Chairing A Search Committee

by Sherry Heuser

As Board members, we often volunteer for or are asked to serve in roles that require more of us than we initially realize. One of these roles may be that of search committee chair. We are passionate about the organization and want to be part of shaping its future, but may not be fully prepared for the time and effort this coordination requires of us.

As many nonprofit Board members note, hiring a new organizational leader or executive is one of the most important decisions made during their Board term, and one that can have a long-lasting impact on the program. It is one act that creates an identifiable legacy for a Board, and isn’t generally repeated frequently in the course of an organization’s history. We take our responsibility seriously and want to get it “right”.

Rather than venture into the role uninformed, we can rely on feedback from individuals who have paved the way to help us make the most of our position. As a consultant who “staffs” many search committees, I offer guidance and advice on options and process, and know that other search committee chair’s “lessons learned” can smooth the way.

When polling recent search committee chairs about their experiences, certain themes and recommendations became apparent.

  • Balancing input from and feedback to different sources takes time and energy. Although it can be difficult, it is important to keep the full Board engaged in the process so that when a decision is made, everyone is supportive. Clear, consistent communication with the committee and those affected by the committee’s decision will benefit the entire organization, as well as the new leader.
  • Reaching out to a broad audience will actually help you target your search. Go outside the circle of who you know. One (though by far not the only) benefit of using a search firm is to tap into that larger network of contacts and vehicles (websites, etc.) with which your organization may not be familiar. This allows you not to “settle” for candidates within a local pool of talent.
  • Managing the process efficiently requires planning and ongoing attention. Have clear expectations from the group as you begin the process about who will be making the final decisions. Keep your review group small until you narrow the list of candidates to 2-5 individuals that the committee would be willing to work with long term, knowing that the larger group may decide to select a different “top candidate” from among them.
  • Defining your “ideal” candidate ahead of time can help your committee discussions stay on track. Have a rank-ordered set of priorities/skill sets. You may not get everything on your wish list, but with an agreed-upon set of criteria, the search committee knows ahead of time what’s most important, and can refer back to it throughout the process if needed.
  • Keeping everyone moving forward toward the common goal is an ongoing task. The process always seems to take longer than you think it will. Be realistic when you set your timetable for having a new leader on board. If your organization does not have a full-time human resources staff person, consider using a search firm or outside consultant to manage the process—having support for evaluating applications is essential for a volunteer search committee.
  • Having a good “Plan B” is essential. Things happen. A search process is centered around people with different personalities and lives, and you may find that your original plan won’t work out after all. Having a process you trust that allows for flexibility if needed will help keep you on track when changes occur.

Although every search is different, there are similarities among them that can be useful to consider during your own process. Keeping in mind these tips from Board members who have “been there, done that” can make the difference between regretting your decision to chair a search committee, and being able to successfully navigate the responsibilities that come with the role.

Bottom Line: Serving as the chair of a search committee brings with it the challenges of balancing varied interests, coordinating schedules, and maintaining momentum, so that you can see the process to a successful conclusion.
Sherry Heuser is president of Capability Company, a Raleigh, N.C.-based executive-search firm serving the nonprofit sector. 

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