We are frequently asked to conduct searches for board members on behalf of our clients. The requirements vary with the company. In some instances the firm seeks an individual with deep experience in a certain market or technology. In others, it is specific relationships or contacts which the board member can bring for the firm’s benefit. Sometimes it is the experience and wisdom of scaling businesses beyond our clients’ current size or level of complexity. On yet other occasions, it is specific functional experience that is required; geopolitical savvy in a certain part of the world; or specialized experience in corporate governance.
While our clients will readily discuss these types of requirements, they are far less inclined to volunteer issues of fit. In fact the discussion can get downright awkward when it turns to the personalities of the existing board members, how they make decisions, power dynamics, and how these influence the make-up of the person being recruited. Whatever those dynamics may be, does the firm expect the successful candidate to fit in, or to provide a counter-balance to a board somehow skewed or made ineffective by its current composition? And how will we know the right candidate?
One ‘board effectiveness’ consulting firm uses a variation of the Myers-Briggs survey in order to characterize board members by social style. They have found that 41% of all board members surveyed are what they term ‘extroverted and competitive’. While they acknowledge the many positive attributes associated with this type ‘A’, action-oriented style, they also point out that a room full of these people may not be the best listeners, most patient, or inclusive in their decision-making. In fact, in a meeting of such individuals, decision-making may at times come down to who yells the loudest or wields the biggest stick.
The point is that board effectiveness is more than the sum total of experience around a table. It is more than the cachet of big names and contacts that a company is able to attract. Any discussion of board effectiveness has to include the ability to work together in a purposeful way. Boards are teams and like other teams, members play different roles and chemistry matters. To that end the consulting firm spoke of the importance of the ‘thoughtful and objective’ type board member, the ‘sociable and creative’ board member and the ‘caring and encouraging’ board member.
Social styles inventories are an old concept but one that continues to be useful when discussing team dynamics. It is not, repeat not a selection tool and it does not replace the other attributes in a board search. Social style will also struggle with the power variable which can never be underestimated for its impact on the dynamic of any board. Nonetheless, boards are wise to at contemplate the dynamics of their current board members as well as their social styles whenever they consider adding another one to the mix.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.