Q: You’ve written in the past about being intentional when recruiting board directors, but how can we ensure we are choosing the right people? Do you have some favorite interview questions we can ask? Or, is there another way to separate the wheat from the chaff?
A: I like your question because it implies that you are not going to settle for just anyone who is willing to accept a board seat. It also implies that you have a number of people from whom to choose. Good for you on both counts!
I’ve suggested previously that you test potential directors by placing them on committees or in volunteer positions of direct service where you can see how reliable and committed they are, as well as how they handle various situations, before asking them to serve on the board. I still believe this is the most valid indicator of someone’s future success – or failure.
I would also set up a protocol that all potential directors must go through prior to receiving an invitation to join the board. Their willingness to participate, and how they react at each point along the way, will tell you much. At a minimum, this protocol should outline: who potential directors will meet – e.g., other directors, the CEO, relevant staff, a client; what information about the organization they will receive – e.g., a history, bylaws, the budget, success stories; what they will see – e.g., the offices, the operational site(s), a program in action; who will shepherd them through the process – I strongly suggest someone other than the CEO; who will ask what questions; and, what paperwork will be completed, by who. The order of each step, with an approximate timeline should be spelled out. Keep it as tight as realistically possible. You don’t want anyone to lose interest because the process drags on and on. Consider where you will meet potential directors. If you feel it would be advantageous to handle some of this outside of the office, allocate money in the budget to take people for coffee, breakfast or lunch, unless you are expecting current directors to pick up this cost. If that is the case, be explicit about it.
As for interview questions, let me start with some general do’s and don’ts. Ask everyone the same questions so that you are comparing apples to apples. This does not preclude probing for further information – e.g., “Tell me more about that.” Silence is a great probe! Keep the questions open-ended so that you learn more about what the person knows or believes. This means eschewing not only those questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no,” but those that can be answered very briefly – e.g., “How many boards have you sat on previously?” Also, skip leading questions, where you hint at the answer you are looking for – e.g., “Are you willing to work with an organization that deals with mental illness?” If someone wants to sit on a board, you are floating the possibility of board service, and your mission is serving those with mental illness, that person is going to say, “yes” even if s/he would rather work with animals. Consider hypothetical questions that require potential directors respond to real-life situations they may confront as a director. Take the time to learn what you can and can’t legally ask. Finally, select questions that are relevant to your organization.
Below – in no particular order – are some of my favorite general questions to ask potential directors:
- Why do you want to sit on this board?
- What is it about our mission/vision that attracts you?
- What do you see bringing to this board that will make you a good director and why?
- What do you think is the most important job of a board director and why?
- Tell me what you’ve learned from the boards with which you’ve previously been involved. (If you’ve never served on a board before, tell me what you’ve learned in any other setting that required you to work as part of a team.)
- How do you handle a situation in which everyone else seems gung ho to proceed with a project with which you see problems ahead?
- What are some of your favorite questions to determine whether a project is worth pursuing?
- What information do you like to have before making go/no-go decisions?
- How would you deal with a situation in which…? (One example might be, you heard the treasurer announce an anticipated deficit in excess of $50,000.)
- What would you tell your friends and family about our organization?
Lastly, avoid any messaging that telegraphs an expectation that the process is merely pro forma, and the individuals merely have to go through the motions to receive their invitation to join the board. You may discover something that sours you on an individual, and it’s difficult to “un-sell” people that have been led to believe their opportunity for board service is a done deal. It’s even more difficult to do it while leaving a positive taste in their mouths. Use language of general participation rather than specific to board involvement.
I’d love to learn what interview questions you’ve had success with. Please send them along to the email address below.