Thinking About Joining Your First Board? Some Tips

What first-time candidates need to know about the board recruiting process.

Over the last year, corporations have made tremendous efforts to diversify the composition and enhance the capabilities of their boards. As board recruiting strategies evolved to identify diverse and qualified talent, an increasing number of executives were exposed to the board recruiting process for the first time. In fact, 35% of new directors in the S&P 500 and 25% of new directors in the Russell 3,000 were first time directors.

Board search firms like ours are now often coaching executives through the recruiting process since so many are unaware of the plethora of machinations and nuances involved at each step. There are certain actions that should be taken by the candidate during a board recruiting process, including the moment a prospective candidate is notified of a board’s interest, during the interview process, and when a formal invitation to join a board is extended. We have witnessed many missteps due to unfamiliarity with the process and mistaken assumptions, which can impact a candidate’s credibility.

We’ve compiled our best advice into this roadmap to help first-time candidates navigate the board recruiting process to increase chances of success. If you are an aspiring public company director and have never been recruited to a board, this roadmap is for you.

#1:  The Success Profile

Companies in the Fortune 1,000 generally retain a board search firm when they need to add a new director to their board. The reasons for recruiting a new director can vary. There may be an upcoming retirement, an unforeseen departure, the need to add specific experience or expertise, or a need to increase diversity.

In our experience, the board has a clear understanding of what specific skills and experience gaps it needs to address most of the time. However, sometimes the search firm will work closely with the chairperson, CEO, lead director, and chair of the nominating and governance committee to facilitate stakeholder feedback meetings to gather input on the ideal success profile. In many instances, the CHRO and even the General Counsel can play an important role, providing input, guidance, and direction. A board typically puts together a search committee of these key stakeholders.

Once the board search committee has agreed on the ideal skill matrix and professional and personal characteristics of potential candidates, the search firm develops an initial list of potential candidate ideas. The list can be quite extensive. Over the course of several weeks, and sometimes months, the board and the search firm will narrow down and prioritize the top candidates. This initial number can range anywhere from two to fifteen individuals for each open board seat. The search firm will then be authorized to approach those select prioritized candidates regarding the specific board opportunity.

#2:  Evaluating Potential Opportunities

When a search firm first reaches out to you about a specific board opportunity, you should be aware that the firm and the board have already conducted an extensive amount of research, due diligence, and third party referencing on your potential candidacy. Unlike the executive search process, the initial outreach is not a learning session about your career highlights and aspirations. Instead, the conversation is intended to provide you with as much context on the opportunity, the company, and the key constituents involved, to determine if you are interested in considering this specific opportunity.

If you are interested in the opportunity, you must first clarify whether you are allowed to sit on an outside company board. It’s critical that you know this information upfront. Unlike executive search, it is not necessary to keep a board opportunity confidential from your company.  Oftentimes a company will have a policy on whether employees can serve on boards. A policy will also limit the type of company boards executives can sit on, especially if the board or if members of the board present a conflict of interest (for example, you will be barred from sitting on the board of a competitor and significant supplier). Most policies dictate that sitting executives are only allowed to sit on one board—so remember that if you agree to serve on a board, you may not be able to entertain another board opportunity until you rotate off or retire from your executive role. Many companies also have a process to have a board opportunity approved. We have also encountered situations when a company’s strategy has impeded a candidate’s ability to serve on a board. For example, if the company will be going through a restructuring or a merger, an executive who will play a significant role in the execution of the strategy may not be given approval to sit on an outside board for capacity and optical reasons.

Second, while this may seem premature, you will need to confirm whether the board meeting dates conflict with your company’s board meeting dates or other significant company meetings.  While schedule conflicts are easy to determine, board candidates sometimes leave this step towards the end of the process which can lead to unexpected and unsuccessful outcomes.  When evaluating any board opportunity, it is critical for you to do this step before moving forward.

If you pass these first two hurdles, you should then ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is this the type of board role I would accept if offered?

2. What are my motivations for considering this board? (People, products, learning, impact, stature, financial, etc.)

3. Can I impact the success of the board and this company?

4. Would my CEO/board/company want me to serve on this type of board?

5. Do I have the bandwidth (200 hours/year) to be an effective director as well as successfully perform my current executive responsibilities?

If the answer to any of these questions is not in alignment with you pursuing this opportunity, you should let the search firm know within seven days. It is critical to be honest about these questions as early in the process as possible. We have seen candidates who are aware that the answer to one of these questions might pose a problem but continue to move forward with the process anyway. They mistakenly believe that exploring the opportunity will allow them to learn without commitment, enhance their candidacy for other opportunities, and extend their network and relationships. However, boards do not like being turned down during the final stages of the search process for any of the above reasons. Your candidacy likely has an impact on the board’s broader recruiting strategy, or they may have slowed down attempts to attract other candidates to spend time with you. Being disrespectful to the board’s time can have unintended consequences and can affect your personal brand in the marketplace.

If you decide to pursue the board opportunity and you are confident in your answers to the above questions, you should take the necessary time to review your company’s policy on serving on an outside board and perform as much due diligence as possible about the company, the CEO, and the board. This includes:

• Position specification (from the search firm)

• Annual Report, Proxy, and 10-K

• Analyst reports on the company and industry

• Investor presentations

• Bios of board members and the management team

• Perspective from close and trusted relationships that know about the company or industry.

#3:  Interviewing with the Board

Once you have agreed to move towards formal interviewing, and generally following an extensive discussion or interview with the search firm, you will be invited to an initial meeting with the designated board search committee lead. At this time, you should have received preliminary approval from your company to consider and potentially join this specific board. After your initial meeting, there will be immediate feedback from the board search committee to the search firm about your potential candidacy and fit.

We are often asked how boards evaluate prospective candidates. While each situation is unique, we have found there three common themes that are addressed during the first few meetings:

1. Will you be able to successfully transition from being an executive to a board member? As there are many different types of leadership styles that can be effective as an executive, some can be obstacles when becoming an effective director. No matter your leadership and communication styles, you need to understand and demonstrate during your interview the skills and perspective needed to be an effective director versus an executive. As a board member, you are expected to provide guidance and advice; not to require the details that an operator of the company would need.

2. Will you be an effective listener? As a director, you will need to listen to the perspectives of your fellow board members and the management team, but also from all your stakeholders. The most effective directors are those who can distill complicated issues into profound brevity and can help unify others to make decisions together. You will need to be willing to learn from the diverse perspectives of others and allow them to change and reshape your thinking. We have helped boards recruit talent for more than 30 years, and we can assure you that the most ineffective directors are those whose default communication approach is to talk instead of listen.

3. Will you be able to ask good questions? As a director, the ability to ask questions that provide enhanced insights to make better group decisions is the key to having impact in the boardroom. Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in corporations as its fosters more-effective interactions, strengthens trust and chemistry, and better aligns the board and management team on the most critical issues. How you approach your conversations with the Board Search Committee will provide them insight on how you would interact as a director.

For each open board seat, it is common practice that only 2–3 candidates will be invited to formally interview. Often, the board has a variety of skill and experience needs to be filled, and each potential candidate will bring something different and unique to the table. Future committee membership and board leadership, as well as factors such as ESG needs (Environmental/Social/Governance) and diversity can play a role in the assessment of the candidate’s fit. If you have been asked to interview, you should consider it a huge compliment and a testament to what they know or have heard about you.

As you progress through the process, you will also meet the chair, CEO, lead director (where applicable), and most likely the rest of the nominating and governance committee. In many cases, it will be appropriate for you to also meet with a specific member of the management team, depending upon the committees on which you are potentially slotted to serve. You should prepare to meet 5–7 different individuals during the process and expect the interview stage to last 2–3 months.

Once the board has decided they would like to potentially invite you to join the board, several key next steps will take place:

1. Formal Approval. You will need to let all relevant stakeholders at your current company know about your candidacy, to gain the final approval to accept an invitation to join the board, if offered. This ideally is done before the following steps.

2. Candidate Background Check. You will be given an authorization form to sign and return.

3. D&O Questionnaire. You will complete the questionnaire provided by the company to fulfill SEC requirements.

4. Formal References. You will need to provide a list of references that provide a 360-degree perspective. The search firm will be responsible for leading this process.

#4:  Receiving and Accepting an Invitation

Assuming a positive outcome to the steps above, the nominating and governance committee will recommend that you are formally offered a seat on their board. Once the full board votes on that motion, the chair or the chair of the nominating and governance committee will call you to formally confirm your selection and invite you to join the board as well as attend the next board meeting. It is routine for a candidate to immediately accept the offer unless he or she was obligated by his company to reconfirm their approval to acceptance.

You should then inquire about the timing of the press release and, if not, the publication date for the annual proxy statement. It is critically important that your current company, CEO, and board are comfortable with the timing. Once the announcement on your board appointment becomes public, you should take the time to personally call everyone on the board whom you met and thank them for the help and guidance they provided to you throughout the process.

Corporate boardrooms continue to be reshaped for the new future ahead of them. It is more critical than ever to get the right board members at the right time for a company to optimize its impact on the world around them. Hopefully pulling back the curtains on the mystique of the board search process will help improve the outcomes and experience for boardrooms and candidates alike.


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