We recently hosted a panel at Deloitte’s MADE (Making Accounting Diverse and Equitable) initiative to discuss how to enhance board readiness with a group of 20 diverse executives. Our session delved into the unique nuances that come with interviewing for a board position and how it differs from the process of interviewing for an executive role.
Discussing what the process looks like is particularly relevant in the context of advancing diverse representation at the board level. Corporate boards have been slowly closing the underrepresentation gap, yet much more progress is needed. In 2022, nonwhite board directors account for 13.3 percent of all Russell 3000 companies, up from 9.4 percent in 2020, and while boards have increased female participation, it’s not enough, according to our Global Board Diversity Tracker.
Board chairs must be intentional in creating an equitable hiring process, and aspiring board members can also prepare for the high stakes involved in the interview process, as not every candidate will have the relevant connections or previous exposure to board members.
1. How is the board interview different from the C-suite interview?
There are several key differences between a board interview and a C-suite interview. Most importantly, while an executive interview may focus on what the company can do for you and your career, a board interview is about what you can do for the company, the board, and the overall strategy. If you're unable to differentiate between your own career aspirations and the impact you can have on the board and the company, it's a sign that you may not be ready for your first board position. Expect it to be a series of questions, not a formal interview.
- Less formal, but still requires professionalism
- Relational vs. transactional
- Conversation oriented, but not relaxed
- Cultural fit is emphasized over professional accolades
2. What should I expect from the process?
Board interviews can vary widely in terms of format and setting. It is uncommon for the first round to be held at corporate offices. You may be interviewed in person, over Zoom, or even over coffee or a meal. It’s also possible that your first round will include multiple people interviewing you at once. This could be a mix of individuals from the nominating committee, the CEO or the Chair. A panel interview can come with unique challenges if the interviewers haven’t agreed on what they are going to ask you and in what order.
3. How should I prepare?
Preparing for a board interview requires a different approach, too. The interviewer(s) has to sense you are prepared and that you are coming to have a birds-eye view conversation about the company and the board, not about small details.
You’ll want to enter the room confident in understanding what the company does, how it does it, where it plans to go, and what their reputation is on the street, in the market, and with consumers, and other key stakeholders. You need a holistic view of the company, so dedicate time researching the strategy, growth trajectory, and reputation, and come ready to discuss those topics in a high-level, strategic way.
And finally, it is critical to let your CEO and CFO know about your interest in being on a board. There is a significant level of time commitment and intricacies related to serving—which may vary; publicly listed company boards typically require the highest time commitment. International companies may require travel. This means your management will need to release you for board service with little to no control over which days these will be, so having their approval will significantly impact your ability to serve and develop yourself as a board member effectively.
4. Who should my references be?
When it comes to selecting references for a board seat, it's important to choose individuals who have guided you in your career and can speak to your leadership skills, executive capabilities, and softer skills such as communication and teamwork.
Those references are the connected individuals who are helping you meet decision-makers in the boardroom. They are truly your path to the boardroom, so you should be involving them in every step of the way and ensure that they are not surprised when you ask them to be your reference. If you haven’t discussed your board aspirations with your mentors, former managers and bosses, then you have more preparation to do.
5. What can I do to improve my chances and access to board opportunities?
To improve your chances of accessing board opportunities, network outside of your immediate community, including industry associations, alumni networks, friends, and peers. Working with search firms such as Egon Zehnder, for instance, can help expand the net of people you know.
Getting involved in your community, especially with non-profit organizations, is also helpful as decision-makers in non-profit organizations are often connected to for-profit organizations and can help you get more exposure to the people that could be valuable connections and helpful to your process.
Continuing education is just as important as introductory work, and it's something you should invest in after securing your first board position. Education resources such as NACD and major business schools can be a worth investment.