Unlocking the Power Of References For Board Director Selection

Published on August 16, 2023

When being considered for a board seat, every step is significant. As the spotlight turns to references, the task involves selecting the right individuals who can offer beneficial insight into your expertise, character and suitability for the boardroom. Be thoughtful about the people you select as your advocates — they can be integral to a successful bid.

References contribute to a holistic view of board candidacy beyond what's conveyed through resumes and interviews for those involved in the company's director search. The people you select should be able to talk about your board-relevant expertise and skills as well as provide perspective on your character and ability to express a constructive, independent viewpoint. They validate your qualifications and help complete the picture of the real you, which aids in the process of determining if you're the right fit to guide the business going forward.

References also help companies reduce risk and avoid surprises by uncovering potential red flags (e.g., conflicts with bosses, colleagues or investors, performance issues, questionable ethics).

A good reference will articulate how you bring a unique perspective to the boardroom. They’ll speak to your strategic decision-making and governance experience, strengths, leadership style and alignment with the company's values and culture. Importantly, they’ll offer insight into your character and personality — attributes that impact how well you’ll fit within the board and the organization.

When thinking about who to ask, consider those who not only provide varied perspectives, but also understand the boardroom and what directors do. Great choices include current or former board directors, those who’ve served with you on a board (public, private or nonprofit), have well-respected professional reputations, are relevant to your industry or areas of expertise and can speak to your integrity and ethics.

Tips When Selecting References

As you apply for board opportunities, consider these strategies to leverage references effectively:


  • Plan references well in advance (so you don’t have to scramble when asked for them).
  • Curate a diverse list of people who know you in different capacities, e.g., former/current bosses, clients, colleagues, fellow board directors.
  • Include people with varied backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Select people who are responsive and available to be contacted.
  • Ask permission before listing someone as a reference and provide them with context about the board you're pursuing.


  • List references who lack board experience or familiarity with the boardroom.
  • Include people who you haven't been in touch with recently and may not accurately represent who you are today.
  • Choose references with personal or biased relationships.

Carefully selecting references who can provide specific, objective feedback will help you present a well-rounded profile before the board you’d like to serve. Individuals who can vouch for your integrity, leadership and collaborative skills are invaluable. Those who have seen you in action during risk assessments, strategic decision-making, and challenging discussions can offer important insights.

Since references help those involved in a company’s director search get a complete picture of a candidate, be thoughtful about who you ask. Make sure they are the type of person with credibility and boardroom understanding so they can discuss your distinctive perspective, validate your qualifications and provide a multi-dimensional portrayal of you and how you’d be the best person to serve on their board.


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