How do you select an executive board member?

02 Jul 2014

How do you select an executive board member?

Selecting a board member raises a host of crucial questions, the answers to which will bear directly on the future success of one’s organisation. What are some of the most important characteristics of an individual to explore when selecting a board member?

A record of decision-making

A candidate’s track record for success has to be both credible and unblemished, particularly in public organisations with shareholders to answer to. Even unfounded allegations can be unwelcome and deter selection committees. This doesn’t mean prospective leaders should be determinedly risk-averse; learning from mistakes is important for personal growth. But moral questions are generally show-stoppers.

A leader must also not be conflicted. For example, an individual must not sit on the board of a competitor or supplier. Hopefully they will have declared any other boards they sit on, but you will have to conduct research to make certain, likewise verifying certifications with the relevant educational institutions and performing criminal and credit checks. These are minimum criteria for qualification – the necessary but not sufficient conditions of candidacy.

For the real contenders, you will need to look at much more than basic qualifications: you’ll need to consider a person’s record of decision-making and competence, paying special attention to the emotional element. Look for examples of times in their history when they’ve come across stressful situations, made difficult decisions under pressure, and implemented their decisions. Those choices will tell a story, and that story will help you determine someone’s skills as a leader. Even if it was a tough decision, did they act with compassion and empathy?

A successful track record track in the relevant sector is significant, but an individual must also be able to demonstrate balanced priorities: a partner, family, friends, and hobbies. These are the touchstones of a full, rounded, and emotionally mature life.

You’ll learn a great deal about someone from how they conduct personal interactions. In conversation, are they interested in listening as well as speaking? Are they comfortable, authentic, and curious? These are qualities that are difficult to fake, and they’re crucial for a leader.

Weighing characteristics

Once you have formed a comprehensive picture of a candidate, how do you balance and prioritise those attributes to make a selection?

Typically, this is a narrowing process wherein you first select for the absolutely necessary competence and track record – then start honing in on the characteristics that will make a person a good culture fit for the job. This is where being able to identify the real personality traits and emotional makeup of a candidate is crucial – often the personality you experience in an interview is not the one you see on the job, particularly under pressure! (It’s a little like when the person you fall in love with seems to be completely different six months down the line.)

Strong board members must possess the self-awareness to understand their own personality, to recognise how they are perceived, and to be able to adapt their personality in order to fit in with the culture. They must have the confidence to lead yet be open to feedback to improve their performance.

Just as a board-level leader must be open to new information, you must seek a variety of perspectives on a candidate. In some respects your most reliable insight will come from personal interactions with an individual – meaning both your own conversations and the candidate’s relationships with the people around them. If possible, you should gather five or six of a person’s contacts at various levels – peers, suppliers, and colleagues, for example. When you speak to contacts in a candidate’s market and hear about the same traits time and time again – “she’s a fantastic listener, empathetic and cool under pressure” – that’s suggestive of a genuine leader.