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An Experienced Executive May Make an Effective Board Member

What Makes a Successful Board Member?

[Editor’s Note: if you are an experienced CEO, CFO or another executive, you may be thinking about putting your hat in the ring to be a director of another company. Or, perhaps you are the owner or a board member of a company looking for an outside director. Either way, while it is true that an experienced executive may make an effective board member, you must understand that there are key differences between being a director and an executive. This article is written from the perspective of the would-be executive turned board member.]

Success in the C-suite is not the same as success in the boardroom. Director styles of behavior and boardroom dynamics require a collegial style of intellectual engagement and rigor. Directors are bound by both a duty of care and a duty of loyalty. Directors have grave responsibilities, but should not make operating decisions. They should not direct staff, other than direct reports to the board. The common phrase applicable here is “noses in, fingers out”.

Success in the C-suite is not the same as success in the boardroom. Click To Tweet

Candidates with strong executive styles tend to be very directive in their behaviors; they employ a command-and-control approach to interaction. Successful directors, on the other hand, need to be active listeners and highly collaborative. Demonstrating this style shift from the former to the latter is a critical part of the interview process, and candidates often fail to advance if they cannot quickly demonstrate their ability to behave as a good director should.

One way to sum up the prior paragraph is:

  • Candidates need to be able to have a fierce argument in the boardroom, and then enjoy going to lunch with the sparring partner.
  • Candidates also need to pass the airplane test. If the current director(s) does not look forward to flying across the country sitting next to the candidate, why invite him/her to join as a board member?

As a board member candidate, here are a few things that should be watched during the interview process:

  • Talk time – listen more, talk less. (Get the Hamilton reference?)
  • Dead air – Do not rush to fill dead air time. Be patient and understand that silence is a sign of mental activity.
  • Don’t  oversell yourself
  • Ask truly insightful questions which demonstrate your comprehension of the dialogue; don’t just walk through a list of prepared questions.

[Editor’s Note: You may also like, “Designing Board Evaluations for Private Companies to Succeed”.]

Successful candidates need to demonstrate the judgment to properly balance the informational needs of everyone in the interview. It is a good test of how one will behave in the boardroom.

Candidates need to be listening for verbal and non-verbal clues to adjust their behavior during the interview.

Candidates spend considerable effort to prepare their resume, bio and cover letter; they have prepared their responses to the likely questions, and have studied the company and the industry. All that happens before walking into the first interview. You and all your competitors for the position have been granted the interview because you and they are deemed to have the skill and experience to be a good director. The interviewers are likely focused on chemistry: does the candidate have the right temperament to fit the board and culture?

Candidates need to be listening for verbal and non-verbal clues to adjust their behavior during the interview. Are you fitting in or not? Are you balancing leadership with the need to let other directors speak and lead when it is appropriate?

Experience as an executive is certainly a positive in terms of providing you with the skill-set and experience to be an effective director. You simply need to understand that the two jobs are indeed different and they require very different styles.

[Editor’s Note: Further your education with our webinar, “The Effective Director” from our Board of Directors Bootcamp 2018]

About Bruce Werner

Bruce Werner is the Managing Director of Kona Advisors LLC and served as an outside director on private company boards for the last three decades. Kona Advisors LLC provides advisory services to the owners, investors and CEOs of private and family-owned businesses. With deep experience in governance, succession planning, finance, strategy and management issues, Kona…

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