Opinion: Narrowing the search for the right board directors
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Narrowing the search for right board members

Narrowing the search for right board members

With new regulatory requirements and calls for boardroom diversity getting louder, more and more boards are finding it tough and deciding they shouldn’t handle their own talent digging

Gulf Business
Hiring board members

A truism about enterprise board recruiting worldwide is that a great majority of board seats are filled by personal networking connections. Executive search firms traditionally handled a small share of board searches, despite their deep talent benches and vetting skills.

This is still the norm, but the rules of the game seem to be shifting. With the boards demanding far more qualified directors in tune with the new regulatory requirements, with the standards and investor attention to directors climbing, and calls for boardroom diversity getting louder, more and more boards are finding it tough and deciding they shouldn’t handle their own talent digging.

Every year, the percentage of director searches contracted to headhunters rises a bit more. So if you are aiming for the boardroom, what should you know to put this trend to good use?

As a top (or at least rising) corporate executive, business owner, or investor, you likely already have search firm contacts. Top executive talent, especially in high-demand fields, will always be on the radar screen of headhunters, and if they are doing their job properly, you should be receiving regular bait-dangling calls from them for jobs.

Today, though, there is even more board search value through this source. Quiz your headhunting contact about how their firm handles board searches for clients. More of the big, international search firms (Korn Ferry, Heidrick & Struggles, Spencer Stuart, RSR, and so on) are forming specialised board search practices, often targeting specific sectors such as IT, healthcare, finance, etc. Some GCC search firms have specialised subsidiaries for family business boards. Pump your source for details on the who and where of this for their firm, and try to get names and introductions. You want to be on their radar too.

Along with the name headhunter spinoffs, there has been a boom in smaller boutique search firms specialising in board searches. Invest some online search time investigating these, because most of them specialise in narrow areas. There are specialists in women and diversity searches. There are firms focused on board talent for sustainability, sales, cyber security, audit, nonprofits, foundations, family businesses, private firms, international companies, and all combinations thereof. Don’t let this digging discourage you though — you can use this research to find a board hunter who targets your unique needs.

Once you find a board headhunter, how do you make the relationship work?

The easiest way is to simply reach out, and remember not to be shy. Recruiters are absolutely open to such connections since many of them depend on LinkedIn for a broad search anyway when they get a mandate from a client. They may not meet with you right away, but you should build the network. A regular contact schedule with the headhunter every three to six months is a good idea: A note, a “happy holidays,” an update, and a link to useful info. Build on this relationship to learn about trends in what boards are seeking, and also how board search roles and personnel shift within the search firm. This is a fast-churning field.

What’s the inside view from the board hunters on what board seekers do right (and wrong) in working with them? Many of them like to see board seekers who are practical about it. They should have a clear understanding of the board role they want and why they want it. The board clients who ask the recruiters what works best, what they should do, and how they should go about it have the most success, it seems. (If a board headhunter doesn’t know how to get on a board, who does?)

And what doesn’t work for the board wannabe in approaching headhunters? Some candidates, especially in their late careers, assume board opportunities will come flying their way given all the wonderful knowledge they’ve accumulated over the years. They think someone else will do the work for them. In fact, a board search firm should be one of the later stops in a personal board campaign of research, networking, vitae/reference development, and image building. And once you commit to seeking a board role, stay committed.

When a headhunter finds an ideal board role for you and reaches out to you, don’t stay too busy with your regular job, and don’t take too much time to respond back. Else, the headhunter will assume you are too busy for any board roles.

 Ralph Ward is a global board advisor, coach and publisher; Dr M Muneer is the co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute.

Read: How boards of startups can add value

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