How to Define the “Right” People and Skills for Your Board Now and in the Future

Getting the right people with the right skillsets on your board is one of the most important decisions that board directors can make. It seems simple enough on the surface, although getting the right people and skills for your board takes time and effort. For-profit boards sometimes don’t always look deeply enough to know whether a board recruit has the exact skillset that the board needs. Nonprofit boards typically have volunteer board members. In an attempt to fill the quota of board seats, some nonprofit boards make impulsive decisions about board director recruits, favoring anyone who is willing to serve on a volunteer basis.

These methods don’t serve organizations well for either the long or the short term. A better way is for the current board to identify exactly what it is they want to accomplish for the short and long term, and evaluate board recruits based upon whether they will be able to help them accomplish these goals.

Getting the “Right” People and Skills Means Taking the “Right” Approach    

Boards of directors have many responsibilities. The main responsibilities are goal-setting, strategic planning and oversight. In light of these responsibilities, board members use their annual meeting time to establish long-term goals and their regular meeting times to establish short-term goals. Once board directors establish their goals, they need to evaluate the current board to see if they have the exact skillsets needed to accomplish them. If not, they’ll need to identify the type of people or skills that will get the job done and share their findings with the nominating committee.

In board recruitment, it helps to use a broad scope in casting the net, but a narrow net in reeling them in. Have you considered that the right person or skillset may not come from the professional sphere, but rather a respected member of the community with the needed experience, knowledge or perspective? Look beyond a recruit’s profession and evaluate them based on the exact skillset that the board needs to reach its goals.

Filling the Present and Future Needs of the Board

Boards will usually have a pretty good idea of the types of people and skills that they need at the present time. It’s important for them to match the people and skills to those needs as closely as they can.

In looking to meet the future needs of the organization, nominating committees need to view board director candidates in light of the organization’s vision, mission and long-term strategic plan. Nominating committees need to evaluate recruits from the perspective of “Can they and will they contribute to the success of our long-term strategic planning?”

Recruiting the right board members with the right skills is a process that takes time. Nominating committees do well to give the recruitment process the time that it demands. It’s better to leave a board seat vacant than to fill it with a body that doesn’t make a valuable contribution to the organization.

Discovering the Right People and Passing Over the Wrong People

Corporate governance today places a lot of emphasis on diversity among board members, and for plenty of good reasons. However, things may get a little off-track when nominating committees choose minorities just to give the appearance of having a diverse board.

Look beyond culture and ethnicity to discover exactly how a potential candidate can enhance the board. Are they willing to provide the perspective of their ethnicity or culture as it pertains to board agenda items? Are they willing to engage their community as needed to fulfill the board’s goals?  Do they have valuable connections with other minority leaders, and are they willing to share the board’s work with them?

Board members need to communicate clearly with recruits as to why the board sought their expertise. Board members also need to be clear and up-front about what their expectations are should they be appointed to the board.

If the board sets a goal to recruit wealthy individuals for the purpose of getting donations and using a wealthy person’s network to gain even more donations, they would do well to communicate that information to the wealthy recruit directly. From there, board members can assess the recruit’s willingness to fulfill that objective. That’s a better approach than recruiting the person and just hoping things fall into place.

As much as board directors should be looking at what board recruits have to offer, they should also be looking at potential negative aspects. Diverse perspectives and collaborative discussions are healthy for boards, but they can easily cross over into unhealthy board dynamics. Boards don’t need someone who likes to argue for the sake of arguing. Dissention over every board agenda item wastes valuable board time. It’s also important to consider whether potential board directors can communicate their views without causing constant contention with the board chair or other outspoken members of the board.

Discovering the Right Skills

Many professions have specialties within their professions. It’s important for boards to get the right skillset within a particular profession. For example, there are many types of lawyers. It’s probably a waste of time to hire a criminal attorney or a divorce attorney when what you really need is a business attorney who knows and understands the laws and issues the board faces.

Matching and Meeting Expectations

Board members should seek to gain as much information as they can from the initial meeting with a board recruit. It’s often helpful to schedule more than one meeting to cover all pertinent aspects of board directorship and the expectations that go along with it. Give board candidates a feel for what the organization is about, stressing the overall vision and mission. Be honest and have a discussion about the board’s weaknesses, as well as its strengths.

Express that you highly value their involvement, as board directorship brings many responsibilities and opportunities. Make clear the role that you need for them (or whomever fills the seat) to play, and gain a sense of their willingness to engage with the rest of the board. As part of the initial discussion, talk about the recruit’s availability for board work. There’s no point in pursuing a relationship with someone whose personal and professional plate is already full.

Getting the right people with the right skills can be either a very big positive or a very big negative for boards. It needs to be a good fit for the board recruit, the board and the organization. It’s better to be completely up-front about what is involved and what your expectations are and have the recruit decline an invitation to accept a nomination, than to follow through with the nomination and election process and have it not work out.