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9 Tips To Improve CEO Search Committee Effectiveness

By Ed Fry, Founding Partner

You’re a member of the board of trustees for a non-profit healthcare organization. What started out as a routine board meeting just became anything but routine. The CEO has informed the board of his/her planned retirement or departure in a year. A business-as-usual monthly meeting has taken on new importance as the search for a new CEO takes center stage. You’ve been asked to be a member of the search committee, but you’re not sure what that means or what it will entail.

Working with clients across the country, we are often engaged to deal with this exact scenario. Experience has shown us that some clients and their CEO search committees are well prepared to move forward. Others appear caught off guard, scrambling to find the best way to proceed.

CEO search committees can be a boon or bust to the organization’s ability to identify and attract a new leader. Based on our experience and insight, here are nine tips to improve the effectiveness of a CEO search committee:

  1. Formally establish the CEO Search Committee in the board’s responsibilities and bylaws. Review the bylaws covering organizational governance and make sure a plan is in place to effectively deal with the departure of the CEO, be it voluntary or not. Roles and responsibilities for individual committee members and the entire committee should be clearly delineated. Defining the size of the committee early in the process is also important. We recommend the committee consist solely of current board members and not include anyone who may ultimately report to the new CEO.  This is due to the confidential nature of the needed discussions around candidate evaluations.  Direct reports to the new CEO shouldn’t be privy to highly sensitive materials which could potentially be used against their new boss.
  2. Outline how a Search Committee Chair will be selected and his or her responsibilities. We recommend the committee chair be the current board chair.  If the board chair is brand new to his/her role, the immediate past board chair may be an appropriate choice to chair the search committee.  Similarly, if the current board chair is nearing the end of his/her term, then appointing the incoming chair to lead the search committee can be a wise decision. The chair must have the trust, confidence, and backing of the entire board. He or she should also possess in-depth knowledge and a good understanding of the organization’s mission, vision, values, and culture. It is also critically important for the chair to be an excellent communicator adept at keeping key constituencies informed about critical aspects of the search.
  3. Confirm the “charge” to the committee. If the search committee’s “charge” is not defined in the organization’s by-laws, then the board should vote or have consensus on its expectations of the search committee.  The “charge” could vary from bringing to the board a single final candidate on which the board can vote to narrowing the search to three or four semi-finalists to recommend to the board, which will then conduct the final evaluation and selection.  There are, of course, several scenarios between these options.  The important point is the search committee and the board need to be aligned on the expectation of the committee.
  4. Clearly explain a CEO Search Committee member’s responsibilities. Committee members should have a clear understanding of and agree to the time commitments required to evaluate the current and future needs of the organization, compile a list of candidate selection criteria, create a list of interview questions, screen and interview an initial pool of candidates, meet with the final pool of candidates when they come for site visits, evaluate finalists and select the candidate that’s the best “fit” for the organization, extend the offer and negotiate final terms, create an onboarding plan.
  5. If physicians are members of your board, include one on the executive search committee. Having the physician voice at the table throughout the search is critical and could help eliminate or mitigate issues between the medical staff and the selected candidate down the road. If the board does not include a physician, consider appointing a recent or current medical staff president to the committee, as long as that individual isn’t an employee of the system.
  6. Emphasize and maintain confidentiality throughout the entire search process. A top-notch search firm partner will insist on confidentiality and candidates will be reassured about the reliability of the organization if their interest and participation in the search is kept confidential.
  7. Devise a strategic approach to the search that encompasses both external and internal candidates. In most searches we lead, there are one or two internal candidates that emerge as finalists for the CEO position. The need for confidentiality with these candidates is paramount. Carefully crafted communications with these candidates is vitally important, especially if they are not included in the pool of finalists or are not ultimately chosen for the CEO position.
  8. Establish a clear, reasonable timeline with milestones. Your executive search firm partner can help you lay out the steps in the search process and identify clear milestones to determine progress. The timeline should be reasonable, based on current dynamics within the organization, the overall strategic business plan, and the availability of candidates with the right “fit”” for the organization. 
  9. Keep an open mind and be flexible. An excellent executive search firm partner can help you objectively evaluate the type of candidate your organization needs now and in the future. Your executive search committee may think they know what the organization needs in a new CEO, but keeping an open mind and approaching the process using objective data my just reveal the candidate the organization truly needs.

Ed Fry is a founding partner of HealthSearch Partners,

About HealthSearch Partners: HealthSearch Partners is a nationally recognized healthcare executive search firm. We partner with mission-driven hospitals and health systems to find leaders who are focused on success. As a mid-sized firm, our senior search leaders work with clients throughout the engagement, accessing a larger pool of talent, to find the right candidate that is the right fit.