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Should Staff Serve on the Search Committee?

by Guest Blogger
MANP presents the following guest blog post as part of our ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition. 

“Should staff serve on the search committee?” It is a question I hear at the start of every search for a nonprofit leader. If a board member doesn’t ask it, a staff member is sure to.

Having advised multiple boards as they embark upon the search process for an executive director (president or CEO), here’s what I recommend.

Make it clear that this is the board’s responsibility.

This is one of those responsibilities that the board can’t hand off to someone else. They may hire a consultant to help them manage the search, but, ultimately, the responsibility for a successful search, and the decision as to who is hired, is theirs and theirs alone. The desire to involve staff is a good one, but it is important to signal from the very beginning that this is a board process and will be a board decision.

Offer opportunities for staff to inform the selection process.

Healthy nonprofit organizations often foster collaborative decision-making. As a result, staff members can bristle at the thought that they won’t have representation on the search committee. While there are examples of staff members sitting on search committees, the reality is that having staff involved in hiring their next boss can prove awkward for everyone involved. So, consider these alternatives:

  • Engage staff in the development of the position description – Every search should begin with careful consideration as to the organization’s strategic priorities and the skills and experience you’ll want to seek in your next leader. Those conversations should lead to the development of a position description, or “leadership statement,” that will guide the search. Find a way to engage staff leadership in this conversation.
  • Use this opportunity to truly listen to the staff – You can give everyone a voice in the process by asking for their advice. Facilitated discussion groups or brief on-line surveys that ask questions like, “What should we prioritize as we seek candidates?” will provide an insider’s perspective on what attributes of the current leader they would like to retain and what strengths they hope the next leader will bring to the organization.
  • Include staff in the interview process – Your next leader will undoubtedly want to meet the key members of the staff team, and the staff will be eager for that too. I suggest that when you are down to the final round of on-site interviews that you provide an opportunity for your candidate(s) to meet with their direct reports, either in a group or as individuals. Make it clear that these meetings are a two-way street, providing the candidate with time to ask questions too. Provide a way for staff (ideally as individuals, and not as a group) to offer their feedback to the search committee while always making it clear that while their input is valued and appreciated, the final decision will be for the board to make.

Engage staff in supporting a successful transition

A successful transition doesn’t begin and end with the search. An appropriate farewell, a warm welcome, and a launch that helps the next leader get quickly up-to-speed all require careful planning and a team effort. The board should consider developing a “transition committee” (separate from the search committee) where board members and staff can work together to ensure a smooth transition of leadership.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Leadership transitions can be scary times for staff. The uncertainty about what the future holds is only made worse if the board doesn’t actively communicate with staff. Communicate early and often about the process, the status of the search, and how and when staff will have an opportunity for input. Details about the candidates should remain confidential, but regular updates on where the search committee and the board are in the process will help to build confidence and reduce fears.

Board members almost always acknowledge that “hiring and firing” the executive director is their responsibility, but that does not mean that they need to cut the staff out of the process. A thoughtful process that engages the staff at the right level and at the right moments will impress your candidates and help the board build a healthy relationship with the staff team.

About the Author

Jeff Wahlstrom is managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting and a MANP-endorsed provider of executive search services. He has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. He regularly provides counsel to boards on governance best practices, leadership succession and transition planning, and strategic planning. Jeff has developed an online board self-assessment tool and strategic board recruitment toolkit for Maine nonprofits, and he is a frequent speaker on a wide range of board governance and nonprofit management topics.

One thought on “Should Staff Serve on the Search Committee?

[…] both the respect of the other board members and the time to manage the process. Typically, the hiring committee for the top job does not include employees. Resist the temptation to have the incumbent join this committee. The current CEO might have the […]

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