The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective Search Committees

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When family foundations recruit a new top executive, they often spend considerable energy screening search firms that will help them identify the right candidate.

But they usually pay much less attention to making sure they have the right people on their search committee—the ad hoc team of board members, volunteers, and staff charged with deciding who gets hired for these critical roles.

When search committees work well, they serve as vital partners to executive recruiters. They deliver key direction about the type of person who is needed for the role, ask smart questions throughout the process, and make a positive impression on the candidates they are recruiting.

But I’ve worked with hundreds of foundation search committees over the past two decades and despite the best intentions of those involved, they sometimes fall short.

Some are too big and unwieldy. Some include members who cannot get along. Some simply aren’t fully committed to the process.

In such cases, these committees are letting down the foundations they serve—and the potential leader they are aiming to recruit.

When search committees do not operate effectively, they can slow down the search process. In turn, their foundations lose high-quality candidates who are turned off by the pace of the search or the dynamics of the foundation. In extreme cases, they cause serious damage to the reputation of the foundation, and fracture important relationships within the organization.

As a result, it’s important for foundations that are recruiting a new leader to be as deliberate about the makeup of and expectations for its search committee as it is about choosing the right consultant to lead the search.

To guide your process, I offer these seven habits of highly effective search committees:

1. The committee is diverse

Most foundations say they value diversity—and many are actively working to ensure their boardrooms and executive offices are more reflective of their organizational values and mission.

Unfortunately, they do not always strive to create diverse search committees. As a result, they miss opportunities to send the right message to diverse candidates—and have blind spots that might prevent them from identifying the best candidate for the position.

Ideally, the members of your committee should include members who represent a diverse range of races, gender identities, and ages. Even better, you should also aim to find members who have diverse professional backgrounds and life experiences.

2. The committee sets—and follows—clear ground rules

As a search consultant, I value process. When a foundation has a clear process for conducting a search—and takes steps to communicate it to everyone involved—it sets a professional tone and gives everyone on the committee a clear sense of what is expected of them, including the timeline and time commitment involved.

Clear ground rules set candidates’ expectations, and also show candidates that you run a professional operation—a key message when you’re trying to persuade top candidates that you’re an organization worth working for.

3. The committee is transparent

When you’re recruiting candidates for an executive role, you should be attempting to sell your organization as a great place to work. But you also must be honest about what your new hire can expect when he or she steps into their role.

That means if they will be inheriting challenges that have to be addressed, the committee should acknowledge it to the search consultant early in the process so they can help you talk about it honestly with candidates, and they can identify candidates who are best equipped to handle the situation.

Even the best situation comes with challenges, so you should also be upfront with candidates about the challenges they may face in the role.

4. Each committee member is committed to the role

When members of search committees are not fully engaged it makes the process even more challenging. If committee members do not attend all of the interviews or are otherwise checked out during key parts of the process, it creates unfair dynamics for your candidates, often leads to time delays due to backtracking, and leads to poor results.

Make sure each member of your committee is fully committed to the role, understands the importance of showing up to all parts of the process, and is willing to carve out the time and do the work needed to make a strong hire.

5. The committee has a partnership mindset

While search consultants work for your foundation, the best searches occur when they work with, not for, the search committee. The process and dynamics of the search are different when organizations treat a search as only a transaction, rather than a true relationship. That transactional feeling is often intuited by the candidates, which may create doubt that neither the organization nor the search consultant have a long-term interest in their success in this role.

It’s important for committees to trust the firm and its expertise and be a willing and active partner in the process.

6. The committee stays focused on the outcome

While it’s important to establish and follow a process, keep in mind that there will always be hiccups along the way.

It may be difficult to coordinate schedules to align with your preferred timeline. Your top candidate may get another offer and bow out, or request to accelerate the process.

Ultimately, your goal is to find the best possible candidate, who is ready to take on your challenges. Follow your process, but don’t be so rigid that you disqualify strong candidates because of schedule challenges or make a rash hire in order to meet your preferred timeline.

7. The committee is open minded

What you think you need in a new leader when you start the search is not always what you actually need.  In our experience, the thought process of the search committee often evolves over the course of the search as the needs of the organization become more illuminated.

That’s why it’s important to look at candidates with different profiles and backgrounds and have an open mind about who might be the best fit for your role. The candidate to whom you initially gravitate is often not the candidate that you’ll end up choosing, precisely for these reasons.

Following these best practices can lead to an enjoyable process, create opportunities for team-building, and ultimately yield a result the foundation can be proud of—a new leader who is set up for success and can take it to even greater heights.

Vincent Robinson is the founder of The 360 Group

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.