If you are the chair of a search committee you have a daunting list of factors to consider. A CEO search involves far more than posting an ad, collecting resumes and scheduling a few (virtual) interviews.

There are many important governance factors to consider:

  • How will you maintain both 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?

There is also an enormous amount of preparation required to launch the search. This up-front 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.

You will also need to decide whether interviews will be in-person or virtual. In-person interviews with executive search consultants are now out of step with the times, but they have been out of step with the research for far longer. So now you must also avoid the pitfalls inherent in virtual interviews.

How to assemble the search committee:

In assembling the search committee, you need a blend of people who are well-respected, who represent the traditions of the organization (the past) and people who represent the future of the organization. Ideally you would want to include no more than 5 or 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. When you invite people to become part of the process, you are asking for a significant time commitment. Their involvement could easily require easily 8 – 10 hours a month of effort over a 4 to 6 month timeframe. Here are a few additional factors to consider when evaluating who to invite:

  • The ideal attributes of a search committee chair are:
    • 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
    • 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 meeting and conference call with the Search Committee
    • The Search Committee Chair is a key point of contact for the search firm, the Board, and potentially for internal candidates, but is not the scheduler or the “wrangler” of details; typically, a significant amount of administrative support is needed to triage communications, assist with meeting logistics, arrange conference rooms, and gather input.
  • The ideal attributes of search committee members 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

What to review in the initial meeting with the search committee:

  1. Clarify the involvement, roles and expectations of the Search Committee (SC), Board of Trustees, current Executive Director, staff and others.
  2. Discuss how to maintain confidentiality about internal deliberations (mostly about candidates) and transparency to the full Board (mostly about the seach progress). How will the Board be briefed on progress?
  3. Discuss how to manage potential conflict of interest with SC members (relationships with potential candidates that might limit their objectivity).
  4. Discuss various proposed search timelines, identifying points of contact, developing an internal staff communications plan, and discussing how internal candidates will be evaluated. Outline the process candidates should go through [screening by consultant, in-person interview with SC, 2nd interview with work sample testing/presentation, 3rd informal meeting with SC Chair, meet-and-greet with team, pre-employment assessment, reference and background checks, etc.]
  5. Discuss how salary will be determined / whether a compensation consultant is needed.
  6. Discuss what information can be gathered from the previous search, strategic planning process, external scans 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 either the Board or external stakeholders? Allowing more input from stakeholders up-front can better inform the SC deliberations, and increase buy-in later in the process.
  7. Discuss what internal information could be shared with candidates at each stage of the hiring process (strategic plan, financial reporting, internal challenges, etc.).
  8. 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..
  9. Select dates for future meetings (or define a process for doing so).
  10. Decide what role the search committee will play in helping to onboard the new CEO.

Before you develop the job description, gather the following information as input to the search committee’s deliberations: 

  • 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?

In developing your new job description (hiring profile) consider the following:

  • 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 and weakness of a search committee is 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.

Some Additional Reading That May Also Be Helpful

Hopefully you found this information useful. Please feel free to contact us to learn more about our work with search committees, and our process for recruiting senior staff members.