What do Boards Want?
The answer to this question can be considered as two sides of the same coin; on one side is the board member or candidate’s expertise, and on the other side is the social and interpersonal attributes of the board member / candidate.
Often when we think about what a board may be looking for, we immediately turn to the ‘hard’ things”: governance, compliance, strategy, and finances. Whilst these are extremely important, we do ourselves a disservice if we choose to focus only on these when positioning ourselves for board roles, or as a board seeking new board members.
When doing some research into what boards want from their board candidates, this dichotomy of perspectives was evident (no wonder you’re confused if you’re an aspiring board member!). When reading articles about what makes great boards great, there is an emphasis on the value that ‘soft’ or interpersonal skills bring to boards. Yet, when reading a selection of advertisements for board vacancies, there is a strong emphasis on a particular area of professional expertise (such as financial experience, marketing expertise, investment expertise, and risk management) and less on the candidate’s interpersonal attributes.
Let’s consider these two viewpoints a little further:
What boards ask for from potential candidates
This was summed up nicely in a Harvard Law School article ‘What Boards Want’:
“[boards] want experts with specialized skills who can identify areas of risk, assess compliance policies, and help accomplish strategic and financial goals. They want professionals who have excellent judgment and top problem-solving skills who have “been there and done that.”
Additionally, “directors are scrutinized for their ability to understand more complex businesses, demonstrate technical know-how, deliver effective governance, and generate sustainable long-term performance.” (via Harvard Business Review article: Are you ready to serve on a board?)
These descriptions are worth considering as you position yourself for a board role. When demonstrating your area of expertise do it in a way that also demonstrates your understanding and experience of how that interacts, impacts, and influences risk, compliance, and the achievement of strategic and financial goals.
By way of demonstrating this focus on hard skills, below are some excerpts of current (as at the time of writing) board advertisements on LinkedIn.
This vacancy will suit directors who are able to demonstrate deep expertise in marketing, communications, branding, business development, as well as strategic leadership skills as the company looks to grow 10x. The successful applicant will be a collaborative and proactive team player who has excellent relationship building and customer engagement skills. A clear understanding of the role of a director and its responsibilities, together with strategic planning and corporate governance experience is also required. A strong knowledge of the Australian economic and political environment with sound business connections therein is also required. [for a Private Business board]
As a Director, you will play a critical role in the strategic leadership of the Foundation.
Following recent retirements, the Foundation is seeking two  new Directors to join the Board. In particular, we are seeking applicants with skills, knowledge and experience in one of the following areas;
Investment Services and Finance expertise
Business Management & Development expertise
Applicants with strong corporate governance experience and skills would be highly valued. [for a Foundation board]
… an exciting opportunity for an experienced Non-Executive Director to join the Board. Working in a supportive, challenging and positive governance environment, the Director will assist the Board in the provision of strong strategic direction, oversight and governance in an organisation that plays a vital role in supporting Tasmania’s economic growth. The successful candidate will have extensive skills in accounting or financial management, audit and risk, governance, and business and strategic planning. You will also possess the ability to be appointed as Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee and hold relevant professional accounting or finance qualifications. The ability to bring proactive strategic leadership and insights to the Board, together with an appreciation of risk and safety management in what can be a robust and continually changing environment would be an advantage. An understanding of the Tasmanian economic and political environment and strong networks therein is also required. [for a State-Owned Company board].
To complement the Board’s existing skills set, [local government-owned company] is currently seeking two experienced Directors, one with specialist aviation, aerospace, or airport management experience and the other with defence industry experience. Relevant professional accounting and/or finance qualifications will also be highly regarded. [for a Local Government-Owned Company board]
What boards say are attributes of ‘great’ board members
I’ve long believed that it’s the ‘people stuff’ that is the difference between great boards and bad boards. As strange as it may seem, these “soft” interpersonal elements are critical in such a high-stakes environment, and are worth investing the time and energy in cultivating.
Many of the experts share this opinion (which is really based on the feedback of board members) and they relate to simple things that are often forgotten about or not screened for during board member selection processes:
- Regular meeting attendance;
- Commitment to their role;
- Adequate meeting preparation;
- No over-boarded board members (i.e. board members hold a maximum number of other board roles; for example, three.);
- Thorough and diligent (i.e. they actually use their skills and knowledge to detect problems and do something about them);
- Contribute on committee(s);
- Build and foster an environment of respect, trust, and candor;
- Practice open dissent: challenge one another’s assumptions and beliefs;
- Hold themselves and others accountable to expectations and assigned actions;
- Assess their own and the board’s performance.
These traits and attributes are open to anyone at any stage of their professional career to establish and hone.
For aspiring board members, these traits are worth weaving into your professional accomplishments so that you are demonstrating both sides of the ‘great board member’ coin.
For existing boards and board members, there may be some areas that you feel you and your board can benefit from actively and intentionally improving, to go from good board to great board.
Of course, both perspectives are correct. As an aspiring board member, it will help you to understand this. And, as a current board member, it helps to understand that the soft side of the boardroom is just as important as the hard stuff.