Preparing for a Board Interview

The board interview – it’s a key step in assessing the fit between a board of directors and a potential new board member. But for both parties – the board and the candidate - it’s so much more than that.

Last week The Savvy Director blog focused on the ‘fit’ – or lack thereof – between a board and potential new directors. We advised using behavioral questions to uncover candidates’ fit with the board. And we provided some questions for potential directors to help determine the board’s fit with them.

So let’s say you’ve thought hard about it and you’ve got a pretty good feeling about the fit between you and a particular board – good enough to take part in an interview, at least.

What should you expect? What should your goal be? And how should you prepare?

We’re going to try to answer those questions in this week’s blog.

 

What to Expect

Boards differ markedly in their approach to identifying, screening, and interviewing director candidates. I’ve seen some that leave the whole process to a nominating committee, or maybe one or two directors, or even just the board chair. I’ve even heard tell of some boards that leave it to the CEO or Executive Director. (Do I need to say that I disapprove of that approach?)

Some boards use a multi-step approach that starts, perhaps, with a casual lunch with one or two directors, followed by an interview with a committee, and culminating with an interview with the full board. Or they may start the process with a search firm which performs the screening and conducts a preliminary interview before you even get to talk to a board member.

You should find out in advance what approach your prospective board is using, and what the steps will be. Your preparation for a small, casual lunch or coffee might be quite different from that you would take for a full board interview.

These days, the interview is just as likely (or maybe more likely) to take place online as in-person. Either way, treat the experience the same way you would any job interview. Keep to the schedule, allow enough time, and avoid interruptions.

Once again, boards differ a great deal in how they conduct interviews. You will easily recognize the approach that’s being used within a few minutes of the interview starting.

At one extreme is the structured interview. I’ve participated in some very disciplined, structured interviews over the years. Using this approach, a list of questions is drawn up ahead of time, each interviewer is assigned a couple of the questions, and copious notes are taken.

This type of interview is usually quite comprehensive, but it risks becoming a ‘check the box’ exercise. It can be difficult as a candidate to really convey who you are and what value you bring to the table with this approach, because you are locked into the pre-arranged sequence of questions and responses. Watch for your opportunity toward the end when you are asked something like, “Is there anything you’d like to add?”

At the other extreme is an unplanned free-for-all where each board member acts on what is most important to them and asks whatever comes to mind. As you might guess, this approach can leave the board with information gaps. But from the candidate’s point of view, it’s easier to create opportunities to have their say.

The board’s interview goals influence how they conduct the interview and the questions they ask. Below are some questions you might expect, grouped by purpose.

To get to know you ─
  • Tell us about yourself.
  • Tell us a bit about your upbringing and your family.
  • What outside interests do you have?

To gather information about your career and your specific expertise ─
  • What are you currently doing professionally?
  • Give us a brief chronology of your career.
  • What do you consider to be your core areas of expertise?

 

To determine what kind of board experience you would bring to the table ─
  • What other board experiences have you had?
  • What were some of the most interesting board experiences you’ve had?
  • What’s the most important thing you’ve learned serving on boards?
  • What were your greatest contributions to boards you’ve served on?
  • What board committees are you most qualified for / most interested in?
 
To understand your motivation ─
  • Why do you want to be a board member?
  • What interests you most about our organization?
  • How passionate are you about our cause? (Not for Profit)
  • What makes our mission meaningful to you?
  • What do you already know about our company?
  • What are your personal goals for serving on a board?
  • What do you look for in a board you are considering?
  • What is your expectation for the compensation package for directors? (For Profit)
  • Do you have any worries or concerns about joining the board?
 
To learn about your personal style ─
  • Give us an example of when you had to deal with a difficult problem on a board.
  • Tell us about a time you had to deal with a difficult board member you didn’t agree with.
  • Tell us about a time you had to demonstrate courage.
  • What is your unique contribution to a board?
  • Were you ever considered for a board and not selected?
 
To ensure you understand what’s expected and are prepared to commit time and energy ─
  • Are you aware of the personal financial commitment? (Not for Profit)
  •  Do you have any real or perceived conflicts of interest?
  • How much time can you give us?
  • What are your expectations for the time necessary for our board?

 

What Is Your Interview Goal?

Let’s turn the table and address what goals you, as a candidate, might have.

For example, below are some common goals you might try to achieve. There are likely many others that are personal to you. You should give this serious thought.

  • To gain clarity on why you were approached and what the expectations are.
  • To assess the organization’s maturity level and understand the board’s governance model.
  • To uncover the organization’s current financial health and future plans.
  • To make sure you’ll be adequately protected from liability if you join the board.
  • To share and discuss any potential conflicts of interest.
  • To understand the board’s culture and interpersonal dynamics.
  • To find out if this role is aligned with personal goals such as building your network or acquiring new skills.
  • To figure out if you can fit this director role into your life right now.

Your questions should flow easily and logically from the goals you’ve set. You might want to categorize them into buckets such as the ones below. Here are just a few questions to get you started. Refer to the ‘Resources’ section for more.

 

The organization:
  • What are the organization’s recent achievements that you’re most proud of?
  • What are the significant strategic goals for the organization over the next few years?
  • What are the biggest challenges facing the organization? And the biggest threats?
  • What are the organization’s biggest opportunities? And the biggest risks?
  • What is the ownership structure? Who is the owner?
 
The industry:
  • What are some of the industry’s recent achievements and failures?
  • What are the most significant opportunities and challenges facing the industry over the next few years?
 
Finances:
  • How is the organization funded and how secure is that funding?
  • Do you expect funding to increase or decrease in the future?
  • What are the revenue sources?
  • How would you rate the organization’s financial health?
  • What’s the current financial situation? And what’s the outlook?
  • What are the organization’s financial drivers?
 
The board:
  • How long are director terms and are there term limits?
  • What are the board committees and expectations for directors to serve on them?
  • What are the expectations for board members?
  • How often does the board meet? And committees?
  • Would you describe the board as hands-on or does it operate at 30,000 feet?
  • How would you describe the culture of the board?
  • How would you describe the leadership style of the board chair?
 
The CEO and the management team:
  • How well is the board supported by management?
  • What is the board’s relationship with management like?
 
Personal concerns:
  • Are there any outstanding legal issues I should know about?
  • How would you describe the organizational culture?
  • Please tell me about indemnity and insurance that protects directors from legal liability.
  • What questions have other candidates asked that I haven’t?

 

How To Prepare

Before they ever meet you in person (or online), board members will take a look at your resume. So, make sure that it’s focused on board work. A pet peeve of mine is that would-be directors do not make the effort to customize their resume or CV so that it highlights their board-related experience. I suggest that you read the article ‘7 Steps to Create a Killer Board CV’ (see the link under 'Resources' below) to get a handle on what a board-focused resume should look like.

And don’t be surprised if the board checks out your LinkedIn profile too. Does it need updating to be more board-focused?

Find out more about the organization by doing some preliminary research. At the very least, check out the company website – often you will find the most recent financials as well as information about the board and the management team. Not only does this show the interviewers that you are serious about the opportunity, but it will save time in the interview if you already have some basic information.

Be clear about the value that you would bring to the board. I can’t emphasize this enough. Put it down in writing. Hone it into an elevator speech. Practice it in the mirror. It will build your confidence and help allay your nervousness.

Anticipate the questions you might be asked and consider your responses. Have a few personal stories in your back pocket to illustrate how you have handled difficult situations in the past.

Put together your own list of questions and bring it with you. When an interviewer asks you if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to refer to your prepared list – it demonstrates that you spent time preparing. Don’t be surprised if most of your questions have been answered during the course of the interview.

Remember to ask about next steps and when the board will make their decision. Keep in mind that sometimes the time lag between the interview and your notification can be quite lengthy. This is especially true of public sector boards such as government agencies, councils and commissions.

For further support on your journey to joining a board, I’d suggest you listen to Alexander Lowry’s weekly podcast ‘Boardroom Bound’ (see the link in ‘Resources’ below.)

And finally, please accept this free download of DirectorPrep’s Ten Great Questions about Joining a Board. I hope it helps!

 

Your takeaways:

  • Boards differ widely in their approach to board interviews.
  • Both the board and the candidate want to achieve certain goals through the interview process.
  • Treat your board interview with the seriousness you would any job interview.
  • KNOW YOUR VALUE!

 

Resources:

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott

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.


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