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A Guide to Serving on a Search Committee

Serving on a Search Committee

Search committees harness a range of perspectives to determine or advise on who will be placed in critical leadership roles. In offering their time, wisdom, and points of view during periods of change and transition, members of a search committee work together not only to fill a position but to build a bridge from one era of an organization’s evolution to another. 

If you’ve been asked to serve on a search committee, you may be wondering what you can expect as well as what will be expected of you throughout the search. The responsibility may seem daunting, but we are here to offer advice that will help you and your organization prepare in advance and proceed with confidence.

On executive searches, Lindauer consultants work closely with search committees to ensure everyone understands and feels comfortable in their role from the very beginning. Defining roles and responsibilities sets the stage for committees to establish a shared vision, create and keep momentum, and bring a search to a successful conclusion. 

As you prepare to serve as a member of a search committee, here are some best practices that will contribute to the success of your search, your new hire, and your organization. 

In this guide:

Understand the Composition and Charge of the Search Committee

Executive searches don’t occur in a vacuum; they are molded to the contours of an organization’s strengths, challenges, opportunities, and aspirations. The same can be said of search committees. The composition and charge of a search committee will depend on the open role, the organization, and the context in which the search is occurring.

Search committees are typically convened only for significant searches––often lead executive recruitments or the most senior C-Suite roles.

It’s vital to have clarity regarding the committee’s scope of responsibility. Has the committee been formed to serve in an advisory capacity, make a formal recommendation of either a slate or a final nominee, or make the final decision and appointment? Be clear who holds decision-making authority or ratification responsibility, whether that be the President or CEO, the Board of Directors, or even a system governing Board.

Considerable thought should also be given to both size and composition. Smaller committees of six to nine are ideal for larger organizations; larger groups actually yield weaker decision-making given challenges in creating the space for mutual trust, respect, and deep deliberation. While there is a temptation to load committees with representatives of every part of a community, the most important characteristic of a member is to “hold the whole.”

Search committee members should be thoughtful individuals who can look across an organizational landscape, hear and consider the needs of many constituencies, maintain a steady hand on the search process and communications, and face the organization forward toward its highest aspirations. Individuals unable to maintain strict confidentiality or with tendencies for drama, gossip, grandstanding, or flag-waving for a particular issue are not well-suited for search committees and, in fact, can create significant risk to a leadership recruitment. 

Reflect on the Past, Look to the Future

Search committees must recognize and respect the past but face firmly toward the future.

Surveying your institutional context will help ground you in principles that will guide you and your fellow committee members throughout the search.

To set your search on the right course, reflect on your organization’s recent history:

  • What are the most notable accomplishments?
  • How have these accomplishments served and advanced the organization’s mission, or perhaps created new focus areas or extended into new communities?
  • Have there been disappointments or unrealized ambitions?

After looking back, look ahead. Consider questions such as:

  • What are the most significant strategic priorities and opportunities on the horizon?
  • How is the role of the organization evolving? Are you seeking evolutionary progress to continue or is more significant change desirable?
  • Are there leadership experiences and attributes that are needed for the next era?

Stay focused on the big picture and most important themes. The most successful search committees create a shared understanding of the arc of the organization while leaving room for the new leader to influence and shape strategies and tactics that will effectively advance organizational mission.

Gain Alignment on the Opportunity

Once the context is well framed, it’s vital to gain alignment on the position opportunity and specifications.

Depending on the search and reporting structure, you may be involved in defining the responsibilities and expectations of the open position or may be asked to review a role description that’s been provided to you and consider how to frame the role in market. In either case, you will want to consider how the role will be understood and received in what are typically competitive hiring contexts.

It’s important to acknowledge that individual search committee members bring varying perspectives and experiences. That said, effective search committees also act as a more cohesive whole; rather than advocating for one community cohort or issue, they instead find shared ground on priorities and future vision. Crafting a relatively unified storyline and position expectations—including authentic community challenges!—enhances the opportunity for successful recruitment.

To prepare for these conversations with fellow committee members, think about:

  • The competencies, experience, and perspectives needed to advance your organization’s mission and values now and in the future.
  • Leadership criteria, characteristics, and attributes that will make your new hire successful in the position.
  • How major realities, challenges, or opportunities might be represented.
  • How the incoming leader will serve the goals and aspirations of the organization at this time in its evolution.

Finalize the Position Description

Following these alignment discussions, you may be asked to give final review, provide feedback on, or participate in the writing of a compelling position description. Take time to ensure the description represents the position and the organization well.

This includes the following:

  • Are the responsibilities of the role fairly and comprehensively outlined?
  • Are the desired qualifications, competencies, and experience in alignment with the responsibilities?
  • Are the materials written to include—and not exclude—candidates of diverse lived experiences?
  • Does the description of your organization and other background information tell a compelling story that will attract qualified candidates?
  • Is the organizational context authentic, such that candidates will hear community feedback that aligns with the picture being painted?
  • When reading it, are you inspired?

The position description will become your guiding document and touchstone throughout the search, both as a promise you make to prospective candidates regarding the open role and a prioritized list of competencies, experience, and attributes against which you will consider leading candidates.

Counsel and Advise During Outreach

When it’s time for outreach to potential candidates, the hiring manager, search committee chair(s), or external search consultants (if you are working with a search firm) will begin contacting and engaging prospective candidates. You will also begin to receive feedback and questions from interested parties.

No matter how thorough the search committee has been in its preparation up to this point, unanticipated questions will inevitably arise as your search goes to market. You may be asked to advise on certain topics, such as how best to respond to candidates’ inquiries regarding leadership stability, organizational culture, or recent developments––whether positive or negative.

Being nimble and responsive at this stage will keep qualified candidates engaged and help generate momentum heading into later stages of the search. Questions raised by one candidate may also arise during the interview stage with other candidates, so your preparation and ease with responses will continue to be important.

Prepare and Be Present for Commitments

You were selected to serve on a search committee because your participation is valued, respected, and appreciated. Be sure to participate! Serving on a search committee is a significant time commitment, and some people may find it challenging to balance with their other responsibilities. Search committee members should inquire about expectations and scheduling and prepare for those commitments, knowing that your involvement and the outcome are critical for your organization.

In advance of committee meetings, read materials (such as candidate packets) and come prepared to share your perspective. At the same time, be conscious of the space you’re taking in discussions. If you notice other committee members struggling to find their voice in the group setting, step back and encourage them to express their thoughts.

Each search committee member should read all candidate materials on their own, form individual perspectives on qualifications, and consider areas to probe before engaging in group deliberations. This avoids “group think,” helps reduce the likelihood that any one committee member will exert undue influence on the group, and garners important perspectives. 

In short, be prepared, be present, and be an engaged and respectful team member.

Stay On-Script During Interviews

Search committees also want to prepare in advance for interviews, which, depending on your group’s charge, may include one or more rounds with individual candidates.

Your committee should craft a standard set of interview questions for candidates, or review and refine suggested questions if they are provided by a search firm or HR partner. In the first round, those questions should reflect the major priorities and expectations of the position. At this stage, the goal is to narrow the pool to include individuals who bring the most aligned set of skills, competencies, and experience.

During interviews, stay on-script and manage time. It’s important for all interviews to transpire on a level playing field, with each candidate asked the same questions in the same order, and, ideally, by the same people. This promotes equity and also enables you to evaluate the candidates fairly and efficiently following the interviews.

Remember that when you interview and engage with candidates, you are in recruiting mode. Your tone and enthusiasm are critical for the candidate to fully understand your commitment to your organization as they imagine being a valued colleague and leader.

Maintain Confidentiality and Manage Risk

Confidentiality cannot be overstated in a search process. Most committees ask members to sign an agreement which states the importance of keeping any and all conversations within the committee structure. 

Even a well-intentioned inquiry to someone outside the committee violates the confidentiality promised to candidates and could very easily jeopardize their livelihood. Inquiries can also create legal risk for your organization, if particular types of information are shared in the wrong ways or with parties who should not be involved.

In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, EEOC regulations, and many state regulations guide hiring and prevent discrimination; many countries around the world have similar or even more rigorous standards. Search committees will want to understand and act within the bounds of federal and regional regulations.

In particular high-profile searches, search committees must be very clear about what information can be shared at certain moments in the process. Community members often want to know as much as possible; if communications with this constituency isn’t handled carefully, rumors can spread quickly and often incorrectly, with possible negative impacts on the search. Crafting thoughtful updates for your community may be an important aspect of your search plan.

Focus on Candidates’ Strengths, Not Weaknesses

While evaluating candidates, it’s not uncommon for some search committees to home in on the negative: what’s missing from a candidate’s resume or where possible concerns may exist. Often, this stems from a belief that the perfect candidate, who checks every box, is somewhere out there. When candidates don’t meet this standard, their perceived shortcomings are magnified.

Effective search committees often focus the group’s early attention on candidates’ strengths, background, and experiences that best align with the position description on which you’ve all agreed. If you feel the axis of the search committee tilting toward candidates’ weaknesses, redirect the discussion. Start with positives and follow with areas to further probe.

Focusing on the positive and the measurable helps facilitate constructive dialogue as well as limit subjective judgments that might disproportionately affect candidates of diverse lived experiences. It’s also exciting to contemplate what a candidate could bring to your organization!

Set Up the Finalist for Acceptance and Success

Maintain positivity and excitement as you nominate a finalist to the Board, consider individuals’ candidacies, or introduce the nominee to your organization.

Bring the candidate to life beyond their resume and cover letter. Help your organization see what you see in the finalist. In short, tell a story about the finalist’s professional journey and why they’re the right person at the right time for your organization. How will they advance your cause, and how will you grow together?

Once the selection is final and ready to be shared with the community, careful plans are made to announce, welcome, and onboard the new leader. Shaping thoughtful messaging and making warm introductions will help to launch the leader’s new journey. And while formal onboarding deserves a whole separate guide, search committee members often support the new leader’s transition, arrival, and engagement in their new community. They might suggest early relationships to develop, key meetings to arrange, information to share, or priority activities in early months. Playing an active, positive role in the leader’s first year is enormously important to longer-term success.

Your Executive Search Partner

Lindauer search consultants have extensive expertise in collaborating with search committees on executive searches across the nonprofit world. If you are embarking on a search and interested in using the services of a search firm, we would love to learn about your open position, your organization, and your goals for the future.

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