Finding the next leader of your organization by serving on a search committee is a long process, full of potential pitfalls. It’s also an honor and a privilege. But although the conversations are fascinating, the daunting complexity of the decision and the risk of making a mistake can weigh heavily on each committee member.

Having the right decision-making process can dramatically improve your odds of success. Long before you develop the job description, and certainly before you begin interviewing candidates, the search committee needs to develop its decision-support process, where the information on the position and candidates is gathered and organized effectively. Although “deciding how to decide” can sound terribly bureaucratic, being attentive to this governance question is important. You need to understand who has the authority to decide, who needs to approve the decision, who should have input into the decision, and what information should be used to make the decision. Most importantly, this process will also need to include enough time to consider all the gathered information.

So what should you consider when you evaluate executive search firms proposals and what should you discuss with each search firm?

The Basics: What Every Search Firm Will Do

When it comes to the consensus-building process for search committees, most search firms are thorough. They clarify the roles and expectations of the search committee members. They look at governance questions and the mechanics of how the hiring decision will be made. They are good at helping search committees reach a conclusion after a long search.

Underneath all of this is one prevailing philosophy: “All’s well that ends.”  (Any decision is better than no decision.) This is because most search firms have very little at risk from a bad decision. Most search firms offer 12 month guarantees, far too short a time to evaluate a new leader. The largest risk to a search firm is a search not completing. But the largest risk to a search committee is having the new leader fail.

When it comes to organizing a search and putting together a search timeline, most search firms go through the same stages. They develop the position specification, develop the candidate pool, present the candidates to the search committee for interviews, and then hold a series of meetings to decide which candidate should be hired. If you compare search timelines, it can be hard to distinguish how search firms might differ in approach. But it is what happens within each step on the meeting schedule and timeline that ultimately determines hiring success.

What Differentiates Search Firms

When you dig a bit deeper into each search firm’s process, you will begin to see significant differences. You will see big variations in how search firms develop the position specification, what information they look for, and what information they gather from stakeholders.

Search committees often invite search firms to go talk to stakeholders. But rarely does a search committee first specify what should be discussed and what should be reported back for further consideration. (And rarely does the search firm really question that because it is far easier to do the same thing every time.) Consequently, valuable information gets lost, and the information gathered can be full of repetition and vague platitudes like, “I want a great leader.”

A big question to ask a search firm is how they gather information during stakeholder interviews. Often, the questions they ask seem fairly simple, like “What do you want in your next leader?” If you get the impression that their questions for stakeholders seem simple, they are. Simple, superficial questions get superficial answers back – which the search firm will find easier to reconcile and present back to the search committee as a demonstration of the consensus built.

Why ask such simple questions? Because organizations (and stakeholders) tend to have a pretty solid grasp of the attributes and leadership styles that will fit well with the culture. However, we believe it is an abdication of the search committee’s responsibilities to not look carefully at competencies—the knowledge, skills, and abilities the next leader needs to bring to the organization. Most search committees have a weaker understanding of these aspects of the job, which is unsurprising. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the day-to-day of a job, how much do you really know about it?

The skills required of a CEO vary widely, depending on the organization’s current resources and capabilities and the competitive landscape it operates within. To say the CEO must “be strategic” is not enough without an understanding of the ecosystem or environment someone works within. Context matters. External forces matter. Even among organizations in the same field of endeavor, internal challenges vary widely. (Are you well-funded with a deep talent bench and a proven strategy, or are you cash-strapped with a failing strategy and a weak leadership team?) Ideally, all of this information is collected, analyzed, and presented to the search committee.

In some of our recent searches, we have asked questions about potential places for market growth, strategic opportunities, and risks in the organization’s sector. With one organization, our questions helped the organization redefine its entire organizational mission. Do you think the search firm will delve into competitive positioning and organizational challenges by conducting a thorough internal review and external PESTLE analysis (looking at the external political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental forces)? Most search firms don’t have a process that involves such complicated, in-depth questioning, even though that kind of information and analysis is crucial to the search committee’s success.

How Different Approaches Affect the Search Timeline

Instead of floating along at an agreeable superficial level, a good search firm process methodically surfaces the toughest issues an organization must face and provides the necessary time for the search committee to review the issues. The search timeline should encourage (and leave time for) the search committee to debate the difficult questions, identifying the factors that will keep a CEO awake at night. The search firm’s research should methodically identify the opportunities and risk factors facing the organization, telegraph them in the position overview, evaluate each candidate’s ability to handle them and keep the search committee focused on evaluating each candidate’s ability to tackle the hardest parts of the job. (This is often referred to as a skills-first or competency-based approach to interviewing.)

The duty of the search committee during the search process is not to solve the hardest problems the organization will face. Leave that to the new executive. Rather, a search committee should rigorously understand the true complexity of the challenge, determine and indicate just how much latitude or running room the CEO will be given by the board to solve the problem and find ways to test skills and competencies in the interview sequence. The search committee process should encourage more rigorous thinking and more substantive debate. It should not try to tamp down differing opinions, sand off the sharp edges, or paper over disagreements.

Focusing only on the candidate’s attributes is a recipe for introducing more opinion and bias into the interview process without truly determining what will make the next leader successful.

What to Ask a Potential Search Firm

When meeting with a potential search firm, ask them what information they plan to gather. Ask what the agenda is for each different meeting and how they recommend structuring the meeting agendas to review gathered information. Ask for examples of the position overviews they developed for other clients, and what they looked for in those searches. (There’s a simple correlation in that question: the more similar the position overviews are to each other, the less in-depth the information gathering was.)

Then, listen carefully for a focus on attributes vs. competencies. (Vague platitudes that might apply to any leader vs. meaningful specifics about specific business challenges.) Listen for how they encourage debate in the search committee meetings. Notice how deeply they intend to delve into the precise issues at hand.

And finally, look for a replacement guarantee that also puts the search firm at risk for a hiring failure, ideally 18 months or longer.

Please feel free to contact us to learn more about our work with search committeesbest practices for search committees, or our process for recruiting senior staff members.