Anyone who has ever been involved with a not-for-profit will at some point be asked to serve on a search committee or lead a search committee’s search for a new CEO/President or senior officer. We have written previously about the responsibilities of search committee members and how candidates can prepare for a search committee interview but wanted to take a deeper look at the role of the Search Committee Chair. We turn to Steve Taylor, a leader in the not-for-profit community for nearly 30 years, who is currently serving as Executive Vice President and Chief Mission Officer of the Arthritis Foundation. Steve recently chaired the search committee for the President & CEO of the National Health Council which has been widely viewed as a well-run search with an outstanding result. Below, Steve answers the questions we are frequently asked as not-for-profits recruit using search committees.

How big should a search committee be?

I believe the ideal size is seven, including the Chairman who should also have a vote. You could possibly do nine or five, but frankly, if the Committee becomes too large, it can be hard to coordinate schedules. You have too many opinions in the discussions, and you want every voice to be heard. You’ll also want to make sure it’s an odd number; that way there is no tie.

Who should be on a search committee?

Much of it depends on the position. Ideally, one to three members of the Executive Committee should be on the Search Committee and supplement that with volunteers who represent different parts of the organization. I recommend looking at the various responsibilities of the position you are trying to fill. Which volunteers can best represent and understand these responsibilities? The key to a successful search committee is that you want members with perspective but who are not living in the past. On the other hand, you don’t want search committee members being so free-spirited they are substituting their vision for that of the Board’s.

The ideal Search Committee member understands the history of the organization as well as its future vision.

And that is what is so important when selecting volunteers to serve on a search committee: they need to be familiar [with] and embrace the Board’s vision for the organization and also represent different constituencies of the organization.

Should current employees sit on a search committee?

That is a question that many organizations wrestle with. Sometimes it can make sense, especially when you have long-term employees who understand the organization. But this is not a choice without challenges.

  • If there are internal candidates for the position, it can be difficult to ask a colleague [to] make an unbiased choice.
  • Secondly, a staff member on the Committee may not have the strategic view of the organization that a high-ranking volunteer or board member will have.
  • Thirdly, it can be sensitive for an employee to be involved in salary discussions involving the successful candidate.

What I typically recommend is that one of the Search Committee members serve as a liaison to a group of employees/staff. On the recent search I led for the National Health Council, I personally maintained contact with the senior leadership team. While I did not discuss individual candidates, I asked the search firm to solicit their opinions for the type of leaders we were seeking, and I communicated to them on the progress of the search.

Who selects the search firm, and what should be considered?

I can’t overemphasize the importance of a strong partnership with the search firm. You want it to be a partnership, not just a firm presenting resumes. The Chair should have meaningful input on selecting the search firm because they’ll be the one working [most] closely with them. Of course, the Search Committee reviews proposals and meets with a small number of finalists. But ultimately the Chair of the Search Committee should have a strong voice in selecting a search firm.

For me, it was critical that the search firm had experience in organizing and administratively providing infrastructure to the committee so that I and the Committee could focus on the candidates.

I also believe the Chair shouldn’t rely on the Search Committee or search firm to do all of the coordination. There will be times that it is important for the Chair to jump in to either facilitate meetings or deal with scheduling or personnel challenges. The search firm should be willing to do more than just conduct the search as many members of a search committee have full-time jobs.

I advise my colleagues running search committees to be very specific with what you would like the search firm to do.

Do you want them to:

  • Attend search committee meetings?
  • Set the agenda for search committee meetings?
  • Provide interview questions?

I believe you need a search firm to do anything the Search Committee and its Chairman cannot or do not want to do because of time restraints.

It is a given that a search firm needs to have a robust Rolodex, but I’m still trying to figure out how to evaluate that. [laughing] What you can evaluate is recent searches a search firm has conducted for similar positions. As we evaluated search firms, some listed searches they conducted more than a decade ago! That was a lifetime ago in the not-for-profit world.

And finally, I believe you need to find a search firm that is upfront and honest with you about who the lead staff will be—and that you have the opportunity to meet with that lead staff to ensure compatibility and understanding of the process you envision—before you finalize your selection on a firm.

What allowances did you make during COVID in the most recent search you chaired?

Overall, it worked out well. In certain ways, the process moved more efficiently given the Search Committee met by Zoom and the candidates were interviewed by the search firm and us for first-round interviews by Zoom. One advantage we had as a search committee is that we all knew each other—some better than others—but this familiarity allowed us to work together well virtually.

Once we narrowed the process to our finalists, we asked them to meet face to face, of course, social distancing, wearing masks, etc. with another search committee member and me. Despite adapting to video conferencing, meeting the candidate in person makes a big difference. To have a candidate being willing to invest the time, to travel to a meeting, meet a group of people, some in person, some virtually, was critical to the final steps of our process.

We were able to observe how they handled themselves in the middle of a pandemic, watch how they coordinated their presentation, and even how they arranged the papers on the conference table. In a virtual interview, you have no idea if the candidate has sticky notes all over their computer screen providing possible hints to questions. That was important to us because that’s what the job is going to be (ultimately): face-to-face meetings working with different constituencies and being able to communicate and think on their feet. Interestingly, I believe we would have ended up with the same candidate if we had conducted the search before COVID.

How do you, as a search committee chair, handle candidate withdrawals and surprises?

As a search committee chair or member, you understand that many of the candidates currently are in good positions, and you are hoping to attract them to your organization. You can’t get too nervous about that. It is part of the process. You reach for candidates, and some you attract, and some you lose. And if a candidate pulls out, I believe it’s better that they do it in the search process rather than later.

As for the second part of your question, as Chair, you have to be flexible, responsive, and nimble because issues arise that need to be acted on quickly. Several times, I had to reach out to Committee members individually to keep the process moving either because an issue arose on a Friday night or there was simply not the time to call a full committee meeting. You establish that at the beginning of the search so there is no misunderstanding. In every search, there may be small decisions made either by the chair or by a smaller group on the committee, because trying to get everyone together all the time isn’t possible, but ultimately the big decisions are made as a group.

How much time does it take to do a good job?

The time required ebbs and flows during the search. If you have a good search firm, as we did in using The Alexander Group, there’s less time initially because you allow them to do the search and trust their judgment on the candidates they’re presenting. The search committee chair is then free to focus on the higher-level items most important to finding the right candidate. Once the interview process is underway, you will need to be available for the search committee, search firm, [and] staff as the process unfolds. There is a significant time commitment required for the Chair. The organization needs someone who can make that time commitment because, if it is not a priority, you’ll never finish the search.

Who should be the Chair?

Choosing the right search committee chair is critical to a successful search. It needs to be a leader in the organization who understands its past but also understands the future vision of the organization. It does not have to be the current board chair. It could be a past board chair who might have more time because they’re not the current board chair. It is important that the chair can lead without supervision and is trusted by the board.