Choosing Tomorrow’s Leaders: Tips for Creating a Great Executive Search Committee

What makes a successful business? You can’t narrow it down to a single factor, but one of the most important facets of a great business is a strong leadership team.

As you likely already know, selecting an executive isn’t like hiring an ordinary employee. The stakes are high — choosing the right executive can transform your company for the better, but a poor choice can undo years or even decades of progress. 

To maximize your chances of choosing a great leader, make sure you have a strong executive search committee and a clear selection process. Here are some tips to do just that.

Decide Who to Include (and Exclude)

In most cases, the chair of a company’s board of directors is responsible for forming the search committee. Generally speaking, it’s best to limit that committee to five to seven people. You want a large enough group to ensure diversity of opinion, but you don’t want it to be so large that reaching an agreement would be impossible.

Here’s an example breakdown of a search committee. Note the varied experiences and perspectives this theoretical committee brings together:

  • Chair of the board
  • One or two other board members
  • A former chair of the board
  • A senior staff representative
  • An experienced board member
  • A new board member
  • A community partner or donor (if appropriate)

There are also a few people who should generally be excluded from the committee:

  • People who will report to the new hire (letting staff members have a hand in choosing their new boss may upset your company’s internal alignment)
  • Anyone who could be a candidate for the position (this can lead to an obvious conflict of interest)
  • The outgoing executive (choosing one’s own successor can be surprisingly difficult)

Before appointing members to serve on an executive search committee, it’s important to ensure that each one has enough time to devote to the search process. 

If an overwhelmed employee or board member joins the committee out of a sense of obligation, you run the risk of including someone who will only halfheartedly participate. And when it comes to decisions as important as choosing executives, there’s no room for absentminded decision-making.

You’ll also want to make sure everyone on the search committee is invested in the company’s future success. Otherwise, the selection committee may settle on someone who isn’t right for the company.

Set Clear Selection Criteria 

When you’re choosing a new leader for a company, it’s important to give all applicants an equal chance. The best way to do this is to have selection criteria set in advance. 

For example, imagine your search has come down to two qualified candidates. If you require candidates to have a certain level of experience, demonstrate a particular set of skills, or achieve a certain score on a skills assessment, you’ll know that each candidate is getting an equal shot at getting the position.

But what if you have no clear criteria? If this is the case, you run the risk of having committee members make a decision based on a “gut feeling” or other non-specific criteria. When this happens, there’s a good chance that unconscious biases can influence decisions.

Make sure the selection criteria set forth by the committee are clear and comprehensive. Decision-makers should have a clear picture of the personality traits, experience, and background an executive candidate needs to thrive at your company. Overly vague criteria can cause confusion and ultimately do more harm than good.

Determine a Standard Screening Process

When you’re choosing an entry-level employee, it’s often enough to have applicants fill out an online questionnaire and go through a single round of interviews. But when you’re choosing a CEO or other high-level executive, you need a much more thorough screening process to make sure you find the ideal candidate.

The committee should sit down together and map out the screening process in as much detail as possible. Here are some of the most important questions to ask.

  • How will you solicit applicants?
  • What’s the overall timeline of the search?
  • How will you decide which applicants can move on to the interview stage?
  • Who will be responsible for conducting interviews?
  • Will you include skills assessments in the screening process?
  • How will you keep staff members and stakeholders updated on the search process?
  • How will you come to a hiring decision?

Make sure you don’t rush this process. The more detailed your plan, the easier it will be to find and choose your next executive.

Consider Working With an Executive Search Firm

There’s nothing wrong with choosing an in-house selection committee. However, screening and hiring candidates for an executive position can be extremely time-consuming. 

Unless your company has the resources to designate and pay a committee to focus full-time on hiring, you won’t get the benefit of the committee members’ full focus — they’ll need to divide their time and effort between their selection duties and their typical job duties.

That’s where an executive search firm can help. When you outsource the selection process to an experienced firm, you’re making sure your next leader is being chosen by experts. Executive search firms focus their efforts exclusively on choosing leaders for companies of all sizes.

A good executive search firm will also allow you to have some input in the search process. For example, if there are a few non-negotiable traits you need in a company leader, you can pass these on to the firm. And while a search firm can make recommendations on who to hire, you of course get to make the final decision.

Executive Search Committees: The Gateway to Your Company’s Future

Reaching a company leader is a stressful experience. However, if you take the time and effort required to form a quality search committee, you’re making an investment in your business’s success. When you carefully choose committee members and set a clear procedure for screening and choosing applicants, you’ll be well on your way to finding your company’s next great leader.