Search Committee Best Practices: Novel Ideas from North Dakota

By Paul Thomas, Senior Writer

The work of a search committee is by definition ad hoc, and ephemeral: a position needs filling, a committee is assembled, deliberation ensues, a candidate is selected and—fingers crossed it made the right hire—the committee disbands. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s a few-month process after which members return to their “real” jobs, perhaps never to work together so closely and intensely again.

This was my experience many years ago while serving on a search committee charged with helping to select a university department head. It was at times both exhilarating and draining, but most of all it was fleeting. Just as the members got to know each other and work well together, it seemed, our job was done.

There should be a better way to preserve the camaraderie as well as significant collective knowledge accumulated by a search committee. Whatever lessons are New Picture (9)learned are often lost as soon as members go their separate ways. Individuals are called upon to serve on future search committees, at which time they may or may not draw upon past search experiences.

Wouldn’t it make sense for search committees to be less ad hoc, able to stay together longer and build upon shared experience and expertise? There may be a movement headed in this direction. One of the proponents is Joshua Wynne, MD, Dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) at the University of North Dakota. Wynne is also VP for Health Affairs at the University.

Because of the state’s tremendous growth of late, the university has expanded and has had the enviable task of hiring many new academic and medical executives. Some of these leadership searches were conducted through separate search committees. But Wynne began to see inefficiencies in the approach. “We are a small school and had tried to do simultaneous searches with different search committees before, and it seemed everyone was bumping into each other,” he says. “And there was a lot of duplicated effort—each search is different but the history and philosophy of the school and what it needs stay the same.”

His solution: select a small, dedicated search committee that would stay together for years rather than months, would band together and become skilled at its work, and build upon its collective expertise. A few years ago, Wynne oversaw the selection of just such a committee—a seven-member crew of highly regarded leaders from across the university who eventually took responsibility for some half-dozen recruitments.

Less Friction


Joshua Wynne, MD

In Wynne’s mind (and in the committee’s mind as well), it has worked. Great hires have been made, and the search committee has been a well-oiled machine. “I am really concerned about efficiency,” he says. “Frictional losses are a big deal at a small school and this enabled us to do something in a relatively short period of time that I am quite certain that we would have not been able to do if we did independent searches.”

Witt/Kieffer’s Academic Medicine practice, led by Karen Otto as Managing Partner, is proud to have collaborated with the search committee and supported the leadership needs of SMHS over the past several years. We are grateful to Dr. Wynne and two prominent committee members—Randy Eken, Associate Dean for Administration and Finance, and Gwen Halaas, MD, Senior Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs—for setting aside time to share thoughts about their recent recruitments and the experiences of this dedicated search committee.

Their ideas are explored in “A Single Search Committee for Multiple Leadership Hires,” a newly published case study about the executive recruiting experiences, unique views, and accumulated best practices of Dr. Wynne and colleagues at North Dakota.  Anyone who serves on search committees, or is charged with putting one together, will want to read the document. The one-committee, multiple-search approach isn’t right for every organization or every situation. Nevertheless, this case study provides ample food for thought about how search committees are comprised and how they may be most effective.

Enjoy, and please let us know if you have search committee best practices and suggestions to share.

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