- Chapter 38 -
THE SEARCH COMMITTEE
ith the proliferation of community organizations, each with its own professional head, the executive director, there comes a time for most anyone who is involved in civic endeavors to serve on a search committee for a new head. The process can be much more complicated than just advertising for applicants, interviewing the best candidates, and making a choice, as I have found after serving on 17 search committees.
The first thing a search committee usually wants to do is to decide what characteristics it would like in its new choice, a "job description." This can split the committee in short order as people voice their opinions. One person may state that the need is for someone who is skilled in public relations, while another emphasizes administrative skills, especially as they involve staff. Another committee member may say, "Our finances are in such a mess; we need someone who can straighten them out."
On one committee the chairman asked the members to turn in a list of the characteristics they wanted in a new head. The composite list was so long and diverse, no one could have met such requirements, and it would have completely intimidated any prospects. The list was scrapped.
A good way to arrive at a job description is to have a written form with a whole list of desirable characteristics and have the members of the committee, or preferably even a broader but representative group, prioritize them. Two or three people are appointed to summarize these, and the results, being a consensus, are rarely challenged.
However, it should be emphasized that you end up by hiring a person, not a job description, and it is not wise to get hung up on theoretical requirements. Over and over an obvious choice turns up, liked by all the members of the committee, and even people who had opposed each other in earlier discussions about requirements agree on the choice. It is necessary to stifle a chuckle when you hear several people say, "That's what I had in mind all along."
Another caution is that it is unwise to establish some rigid requirement which might rule out a good candidate. We had a banner committee of outstanding citizens appointed to choose the new professional head for the United Way. Strong opinions were voiced that we must choose a Southerner, someone who understood us. There was some merit to that position, but on the other hand, in looking over all the candidates, I liked the one from New Jersey.
So we summoned all the candidates from the South. There was an intolerable blow-hard from Miami, and another man who demanded an excessive salary. One after another, the Southerners flunked, and the committee finally agreed to see the man from New Jersey. They liked Don Fuscoe, and he got the job. Without their rigid requirement, they would have interviewed Don sooner, and saved themselves time, expense, and effort.
Another important point about a search is that there must be sufficient funds to do it right. Hiring a second or third-rate candidate can be a great deal more costly in the end than the amount spent in a search. In this regard, it is important to advertise the position as widely as possible. Don't go for the line of reasoning that, "We have some good people in this city. The local newspaper should be enough." Emphasize that your organization deserves the best person possible no matter where he or she might come from.
There are those who have been surprised at the suggestion of placing an ad in the Wall Street Journal. You will hear immediate objections, "Oh, we can't afford that," and "We are looking for a social worker, not a business man." But the Wall Street Journal is widely read by talented people in all fields. Furthermore, this publication puts out a periodic compendium of positions available. The best applicant for The Lighthouse for the Blind in our city came from the Wall Street Journal, and that is how we located Regis Barber, who is doing a magnificent job.
There is a way in which you can avoid a very painful experience. It has been quite common that a prospective candidate who appears to have good qualifications is invited for a day of interviews and touring, and in 15 minutes it becomes very apparent that this is the wrong person. The whole process still has to be carried out, much to the discomfiture of the search committee and probably to the candidate who senses early that the interview is not going well. Once, we became very upset with a man who had withheld information from us that made it impossible to consider him as an applicant, and yet we had to go through with the charade. He was too dumb to realize that there was something in his personal life which ruled him out, but there was no point in making an issue out of it with him.
One procedure which can help in this is to have a telephone interview with the candidate on one end and the committee around a conference phone on the other. Of course, this only takes place after all of the applications have been reviewed and the obvious rejects eliminated. There is merit in this telephone interview procedure in that it can save a great deal of time for those making the search, to say nothing of travel costs for bringing an applicant in from out of town. It is no substitute for personal interviews, but it can help reduce the list of finalists. By setting up telephone appointments, it is possible to communicate with as many as 6 or 8 candidates on a Saturday. There is the additional advantage in that the committee members have an opportunity to discuss and compare the different candidates between calls and at the end of the meeting, which is very helpful.
One unfortunate turn of events can take place if the committee members get worn down by the process, especially if no clear choice has turned up, and they feel pressed into making a decision. This occurred once when a search group listened to an applicant tell all the reasons why the position would present opportunities for him and a move to a new city would be to his benefit. He mentioned nothing about what he felt he might contribute to the institution. The committee was so eager to conclude their search that their judgment was blinded, and there was only one dissenting vote. Once he took over the job, it presented the man opportunities all right, to enjoy another man's wife and to consume a plentiful supply of alcohol!
An increasing practice in seeking the best person for a position, which has great merit, is that of hiring an interim head during the search process. This is applicable to churches seeking new ministers, and schools seeking new heads, as there are a number of fine retired clergymen and retired school heads who are prepared to accept temporary assignments. Employing an interim replacement has the value of reducing the pressure on the search committee, and it is especially helpful if the new person is to replace a very popular predecessor who was there for a long time. Also, without an interim director, the replacement has a difficult time as humans, being human, compare him or her to the old occupant of the position. A lapse of time eases this problem.
My experience has been that professional executive search organizations are not helpful when dealing in the field of education, welfare, and community endeavors, although professional "advisors" can be helpful and should be considered. Even Harvard, when seeking a new president, did not use such a service, dealt with the matter in-house, and put a classified ad in suitable publications. On the other hand, it is wise to consult the professional organizations which exist in most organized fields. The Independent Schools Association can be helpful in indicating individuals who are currently located at their member schools and who are candidates to be head of another school. It shows the difference between academia and business. Schools will let the word out to a "competitor" as to their good people who are ready to move on, but businesses certainly never would.
For a top position in business, it is wise to use an executive search organization, but then you have to make a search for the organization which can do the best job for you. Many people will offer their services and claim to be experts, including good friends and old classmates, but it is essential to look far and wide for the best. When we were looking for a new president for the New Orleans Armature Works, Inc., we used a headhunter from Ohio who found a man working in Mexico, who had gotten his training in Schenectady, New York. He was outstanding and built the company so that it was eventually sold to a Big Board corporation at a fine profit for the stock holders. The sale was also profitable for the president who had earned well-deserved stock options.
If a person from another city is being considered, you will frequently find someone on the committee, or someone in the organization as a whole, who has a good friend in that city and who will make inquiries for you. This simple step has prevented some bad mistakes in the past.
And this leads to the matter of checking references. Another chapter of this book is called "Evaluating Employee Applicants." You may want to consult it if you are interested in techniques to accomplish this.
The bonding and the depth of friendship which frequently develop among people on a selection committee are amazing, as they work together in good will to achieve a common goal. In some cases the members express what almost amounts to regret that the task has been accomplished. As one said, "What am I going to do with my Tuesday evenings in the future if I am not going to meet with all of you? Maybe we should have alumni meetings."