February 5, 2019

Board Candidate Strategy
Mark A. Pfister, Pfister Strategy Group

How should a Board candidate, at any level of Board experience, prepare themselves for serious consideration? Is there a formula?

The formula is in the ‘packaging.’ With the goal of sending a message that you are balanced and mindful in your Board Director discipline, the importance of this balance cannot be overstated. So, what is this concept of 'packaging?' Quite simply, it is addressing, speaking of, and aspiring to balance the components of Expertise (know-how), Experience (application), and Proof (certification) in the disciplines of Board Directorship. Many candidate evaluation processes unknowingly incorporate some, if not all, of these 3 components in their evaluation processes, but the true effectiveness comes when there exists a concerted effort to evaluate the cohesiveness across these verticals. A Board candidate can leverage and direct this concept in an evaluation process by automatically guiding the discussion to these three areas of importance as it relates to them.

As a Board candidate, what should I be looking for when evaluating if a Board is right for me?

In my opinion, this question is not asked enough by Board candidates… and it is an important one. The evaluation and appointment process needs to operate bi-directionally for an appointment to be truly successful. It is imperative that Board candidates know exactly what they are joining before they accept the appointment. All too often the exuberance of receiving an offer to join or interview for a Board position clouds a candidate’s otherwise logical judgment and evaluation process. The following are the questions I ask when approached to join Boards and what I look for candidates to ask when interviewing for Board seats:

  • Does the Board live the company’s values and integrate them into all that it does? How, and do you have any examples?
  • How has the Board been architected and has there been a concerted effort to structure it properly? Where would I fit in this structure and how is my background helpful?
  • What are the personality types on the Board and do you feel you have balance?
  • What are the formal decision-making and initiative prioritization processes within the Board?
  • How has the Board ensured role clarity for its members and has it been successful?
  • What is the expectation of time commitment and/or accomplishment you expect of each of the Board Members?
  • Is there a yearly Board Member evaluation process and are there concrete action items that come from it? Are there any examples of where a Board Member corrected a deficiency or was removed from the Board?
  • Can I meet every Board Member individually to ask questions and get their perspectives?

What are some of the most prevalent mistakes that Board candidates make when ‘packaging’ and presenting themselves for potential Board seats?

There are a few recurring areas I see as problematic for many Board candidates as they work through the consideration process. Interestingly, the following 5 areas are equally prevalent with aspiring Board Directors as well as seasoned Board Directors, and it can cost them an appointment:

  • Delegating (or avoiding) the creation of your 'Board Director Brand': This truly comes down to conveying what you stand for. Only you can do this, albeit with the possibility of some helpful guidance to maximize your impact. Simply posting your experience and skill sets is not only bland and boring, it also doesn't give a Nominating Committee or a Board a feel for you - personally. Get yourself quoted in Board-related publications, write an article, show your holistic Board knowledge and thought leadership. This approach is leveraged by aspiring Board Directors as well as career Board Directors. You need to continually show your relevance. The Board Directorship vertical as a whole has been slow to adopt self-promotion approaches in what was previously seen by many as a stigma in the stuffier Board arena, but this has changed tremendously in recent years.
  • Submitting a Resume or CV: Ouch. This is a prevalent mistake for multiple reasons. First, not knowing that a typical resume or CV is an improper submission for serious Board consideration shows that you don't view Board Directorship as a discipline. It actually screams "let's give this Board thingy a try," or "Board Directorship could be a great hobby for me." Secondly, a conventional resume or CV can't (and doesn't) properly convey the experience, skill sets, and acumen of a serious Board candidate. Why? A resume or CV format can unknowingly guide you down the path of sounding more like management material instead of leadership, or better yet, governance material. Make no mistake, there is a huge difference - and seasoned Nominating Committees and Board placement entities can spot this a mile away. What you need is a properly constructed Board Document to represent you as a seasoned and formidable candidate (or, if in the early stages of pursuing the Board Directorship route, someone who 'gets it'). As some say, a great Board Document should dare them not to appoint you!
  • Not correlating your personal values to the organization's values: This is another extremely common missing component in a Board candidate's repertoire. Everyone has experience. Everyone has skill sets, but what about your character and what you stand for? A powerful and effective way to accomplish this is to correlate your 'character' components to your very own personal values, and in turn, correlate these personal values to the company's (and Board's) values. You may have just made it to the top of the consideration pile. This takes a little bit of work, but is invaluable in both your Board Document as well as in interviews.
  • Focusing too much on governance and ignoring strategy: Boards today continue to struggle with what 'strategy' actually means… and it is deeply hurting the companies these Boards serve. This lack of strategy understanding is true of both Directors' actions operating within their Board duties, as well as in their construct of guiding and supporting a company's strategic plan. But how can this be? Aren't all Board Directors experts at strategy and strategic planning, and at the very least, have an in-depth understanding of what it is? Sadly, no. When asked pointblank the question, "What is strategy?" (which I often do of Boards), it is extremely rare to get a correct answer. This lack of understanding leads to a whole host of problems, many of which a Board is instituted to assist a company to navigate safely." Board Director candidates with true strategy experience, and who are able to speak about and apply it effectively, set themselves apart from the rest of the pack. Aim to balance your Board Director 'packaging' with equal amounts of governance and strategy application.
  • Missing the entire 'package,' as mentioned previously. Remember to ensure the integration of Expertise (know-how), Experience (application), and Proof (certification) in your approach, no matter what level any of these are at. By conveying your understanding that Board Directorship is a discipline, you are viewed as a potentially more successful candidate if appointed.

If you are traveling down the path of Board Directorship, or looking to add additional Board seats to your portfolio, give yourself a significant advantage. Turn these 5 common mistakes into personal centers of excellence in how you present and convey your talents. It may just be the deciding factor in your Board appointment(s).

Mark A. Pfister - Board ExpertMark A. Pfister is an Independent Board Director, Executive Leadership Advisor and CEO of M. A. Pfister Strategy Group. His popular book, Across The Board: The Modern Architecture Behind an Effective Board of Directors, has influenced a whole new generation of Board Directors.

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