Reluctant Board Candidates: Friendly Persuasion
BY Ralph Ward
Every year, boardroom burdens increase, more board candidates find themselves "boarded up," and the average director tenure grows a bit shorter. As a result, more boards are seeking talented director nominees at the same time that more of these A-listers are saying "no" to board offers. Board search consultants tell me that, as a rule of thumb, half of all top board talents decline offers. Even a candidate who ultimately does accept a board nomination won't generally first respond by jumping up and down with joy -- at the level of talent you're exploring, a board invitation is not a major event. What can your board do to improve the odds -- and how can you turn a "no" into a "yes"?
Realize that "no" isn't always the last word. While execs with a half dozen other board seats, or battling through a major turnaround, have good reason to say no and mean it, many prospects are surprisingly persaudable. "If they demur, say it's difficult at the moment, and act coy," then they may still be interested says Stephen Fowler, head of the new Boardseat.com search service. "Tease it out of them. Ask if they're happy with all the current boards they're on, or if they're thinking of dropping any. They may be firm now, but not so firm in 2 months. The best thing is to get them talking."
The better the board prospect, the tougher the sell. "If a candidate is on 3 or 4 boards already, but feels they could squeeze in one more board seat, they get very selective," says Bob Shields, a partner in the Chicago office of SpencerStuart. "You have to persist with them a bit so they fully understand the business needs of the organization. Even if they first feel the fit is not right, giving them added info on the company and its situation, and what is sought from them, will usually interest them." A popular salesman's trick for this is to draw the prospect out on what the company needs to do going forward, and how its board should contribute. Once you coax the prospect to move beyond what "they" should do to what "we" should do, the battle is won.
The board itself is often your best salesman. "Do everything you can to get the candidate to spend time with the CEO or someone on the board," advises Julie Daum, SpencerStuart managing director for U.S. board services. "Use personal chemistry and fit? the prospect may really like the CEO, and feel these are people they can work with. Try to find a connection. One of the board members may bring some personal appeal." This combines the strength of the "old boy's club" boardroom with the talent needs of a modern board. Rather than tapping current directors' networks for "who knows who," seek out some strong candidates and then use board members' networks to make a connection.
Give "active listening" to a candidate's initial "no" reasons. Between the vague demurrals you can overcome, and the solid deal-killers you can't, the prospect may have some valid concerns with your board that can still be negotiated or explained. "If the candidate has some concerns about the level of your D&O coverage, for example, those can be addressed," notes Stephen Fowler. Indeed, prospects' concerns on issues like liability, current strategy, or company leadership offer a valuable outsider's take on how the company is viewed -- and on how it needs to improve in order to draw top board talent.