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Top Talent: Recruiting Effective Board Members

· Board of Directors

This is the third in a series of posts on effective Board of Directors work (or Board of Trustees, Council, etc.) Some of these posts will be primarily for those new to board work while others will be for those who are trying to improve and professionalize the quality of the work of their organization's board. If you’d like to receive them in your inbox as they are published, sign up at the end of this post.

In my previous blog post, I provided a few ideas for thinking carefully about the top talent you want and need for your Board. It may take several years to build a top talent board because people occupy multi-year terms. But, every time you have an opening, it is an opportunity to raise the bar so that you can have the highest quality board possible.

In some ways, recruiting top talent for a board is similar to recruiting top talent for your staff.

One of the first things to do is to craft a written board overview for prospective members regarding the organization. Here is an outline I have used in recent years:

  • An overview of the organization with links to your website or other online background information. Who are you and what do you do?
  • Board overview: Size, number and duration of in-person and virtual meetings per year, committees, terms of board service, etc.
  • Board election process and background/skills needed for the open board slots.
  • Primary contacts for more information. I recommend providing at least two contact people. At 1517 Media, as CEO I was the contact person along with the Chair of our Board Development/Nominating Committee.

Once we had developed a list of 5 to 10 possible prospects for every open position, we would make an initial approach via an introductory email from the person who had referred them to us or a direct email or if you are using one of the excellent board databases that are available (see my previous blog post), they will help you connect with the people you want to review.

If the people you contact express interest in learning more, then send your board overview to them and invite them to send you their Board Profile or resume, if you haven’t already received it. I also do a quick search on-line to see what else I can learn about the prospective interviewee. LinkedIn is especially helpful, but many companies and not-for-profit organizations include bios for their key executives on their websites. And, social media sites can sometimes be helpful, as well.

Once you have had this initial correspondence with prospective candidates for your board, it is time to schedule interviews. Here is the process I have used with success:

  • Schedule a 30 to 60 minute phone interview (or, of course, if you’d like to see the person face-to-face, you may choose to use videoconferencing, but sometimes I find that the connection isn’t as smooth as I would like and gets in the way of the conversation, especially if it is the first one with someone you don’t know).
  • As you narrow your field from 5 to 10 prospects following these initial phone conversations, follow up with those you are interested in learning more about and schedule another conversation. If possible, I like to make this one an in-person conversation even if it means jumping on an airplane. While phone and videoconferencing can work there is no substitute in my opinion, for meeting face-to-face. I have been burned a few times by recruiting board members who looked great on paper and online and sound good over the phone, but who ended up not being a great fit for the board they were invited to serve. The more I do this, the more I think that in-person meetings might have prevented some errors in judgement on the part of the organization.  And, if I can schedule the meeting over a meal, that is even better because there is something about breaking bread together that changes the dynamic. This commitment of your time and money tells the top talent prospects that you are serious about them and about finding the absolutely best person for the board that you can. Of course, all of this assumes that you have a board recruiting budget for travel and entertainment.
  • The third interview, usually with 2 or 3 final candidates, should either be done by you and another person from your board or organization or by that other person alone. Ideally, this new interviewer will offer a different perspective. For example, if it is the nominating committee doing the initial interviews, this may be a good time for the CEO to meet the finalists. This difference in perspective is certainly good for your organization, but it is also good for the prospective board member because it allows that person to have his/her questions answered by people with multiple perspectives on the organization, the work of the board and the board culture. By the time you get to this stage, you are wooing candidates as well as discerning their fit for your organization.
  • Once you have made your decision(s) about who you want to invite to join your board, in addition to gathering information as described above about your candidates, you may want to have a professional background check run on finalist candidates, as well. This is especially common for mid-sized to large for-profit corporations.
  • The final stage is in inviting your candidate(s) to join your board. While a phone call is an excellent personal touch, this should be followed up in writing. For not-for-profit organizations, this is likely an email invitation with basic information about the forthcoming meetings, etc. I recommend asking for a decision back from the candidate by a specific date of a week or two out. You want people who discern for themselves whether this is a good fit or not. By this time, most will be ready to say “yes!” But, if someone decides that it isn’t a good fit for them, you want to know that sooner rather than later so that you can find someone else.

If you are recruiting for a paid corporate board slot, then you will want to have a formal written contract drawn up by an attorney, just as you would for any work for hire agreement. This should be very specific about the duties, timeframe, expectations for the commitment, and compensation including pay (per meeting or overall), additional pay for committee work if appropriate, reimbursement for travel expenses, payment for D&O insurance coverage, and any other specifics that are appropriate for your organization. Again, I recommend asking for this signed agreement to be returned by a specific date so that you know quickly if this person you have identified is joining your board or not.

  • You may have noticed that I haven’t yet said anything about notifying candidates when they are no longer on your key prospects list. That is because sometimes the talented person you want decides that for one reason or another to say “no.” It may be that they don’t think it is a great fit simply because life happens and people’s schedules and capacities change. If you still have other candidates in the pipeline, you can go back to your second or third choice, if you think that they might be an asset, and recruit them for your board.
  • Once you and your newly elected board members have agreed to move forward, then it is time to loop back to the others with whom you have had interviews. First, it is common courtesy. Second, you never know when you might want to build a future relationship with that person as a board prospect again or an employee or someone who can network you to someone else. It is important to leave the door open.

Does this seem like a long process? It can be! Or, it can go relatively quickly. But it is critically important to recruit not only talented people, but people who are a good fit for the work and culture of your board; not just your current board, but the board you are trying to build for the future. Having a board filled with talented, dedicated, people who work well together is a joy. But having even one member who isn’t a good fit can derail much of the work of the board and, ultimately, your organization. If you have three or four-year board terms, a person who isn’t a good fit can waste a lot of time and energy for several years. So, paying attention to the details of identification and recruitment of top talent for your board is well worth the effort.

Beth A. Lewis

© Getting2Transformation 2019