Boutique Search Services for Higher Education and Nonprofit

Selecting a Search Chair – A Critical First Decision

From Senior Consultant, Jan Asnicar:

Selecting a Search Chair is a Critical First Decision

There are many elements that contribute to a successful search outcome – a robust quality pool, a clearly written prospectus, a committed search committee, and a highly competent search firm when appropriate. Without question these are critical elements.  But an often-overlooked player in the process is the search committee chair.  This individual facilitates, leads, cajoles, and encourages the search committee while also working closely with the hiring authority.  There are several considerations that should be a part of the thought process when selecting the person who will chair the search.

An ideal chair is a highly regarded member of the community – a faculty member (in the case of a university, professional staff person, administrator or board member. This individual should have the respect of diverse constituencies and be skilled at facilitation.  The chair should have an understanding of the organization’s commitments and priorities around the recruitment of diverse individuals.

Committee chairs are often individuals who either hold the same level position or are one level above the new hire.  In one state system there is a commitment to assign university presidents to chair president searches at other institutions inside the system.  The experience they bring to the discussion makes them credible to the other committee members and they can be an asset for those members as well.

Most guidance about chair selection suggests that the chair be someone who can facilitate discussions in a way that invites input from all committee members.  They should be a good listener and coax thoughts and contributions from even the quietest members on the committee.  There are times when an individual or a faction on the committee may try to control the conversation, process and even the search outcome.  The chair must have the ability to take control of the discussion when faced with people who might otherwise derail the process.

Good chairs express their opinions but do so after listening to the thoughts and opinions of others.  They can process new information, put aside personal biases, know when there has been adequate time for collaboration, and make difficult decisions quickly when the committee is deadlocked.

A strong chair keeps the committee on task.  This means starting and ending meetings on time to be respectful of the schedules of all participants.  In today’s world timelines tend to be aggressive and the chair can help avoid unnecessary delays by setting dates early and providing updates and reminders.

Messaging to the greater campus community is often the responsibility of the chair and thus they become the public face of the institution both internally and externally.  During the final campus interview the chair spearheads the schedule, hosts dinners, and calls on key stakeholders to participate in this step of the process.

A quick checklist of duties often assigned to a chair is as follows:

  • Task the committee with its charge or invite the appropriate person to give the charge. The charge typically includes an explanation of the situation and the overall objective, the nature of the position, the essential expectations of the new hire, the search timeline, and the role of the committee.
  • Serve as liaison between the committee, the hiring authority, and HR.
  • Call and chair meetings.
  • Facilitate discussions and decision making.
  • Ensure proper records and meeting minutes are maintained properly.
  • Coordinate administrative and logistical support.
  • Serve as lead person for candidates on campus.
  • Coordinate the efforts of all committee members.

One chair I worked with at a research institution introduced a rule intended to move the process along.  He instituted a fine for anyone who came into a meeting late.  That fine was $1 – which was not onerous but did put the committee on alert.  The week he arrived late (about 5 minutes) he smiled sheepishly, reached for his wallet, took out a $5 bill, and theatrically placed it in the middle of the table.  During discussions he was committed to a fully open and transparent process up to and including the solicitation of feedback from the committee before accepting an application that came in one day after the deadline.  (That applicant ultimately was selected as a finalist and was appointed holding that role for eight years.)

A search consultant can provide a great deal of support for the search chair and will often manage the responsibilities that are process oriented freeing the chair up to focus on management of the committee and evaluation of the candidates.  The search firm will offer tremendous support in the development of a candidate pool often taking nominations, referrals and suggestions from the chair and other committee members and reaching out to a broad swath of qualified individuals.  The chair and the consultant often forge a productive and effective team helping to ensure a successful search outcome.

If you are anticipating high level searches in the coming year make selection of a quality person as the search chair one of your first commitments.  A good decision at this step will pay long-term dividends.