Recently, I worked with a board of directors to prepare a list of potential interview questions for prospective board members. The questions were carefully selected to try to uncover candidates’ ‘Three C’s’ – competence, character, and chemistry.
The first two C’s are fairly obvious. Competence questions focus on education, knowledge, skills, and experience. Character questions are meant to reveal the candidate’s integrity and moral courage.
But what is the third ‘C’ – chemistry? And how does the board assess it?
“I have experienced plenty of organizations where you have very capable people but don’t get anything like the best out of them because the dynamics and chemistry are not right.” – Ruth Cairnie, Chair, Babcock International Group
Another way of referring to ‘chemistry’ is ‘fit,’ as in, “Will this candidate be a good fit for our board?” Today’s article explores the concept of ‘fit’ from the board’s point of view as well as from the perspective of the individual director.
Fit is a matter of board culture and group dynamics – the behaviors, relationships, attitudes, and values that characterize the board and the organization. It’s about the match between the individual’s preferences on one hand and the board’s realities on the other hand.
When there’s a good fit, onboarding is easier, existing directors are more comfortable with the newcomer, and the new director feels like a contributing board member more quickly. There’s barely a ripple in the smooth operation of the board – the new director slips into the vacant seat and, soon enough, board discussions and decision-making proceed along the lines they always have.
And when the fit is not-so-good? Well, that can go in a few different directions. Maybe the new director will change the board culture and the group dynamics, if the other directors are open to that. Or maybe they will decide to part ways because they can’t make it work. Or possibly they will settle into an uneasy, uncomfortable rhythm where the new director is always on the outs with the group.
“The best boards are assembled like high-performing baseball teams. Chemistry matters and all directors must be equal, full participants. They all wear the same jerseys. Attracting and smoothly integrating a newcomer works best when the company is clear on what unique, individual contribution this board member is intended to make and why that matters to board deliberations and the success of the enterprise.” – Tom Long, Managing partner of Tom Long Consulting Inc. and contributor to The Globe and Mail
In recruiting new directors, boards usually look for candidates that they feel comfortable with, who seem like they will fit in well with the board’s culture. This preference might be clearly articulated, or it might be tacitly understood yet not spoken aloud. In either case, seeking a fit with the current culture is not necessarily a bad thing if the board is functioning well and its culture is robust and positive.
But what if a board wants to deliberately change its culture? In that case, it should look for candidates who are a good match with the desired culture, rather than the current one, even though this will be a less comfortable choice.
Let’s say, for example, that the current board tends toward Groupthink – that there is too much conformity and not enough challenging of assumptions. (Want to know more about Groupthink? Click here to read our blog post on the topic.)
If the board recognizes these shortcomings (which is a big If!), it may wish to improve its effectiveness by cultivating a culture of open dissent – one where challenging questions are expected and inter-personal relationships are strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints.
In this scenario, the best fit for the board is a candidate who will challenge the status quo, who possesses the willingness to ask difficult questions along with the skill of asking them in a respectful, non-threatening way.
“I often say, ‘I don’t think you want me on your board. Because I am contentious. I ask a lot of questions and if I don’t get the answers, I won’t sit down.’ That’s the kind of board member that I want on my board … .” – Bernie Marcus, Home Depot co-founder, former CEO and Chairman
Unfortunately, there is no way – at least none that I know of – that guarantees a good fit between a candidate and the board. But there are ways to at least improve the odds.
First, be clear about what you are looking for, not just in the areas of competence and character, but also in chemistry.
Many boards use a skills matrix to identify a desired combination of professional skills and industry experience, and require background checks and references to confirm a candidate’s integrity. But it’s less common for a board to clearly articulate what they are looking for in terms of chemistry, or fit. They rely on their ability to “know it when they see it.”
“The best advice for all concerned to avoid … [the risks of a bad fit between director and board] is to 'measure twice and cut once.' Easy to say, Hard, meticulous work to get right.” – Tom Long
I’d advise boards to start by clearly describing their culture – both their current one and their desired one, if different – and then articulating the individual characteristics that will result in the best fit.
The next step – also a challenging one – is to evaluate prospective directors in terms of those characteristics. This kind of evaluation does not come from reading resumes or social media profiles. It requires a personal interview.
Unfortunately, many board directors do not have great interviewing skills. If you’re lucky enough to have an HR professional or other experienced interviewer on your board, make sure they are a part of the panel that interviews prospective board members.
In terms of interview questions, the best ones to reveal a candidate’s fit are behavioral questions. The premise behind this type of question is that a person’s past behavior reflects who they are and predicts how they will behave in the future. For instance, instead of asking a candidate, “Do you stand up for your beliefs?” you would say, “Tell us about a time you had to stand up for your beliefs.” Responses to the first question will let you know how candidates view themselves, but responses to the second question are much more likely to reveal how they will be viewed by the board.
Behavioral questions usually begin with the phrase “Tell us about a time when … “ or “Give us an example of … “ They require candidates to reflect on their own past experiences and talk about their actions. Choose a few behavioral questions that are aligned with the individual characteristics you are looking for, such as:
You get the picture.
Please don’t use the desire for a good fit as an excuse to limit your board’s diversity. We are naturally most comfortable with people who look and sound like us. Resist the temptation to seek out clones of your current board directors.
Keep in mind the benefits of diversity and inclusion at the board. (Click here to read our blog post about diversity and inclusion.) Cast a wide net to discover a pool of candidates from diverse backgrounds with a variety of perspectives. And look for different thinking styles – analytical and strategic; people-focused, data-focused and process-focused; big picture thinkers and detailed thinkers; idealists, realists, and pragmatists; risk tolerant and risk averse.
A widely admired CEO was invited to join the board of a famous corporation. He was told, as a matter of custom, new directors were expected to say nothing for the first 12 months. The candidate said, “Fine. I’ll see you in a year.” – story told by Ken Langone, business person, investor and philanthropist
Whether you are actively seeking board positions or have been approached by a board looking for you, you should give some serious thought to this concept of ‘fit.’ Just as the board wants a good fit in order to maximize its effectiveness, the individual wants a good fit so they can find personal satisfaction and fulfillment while adding value and making a difference.
Let’s start with the first layer of fitness. Do you even want to be a board director in the first place? Board work is not for everyone, and there’s no shame in that. Make sure you understand what being a board director is all about and whether it’s the kind of work that you would be good at and you would find fulfilling.
“A surprising number of effective business leaders would actually make lacklustre (and unhappy) directors. … They enjoy calling the shots and would find oversight tedious, and team-based reflection and decision-making alien and frustrating. Others … would likely fold when the going gets tough, shy away from asking direct and often awkward questions, or … skim over the pre-reads.” – Tom Long
The next layer of fitness to consider is the type of board and organization that is best for you. Not all organizations need the same kind of board, and not all boards operate the same way.
Organizations have evolving needs as they move through stages of maturity. The board involvement changes with every stage and every new governance model adopted. (Click here to read more about governance models.)
Knowing your own style as you choose a board will help you cater to how you most like to contribute and ways you feel most fulfilled. Are you looking for hands-on involvement? Or are you more comfortable with a 20,000 foot view of the organization?
The last layer of fitness to think about is the specific board, its culture and its interpersonal dynamics. You should try to get clarity on how the board currently operates and whether it is looking for change or is content with the status quo.
And you should also be clear in your own mind – and able to articulate out loud - what value you would bring to the board.
“So you want to be a board member? Find a meaningful cause and an organization you believe in. Ensure the staffing is right so you can focus on what you like and offer what you are best at. Fall in love with the people you are going to spend time working with. Foster a financially responsible environment. Be generous and have a great time!” – Dale Miller, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: What great questions have you asked, or been asked, at a board interview?