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The Right Director for Your Board

Last week’s blog dealt with board succession. If you read that post (A Better Way to Fill Board Seats), then you know I’m an advocate of treating board succession as an ongoing process of planned renewal.

Maybe you also noticed that we glossed over the whole topic of actually selecting the right director for your board – a process that is complicated enough to merit its own separate blog post.

So, let’s delve into the topic of board recruitment now.

 

Pinpointing What Your Board Needs Right Now

A competency matrix is a useful tool for board succession. It helps you visualize the skills and attributes that the board needs compared to those that it currently has. It makes the gaps obvious.

But, when it comes time to make a final selection, make sure to pinpoint specifically what the board needs at this point in time, asking key questions like:

  • What are the most important things for our board to accomplish?
  • Do we have the right people on the board to make that happen?
  • Is now the time to consider diversity in our director recruitment?
  • Does our board need a director who understands and would champion the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) imperative?
  • Is now the time to consider adding a director who can bring the stakeholder perspective to the table?
  • With the world of work undergoing massive changes, does our board need a director who can ask the right questions about organizational culture and employee engagement?

 

What Board Experience is Necessary?

Boards have traditionally sought director candidates with previous board experience. Their rationale is that directors with no previous board experience face a sharp learning curve.

Still, in the non-profit world where recruiting and retaining qualified directors is a constant challenge, it has been fairly common for boards to turn to retirees with no board experience or early career professionals looking for their first board.

Increasingly, even in the for-profit sector, boards are including first-time directors in their search, looking for top-quality people who have valuable skills but were previously not considered – including candidates from outside the C-suite, or from the civil service, academia, the professions, and the non-profit sector.

Not only that, but the demand for expertise in new and emerging fields such as cybersecurity, AI, digital transformation, organizational design, customer insight, and social communication means that a growing number of first-time directors are being appointed.

The bottom line is that lack of board experience is not the barrier that it once was. If recruiting a first-time director is in your plan, the article Finding the Right Fit has some useful advice. The authors recommend assessing potential first-time directors against five attributes:

  1. Interpersonal skills. The most effective directors are those who understand that their job is to listen carefully and speak sparingly.
  2. Intellectual approach. Directors need the cognitive power and strategic capabilities to make good judgments in an ambiguous, complex, changing environment.
  3. Integrity. Directors may not be required to speak a great deal, but they are expected to be principled and thoughtful and to leave their egos at the door.
  4. Independent mindedness. Effective directors enjoy the give-and-take of discussion. They think for themselves while engaging with fellow board members in a collaborative way.
  5. Inclination to engage. Effective directors have a genuine interest in the organization, taking the time to learn about its history and the forces affecting it.

 

Who’s Out There?

When a board vacancy occurs, a board with a robust succession plan starts from a position of strength because it has a pipeline of interested and qualified director candidates. The recruitment process begins with confirming whether the candidates in the pipeline are still available and interested. Life moves on - your best potential candidate may be serving elsewhere by the time you have the right vacancy for them.

Another effective strategy for developing a director feeder system is to use a committee structure that includes non-board committee members. This method is increasingly popular on non-profit boards, which find that asking potential candidates to serve on a committee helps ensure a good fit.

Many boards continue to rely solely on referrals and recommendations from their existing board members. The problem with this approach is it can easily give rise to self-reinforcing homogeneity. It’s especially problematic if your board is looking to build more diverse perspectives into its decision-making.

Effective boards find they need to cast a wider net, reaching outside their network and using creative approaches to include people with backgrounds that are outside their pre-conceived notions. In the non-profit sector, boards often use advertising, social media (such as LinkedIn,) job boards, and local community board-match programs to find and attract director candidates.

A recruitment package is a useful tool in the process. The article Tips for a Non-Profit Board Recruitment Package has some suggestions for what to include. You might consider posting some of the information – such as a job description, application form, and description of the recruitment process - on the organization’s website.

 

Getting to Know the Candidates

An effective board depends on the governance or nominating committee to screen and interview candidates and recommend the most suitable ones to the full board. Boards with a less formal structure may leave the task to the board chair. Some boards delegate the task to the CEO, but that isn’t a good idea.

While the CEO can provide valuable assistance and support, they should not handpick board members or exert undue influence. Why? Because it’s a conflict of interest for a CEO to select the board members who ultimately assess their performance and determine their compensation.

Some boards use a multi-step approach that might start with a casual lunch, followed by an interview with the committee, and culminating with a full board interview. Or they may start the process with a search firm that performs the screening and conducts a preliminary interview.

Use the interview to get to know the candidates - gather information, understand their motivation, learn about their personal style, and ensure they understand what’s expected. For suggested interview questions, refer to our previous blog post, Preparing for a Board Interview.

Look out for red flags such as potential conflicts of interest, trying to pad a resume, serving on too many boards, or having a personal agenda. To complete your due diligence, conduct reference checks and background checks, including those required by regulators.

Assuming the interview, reference checks and background checks raise no concerns, ask your top candidate(s) if they would be willing to serve if nominated and elected. The actual invitation to join should only come from someone who is authorized – usually the committee chair or board chair. Keep in mind that who asks can make a difference in whether the candidate says ‘yes.’ Most potential directors would like a formal invitation to come from the board chair.

If the candidate does say yes, let them know about next steps, such as how and when the election or appointment takes place and how they’ll be notified of the outcome.

And once they’ve joined the board, it helps to think of onboarding as an extension of the recruitment process. If you’ve brought a first-time director onto your board, make sure to help them understand their legal duties, roles and responsibilities, and the bright line between governance and management. For more practical advice on designing an onboarding program, read our earlier blog post, Hit the Ground Running.

 

Advice for the Savvy Director

When considering prospective candidates for your board, think about the following questions adapted from Finding the Right Fit.

  • Interpersonal skills — Has the candidate demonstrated an ability to build relationships and gain trust? Do they exercise diplomacy and tact? Do they listen and adjust to others’ input?
  • Intellectual approach — Can the candidate handle complexity? Can they simplify issues to their essence to make sound decisions? Are they comfortable with ambiguity? Can they look far ahead?
  • Integrity — Has the candidate adhered to and lived by a strong set of values? Are they honest and truthful? Are they authentic, self-aware, and confident enough to be themselves?
  • Independent mindedness — Can the candidate set out and defend a position, even if it means going it alone? Can they maintain positive relationships amid conflicting viewpoints?
  • Inclination to engage — Is the candidate motivated to invest time and effort in learning about the organization and staying up to date? Will they follow through on their commitments?

 

Your takeaways:

  • When there’s a board vacancy, consider what your board needs right now.
  • Avoid ignoring a great prospect just because they have no prior board experience.
  • Cast a wide net. Look further than the network of your current board directors.
  • Put together a board recruitment package to attract more candidates.
  • Conduct thorough, probing interviews to get to know the candidates.

 

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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