The Art and Science of Board Search

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Recruitment – it’s part art and part science. And the success of your search for a new board member (or executive) should be measured on both the quality of your experience and your satisfaction with the results. So who you work with and how they run the search process matters, significantly. Like many professional service providers, search consultants can vary widely in the approaches they use. To increase your chances of a favorable outcome, make sure you’ve asked your advisor up front: what will they do, what do they expect you to do, how should each of you measure success?

To be sure, not every consultant believes that their greatest contribution is in providing the full complement of services. And that may be fine for your needs. So use this list below to decide how comprehensive a process you want and what its worth to you. From there, make sure that your expectations and those of your advisor are well articulated before your recruitment initiative starts. I guarantee that it will increase the chances of success and satisfaction.

1. Understand the need 

A recruiter should spend enough time talking with you, the client, to be able to truly understand the needs that your organization is trying to address. For example, a client who initially thinks they need a board member who knows their industry and brings marketing expertise may come to realize that they want a strategic marketer who can catalyze out-of-the box thinking based on what works in other industries. There are many ways to spell success.

2. Write the spec

Using information gleaned from candid conversation and helping identify other qualities you may be seeking, a recruiter uses the spec to summarize the need and the opportunity.  

A good spec is used four ways:

  • To insure that everyone who needs to have input is aligned before the search starts,
  • To explain to candidates and sources what is being sought in as clear a manner as possible,
  • To market to candidates and show them why they should be interested. It's a lot more than the financial incentives; it should be about the opportunity, the organization, the chance to contribute and grow.
  • To use as a rubric when assessing candidates once you start to meet and interview them. A good spec sets you up for an objective candidate review process.

3.  Create a search strategy 

A thorough recruiter develops a map of where to look for candidates. What are the organizing principles? How does the consultant assure being comprehensive? Strategies can be geographic, by industry sub-sector, by competitor, etc.  It helps a lot to be organized and not scatter shot.

4. Create a long list of ideas/prospects 

Recruiters typically consider, screen and source many more people than they ultimately recommend to you. This helps insure that the process is comprehensive and allows the recruiter to gather additional market knowledge that could help the search. While seeing the “long list” typically isn’t helpful, knowing the recruiter’s approach and the search parameters used to cull the list helps you, as the client, be on the same page.

5. Deliver a short list 

The recruiter will present you with a list of candidates to review, often in slates, to calibrate your response to the ideas. Based on your perceptions of the qualifications match, you and the recruiter will agree to next steps. Sometimes a recruiter has already met a candidate before putting her/him on the short list; other times they want your input before they meet with someone. Both strategies can be effective, but you’ll want to know which one your recruiter uses. Either way, a recruiter should always meet candidates before you screen for both qualifications and culture fit. Giving you leverage is part of their responsibility.

6. Prepare you for interviews with candidate reports 

In addition to the candidate's resume, a good recruiter should provide you with a brief summary of why they think the candidate is a fit and any concerns they would encourage you to explore further. Remember, candidates rarely are “100% perfect” so it’s constructive for the recruiter to point out the gaps. Typically, this lends credibility to the process and helps you get to the issues more expediently.

7. Debrief with you

A strong recruiter discusses your reaction and those of others involved in the interviewing. They help you collate opinions and decide how to move forward. Whether you go on to further interviews, make an offer, or say "thanks but no thanks," a capable recruiter will help with all of the messaging.

8. Handle communications 

Each step of a search takes time, diplomacy and tenacity. Recruiters can handle much of the candidate discussion, make scheduling recommendations, and clear other hurdles unless you prefer to handle these communications and logistics matters.

9. Check references 

Often, the recruiter will check references, although some clients prefer to handle this themselves. Industry standard is three to four and, generally speaking, at least two should be "backchannel" (names not given to you by the candidate.)  A valuable reference is contextual, objective and most importantly authentic. There are various ways to establish rapport and put the reference provider at ease so that they can be constructive without bias, a very important characteristic for any reference.

10. Prepare to make an offer 

Often the recruiter will be involved in the offer, whether by guiding both the client and the candidate in what to expect, how to respond, etc. or by actually handling the presentation of an offer. The recruiter can help you think objectively about who (someone in your organization or the recruiter) is best suited to make the offer, but ultimately, the choice is yours.

As is clear from the details above, the search process comes with the need for a significant amount of good judgment and the ability to address curves in the road.

Nonetheless, the more that you know what to expect and the better you are at having the dialog with your consultant, the greater the chances for mutual success. This is the art and the science of search – part journey and part destination. Good luck!

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(Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash)


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