Nailing the board interview

Saturday, 01 August 2015

Alexandra Cain photo
Alexandra Cain

    For aspiring directors, navigating the tough world of board appointments can be both exhilarating and demoralising, writes Alexandra Cain.

    It’s easy to assume that once you’ve reached a level at which you’re being considered for a board appointment, you’re beyond having to interview for the role. But increasingly, boards put potential new directors through a rigorous application and interview process to ensure they get the right person for the job. Moreover, aspiring directors often have to go through numerous rejections before they snag a board seat.

    So how can directors, especially relatively inexperienced ones, put themselves in the best position possible when interviewing for a seat on the board?

    Executive coach Janey Francis from Scarlett Strategic Solutions says that in the interview it’s important to communicate your skills acting in an advisory capacity and demonstrate acumen and specific experience in a given field.

    “Boards are looking for professionals who are intuitive to the diverse needs of the customer, the business, other board members and key stakeholders. They want a board member who is flexible and demonstrates an exploratory, collaborative, as well as analytical approach to problem-solving and decision-making,” she explains.

    Get it right

    Business coach Shane Warran’s advice is to keep a lid on your ego in the interview. “There is a fine line between being confident and being arrogant. Remember boards can be hot spots of tension. So you want to present yourself as someone the members of the board can relate to,” says Warren.

    “Also do your research; by knowing the business of the board and the backgrounds and strengths of the current board members you can demonstrate how your skills will fill any gaps in the board’s existing experience,” he adds.

    To nail the interview, Francis’s
    advice is to use a direct communication style and demonstrate experience in a broad range of commercial areas that complement the experience of other board members. Warren says another trait that will help get a director over the line with a board appointment is an ability to demonstrate strength in decision-making and the confidence to stand by those decisions.

    “Find a balance between confidence and humility and be honest,” he advises. Another tip, says Irene McConnell, director of executive search firm Arielle Careers, is to focus on the value you can bring to the board – not the other way around.

    “It’s about them, not about you. One of the biggest mistakes that I see happen is first-timers who don’t focus enough on what value they can bring to the board. I once had a client who, when I asked the question ‘why do you think this board opportunity is right for you?’, answered that they felt they had a lot they could learn, and would be thrilled to be a part of this particular organisation’s board as it was an organisation they greatly admired.

    “Of course, I can see how the phrasing of this question may have contributed to my client answering this way, however this response won’t leave the interviewer feeling they’ve found their candidate.”

    McConnell’s advice is “don’t be afraid to reframe the question in your mind slightly, so that you can articulate your credibility and demonstrate tangible points of value you wish to highlight. Doing your due diligence into the other board members’ backgrounds and their strengths, along with potential weaknesses, will allow you to focus on, and highlight, the piece of the puzzle you can deliver.”

    Handling rejection

    So what should you do if you miss out? Francis’s advice is to continue to seek opportunities to advise, coach and mentor in your field of expertise, while remaining open to board opportunities in different industries and organisations.

    Says Warren: “I’m a great believer in acknowledging the situation if you miss out. Thank the board or consultant for their time and ask for feedback as to what you might need to improve on or areas you need to grow in as a professional to win a future board seat.”

    One director who knows only too well about the importance of a great interview in securing a board spot is Julie Garland McLellan FAICD, who has 17 board positions on her resume. She’s currently a non-executive director with Bounty Mining.

    Best man wins

    Garland McLellan says the best way for aspiring directors to put themselves forward is to be the right candidate for the job.

    “It sounds simple and almost silly but you need to demonstrate that you have skills which complement those of the other directors without too much overlap. You also need to show that you understand the industry and have done enough research on the company to make a positive contribution immediately.”

    She says boards are looking for directors who have networks that are of interest and relevance. It’s also essential for an aspiring director to be free from conflicts of interest. Most importantly a new board member’s appointment must not upset any of the major shareholders or stakeholders.

    “Never embellish or falsely extend your skills or experience. But do ask as many questions as you need to thoroughly understand the required skills and attributes, as well as find out information about the board that only the board would know.

    “Never ask for information that is on the website or in the annual report – it just shows you didn’t do your homework,” she adds.

    Garland McLellan’s advice is not to rely too much on the consultant tasked with filling the board vacancy to advise you on how to approach the board. Instead, try to find inside information from another source.

    “Show respect for due process and for the people involved in the selection. Always say thank you for any courtesy or information. Don’t be late for interviews or arrive inappropriately dressed.

    “If you don’t know the dress code for the board you haven’t done your homework. Unless you are very sure of your technical skills don’t take a board seat in a company where you don’t know anybody,” she advises.

    Her advice if you miss out is not to “cry where anyone can see you. It is natural to be disappointed; if this was a board seat that you truly had a good fit for then you will obviously be upset when it goes to another candidate. But remember the odds are slim – many advertised board vacancies attract hundreds of applicants for one seat.”

    According to Garland McLellan if you are unsuccessful in an appointment, it’s reasonable to ask for feedback about what they were seeking that was offered by the successful candidate and not by you.

    “Thank them for sharing this information because it will come in handy next time. Remember that with a typical board having seven directors and a standard director tenure being about six years there will be another chance soon. So don’t burn your bridges. Take what you have learned from this application and apply it to your future ones,” she suggests.

    Top tips for seeking a board position

    Julie Garland McLellan shares her views on securing a board position.

    • Do the AICD’s Company Directors Course.
    • Offer a genuine business skill that meets the needs of the board at that point in time. 
    • Be very specific about your unique value proposition. Don’t go for any and every opportunity – select the ones that suit your skills and experience and where there will be a strong fit with the existing directors.
    • Network effectively with people who you genuinely like and respect. Nobody likes a sycophant, so don’t network just for the position or prestige.
    • Get experience on a not-for-profit or government board. Make sure people know that you are interested in building a board portfolio but don’t pester them to put you on their board.
    • Get involved in a cause or project that is aligned to the interests of your target company. It’s a great way to meet people who share your interests and will help you stay current while you wait for the portfolio of board positions to build.

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