Often when working with clients to help them form or revamp a board we are faced with a list of qualifications that are strikingly similar to those of the current CEO: “a current president/CEO of a business in our industry with size similar to ours”. Of course the challenge is to find people meeting this description who are not direct competitors. It is easy to understand why an executive would want to have similar experience on her/his board. If the board understands the challenges and opportunities of a business it takes less time to inform them before a meaningful discussion.
However, when any group is composed of individuals who are too much alike Group Think can set in and diminish innovation. Group Think occurs when people are too comfortable with each other or too respectful of each other to challenge ideas. A “rubber stamp” board cannot test ideas in the crucible of critical analysis. Sometimes the very differences that cause us to spend extra time explaining an issue before we get to the solutions stage of a discussion can produce the most creative outcomes. Having intelligent, committed board members from different backgrounds can provide new ways of thinking about old problems. For example, the president of a company from a different industry whose customers, suppliers, or distribution channels are similar to yours may help you find alternatives your competitors don’t see. Different points of view help us to look at problems from a fresh perspective and can break the logjam of “we tried that before”.
When you sit down with your existing board and/or management to discuss what you are looking for in a new director, it’s likely that you create a list of skills and experiences that you feel a director should possess in order to add value to your board. That makes sense. Specific industry knowledge, skills such as corporate finance, marketing, operations, perhaps experience in negotiations or government relations might be of value to the board.
We encourage boards to also spend time identifying personal attributes that an effective director should possess. What type of person might best integrate with the culture in the business and perhaps the family? Are there specific personality characteristics that you know might trigger conflict or unease with the board? Do you have a culture of inclusion that allows for input from every individual at the table, regardless of their background or level of understanding? Do you make decisions as a board that might subordinate profit to other considerations that are important to the family (such as community philanthropy, or care for family members in need? These questions prompt you to think about what kind of director might be most compatible with your board. You might find a director candidate with the right skill set and relevant experience, but they are driven exclusively by bottom line results. They might have little or no tolerance for tailoring executive positions to the needs and talents of family members. Or perhaps their ego requires more ‘air time’ in the boardroom than is appropriate.
If you are looking at director candidates, look beyond the skills and experience base they bring – ask yourself about the cultural and chemistry ‘fit’ with the group before you make a commitment that is tricky to undo!