The Board's Campfire
Nov 28, 2021
Building a great board of directors is like building the perfect campfire. You have to picture how high the flames might leap or how far the sparks could fly.
I’ve had this metaphor in the back of my mind for some time. I’ve always been fascinated by fires – campfires as a Cub Scout camping in the Rockies, and now wood-burning fires in the old brick fireplace of our vintage home.
I snapped the photo above during one of my favorite moments - early on a cold weekend morning in the dead of winter, with the hounds at my feet and a piping hot mug of coffee in my hand. The hot coals are visible – hot enough to keep burning when new logs are added - even if they are a little ‘green’.
Trying to get a good fire going with firewood that’s unseasoned, frozen, or even worse, wet, is a challenge. No amount of newspaper, tree bark, or other incendiary aids will keep the fire going beyond the initial spark from a long fireplace matchstick. To avoid the fire going out or having to constantly fan the flames, you can plan ahead and take steps to season the firewood.
Similarly, building a good board of directors starts with understanding the board’s purpose and an intentional board recruitment plan. Only when the coals are hot – when there’s board wisdom and expertise in place – is the board ready to accommodate green wood - diversity and fresh thinking.
Let me suggest the savvy director has a key role to play in that effort.
Being a city person, I buy my firewood from a rural farmer who harvests it from his wood lot a year or two in advance. The split wood has a chance to dry out a bit - the seasoning part. When we take delivery of a cord of wood in the early fall, I schlep it from the back lane to the outside storage area, and then inside to a staging area in the sun porch. Finally, the kindling wood is split again, and we’re ready for winter.
It’s like having a pipeline of potential board candidates for your future director talent pool.
With your patience, I’ll extend the fire-building metaphor just a few more paragraphs, and then I’ll leave you with a concrete step-by-step process for recruiting new board members - courtesy of our colleague Paul Smith, founder of the Future Directors Institute in Australia.
Paul has had great success working with his clients to build out or revitalize boards starting with a clear understanding of the board’s PURPOSE - not the organization’s purpose - the board’s.
More to follow.
Keeping the Fire Going
When an organization starts up, its board recruitment needs are quite different than they will be a few years later.
Take the example of a large community project I was involved with. The founding board of civic leaders had a mandate to raise tens of millions of dollars to build a major tourist attraction. The board’s early purpose was to hire the first CEO and then raise the necessary capital, and its composition reflected that purpose.
Once that work is done, the purpose needs to evolve into something different, and so does the board’s composition. Instead of being in fundraising and construction mode, the desired directors’ skills will likely include experience with a world class tourist operation.
On an international scale, think about how the Walt Disney Company must have evolved its board and CEO decision-making skills over the past decade, as its strategy took it beyond movie making and theme parks into online streaming, including the acquisition of major content assets like Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, ABC, ESPN, and other cable networks.
Let’s return to a board startup at the local level. Here’s where I think the campfire metaphor will prove helpful.
You might start with small pieces of dry wood arranged in a fire pit with newspaper, tree bark, or another form of ignition underneath. The wood is arranged so the air can circulate around the kindling. The newspaper is lit under the wood. The dry, outside bark of the kindling ignites first and quickly spreads - roaring to life, creating an initial blaze that will soon fade if not maintained.
I’ve been to first board meetings with that roaring spirit. They can be quite exciting - full of hope and optimism. But how do you sustain it?
The kindling burns brightly at first, but it will need more wood to keep it going. Is that first batch of coals ready for a cold, green, unseasoned log? Likely not, as there’s not enough heat to burn through the moisture. The fire will die out.
Instead, pieces of seasoned firewood are best at this early stage. They’re ready to burn and they’ll produce a good flame from the get-go - building hot coals that can handle a more ‘junior’ or green piece of wood in the future.
This is like building your board from startup, with diverse experienced, seasoned directors - then adding new talent a few years later. What skills and experience are required to help deliver on your board’s purpose at this stage in its maturity?
Diversity of Perspective
Like our example of the community group that’s raised millions to build a tourist attraction, there comes a point when you want to add fresh thinking and new perspectives from beyond the usual director networks.
As with the campfire’s hot coals, the board will have already built a strong base of experience, wisdom, and success, ready to accommodate someone with go-forward skills who isn’t part of the usual network of board recruits. The new person with fresh eyes may just be a next generation director, someone who wouldn’t normally be on your radar.
And that’s a good thing.
Like the perfect campfire, your board’s stage of maturity helps determine how much ‘seasoning’ is required of new directors to take your board’s effectiveness to the next level. Do the issues of the day require a savvy veteran to keep things moving - or a fresh spark of new thinking to reignite the flame that is dying out?
As a savvy director, you can ask the right questions, using the lens of board purpose, to help you decide.
Let’s assume your board has spent quality time with the management team and key stakeholders to articulate the organization’s purpose or mission, answering the question, “What do we do for whom?” or “Why do we exist?”
After reaching consensus on mission, what’s the best way for the board to contribute?
That’s board purpose. What role does the board have in fulfilling the organization’s mission beyond legal and moral responsibilities? What is it there to do?
The answer - unique to your board - will help inform your board’s recruitment strategy.
Returning to our campfire metaphor for a moment – the fire’s purpose influences the type of wood you want to burn. Is your fire intended to be aesthetic or functional?
If the purpose is heat, you may want a slow burning hardwood like oak, once the coals are nice and hot. If the purpose is lots of snap, crackle and pop, then a few pieces of beautiful birch might be in order. And the occasional cedar log can add a wonderful aroma to the room.
Maybe - just as a board thrives with diverse directors – your fire will do best with a blend of different types of wood. Personally, I usually select a 50/50 split of birch and ash.
Step-by-Step Recruitment Process
With full credit to Australia’s Future Directors Institute, here’s a seven-step process to facilitate your board’s approach to director recruitment.
Step 1 - Form a COMMITTEE to lead the process. If this is your first board, jump to Step 2.
Step 2 - If you’ve not done this yet, fully articulate the PURPOSE of the board - not the organization - the board. The board’s purpose goes beyond its legal role and responsibilities. What is it there to do? The board’s purpose is unique to every single entity.
Step 3 - Get clear on the desired board CULTURE, its DIVERSITY, VALUES and the behaviors expected from directors. Hopefully, this is already laid out in your Code of Conduct (or equivalent). If it isn’t, create. If it is, revisit and refresh.
Step 4 - Now create a SKILLS MATRIX. Remember, skill is a proxy for technical expertise, knowledge, lived experience, and networks. Build this around your strategic plan and, possibly, match it to term limits. You’ll end up with a shopping list that’s too long, so then prioritize skills to really zero in on what you need.
Step 5 - RECRUIT. Cast your net wide. Invest energy, if not a bit of cash. Go beyond closed networks. Be inspiring. Don’t just ask for a cover letter and resumé, instead create an online application so candidates must answer your questions and tailor their message to you. It’s a great filter. As an added plus, you get to compare candidate profiles in a single format.
Step 6 - INTERVIEW and test for commitment and a learning mindset. What questions do your candidates ask? How prepared are they? Form your own opinion, don’t rely solely on reputation.
Step 7 - Perform your DUE DILIGENCE - and expect them to do theirs too. If not, ask yourself why they have skipped this vital step. Don’t rely on their handpicked references. If they’ve been a board director before, try and get to speak to the CEO of that company.
Finally, PLEASE DO NOT REJECT anyone for a lack of board experience. Recruit for capabilities and attitudes. Take the time. If you don’t, the consequences could be far more painful. - Paul Smith
- Before starting board recruitment, reach consensus on what the board is there to do beyond its legal role and responsibilities. That is the board’s purpose. It’s different than the organization’s purpose.
- Proactively planning for board succession includes building a pipeline of potential candidates with whom you can cultivate governance relationships over time.
- The startup board skills and experience you need for a founding board are different than what’s required a few years down the road. Stay aligned with your strategic plan.
- Recruit for capabilities and attitudes, then skills.
- Integration of early career directors may work better when more experienced directors are available to guide onboarding and be a ‘board buddy’ to the newcomers. Embrace the opportunity.
- Do your due diligence to avoid costly mistakes when appointing/electing directors to the board. Don’t be lazy about it. Avoid using only the references provided.
- Be intentional about the board culture you want to build and enhance it with every director recruitment decision.
Thank you to FDI’s Paul Smith for helping us wrap up blog #99 of The Savvy Director. Be sure to join us next week for a special 100th edition.
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: How is your board approaching recruitment of next generation directors?