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Understanding the Role of a Search Committee: Your Guide to Leadership Selection

When it’s time to select an organization’s new leader, forming a Search Committee is one of the first and most important steps. But what exactly does the Search Committee do? Who should serve on the Committee? And what should a potential Committee member know about the role they’re being asked to take on? Three members of our Executive Search team are here to answer these questions – and more!  

What is the Search Committee’s ultimate role in selecting the next leader? 

Executive Search Consultant Angèle Bubna: Every organization has its own set of bylaws that establish governance policies and offer guidance when it comes to hiring a leader who reports to the Board. Often, an organization’s bylaws will require that a Search Committee should be formed without providing too many specifics. That Committee will be responsible for interviewing and evaluating candidates and bringing their recommended finalist(s) to the full Board for consideration, deliberation, and the ultimate hiring decision. The Committee sets the organization up for success by running a smooth, equitable, and collaborative process that aligns with the organization’s values. This is where a search partner like Campbell & Company can serve as a trusted advisor in guiding your Committee to execute the search process in a streamlined, efficient manner aligned with leading practices.  

How large should the Search Committee be?

Executive Search Senior Consultant Emily Miller: While there isn’t one magic number, there are a few good guidelines to keep in mind. We would caution against Search Committees getting too large. A five- to seven-person Committee tends to work best, as it allows room for plenty of diverse perspectives while remaining small enough to communicate that every member’s voice and input is valuable. Larger groups can encourage “groupthink,” where people may feel they should just fall in line if they see a consensus forming. We also like odd numbers because you don’t run the risk of tie votes! 

Should the Board Chair be on the Search Committee? If so, should the Board Chair be the Search Committee Chair?

Executive Search Associate Consultant Kole Farrise: While the Board Chair will absolutely have a vote in the final hiring decision and may be part of the process of forming the Committee and selecting a Committee Chair (if the bylaws allow), we recommend that they refrain from serving on the Committee. This helps the Search Committee to act as an independent body leading the search process and tasked with making a recommendation to the Board of Directors. Additionally, serving on a Search Committee, let alone leading it, is a big job, and asking someone already engaged in a major governance role is rarely best for the person or the organization. The power dynamics at play are also something to consider: it’s easy to defer to the Board Chair and their opinion of a candidate if they are present during the process. Giving space for the Search Committee to work independently can be more empowering and ultimately lead to a better outcome. 

Should the outgoing ED or CEO be on the Search Committee??

Angèle: It’s understandable to want to include your outgoing leader on your Search Committee. After all, they’ve been your organization’s champion and caretaker, possess important organizational knowledge and insight, and have likely been a lynchpin in the organization’s success. However, there are several reasons that we recommend against including an outgoing executive leader on a Search Committee. First, it can be challenging to be imaginative about the future when your former leader is in the room. You may not feel able to candidly name where they had weaknesses, where the organization has struggled, or even how to move the organization in any new direction – strategically or culturally. Including your outgoing leader on the Search Committee can also undermine your organization’s goals toward diversity, equity, and inclusion by (even subconsciously) creating the temptation to hire someone who most closely resembles the previous leader, as opposed to being open to a candidate with different strengths, experience, or characteristics. 

Better areas to consider leaning on your outgoing leader’s expertise include site visits with Committee members and a search partner, creating a plan for onboarding, and ensuring that institutional knowledge that sits with the leader is documented and/or transferred to other staff or the new hire themself. 

Should we include staff on the Search Committee?

Emily: As workplace culture, structure, and the way that power dynamics manifest within an organization have taken center stage in the past few years, we’ve definitely seen including staff on Search Committees trending up – and we suspect this trend is here to stay. Many organizations bring staff into the process in order to navigate equity initiatives and answer demands for greater transparency around hiring processes. This is one way to create a more inclusive process, but there are also other ways to involve the staff without appointing them as voting members of the Search Committee. At Campbell & Company, we often utilize staff surveys to elicit feedback on the position profile and invite staff to meet finalists and provide feedback during interviews. The key here is that they are providing valuable input to the Search Committee and/or its partner search firm, whether that means including them in the vote or finding another meaningful way for your full team to contribute. 

What is my commitment as a Search Committee member?

Kole: Your presence and input as a Search Committee member are instrumental in cultivating thoughtful discussion around the profile of the organization’s next leader, interviewing and evaluating prospective candidates, and finalizing the Committee’s recommendation to the full Board. You can expect to connect, either in-person or virtually, with the full Committee for at least one hour every two weeks. Once a search enters its final stages, interviews with finalists will increase the time commitment of each Search Committee member, and full days may be required. Additionally, be prepared to travel to an on-site location for finalist interviews and remember that these interviews are an opportunity for Search Committee members not only to interview the candidates but also make it clear why they should want to join the organization. 

Search Committee chairs should be prepared to provide flexible options for engagement to Committee members. By maintaining a high-touch search process, Search Committee chairs can ensure that Committee members can serve the process well, while also working with and around their schedules, and bring forth a high-quality hiring recommendation to an organization’s Board of Directors. 

Serving an organization as part of a Search Committee is a big responsibility – but hopefully these tips help make this important role feel less daunting. It also helps to have a partner who knows the ropes walking alongside you during a process like this. Campbell & Company has served as that partner for hundreds of nonprofits, and we would be delighted to share more about our experience and process with you. Contact us with questions or to start a conversation about a future partnership. 

About the Author

Angèle Bubna is a Consultant with Campbell & Company’s Executive Search practice, based in Chicago, IL. Angèle loves the storytelling that happens in Executive Search work: the perfect match is found when the context and story of an organization as well as the background and narrative of a prospective candidate are all taken into consideration. 


About the Author

Emily Miller is a Senior Consultant with Campbell & Company’s Executive Search practice, based out of Chicago, IL. She loves advocating for candidates and making them feel comfortable so they can show themselves in their best light; that includes preparing clients to provide a seamless and welcoming candidate experience. 


About the Author

Kole Farrise is an Associate Consultant with Campbell & Company’s Executive Search practice, based out of Seattle, WA. His favorite aspect of Executive Search identifying and recruiting exceptional leaders to nonprofits so they can amplify and expand their missions. 


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