With a thousand job placements to his credit, executive recruiter Price Harding believes that the right search process can eliminate the risk of surprises after a match is made.

An incoming leader should have a firm grasp of what the position entails, Harding says, and the institution should know precisely the skills and shortcomings that the leader brings to the job. If a new hire fails to meet board expectations, Harding suggests that the reason for the failure was probably evident — but ignored — during the vetting process. “A search committee does its best work when it concentrates on red flags,” he advises.  

Price Harding

Thirty years of interaction with search committees have convinced Harding — who is a founding partner of a prominent Atlanta search firm, CarterBaldwin — that certain practices result in successful matches. He sometimes offers pro bono advice about these practices to nonprofit boards that request a word or two of counsel as they prepare for a major search. 

He plans to flesh out this advice in Hire Power, his upcoming book about recruiting leaders for Christian organizations. And he has a lot of experience, with a resume that includes executive searches for Young Life, Bethany Christian Services, Wheaton College, Taylor University, Marketplace Ministries, the In Trust Center for Theological Schools, and more. He believes that his strategies are equally appropriate for seminary trustees charged with identifying and wooing their school’s next president. 

Among his tips: 

  • Strive for diverse points of view. The best board-appointed search team — from 8 to 14 members strong — reflects the community it serves. In the case of a school of theology, that means a mix of faculty, administration, students, staff, and trustees, with no category dominating. Caution: “Members shouldn’t come to the committee advocating for their constituency; they should come to the committee advocating for the seminary. Everyone’s input is welcome, but the board curates the input to ensure the school’s mission is preserved.” 
  • Put it in writing. The board should create a document that spells out what it expects the search committee to accomplish. The committee chair, either named by the board (preferable) or elected by the committee, is charged with guiding members toward completing the tasks. Caution: The goals document shouldn’t include a narrow profile of the “perfect” candidate because “that could exclude [nontraditional] persons the school might want to consider.” 
  • Establish a detailed timeline. Start with the date when the board will cast its vote on the recommended candidate, then work backward. Full participation is more likely when search committee members know in advance the times and places of all their meetings. Caution: A typical search requires about seven months of intense work, but anything more than nine months may be too long. 
  • Build a budget. Executive searches are expensive, with or without the fees of outside consultants. Even so, Harding believes that hiring an organizational psychologist to assess candidates’ leadership skills is money well spent. As for engaging an executive search firm, some agencies charge a standard fee for a presidential search (often six figures), while others charge a third of the future president’s salary. Caution: Set aside adequate funds to cover travel, lodging, staff time, and incidentals. “The right president will easily create revenue for the seminary that far exceeds the cost of his or her recruitment.”   
  • Design a multistep plan. At CarterBaldwin, the process begins with an invitation for candidates to submit resumes to the search committee. The next step is a request for responses to three essay questions because “candidates need to show they can write as well as speak compellingly.” This is followed by an interview of two to three hours with Harding or one of his colleagues. A lengthy meeting with the entire search committee is next; references are carefully checked; and a dinner is scheduled with the candidate and spouse. Caution: Because the process is both time consuming and revealing for everyone involved, the pool of prospects naturally shrinks. Harding likens the exercise to a courtship. “A lot of ‘woo’ has to occur to keep qualified candidates sufficiently interested to work through the steps,” he says. 

As the field is winnowed to a single name, he recommends that a subcommittee of the search team conduct a face-to-face interview with the candidate’s current supervisor, most likely an institution’s president or board chair. “We don’t let the candidate decide who that person is going to be,” he says. The purpose of the interview is twofold. “First, it forces the candidate to be up front about being a finalist for a position at another organization. In a sense, she’s burned her bridges.” Second, it allows the search committee to ask questions that will elicit information not included in a resume or reference letter. “For example: ‘Tell me about his marriage’ and ‘Have you ever seen him lose his temper? What were the circumstances, and how did he react?’”

Beyond the basics

Exhaustive research works both ways. An online probe gives a job candidate a cursory introduction to a seminary, but it’s hardly conclusive. As Harding points out, “an institution can have a great presence on the web but have a Form 990 that is an embarrassment.” (Form 990 is the IRS financial reporting document for nonprofits.) Harding recalls working with a school whose trustees were unaware that a former administrator had legally borrowed against the school’s sizeable endowment. Through research, the frontrunner for the presidency learned of the transaction and told board members he would accept the position only if they would make up the deficit. The trustees recognized their own lack of attention and their former administrator’s lack of judgment. They also recognized the job candidate’s diligence in going beyond the basics in assessing the school’s financial stability. “It still amazes me that they were able to come up with funds that quickly, but they did,” says Harding.

A well-executed search process can reap benefits that go far beyond recruiting the right leader. Often when a search committee first gathers, members are wary of each other. Trustees don’t entirely trust or understand the faculty, and the faculty doesn’t entirely trust or understand the board. After a meeting or two, they begin to appreciate each group’s commitment to the institution. Trustees are volunteers who give of their time and resources because they believe in the school’s mission. Faculty members serve out their life calling by preparing future generations for leadership roles in the church. Differences dissipate, and respect grows.

“Amazingly, these search processes can be something of a cultural and even a spiritual revival for a seminary when committee members’ enthusiasm for an institution and its mission is ignited,” says Harding. “Permanent friendships form among trustees, faculty, administrators, and staff. They realize that they have a lot of vested interest in the new president that they’ve worked cooperatively and collaboratively to hire.”

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