Who can do board searches – what does it take?

The business subjects discussed with the client and the board member candidates require that the Search Consultant/Researcher in charge of the board search assignment must have an excellent overall understanding of the business world in general, of the different operations, organisations and functions existing in a company, of what it takes to manage a company, of the dos and don’ts. They must understand what board work means and its role and responsibilities in a company. In other words, they must have excellent business acumen.

To get this far, to get this understanding, extensive experience is a must-have, both life and business experience. There exist also young, very able, and successful Search Consultants. Still, I find it hard to imagine a situation where a 30-year-old person interviews and evaluates a 55-year-old experienced high-profile board professional or CEO for a board position in a billion-euro turnover company. It just does not add up. Only extensive experience and excellent business acumen enable you to fully understand the context, what is needed, and how it should be done. This directly impacts your professional credibility and input when interacting with the client and the candidates. To define an executive management candidate or board member profile in a search process is never simple or straightforward. Every client and candidate expects that the Executive Search Consultant, through his/her business acumen and unique professional perspective into the business world and the executive management in companies, can bring value-added into the recruiting process and does it in the best interest of both parties involved.


The Position Level  

When discussing a board member position, particularly the chairman of the board, you cannot get any higher up in the organisation. Here, the actions and the impact of a single person can determine the difference between success or failure for the entire company. So, getting the right board members aboard is certainly of business-critical significance.

The bigger the company, the more demanding the position of a board member becomes. The company’s size is a significant factor in this context. Being a board member/chairman in a globally operating company with 10 000 employees and a 10 billion € turnover is one thing. Being a board member/chairman in a domestically operating company with 100 employees and a 50 million € turnover is different. The board members in a big, globally operating company concern themselves with very different issues and of different magnitude and impact than a board in a small company does. This directly reflects on the “job profile” of the company’s board members in question.


The nature of a board member position

A board membership is not an ordinary job employment. Nobody’s changing jobs here. Even though the owners technically hire the Board members and compensate them for their work, many have a full-time day job they will continue working in. So, you are not reaching out to someone to ask if they are interested in a career opportunity in the ordinary sense of the word. The company owners hire the board members to look after the company on behalf of the shareholders. Board member candidates are invited to a position of trust. This makes it a very different kind of discussion for the Search Consultant.

The target group potential

The higher up in the organisational hierarchy you go in a Search Assignment, the smaller the potential target group in the market becomes. Competent, experienced and mind you, also available board member candidates with relevant work experience seldom exist in big numbers. This is especially true when talking about major big companies. Persons appreciated as board members are usually in high demand and may already be a board member in some other company. Companies can allow a person to be a board member in some other company, but the number of board memberships is often restricted.

Furthermore, an already existing board membership raises the question of conflict of interest, potentially even more narrowing down the number of candidates. The timing of the search may seem irrelevant, but it is not. Instead, the timing can be very crucial. Once the potential board member candidate in your target group has been approved to a board somewhere, you may be too late.

Technology vs the human factor in board search

In board search, only looking at candidate lists produced by AI, LinkedIn, or other internal or external databases will never be enough. Technology may help when getting information about the target group, but in board search, technology is, above all, only an assisting tool for the Search Consultant, not the one doing the job. The Search Consultant doing board searches must have an in-depth knowledge of the business world and be able to advise on and discuss complex business issues with their client and the potential board candidates. To get the business skills and business world understanding needed here, this requires you to interact eye to eye with top-level business leaders regularly in your job. Meeting them, talking to them, listening to them, learning from them. You must know who is who, understand why a particular person is good in his/her job, and why this person might be a potential board candidate. Without this experience and knowledge, chances are you are not up to the job.

You must know who you call

In low-level searches, it is normal to call potential candidates without yet knowing everything about them. However, when a Search Consultant calls a potential board member candidate, they assume that the consultant knows who they are calling. This is especially true when calling high profile board professionals. When they get a call from a Search Consultant asking if they are interested in a board membership, they, I believe, take the call as an acknowledgement of their professional expertise. What would you think if you were a well-known and appreciated board professional or CEO? That the Search Consultants call you without knowing who you are. Really? This also makes the call a sensitive call. One should never invite board candidates to unnecessary no-go discussions. It is most unprofessional first to awaken the interest of a highly appreciated candidate, and then, because of something you find out only in the interview (that you should have checked out in advance), you now inform him/her that this is a showstopper.

The Sensitivity

Everything said about sensitivity, this is still a Search Assignment. The Search Consultant is expected to find, interview, and evaluate potential board member candidates and bring forward only the persons they think are best suited for the job. There is always more than one finalist but only “one job”. So, at the end of the day, you must tell someone who may have wanted this board membership very much that he/she will not go forward in the process. When having this kind of discussion with any candidate in any Search Process, you must be straightforward, honest, respectful, and sensitive. When talking with a seasoned board member candidate, if only possible, even more so. Good people skills and diplomatic skills are certainly an advantage.

The market impact

A successful Board Search Assignment may have a significant positive impact on the reputation of a Search Firm, while a failed Assignment has the opposite effect. When the news of a poorly and/or unprofessionally executed high profile board search becomes public news – it will always somehow – this will impact the reputation of not only the Search Firm but potentially also the hiring company. Good and bad “customer experiences” have one thing in common. People talk about them a lot – to everyone. Board members are often well connected. They have good networks and belong to Board Associations. They regularly meet and talk with each other. My guess is, they sometimes also talk about their customer experiences in these kinds of processes.

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