeholders), available, and collaborative. Look for people who are:
- Willing to review materials prior to meetings and come prepared with questions.
- Willing to listen respectfully to other points of view.
- Comfortable raising difficult issues and respectfully airing points of disagreement, but also willing to accept the group decision.
- Able to attend both day and evening (and potentially even weekend) meetings and conference calls.
- Dependable and reliable with following through on commitments and responding to emails in a timely manner.
The Initial Search Committee Meeting
Review the following during the first meeting with the search committee:
- Clarify the involvement, roles, and expectations of the search committee (SC), board of trustees, current CEO or executive director, staff, and others.
- Discuss how to maintain confidentiality about internal deliberations (mostly about candidates) and transparency to the full board (mostly about the search progress). How will the board be briefed on progress?
- Discuss how to manage potential conflicts of interest with SC members (for example, relationships with potential candidates that might limit their objectivity).
- Discuss various proposed search timelines, identify points of contact, develop an internal staff communications plan, and discuss how internal candidates will be evaluated. Outline the hiring process. For example, screening by the search consultant; 1st interview with SC; 2nd interview with work sample testing and discussion; 3rd informal meeting with SC chair; meet-and-greet with the team; pre-employment assessment; reference and background checks, etc.
- Discuss how salary will be determined and whether a compensation consultant is needed.
- Discuss what information can be gathered from a previous search, the strategic planning process, or other available strategic documents. What information about the internal operations or external landscape would be useful to the SC? What input should be gathered from the board or external stakeholders? (Gathering and distilling input from stakeholders upfront can better inform the SC deliberations and increase buy-in later in the process.)
- Discuss what internal information could be shared with candidates at each stage of the hiring process (strategic plan, financial reporting, internal challenges, etc.).
- Identify what information should be gathered from staff members, board members not serving on the search committee, ideas from the general membership, perspectives from affiliated organizations, outside auditors, outside consultants, key vendors, etc.
- Select dates for future meetings or define a process for doing so.
- Decide what role the search committee will play in helping to onboard the new CEO.
Input To Gather From Key Stakeholders To Share With the Committee
- What factors made the last CEO successful or unsuccessful?
- How will the role of the CEO and senior staff positions evolve over the next 5 years? Do you have a current strategic plan, a recent environmental scan, and have you recently surveyed your key external stakeholders to include their thoughts?
- What environmental factors will be affecting the organization (political, economic, demographic, changes in funding, etc.)?
- What does the next leader need to be prepared for? What issues keep the current leader “awake at night”? What kind of scenarios should the next person be prepared to deal with?
- What are the biggest risks and opportunities for the organization?
- How are other organizations responding to those changes?
- How strong is the internal leadership team? What skills does the new leader need to have to supplement the strengths of the current staff?
- What must be done to retain key employees during the transition?
What To Include in the Job Description or Hiring Profile
- What is the most important problem the leader solves? What are the performance expectations of the new leader?
- What does success look like in the next 3-5 years? What challenges must be overcome?
- What attributes will be crucial to driving success?
- What is attractive about the role? What factors will attract the right candidate?
- What steps will reduce the risk of failure in the search?
- Define the framework the next hire will operate within. At the heart of this conversation is this question: “What makes your organization great?” Define how much latitude or “running room” this person will have and where they will make the greatest impact within the expectations of your leadership structure.
- Identify risk factors and cultural fit factors that might lead a promising candidate to fail, despite being successful elsewhere.
The strength of a search committee lies within the rich diversity of opinions and perspectives each member brings to the table. You dramatically increase your likelihood of success by selecting the right search committee participants, properly structuring your deliberations (attending to the governance questions), fully informing your discussions with additional input from other people, and rigorously analyzing the key competencies that the position requires.
- A search consultant should serve as your partner in risk management, providing a decision-support framework that leverages the knowledge and expertise of the search committee. It’s common to speak with three firms before choosing a partner. Use our Executive Search Firm Comparison Tool to evaluate each one on your list.
- If you don’t have a budget allocation for search fees but see the value in hiring a search firm to recruit your next leader, read How To Justify Executive Search Firm Expenses to Your Board.
- Effective succession planning isn’t just a necessity; it can be a strategic advantage. Read Steps to a Successful CEO Search and Succession for specific guidance.
- For a comprehensive guide through every stage of the hiring process, read The Staffing Advisors Guide for Search Committees.