Do we need to Screen Board Members for Soft Skills?
“Directors who take the fundamental notions of openness, integrity and accountability seriously … will be well on the way to good corporate governance.”
This quote, taken from Justice Owen’s Royal Commission into the 2001 collapse of HIH Insurance,1 further inspired my thinking about the silent yet critical elements that contribute to board members’, and therefore board, performance.
By now, we are very familiar with the skills matrix and its use in assessing current board members and potential board candidates on their professional expertise – the ‘hard’ skills such as legal, accounting, finance, or human resources management. But when it comes to measuring a board’s success, it’s ability to do ‘good’ corporate governance and have good corporate governance practices, it’s the soft skills that hold the overwhelming influence on achieving these outcomes.
The question, then, is why don’t we screen for or assess our board members for these ‘soft skills’ like we do with ‘hard’ skills? Should we? And how can we best screen for or assess these traits in board candidates on the one hand, and current board members on the other?
Why don’t we screen or assess for openness, integrity, and accountability?
There are likely numerous reasons for boards to not assess or screen for these traits and other soft skills. Without conducting a formal study, the most likely reasons for many boards include:
- Candidate constraint: there aren’t enough candidates so we can’t be *that* picky.
- Time constraint: we need a new board member (or members) NOW.
- Methodology constraint: there is no trusted method to measure these traits, or it is cost-prohibitive to conduct the assessment in a trustworthy and reliable way.
- Relevance constraint: these attributes are not seen (either consciously or unconsciously) as important or relevant traits of board members or board candidates, or they are seen as much less important than hard skills and professional experience.
- ‘But they have a strong network’ factor: this and many other rationales are used to excuse away bad board member behaviour. It is argued that the cost of the negative is worth the return the board member brings to the organisation (but is it?!?). The premise of ‘the means justifies the end’ is questionable in itself.
There are likely many more influencing factors as to why boards don’t routinely assess soft skills; however, these are the more obvious ones from my experience.
Given the real barriers to screening for soft skills, should we bother?
Should we screen for soft skills?
The success of a board rises and falls on the non-technical traits and attributes of the individual board members and the dynamic this creates when they come together. To highlight another quote from the HIH Royal Commission report, “… the identification of the background, skills and expertise of the people who walk into the board room is a good start, but it is what they do when they get there that is critical.” 2
To think the ‘people stuff’ doesn’t matter is ignorant to reality.
As I’ve observed over many years on many different boards, you can have people who are very successful in their professions, yet do not know how to work well with other professionals, have no self-awareness, and operate with a questionable moral compass.
Therefore, I advocate for soft skills to be screened as a standard part of board candidate assessment and during board performance evaluations, incorporating it into your board’s skills matrix. I wrote more about upgrading your board’s skills matrix (which should be renamed to a Board Composition Matrix to reflect the move away from pure technical expertise), here.
A board that operates in an extremely professional manner, that is populated with experienced board members, will be able to have a meaningful conversation about its board recruitment and board performance evaluation processes, and whether they believe that screening for soft skills will lead to better board performance and improved organisation outcomes. Once that decision has been made, they must consider how to best identify, screen for, and assess these traits.
How can we best screen for or assess these traits?
What traits are to be assessed? Firstly, you want to know WHAT you want to measure and why. As Justice Owen said in the HIH Royal Commission report, openness, integrity, and accountability are fundamental notions of corporate governance and director behaviours. It would be hard to argue away from these traits as a foundation for assessment. Other traits and attributes can be included as identified (for example, self-awareness (particularly as it pertains to recognising and managing cognitive biases), honesty (although possibly an element of integrity), and commitment are a few that come to my mind as being important soft skills.
It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t inadvertently set a reinforcing environment where you end up with carbon copies of each other, particularly if your board has some unidentified dysfunction (you can’t see it because you’re on the inside and/or you think it’s ‘normal’ board functioning). It’s also worth reinforcing the value cognitive diversity presents to groups. However, I feel certain traits like honesty and integrity transcend and are different to methods of reasoning and problem-solving. So be wary of these when designing or using assessment and screening tools.
The next and most important step would be identifying a method of assessment that is accurate and cost-effective. Depending on your board’s resources, the method may include asking certain questions (ironically, prepared by an appropriately skilled individual) during the interview, through to validated online assessment tools that can assess both hard and soft skills.
The process for board candidates will be different to the process used to assess current board members; the latter likely being during the board performance evaluation, the former at a certain stage during the recruitment process.
My recommendation would be to engage with a professional (organisation or individual) who is trained to deliver and interpret the various assessment tools available, particularly one specialising in boards or senior-level positions.
Soft skills (or personality traits, noncognitive skills, noncognitive abilities, character, socioemotional skills) are the silent yet critical elements of board member performance, board dynamics, and whether these combine to create positive outcomes for the organisation. Considering soft skills dominate the list of the World Economic Forum’s list of the top 15 workforce skills of 2025, it’s time we shed a spotlight on them and elevate their importance in the boardroom to the level that we do for ‘hard skills’.
1 Royal Commission into the Failure of HIH Insurance (Report by the Royal Commissioner the Honourable Justice Owen, April 2003) vol 1, 133.
2 Royal Commission into the Failure of HIH Insurance (Report by the Royal Commissioner the Honourable Justice Owen, April 2003) vol 1, 105.