A Guide to Serving on a Search Committee

Search committees play a vital role in recruiting, evaluating, and recommending the most qualified candidates for employment. But what does it take to be a valuable search committee member? A new report from Lindauer offers some best practices that will contribute to the success of your search, your new hire, and your organization.

November 30, 2023 – 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, according to a recent report from Lindauer. “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 study said. The responsibility may seem daunting, the non-profit-focused search firm offers 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,” the Lindauer report said. As you prepare to serve as a member of a search committee, the firm offers some best practices that will contribute to the success of your search, your new hire, and your organization. 

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, according to the Lindauer report. “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,” It said. “Search committees are typically convened only for significant searches––often lead executive recruitments or the most senior C-suite roles.”

The report also explains that 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? Lindauer says to 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,” the report said. “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.”

Related: 5 Communication Skills Found in Top Leaders

The Lindauer report also notes that 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,” the report said.

Reflect on the Past, Look to the Future

Search committees must recognize and respect the past but face firmly toward the future, according to the Lindauer report. 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, Lindauer says to 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 Lindauer report said. “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 the organizational mission.”

Gain Alignment on the Opportunity

Lindauer explains that 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 the market,” the study said. “In either case, you will want to consider how the role will be understood and received in what are typically competitive hiring contexts.”

Search Committee Best Practices: Setting Up for Success
By their very nature, search committees are both varied and imperfect. They span companies, industries, and continents, bringing together individuals from across an organization to share the recruitment and hiring process. Even if they understand the main goal — conducting a search for the organization’s next best leader — it’s easy for these committees to stray off-task or get bogged down in minutia, slowing down what could be an otherwise well-proven process. So how does an organization and its board of directors go about building a search committee that is collaborative, focused and efficient?

It’s important to acknowledge that individual search committee members bring varying perspectives and experiences, the Lindauer report explains. “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,” it said. “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, Lindauer says to 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. The Lindauer report notes to 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,” the Lindauer report said

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 will begin contacting and engaging prospective candidates, according to the Lindauer report. “You will also begin to receive feedback and questions from interested parties,” it explains. “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.”

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,” the Lindauer report says. “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.”

Related: The Most Vital Component of Any Search Process

In advance of committee meetings, Lindauer suggests to 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,” the firm said. “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.”

Maintain Confidentiality and Manage Risk

Confidentiality cannot be overstated in a search process, according to the Lindauer report. “Most committees ask members to sign an agreement which states the importance of keeping any and all conversations within the committee structure,” it said. “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,” the Lindauer report said. “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, the Lindauer report explains. The firm notes that 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,” the report said. “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

Lindauer also notes to 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,” the report said. “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?”

The Lindauer report stresses that 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,” the firm said. “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.”

Lindauer serves higher and secondary education, hospitals, academic research centers, think tanks, research facilities, and foundations, as well as advocacy, public service, social justice and other mission-driven non-profits. The firm has led searches for the Boston YMCA, Center for Applied Special Technology, Healthy Minds Innovations/Center for Healthy Minds, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Cockrell School of Engineering, among others.

Related: 8 Insider Tips to Ace the Executive Interview Process 

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor; Lily Fauver, Senior Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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