By Don Kennedy, Managing Partner

Whether you are a C-level executive making a key senior level hiring decision, or a candidate considering taking on a leadership position at a venture backed company, the role of members of the board of directors is a critical, and often underappreciated part of the interview process.  When utilized in the right way, the perspective offered by board members can be an invaluable source of perspective for both the companies they represent, and the candidates considering joining the team. However, with any key talent decisions, this is a two way street in which process, consistency of messaging, and timely communication are of paramount importance.  Here are some keys to consider for all three parties involved in the process:

For the Senior Hiring Exec

Board members come in many different forms. The best are those that take an active (but not smothering) interest in their portfolio company and are able to clearly communicate where the company is today and what they see as critical to the future success of the organization.  Hopefully this view is consistent with that of senior leadership, and not as a result of popping in once a quarter to hear how things are going and then going dark for 90 Days. Great board members have a track record of success, a deep understanding of the needs of the company, and an alignment on what it will take to get to the next level.  

Board members are not at the company every day. This is good and bad. It’s good in the sense that they are removed enough from the daily swirl to maintain a heightened level of objectivity and bad in that their impressions of “how the sausage gets made” are not always 100% in line with reality. This means that before involving any non-employee in the hiring process, the Senior Hiring Exec (typically CEO or founder) needs to pull together the board members they see as critical, and gain commitment to the time investment needed in the process, define goals and objectives for each conversation, and obtain buy-in with respect to adherence to timelines. Proper expectation setting up front makes all of the difference in a successful search.

Board members from different investment circles may have different points of view on what an ideal candidate looks like, and these views can even be different from what the C-level team within a hiring company look like. This is where the job of an executive recruiter (like myself) becomes incredibly important. As we often say, “There are no perfect candidates, no perfect roles, and no perfect companies.” That being said, this line of thinking should not supercede transparent and candid conversations as a group to drive alignment and allow for an apples to apples comparison of candidates for a given role. This tension is healthy, and if managed well, can be incredibly productive. It’s a diversity of opinions that can ultimately drive the most productive search process, but at a certain point, consensus needs to come together, and decisions need to be made in a timely fashion.

For the Prospective Candidate

If you’re a candidate asked to speak with a board member as part of the hiring decision, consider this a great opportunity on a number of levels. First, it most likely means that the company is serious about your candidacy. People are not typically going to utilize a board member’s time on initial high level screening, and are not going to put lower quality candidates in front of their investors. Second, it provides a setting to talk about the big picture strategy and current state of the company. As a board member is most likely not in the hiring company’s building on a daily basis, their views skew towards being very objective, and based on metrics and researched market opportunities. The double edged sword to this dynamic is that the numbers (good or bad) don’t ever tell the whole story, and a board member may not have the tightest grasp on the day to day culture of the company.  

When given an opportunity to speak with a board member, you should leave the conversation at the very least getting insights into the following questions:

  1. What was it about this company and leadership team that drove your decision to invest your personal or practice’s funds?
  2. What are your expectations for the role we are discussing in the short and long term?  What does GREAT look like?
  3. What does the rest of your portfolio look like? What is it about this company that excites you the most, what keeps you up at night, and how would you compare their progress to other like companies you work with?

For the Board Member

If you’re a board member working with a leadership team on a search, you are a critical part of the process. You owe it to your portfolio company (and outside recruiter when appropriate) to offer specific, timely, and constructive feedback on candidates throughout the process.  If you can’t commit to making this a priority, step aside. An aloof board member brought into the recruiting process does more harm than good. As much as the hiring exec and board members are assessing a given candidate, he/she is judging you as well. I’ve personally experienced instances where an engaged board member has been the deciding factor in landing top talent at their company. I’ve also been on the other side trying to spin why a board member cancelled multiple calls with a candidate and how this wasn’t indicative of the importance that he or she placed on this role and process.

Most board members are working in a similar capacity with multiple companies. This diversity of experience is invaluable in the process, and something that really resonates with top candidates. Someone who has “been there and done that” and can relate to the current state of the company and role being discussed brings a level of insight that most CEOs and founders don’t possess. If you are a board member meeting with a prospective candidate, bring these experiences to the surface and talk about how it has shaped your view on the traits needed for the role being discussed. It not only helps sell the opportunity, but will also allow you to better tease out the knock-out assessment criteria defined as most critical for success.

A company’s ability to land top talent is only a good as it’s process, senior level engagement and alignment, and a willingness to do the heavy lifting involved. Bringing a board member (or two) into the mix can pay huge dividends for everyone involved when facilitated correctly. It can be a strong sanity check between various constituents on the hiring side, and can instill a high level of confidence on the candidate side by bringing a differentiated perspective into the conversation. Communicate and set expectations up front, and all three parties involved can thrive for years to come as partners.