All of us working for a better corporate governance have often been asked such questions as these:
How can we tell who is right for which board?
What are the key competencies that make a newly appointed Non Executive Director succeed?
Of the many talented people we can come across, who will make exceptional Non Executive Directors?
In most cases, the answers will depend on a number of circumstances in the kingdom of Obliquity and Black Swans, i.e. totally unpredictable events. Yet, identifying a candidate for a board search and assessing them against a specific situation can make the likelihood of success significantly higher.
What are the three things we look for in a Non Executive Director candidate?
With the risk of over-simplifying it, I would like to elaborate a bit on the following:
- Credibility: no candidate can have positive impact on a Board unless they rapidly build credibility with all relevant stakeholders. Credibility is built through a combination of the candidate’s collaboration and influencing skills, on the one hand, with their “harder”, non-people-related competencies, such as their technical background, their ability to contribute additional market knowledge to the Board and to the strategic orientation of the board itself on the other. Even if a candidate has already exceptional reputation to bring to that Board, they will need to build credibility with all relevant stakeholders, starting with fellow board members. to appreciate and combine the knowledge and experience of individuals with different backgrounds and viewpoints.
- Listening & trust building skills: this is an additional and crucial component of a candidate’s ability to succeed on a Board. Listening means, amongst other traits, the ability to suspend one’s agenda and judgement, making room for other people’s thoughts. In the life of a Board, listening means being able to remain silent for long, in order to gather sufficient elements for making up one’s own opinion. Also, listening means being capable of asking proper, effective, most of the time open-ended questions, both during the Board sessions and, even more importantly, between them. Listening implies the ability to wait and select proper timing to act, avoiding the risk of early reactions which may jeopardise long-time effectiveness.
- Independence & Integrity: once credibility has been built, through a process which can last from a few seconds in the initial meeting to a longer period of several Board sessions, the Board member will need to be able to use their judgement and speak up, possibly standing against the Board’s prevailing opinion in an effective manner. This is what we call integrity and independence. Being independent requires the ability to influence the Board’s decision making process both ethically and effectively. It requires, amongst other things, the ability to establish effective communication channels with fellow board members and, most importantly, with the Board’s Chairperson.
Credibility, listening & trust-building, independence & integrity are three of many aspects we see when we meet exceptional Non Executive Board Members. They may not be sufficient, yet they represent a strong signal of an emotional intelligent person, most likely to succeed even in a very demanding Board.