Selecting a Search Committee

By Karen Otto 

Search committees carry a sacred duty to identify, evaluate and help select an institution’s leaders. The process of assembling each committee, therefore, should be done with seriousness and intentionality. From the composition of the members to the clarity of their charge, the steps taken in forming a committee ultimately determine its success. The following are recommendations for forming a committee that can set it on a course to effectively fulfill its mission.

1. Establish the committee’s charge.

The board, parent organization or hiring authority must define the level of authority it will delegate to the search committee and establish the parameters within which the committee will conduct the search. Most importantly they must spell out the ultimate deliverable – that is, the number of finalist candidates the committee will present to the hiring authority. These may be ranked or unranked depending on the preference of the institution.

2. Select a strong and engaged chair.

The chair must be someone who has a strong, persuasive presence, encourages involvement of all committee members and does not let one or a few individuals dominate the proceedings. The chair is highly organized, knowing that sticking to a schedule is a major factor in the success of the search. The chair typically becomes the de facto spokesperson to candidates, and so this individual must at all times reflect positively upon the institution. Candidates will judge an organization based, in part, on their interaction with the search committee chair. Finally, consider appointing co-chairs. The burden on a singular chair can be alleviated by appointing a co-chair, who can also lead the committee in the chair’s absence.

3. Select members who have a stake in the position.

The hiring authority (or whoever is assembling the committee members) must find institutional leaders and representatives who deeply care about the task at hand and who have the gravitas, the network and a broad perspective to bring to the committee. The process of developing a position profile (a key committee charge) can be an exercise in refreshing some members’ memories about the role and can allow them to re-envision the position as they draft the profile. For others who may be newly acquainted with the role, this task will be informative. Their perspectives may provide freshness and novelty in considerations of the role.

4. Ensure broad representation.

Whether small (6-9 members) or large (12 or more members, which occurs frequently in a shared governance environment), the committee should represent, as much as possible, key constituencies within the institution, including faculty. While not every interest on campus can be represented, the committee should consist of respected organizational citizens who have the interests of the whole in mind.

5. Ensure diverse representation.

Gender and racial diversity on the committee are critical, and if possible, the constitution of the committee should take into account other forms of diversity (including among others: age, sexual orientation, religion, experience and thought). The greater the differences among members, the more engaged and fruitful their discussions will be. The need for diverse representation is one reason to consider a larger committee that can pull members from disparate constituencies.

6. Exclude the incumbent and potential candidates.

Having the current or outgoing executive on the committee can skew and be detrimental to the search process. Exiting executives may lack objectivity about the current state of affairs of an institution and potential successors. Committee members may be inhibited and less candid about issues related to the outgoing leader and the present circumstances. It goes without saying that applicants should be excluded from committee service.

7. Establish the time commitment.

Members must have the capacity to serve and often misjudge the amount of time and effort required for committee work. Supported by the search firm, each individual is accountable for helping to attract a strong slate of candidates, screening applicant materials, participating in discussions related to selection of top candidates at each stage of the search, interviewing high potential candidates, and conducting initial due diligence on top candidates. Committee members must set aside sufficient time and adjust other professional responsibilities in order to fulfill their committee duties during this key period.

8. Establish ethics and rules of confidentiality.

What happens within the confines of committee deliberations must stay there. Impress upon all participants how sacred their responsibility is and that leaks or divulgences of information outside of committee business can damage the search and harm candidates involved. Simply put, leaks are violations of trust. Many committees are asked to sign a code of ethics to document a commitment to confidentiality.

9. Define diversity and how it will be integrated into the search.

Among the first conversations that members of the search committee should have is about what diversity means to them and the search. They might consider writing down a definition that everyone can agree upon. Therefore, when issues of diversity come up during the search, the members are all working from common ground. Commonly, search committee members are required to undergo implicit bias awareness training at the beginning of the search as a way of fostering equitable search practices.

10. View the search consultants as valuable resources.

Realize that these consultants have witnessed dozens if not hundreds of similar searches. Communicate with them as often as possible. Rely on them for counsel about processes or procedures. It is their responsibility to shepherd a strong, successful search.

Helpful Resources