Yes, chasing a board seat still depends heavily on personal networking and who-knows-who schmoozing. But for every rule there are exceptions, and an exclusive “backchannel” approach for the board wannabe will miss some opportunities.
One ally you may not think of in your board search program—executive search firms. Most career hi-pots hear regularly from search firms with job queries. Talent like yours should be on any good headhunter’s call list to prospect, gauge your interest, or see if you can offer referrals (if you think about it, what are search firm execs but pro-level networkers?).
When you receive these check-in calls, you may offer a few pleasantries, or invest some time in hearing out their pitch, depending on your current job strategy. But if this is the limit of your chat with recruiters, you’re wasting a major onboarding resource. Turn the query around and let the headhunter know of your interest in boards. Give them your elevator speech, and ask if they or another rep at the firm handles board-targeted searches.
There is a smart tactical reason for this. For most general exec headhunting firms, board searches are a no-profit, loss-leader service they provide to keep clients happy. If they help the company find a board prospect today, the client owes them one, and is more likely to come back tomorrow with a big-payday senior VP assignment.
Thus, headhunters have every incentive to keep the costs and man-hours involved in a board search low. Help them do so, by making sure that they know in advance of your board interest and bona fides and that your contacts at the firm associate your name with the term “board prospect.” If you make it easier for search firms to know about your board talent, everyone wins.
- Before forwarding any names to a nominating committee, the search firm wants to know a lot about a board candidate and get comfortable with the person, says Gayle Mattson, executive vice-president at search firm DHR International. “We do a full research process.” This can bring a surprising benefit if you gained your present job through a search firm. It means that you already have a headhunter who’s familiar with your track record and is able to pitch your prospects. Although Mattson notes that her firm doesn’t “limit itself to the usual suspects” in their placement portfolio when doing a board search, having your foot already in the door (and your résumé already on file) is a definite plus.
- The search firm approach to board recruiting starts by assessing the board’s needs and then seeking skills and experience to match. This makes taking a careful look at your own background (with an emphasis on boardroom strengths) important before talking with any recruiters. As noted earlier, a board résumé is different from your overall résumé, a nuance too many wannabes overlook. “We try to get at the board DNA, to see how this person will fit in,” says Mattson. Focus on your current boardroom background, skill at working well with others in collaborative groups, how you’ve displayed independence and ethical choices, and depth in a field the company can use (see the résumé hints in my earlier chapter).
- It’s also likely that search firm board recruitment will involve deeper background checking than the phone-call-from-a-friend approach. Boards today must meet stricter standards on conflict of interest, business and personal independence, academic and business background, credit checks, legal skeletons, and so on. Have the board-specific references we discussed earlier lined up and ready before a recruiter calls.
- You may assume that cold-calling a search firm about your board interest is a waste of time, but Mattson says that, at DHR, “we look at a substantial number of résumé’s we receive across the transom”—and they talk with such walk-on candidates regularly. But this doesn’t mean a general “I want to join a board” pitch will get you far. The tougher approach of a search firm targets specific skills that will be of value to this board, of this company, at this time. Business generalities and overall boardroom interest won’t impress.
- “There are a few overt deal killers in a board search,” says Mattson. The primary disqualifier is limited time availability. Remember the board-wannabe rule—after you finally gain that first board seat, invitations to further boards come much easier, but you’ll only have time for the first. Also, Mattson declares the belief that only current or retired CEOs draw any board-recruiting interest a boardroom myth. “A company has never said to us that they won’t consider anyone below a certain title.”
So that’s the way headhunters do their voodoo when it comes to board searches. Now let’s get specific—since first impressions are crucial, how do you handle your first contact with them? What will they want to know, and what are the “rules of engagement” for this getting-to-know-you conversation with tough search pros?
Depending on the search firm, your initial query could be pretty basic. Tamara Paton, who offers board search services in Canada, recently received an initial phone query for herself from “a crackerjack 20-something” associate with a search firm. This was just a screening call, though, from a minion with no decision power. The next step was a longer discussion with a firm partner.
However, J. Veronica Biggins, a managing director with the firm Diversified Search, does her own outreach at the start, and she says, “if we reach out to you, we already know a lot about you.” Jane Howze, a managing director with the Alexander Group headhunters, likewise takes this tack. “We’ve looked through a lot of databases, and sources like LinkedIn and Zoom to find you.” This also suggests that you shouldn’t use this first contact to inflate your background, because a savvy headhunter will have all your current vitae right in front of her.
The initial query, like most transactional events, sees both sides trying to hold their cards close to their chests. “You’ll probably only get a little info at this point,” says Jan Molino, of the Aspire/Ascend career coaching firm for women execs. The headhunter should be willing to share the name of the company doing the search—“90 percent of the time,” says Howze. If not, that’s typically a caution flag. But find out why the company wants to stay anonymous at this point—there may be some valid reason. At least you should receive some basics about the company’s sector, market, size, and other essentials.
There are 7.5 billion people in the world, give or take, so asking the headhunter “what made you think of me” is a good question, says Biggins. Listen carefully to the response, and don’t be swayed by blah-blah comments. Molino finds that recruiters who go into long, but narrow, discussion of the target director qualities sought may be fishing for a referral to others in your network. If the shopping list doesn’t quite sound like you, that might be another “who do you know” clue. Or, if you’re a woman or minority, it could suggest that you’re primarily a diversity pick, according to Howze.
Something else the headhunter should discuss—why is the board seeking a new member at this particular moment? “Is someone else stepping off the board, and why?” queries Howze. If you hear something vague, like “they need a different board mix,” or “they want to work on the board chemistry,” would you be walking into a boardroom battlefield?
Preliminary board contacts can be like most blind dates—the goal often is not to find gems, but to eliminate as many dud candidates as soon as possible. The recruiter will likely ask a question like “Are there any potential conflicts or other issues we should know about at this point?” As noted, the good headhunter has already done some background on you to assure there are no surface conflicts (such as competitive ties). Your smartest response at this stage would be “None that I know of, but I’ll do more research as we go forward.” As the old salesman’s saying goes, keep ‘em hungry for more.
So an exec search consultant has made an initial contact with you on a board opening (see the previous paragraphs). Good for you—but now how do you follow up? What should you ask the recruiter, and what do’s and don’ts going forward will get you on the nominating committee’s shortlist?
First, while it’s OK to feel chuffed with yourself (as the British say), “don’t assume that you’re the one,” warns Veronica Biggins. Board search today requires a large candidate field before narrowing to someone who is not only the ideal candidate, but also has both the time and no conflicts. Know that you’re not the only one being asked to this dance.
There are a few things headhunters don’t want to hear on that initial call. If a prospect “sounds really unsophisticated on what a board does, that’s a bad sign,” says Jane Howze. Also, give thought to why you are interested in this opportunity. If a candidate’s top motivator is that “they’re retiring and want to supplement their income with a board seat, that’s the wrong reason,” notes Biggins.
Before hanging up on that first call, you and the headhunter should agree to swap some information. Expect a board position description from the company. If there isn’t one, mark that as a yellow flag. It suggests board and search firm uncertainty.
The headhunter, in turn, will likely ask for your latest résumé, as well as a specific board résumé. We’ve discussed the importance of having the latter ready to go, but if you’ve been lax on this, tell the recruiter that your board résumé is all set anyway—and make sure that you get it written and sent before lunch.
Although they don’t get paid for it, headhunters can offer you some tough-love coaching on how to handle yourself in the board search. A search firm pro tells me, “You need to get a clear value proposition on yourself. I asked a client seeking a board seat what she felt her greatest board value was, and she said ‘diversity.’ I told her to start over, and contemplate what else she could bring, to what segment of the board, and then to brand it.”
The search pros I spoke with all agree on one thing—board candidates who make the best impression are the ones who follow up that first call with digging of their own. “I assume they’ll do some research,” says Biggins. “If they’re interested, they’ll put in some homework.” Use your online resources to study the company, its current board, its leadership, recent changes and challenges, analyst reports, and any current news. Be ready to impress with added knowledge by your second call.
This research on your part should include your own suitability. Do you make a logical fit with this company and board? If you can’t figure out a reason, why are you being asked? Biggins expects board wannabes to also do a deeper dive into potential conflicts between the board’s company and their own career, and to have solid answers.
When possible, Howze sends prospects a calendar of planned board and committee meetings for the year ahead. “I assume they’ll look at their schedule for the next year and make sure there are no time conflicts.” Look closely at this schedule—Howze find potential meeting conflicts are the most common reason a busy exec is unable to take on a new board role. (ALSO a board and committee meeting schedule will offer you valuable insight into how the board works and its priorities.)
Speaking of time, headhunters read a lot into your responsiveness. Biggins sets a time for a callback with prospects. If you’re unready, or not available without a solid reason, that’s a checkmark against you. Howze tells of a wannabe she sought to schedule for a follow-up meeting, but who could only spare half an hour three weeks out (and grudgingly at that). “You need to be willing to devote some time to this—it shows ability to manage time well.” If you’re too busy to return a call to the headhunter, why should they assume you’ll be able to squeeze in an actual board commitment?
Preparedness is crucial in dealing with search firms, and one example shows that it’s never too early to start prepping your board search portfolio. Recently I spoke with the chairman of a top-flight executive search firm, a boutique headhunter who specializes in CEO and directors—one of those firms that you don’t call, they call you. He offered a valuable insight for board wannabes that should prod you into getting your onboarding plan into the works now.
As discussed earlier, when a headhunter calls with a job opportunity, it’s smart to bounce the offer back to the recruiter by letting him or her know you’re interested in a board role. The board pro I spoke with not only endorsed this tactic, but also added, “Actually, we reverse that here. When I approach someone with a CEO or CFO search lead, and they say thanks but no thanks, I then ask them a question about their board appetite. Any good senior-level recruiter should be doing that.”
Good to know, but then he added an interesting sidelight.
“We try to track prospects’ interest in a board, and lots of times they are interested—even if they’re not active in pursuing it yet, they’re thinking and talking about it. But the first thing I want to know is if you’ve cleared it [pursuing a board seat] with your company. I want to know when I talk with you if it’s OK with your CEO.”
The message? If a board opportunity knocks, you have to be ready right then to at least indicate that you’re interested and eligible. My headhunter friend said that, if a prospect has to hem and haw about getting the boss’s permission, their name goes to the bottom of the pile.
While the overall board search process is a bit leisurely, headhunters win out by getting names of prospects in front of their clients immediately. If you don’t have your approval ducks in a row on the spot, not only won’t you make the shortlist but you’ve sent the message that you’re really not serious about your board search.
If you get the idea headhunters are touchy, you’re right. Board wannabes (but also companies, boards, and their nominating committees) make lots of other gaffes that not only drive headhunters nuts but also make it more difficult to find good board prospects. Here’s a roundup of board hunting beefs from some recruiters (who prefer to remain anonymous):
- Lack of realism in board demands. “The board wants to aim high, but they have to be realistic, too,” says one board recruiter. When a mid-cap company calls up the headhunter and asks them to find current or just-retired Fortune 100 CEO . . . well, the headhunter may know just such a platinum prospect, but why should they be interested in your board? Search firms do indeed have a deep bench of contacts with strong board talent, but too many boards assume they can deliver name brands who are simply out of the company’s league.
A weak job description (and weak board consensus). This may be the number one complaint headhunters confide when it comes to director talent searches. One says that inability to shape up a good, actionable outline of what the board really wants suggests disagreement within the board. “If you can’t put a position description together, at least be united on what you want.” Another recruiter targets “board indecisiveness. The worst thing the board can tell me is ‘we’ll know it when we see it.’” Sending your recruiter on a vague fiduciary goose chase wastes time and money.
Talent-profiling failures show up at the extremes. The board may carefully parse a vitae seeking someone with P&L background in the industry at several levels, current CEO status, and proven capability in several other demand areas. Also, they want a female. Sounds great, but, as with most ideals, this ideal candidate may exist only on the paper of your “wish list.”
At the other end of the spectrum, you may give the search firm only general ideas, or focus on one talent and exclude those related to it. One recruiter gives the example of “a multi-billion dollar defense contractor. Their board may say it wants a [retired] flag officer, but maybe what they really need is a candidate with tech expertise.” The board needs to be tough with itself on splitting these qualities—and be willing to listen to good outside counsel.
Unrealistic timelines. Your board wants someone brilliant, well connected—and wants them there by the next board meeting. Good luck with that. “The logistics alone can be hard,” cautions one recruiter. Board candidates are busy, booked-up people. As mentioned earlier, they will need to make reasonable time for a board search. But no, they’re not going to drop everything else just to accommodate your search schedule.
Your nominating committee may be part of the problem. Getting everyone together in one place at one time for busy board members is often a nightmare. “I did a search where we had to get all members of the committee and five board candidates together in one city—it ended up not even being where the company headquarters were.” Extend this to a first and then second round of interviews, plus candidate visits to company offices, and you get some idea of why the hurry-up board search just won’t work. “The typical executive search takes 90 days, but I’ve seen board searches go to 180 or even 270 days,” says one of our headhunters (see our earlier discussion of this timeline aspect).
Poor communication between the board and the search firm. Aside from the “this is what we’re looking for” discussions cited previously, the board needs to make clear how they want to share tasks with the search firm. “It’s helpful to us if we can talk with as many board members as possible at the outset,” says one of our panel of headhunters. Do you want the firm to assemble a group of prospects and then have your board take over interviewing? Or, do you want them to winnow the field to two or three well-vetted finalists before the board takes over? Either approach can work, but the firm needs a solid game plan going in. Here’s a tip—if your board plans to hire a headhunter, have them do the legwork they’re experts at. “Let the recruiting firm make the 100 phone calls,” says the search pro mentioned earlier.
Good communication also means cracking the whip over the search committee chair and membership when it comes to being responsive. Search experts tell too many stories of unanswered phone calls and emails to board members, delaying the process, frustrating prospects, and adding expense.
- Go-betweens. As noted, conducting a search for a new director is something no board committee does well. They lack the time, focus, and expertise, which is why they should just hire the headhunter and then get out of the way. But some boards further complicate matters by putting an inside staff person in charge of handling their end of the process. This staffer then acts as the search firm’s board contact—which can add problems. “Our search firm then may not get to talk with anyone on the board, and their only contact is someone who isn’t on the board at all,” laments one of America’s top search execs. The result—confusion, more approval layers, and delays.
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Board-Seeker Action Items
- Dig through your past contacts to identify search firm people with whom you’ve been in touch. Consider sending them a note on your board interest.
- Fire drill—you receive a call from a headhunter asking your interest in a board possibility. Do you have everything we’ve discussed above ready right now?
- Does your company have any ongoing relationships with search firms to meet their talent needs? If so, would it be appropriate to call the partner who handles your company’s searches to seek board tips (and for name-dropping)?
- From this chapter, think of board search issues that could arise with a recruiter and how you could handle them (they won’t reveal anything about the client; they want you available for an immediate interview, etc.).
- Draw up a list of “must know” things you’d want to cover with a headhunter regarding a board slot on a first call (sector, size of company, reason for the need, why you’re being considered, etc.). Keep this list handy.