Who's on Your "A" List?
By Nancy May
It’s time to fill another vacancy on your board. You’ve laid out what you have and what you don’t have, and where you want the board to go. You’ve also assembled a “robust” list of candidates to start with.
Now comes the hard part: assessing who you’ve got. But how? When it comes to evaluating individual candidates I like to start with the three “A”s: aptitudes, attitudes, and attributes.
Aptitudes: those skills and experiences needed to be a solid director, and in particular, the director you need on your board right now. Done right, these aren’t too difficult to pin down. They’re there in their record, mostly, and usually summarized nicely in their CV and Bio. However, more can (and should) be ferreted out from obvious and not-so-obvious information sources. Of course, there’s hyperbole inserted into almost everyone’s background: who doesn’t try to package themself in the best light? As for you, if you believe everything you’re told the first time, what are you doing on a board? Good news, though: in most cases, this part of due diligence is not so difficult for the diligent. The key is to determine how much is acceptable exaggeration (from none to very minor) and what is outright baloney (which should always be a show stopper). Nonetheless, professional skepticism, good research, and more-than-basic interview skills will serve most committee members well in the selection process. If not, a reputable search consultant can get this done for you, especially when they know their own reputation is on the line. Whether a candidate fits the bill, skill-wise, can be as simple as comparing round pegs (what they have) with the round holes (what you want) laid out in your skills matrix or other tools, to see who makes the first cut. That’s not to say that ringers and outright imposters won’t make it to the table. There are talented people out there who can and have fooled just about everyone. Fortunately, this is very rare, and almost unheard of among those companies that are thorough in their vetting. Trust but verify, as the saying goes.
Attitudes: How do you measure motivation, viewpoints, dedication, loyalty, open-mindedness, tolerances, curiosity, thirst for knowledge, etc.? These are not so easy to pin down. Best way to start is to establish a baseline for what you seek in all directors. Then push the level of comfort up a bit. What helps is to understand what incumbent attitudes have not worked well for the board in the past (the snoozers, whiners, passive aggressors – you know what and whom). A director peer evaluation can improve on what you have, cull what you can’t, and even help backfill with better directors.
But how do you get at how a person thinks? You do it face to face. Few things works better. A good interviewer can peel back the layers and get past most practiced actors’ facades, if armed with good visual perception, objectivity, and a heaping portion of surreptitious caginess in the questioning. I will give you a hint here: a person’s attitudes will come out in the way they see themselves, what they like and don’t, and how they justify what they do and how they decide.
Attributes: The qualities that make up a person’s character will show you how they are likely to act. So important, yet so few want to tackle this because, to take the measure of someone, you have to get personal. But you know that you really, really want the directors around you to be trustworthy; to have your back; to bring new perspectives into discussions; and to pull their weight.
Some boards have time bombs sitting on them. Sometimes they stay dormant, sometimes they blow — dramatically. If that ever happens to you, you’ll probably take your own collateral damage very personally.
So, how do you assess the quality of person’s character? Look for a baseline? Some boards put required director characteristics into their governance principles. But this is mostly done to cover the board against director transgressions. It’s not always a useful road map for candidate selection. Instead, think about what kind of person you want sitting next to you making the tough decisions. Start with that, and you can begin your detective work. This kind of due diligence comes from scouring the records and speaking with people: colleagues, competitors, friends, family, and even foes. A person’s character leaves tracks throughout their professional career. It comes out over time in what they’ve said, how they said it, what they did, and how they did it. The measure of one’s character comes not from what they think of themself, but rather from what others think of them. The opinions of those others are key. You can get a better assessment of someone’s character from a broad cross section of opinions from those whose lives were impacted on by someone, taking in the best and worst said. Reference checking is a must, but only the barest of beginnings. Candidates don’t give you references from people who dislike them. Yet most professionals have trodden (purposefully or accidently) on someone’s toes in their career. Detractors are out there, you can find them, and their opinions may add balance to your assessment. References can, themselves, provide even more references. Those who extol a person’s virtues should back it up with specifically remembered situations, just as critics should. Personal and other close relationships should also be canvassed as needed. No one is perfect. You need to know the imperfections, who really appears solid and who may not be.
There’s not enough room here to talk more about the “deep dive” into a candidate’s background, head, and reputation. Suffice it to say that it can and should be done, even though it’s not easy. There are those who are really good at this, if you think you may not be. No shame in that. I do deep candidate vetting for clients and find that a second pair of eyes can be very helpful for peeking under the hood.
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