During a leadership recruitment, every search committee goes through a process of learning and growth. This is particularly true if the members of the committee don’t know each other well or haven’t had previous experience serving on such a committee. What follows is an overview of sequential stages that search committees can often experience as the recruiting process unfolds. Knowing this typical progression helps a committee to understand where it stands as a search goes on, and to anticipate challenges to come.
Stage 1: Square One. At this stage, there is typically little consensus on the task at hand and how exactly to proceed; some members may need introductions, and some may not have read background materials. That’s the way it should be—things are just getting started.
Committee’s Goal: This is the time to break the ice, make sure everyone knows the end goal (e.g., hire the best person possible, or recommend exceptional finalists), and what the ground rules are for moving ahead. It’s important that committee members be open-minded and thinking creatively about recruiting, and that they know the importance of their mission, the time commitment, the need for confidentiality and discretion, and so forth. They have a vitally important process ahead of them.
Stage 2: Initial Engagement and Enthusiasm. Armed with knowledge of how a search should proceed and what their charge is, many search committees want to jump right in and start considering candidates, internal and external. Once an executive search firm is involved, the committee often expects names in short order.
Committee’s Goal: Enthusiasm is welcome and necessary, but the next order of business is to think about the position and how it supports the strategic needs of the organization, and to develop a detailed, intriguing position profile. This job description will not only be a primary sales tool in enticing top candidates to apply, but it will serve as the basis for the executive’s roles and responsibilities once in place. It is too early to begin discussing potential candidates.
Stage 3: Down Time. While the search consultants are ramping up and reaching out to trusted contacts, advertising for the position, and engaging interested candidates, the search committee can expect a bit of a lull. While the search consulting team will be in touch—providing regular updates and answering any questions the committee may have—there may be four, six, or even eight weeks before any candidates are presented at the first “progress meeting.”
Committee’s Goal: Rest assured the process is moving forward, but it is not in the best interest of the recruitment for the search consultants to present candidates piecemeal or before they have been thoroughly vetted and referenced. (An exception may be when a truly exceptional candidate, or one whose situation pressures the timetable, comes to the fore early in the process.) The search consultants’ goal at this point is to assemble an exceptional pool of qualified—yet diverse and intriguing—candidates so that the search committee can consider them as a group upon initial presentation.
Stage 4: Progress Meeting. The initial pool of candidates is presented, and the search consultants “bring them to life” and discuss their merits and qualifications beyond their resumes and basic credentials, and how they might fit within the organization. This is an important, intense session that gives the committee a real sense of “who’s out there” with interest in the position and credentials to match. It is also a time for the consultants and committee to again take stock of how the search is progressing and whether any tweaking (to position description, process, etc.) needs to be made.
Committee’s Goal: The primary goal at this stage is to assess the candidates and have a clear sense of which of the half dozen or dozen initial candidates are potential good fits and should make the cut. The committee should leave the meeting feeling satisfied with the narrowed slate and that, unquestionably, there are several exciting potential hires. Now is a good time to re-emphasize the critical importance of confidentiality (it can’t be stated strongly enough). Also, the committee can remind itself that this phase is an opportunity to learn more about candidates, a time to “rule in” not always “rule out.”
Stage 5: The Heavy Lifting. This is when the lion’s share of the work for a committee begins. If they haven’t already, members need to clear their calendars so that they can meet and interview with candidates as they begin scheduled appointments. From first-round to final-round interviews, candidate reviews, back-and-forth discussions with colleagues and consultants, search committee work can seem like a full-time job in this phase. It is easy to get overwhelmed.
Committee’s Goal: Make time for candidates and deliberations. Caution against cutting meetings short or not giving candidates’ their full due. This phase is critical in really getting to know candidates and which ones are viable and outstanding. Being fully vested in the process now will pay dividends later when the right hire is made. Establish clear benchmarks against which each candidate will be measured through standard questions, etc. Stress that, without everyone’s participation in each interview, the group will not be able to have a balanced, robust discussion at the end, comparing apples to apples. Remind members that second-round selection means that the committee still wants to spend more time getting to know candidates; it does not imply hiring them.
Stage 6: Revision, Rethinking. As the search begins to enter its final stages, the committee will often want to “stay on track” and keep moving forward with vetting, selecting finalists, and completing its task. It can be easy to lose sight of the initial position profile and ultimate objectives and become enamored of particular candidates.
Committee’s Goal: Take a step back. Review the big picture and ensure that the committee is evaluating candidates based upon the goals and qualifications it initially mapped out. This is a very important point. If the fundamentals seem to have changed, this is cause for discussion and perhaps revision.
Stage 7: Seeking Perfection. As candidates are vetted, questioned, and scrutinized, it is easy for the committee to nitpick and focus on negative qualities. The urge to “keep dating” is natural and healthy—trust your instincts, and stick to the goal of hiring an exceptional executive (or in many cases to present finalists to the CEO). However, remember that no candidate will ever walk on water. (Be wary of one that does!)
Committee’s Goal: Again, go back to the original job specifications and look for candidates who meet and exceed the roles and responsibilities. Screen candidates for their skill sets, not necessarily their former position titles. Keep leadership qualities and cultural fit top of mind—is this someone who will be a great executive for our needs and our organization? If there are continued doubts, rely upon leadership assessment methodologies and targeted referencing to provide qualitative and quantitative support for the committee’s instincts.
Stage 8: Light at the End of the Tunnel. As the process winds down, the search committee begins to see the fruits of its labors. It can see the value of a strong, disciplined process in identifying and narrowing qualified candidates.
Committee’s Goal: Now that the field has been narrowed to just a few, keep an open mind and continue to reevaluate candidates as you get to know and appreciate them in greater depth. Opinions of candidates change as you spend more time with them. As a clear favorite emerges, maintain communications with all finalists and treat each with respect. Express gratitude to all candidates who have undergone a very stressful process.
Stage 9: Sealing the Deal. A chosen candidate has been selected, and an offer extended. Eventually, an offer is signed and preparations can be made to bring this person on board.
Committee’s Goal: Before a contract is signed, assume nothing and maintain diligence and communications with all candidates. Don’t draft an offer hastily, or pressure a candidate to sign more quickly than what is reasonable. Don’t let small line items derail your negotiation process. Maintain your “sales” function in pitching the job and your organization. Also maintain strict and appropriate confidentiality—many great job candidates have been spooked by an announcement that was leaked prematurely.
Stage 10: Reflection and Onboarding. A decision has been made. An exciting new executive is joining your organization. Take time to debrief. What could we have done better? Differently? Your search consultants will ask you to provide feedback on the search process and the quality of their work.
Committee’s Goal: Take this stage seriously and keep notes. Ask the search firm to provide feedback on its findings. Document successes and hiccups so that the accumulated knowledge can support future searches. Also, remember that your work is not done: the committee is the candidate’s fist line of support and members’ job now is to go out and cheer-lead for the new person, setting the stage and crafting an onboarding process that will ensure success. The committee’s role continues through that first year.
No two executive searches are alike, and each one will change course and shape as it progresses. Search committees must keep in mind that an executive recruitment is an important journey, and that the committee will evolve and grow along the way.
Michael R. Raddatz, Jr., M.B.A. is an associate based in Witt/Kieffer’s Oak Brook, IL office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org