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Board recruitment during Covid-19: why and how

A global pandemic may not feel like the best time to make changes to your board composition. Imogen Sanders explains why board recruitment should not be shelved in these trying times.

Date: 7th May 2020

Author: Imogen Sanders, Senior Consultant at Perrett Laver

We are of course in a time of significant upheaval and organisations might be forgiven for thinking that circumstances are less than ideal for effecting change at the top. Certainly, there are important considerations when it comes to going to market for board members in the current climate, but is it possible? Absolutely. There are in fact many reasons why you may want and need to think about going live now.

First, we do not know how long the effects of this pandemic will last and how they will evolve. Continued delays to succession planning may result long-term in a diminished board, with either multiple vacancies or interim leadership focused on short-term survival. To maintain vision and capacity, at a time when these two aspects could make or break an organisation, recruitment may be necessary.

Secondly, it is undeniable that the world is now a very different place, and it will continue to change. As such, it is worth reflecting on your current board composition and using any potential vacancies as an opportunity to recalibrate for the future. Has your future strategic thinking evolved in response to the current circumstances? Are there different skillsets that would enable you better moving forward? What competencies and soft skills have proven most helpful, or what experiences have you felt lacking recently?

Thirdly, whilst there are some instabilities in the market currently, we are finding many people are using additional time to consider personal development, and volunteering culture is at an all-time high. This could therefore be a hugely productive time to seek new non-executives. Potential candidates are more inclined to take on non-executive responsibilities as they are motivated to support key organisations as they navigate the risks ahead. People are looking to contribute and find purpose, and particularly for organisations such as sporting bodies with societal impact, wellbeing and community spirit at the heart, non-executive roles are a great way of giving back. With many compelled to help now, and to support the bounce back of causes that matter to them, there exists great opportunity to capture people’s interest in your mission.

Nonetheless, recruitment cannot simply progress as usual and amendments to process and strategy must be applied.

  • We recommend introducing significantly more touch points with potential candidates throughout the process, from their initial declaration of interest through to final assessments. In processes for senior appointments, there should always be a high degree of reciprocity and two-way consideration, but it is important to remember that this style of virtual process will be new for candidates as well as you. Enhanced engagement will however ensure that, despite not being able to meet directly, they can gather the best possible sense of your culture, challenges and opportunities and thus perform their best at final interview stages. It will also help build their commitment, ensuring retention to the end of the process, and will give you a more developed idea of them. Particularly if you are not working with a search firm, we would recommend making a member of the board available for questions and exploratory conversations with potential candidates. You may also want to consider what additional documentation you can share confidentially with shortlisted candidates.

  • You will need to consider informal interactions as part of this engagement. You should ensure ample chance to meet virtually with candidates for one-to-ones in which the agenda is flexible, friendly and candidate-led. The chance for candidates to ask questions and for you to get to know them in a relaxed, more social setting will allow them to embed themselves better in your context. As well as the Chair and CEO, we would advise mapping out other key stakeholders, and considering carefully and holistically who should be part of these dialogues, and at what points in the timeline. This interactivity will also ensure candidates have sufficient buy-in and mandate, and maintains transparency of process during a time when communication and visibility is critical.
  • It is also important to reflect and consolidate thoughts on the skills now needed around the board table ahead of drawing together a candidate brief. This will mean stepping out of the proximal and very urgent feelings that dominate current working days. Prepare a future-focused role description, and show your proactivity, resilience and ambition. We recommend as part of this reflection looking at internal talent, strengths, weaknesses and gaps. If you are working with a search firm, ensure you give them a detailed brief and stay closely in touch. The better our understanding, the more effective we can be on your behalf, in terms of our search strategy, advocacy, and assessments.

  • Do not just rely on a passive advert approach. This is not only critical in getting candidates over the line and moving them from tentative to committed, but also in ensuring you reach candidates whose profiles really align with your needs. Utilise all your Board’s contacts and networks, spend time reaching out and thinking broadly about where candidates may be found. Working with a search firm could offer great return on investment during this time as their reach and networks will be extensive, and those with dedicated research arms will lend greater creativity and diversity to ensure no stone is left unturned.

  • In terms of assessing candidates, questions around motivations and style remain paramount. You will want to be assured that they are not rushing into a role in response to current crisis-led emotions, that they have had chance to think through how they can add value longer term, and how this may work with their daily lives in future. The way they lead, not just what they lead, will be crucial to understand, given that working together has never been more vital. You may also want to consider extended referencing to gather more perspectives and assurance of the candidates’ track record, style and commitment.

Overall, the major headline is to take adequate time to get this right, and to present yourselves externally as you would want to be seen. Ultimately you do not just want a successful appointment, but a sustainable appointment, and to leave a positive impression on all those you interact with throughout. Design a plan upfront that will give momentum and structure to ensure decisiveness, but that builds in additional weeks to allow for the engagement and robust thought process described above.

Imogen Sanders is a Senior Consultant at Perrett Laver, a leading international executive search firm working with mission-driven sectors worldwide. She is the lead for a major Sport England and UK Sport funded project aimed at enhancing diversity in non-executive leadership across the sector, through the identification, engagement and development of a network of “board-ready” candidates.
You can reach Imogen at imogen.sanders@perrettlaver.com or connect via LinkedIn.