Assembling a Stellar Search Committee

Wickenden Associates
September 12, 2019

The selection of the Head Search Committee members and its Chair are among the earliest and most critical decisions the Board Chair must make in a leadership transition process that may extend for a year or more. If you could post an ad for the ideal Search Committee Chair, it might read like this:

Wanted: Visionary thinker, superb administrator, astute judge of character, exceptional communicator, and talented goodwill ambassador with a flair for matchmaking and an abundance of compassion and curiosity. Must be wise but not arrogant, willing to listen but not easily manipulated, and decisive yet process-oriented. The fainthearted need not apply.

Assembling a first-rate team of Search Committee members, guided by a well-respected Search Chair, is a task that the Board Chair should pursue with great care; good choices now will pay great dividends later. While we have worked successfully with search committees of widely varying compositions, sizes, and personalities, we offer the following guidelines:

  1. Because the Head appointment is solely the Board’s responsibility, the committee should be composed predominantly of current trustees.
  2. Consider including one or two faculty members, who can enhance the quality of deliberations and provide a perspective on the daily life of the school that trustees might not possess. Their roles, however, should not be viewed as “representing” the views of the faculty as a whole.
  3. The committee should reflect the diversity of the school community and should include a mix of both veteran members of the school family and relative newcomers.
  4. A committee size of approximately nine to 12 members works well for most schools.

The current Board President often, but not always, serves on the committee. If a change of Board President is planned within the next couple of years, the likely next President should serve on—and perhaps chair—the Search Committee. There is no relationship more important to the health of the school than the one between the Head and the Board President; the search process is an ideal time to begin forging that connection.

A Note on Advisory Committees

While advisory committees are not a necessary component of the search process, Search Committees sometimes choose to encourage and organize input from the various school constituencies by creating an advisory group composed of faculty, parents, and/or alumni. While Advisory Committee members don’t participate in Search Committee interviews or deliberations, they can play a role during finalist visits, both as guides and as evaluators of the candidates.

Deciding who will serve on the advisory groups is always a complicated political issue. Often, the Search Committee’s best bet, if they are intent on empanelling one, is to ask existing organizations representing the various constituencies – the parent association, alumni council, or the faculty as a whole – to nominate candidates to the advisory committee. The Search Committee should, however, reserve the right to make the final decisions about the membership of this group.

We also recommend that one member of the Search Committee (usually the Search Chair) be appointed to the Advisory Committee to maintain healthy communication between the two groups and to ensure that the Advisory Committee stays on task. Whatever the eventual composition of the advisory body, the Search Committee must tactfully but firmly make clear to the advisors that their role is in fact advisory, and that all decisions ultimately rest with the Search Committee.

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