Interviewing for a Board Role

Mar 12, 2021
Interviewing for a Board Role
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions / Unsplash

Startup Boards for CXOs Series: Post 4 of 11

By the time you get to the interview stage for a board role, you’ve already been vetted to some degree. Your references have been contacted (and presumably had only good things to say about you), your resume has been confirmed, and the CEO and other board members have a file on you, your accomplishments, and what skills you would bring to the board. So, if you get called in for an interview, it’s a big deal–but that doesn’t mean that all you have to do is show up and answer a few softball questions. You should expect that you’re one of several finalists and that how you do in the interview is weighted pretty highly in the overall metric. So, like other high-profile jobs you should take the interview for a board role seriously, and you should be as prepared as possible.

You should also expect that you’ll have to interview several times with several people before getting selected. As a CEO, I always interviewed prospective board members at least twice, including one long-form in-person interview (preferably over a meal). I ask every existing board member to interview finalists and have a couple people from the management team do an interview as well. You’re joining a team that’s just as serious and important to the company as its executive team…that’s how the process is likely to work. It’s not necessarily a red flag if the company’s process doesn’t work this way, but you shouldn’t be shy about asking to meet with additional people as well if you need that for your own diligence.

Obviously, the more you know about the company, the executive team, the market, products, challenges, finances, culture, values, the better off you are and it’s more likely that you’ll be able to have a candid, thoughtful conversation with the CEO, members of the management team, or other directors.

In terms of representing your own experience and what you bring to the table, think about all those experiences I wrote about in the post on preparing yourself for your first board seat and figure out how to best showcase them with some quick sound bites. What other organizations have you had an impact on in an advisory capacity, and what was the impact? Make sure you can answer the question of why you’re interested in joining a board in general, and this board in particular.

And as with all good interviews, it’s important to have some questions in your back pocket that you can pull out if you’re asked, “do you have any questions?” rather than sit there in silence trying to think of something smart to ask. What are those questions that you’d want to ask?

Questions to Ask Before Joining a Board:

  • Getting on a board is as much about fit as working in a company. Start by asking why you’re a good candidate to join the board. What is it about your experience set that the CEO is looking for?
  • How does the board operate? Do they socialize outside of board meetings and if so, are you expected to attend or is it optional?
  • Do they talk about issues or problems or scenarios offline?
  • Are they formal or informal in their meetings?
  • What do they see as the greatest need of the company over the next 12 to 18 months?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the board?
  • What is the CEO like to work with?
  • What are their values? Do you share the same ones?

As I wrote about in an earlier post, there are a couple of key questions you can ask to see if you and the board have some level of philosophical alignment or disconnect (which might be good as long as everyone realizes it, and different directors play different voices when it comes to the topics at hand) when it comes to governance. One question concerns the role of the board with respect to day-to-day operations of the company, and the other concerns shareholder value vs. stakeholder value. It’s worth reading or re-reading that section in full for the details.

The interview with the CEO (and possibly executive team members) and board members is important, but it’s actually the half-way point: you may also be invited to a board meeting as a trial run or audition. If so, you should expect to get the same materials as everyone else and possibly even a pre-briefing with the CEO, and you’ll be expected to participate just as you would if you were on the board. I have an upcoming post on “Your First Board Meeting” that goes into some of the details, but there’s really only one cardinal rule: be yourself. Don’t hold back. Engage with the people, issues, and processes. Challenge others if you feel like they need to be challenged. Have a point of view.

Landing a board role might be the pinnacle of your career, the capstone to a life in business, but acting in ways that you think the board or CEO wants you to act is a recipe for disaster. It’s inauthentic, at best.

I asked my executive team what qualities they looked for in a board member and I’m not saying that you should present these qualities if you don’t have them, but if they describe you then I would certainly highlight them. A few of them are:

  • Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
  • Comes with an opinion on areas where they have expertise that is otherwise missing from the table (but not afraid to discuss or debate an area where they’re less informed)
  • Thinks about what will happen next in the business and gets management to think ahead
  • Calls out the blind spots
  • Offers tough love…unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what the CEO or board wants to hear
  • Has colorful and memorable stories and metaphors

It is also completely and entirely appropriate for you to do your own due diligence on a company before joining its board. Here are some things to look at and in some cases some red flags to look for in your research:

  • Financials: You should understand the financial state of the company before you join its board. Most VC-backed startups are losing money by definition, but understanding cash runway and the next financing timing and plan is important; a runway of less than 6 months (without a term sheet in hand) can be a big red flag.
  • Glassdoor: Understanding the culture of the organization is critical. Poor Glassdoor ratings and poor CEO ratings in particular are worth digging into.
  • Media: Pay attention to stories and blog posts about the company, but be skeptical and use what you read as a means of asking the CEO questions rather than making judgments.
  • Board turnover: It’s ok to ask if the board has had other independent directors over time who are no longer on the board. A lot of board turnover is unusual, so it’s worth digging in on it by understanding the CEO’s perspective and also potentially talking to a former director.
  • Board interviews: If the CEO doesn’t have you interview with all of the other board members before making a decision on you…you should ask to do at least one or two meetings with other directors before making your decision.

If after a complete interview process, you feel like something is amiss, if something doesn’t seem right, if it doesn’t seem like you can have an impact on the company, you shouldn’t pursue the board seat. There’s no need to force it, to try to make a square peg fit a round hole. It’s a lot better to reject a board position early in a process than to start, make a multi-year commitment, and either not keep that commitment or not be able to make the impact you want.

- Matt Blumberg, March 12, 2021