Two Views — Will the shift to virtual board recruitment be bad for boards? Possibly, but not for the reasons you might think.
By Nicole Sandford

Virtual recruitment is not without challenges that, left unchecked, may result in poor board choices. A virtual process potentially eliminates some of the informal interactions that can be helpful in assessing cultural fit and values alignment. Board dinners, one-on-one in-person meetings with individual directors, and informal exchanges with executives between board interviews can help add dimension to the board’s understanding of each candidate and can be particularly helpful when comparisons must be made among a number of potential directors.

Technology failures may also create an uneven playing field and make it more difficult to assess and compare directors. Will you get the same sense of a candidate if his or her internet fails and the video interview becomes a conference call? Will background noise, disruptions or other distractions allow for a perfect interview environment?

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Two Views — Virtual interviews tend to be more structured and somewhat more formal, encouraging everyone to be more prepared.

Some candidates may not present as well on a video meeting as they would in person. Eye contact can be more difficult and could be misconstrued as aloofness, whether consciously or subconsciously. Candidates may struggle with things like staying focused on the camera instead of looking around the room or at their “self-view.” Many of us are still learning how to find a flattering angle or to reduce distracting backgrounds and noises. Lighting and pacing of answers to questions may be an issue for the interviewee whose experience with video is limited.

Real challenges, real solutions
These challenges are real, but they are also highly addressable. Good searches are adapting quickly to help boards avoid these pitfalls. More due diligence around each candidate, for example, can replace the informal feedback of in-person meetings, perhaps in the form of more time with references and candidates’ previous boards. On the flipside, candidates can be coached on presenting themselves in a virtual environment, helping them to eliminate distractions whenever possible.

Boards can also reduce risk in the process by developing a hybrid approach. While most of the initial interview process can be virtual, one-on-one in-person meetings with just the CEO and chair can be arranged for the final candidate. If proper safety protocols are followed, including choosing an appropriate venue and providing for social distancing, the final interview process could be done without exposing the candidate or your company’s leaders to unnecessary risk of COVID-19 exposure.

It may also be helpful to use professional assessment tools to understand a particular candidate’s cultural fit. I have long been an advocate for this approach. Many large companies have adopted technology-enabled tools to enhance the quality and effectiveness of teams. At Deloitte, for example, the Business Chemistry methodology, originally designed as a tool for creating high-performing client service teams, has also been successfully deployed to help boards. Using this or other assessments that are rooted in social science, board members can better understand their current dynamics and identify opportunities to expand cognitive diversity. Ultimately, this might provide a better view of cultural fit than historical processes, which are often influenced by unconscious biases of the directors who conduct the interviews.

All this being said, there is one very real risk to boards as a result of the shift toward virtual recruiting: The Delay Penalty.

Don’t dawdle
Boards that do not move forward because they are uncomfortable with a virtual process may ultimately miss out on top talent, especially with respect to diverse candidates or those with specific functional expertise. Because of recent events related to social justice, diverse candidates in our network are fielding multiple calls each week for board roles. Likewise, individuals with “hot” skillsets — expertise in technology transformation, cyber risk, health care, talent and workforce of the future — will be in high demand in the post-pandemic world. This is a fantastic place to be if you are a candidate, but it should be worrisome if you’re looking to add a woman or member of an underrepresented group to your board. As competitors snap up your top picks, you’ll have to look harder and longer to fill vacancies.

Boards that choose to move forward but do so using their typical, in-person process will also lose access to anyone who is unwilling to travel or to meet in person. Do you want to miss out on a strong candidate simply because they have a personal reason for being extra careful, such as age or underlying conditions? Unfortunately, that is already happening, and another board will benefit from your hesitation.

Like it or not, we are in a “new reality,” and we simply do not know for how long. Boards that accept this and keep their recruiting process moving forward with appropriate risk mitigation strategies will be in a better position than those that don’t.

Some closing thoughts and takeaways:

  • Your traditional recruiting process may feel comfortable, but it likely introduces as much risk as it mitigates.
  • Resistance to change or delay may result in a more limited candidate pool or a loss of top talent to the boards of your competitors.
  • Negative outcomes can be avoided through enhanced due diligence performed by the search professional and the company.
  • Professional assessment tools may complement the virtual program as a means of better understanding a candidate’s personal style and its impact on board dynamics.
  • A hybrid approach will reduce personal risk to the candidate and the company’s leadership.

Boards have faced shifting paradigms many times in recent history, most significantly in the post-Enron and post-financial crisis eras. Boards are more effective and functional now than at any other point in modern times, in part because of the efforts taken as a result of those crises. Boards can emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world if they are open to new methods and technologies, and keep moving forward.

Nicole Sandford was a partner at Deloitte for nearly 30 years before retiring to become EVP and Board Services Leader for Ellig Group, Inc., a search and advisory firm that specializes in placing high-potential, diverse candidates on boards and in the C-suite.

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