The Secret to Grabbing a Boardroom Gig

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on how "right brain" skills can be surprisingly critical.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

About five times a week, I receive a request for help getting on a board, as if directorships are there for the asking. Some people believe that all they need to do is raise their hand and they’ll get picked.

This point was brought home humorously in an extreme example told to me over dinner by a globally recognized CEO (you’d know the company) that hires hundreds of college interns each year. Three weeks into one recent program, the CEO addressed the new class of interns. After the remarks, one of them introduced himself to the CEO and offered an update on his experience with the company: “I just don’t know if this is working out for me. I don’t feel I am making an impact on anyone’s life.”

When the CEO told him to give it a little more time, the intern piped up: “I have a lot of good ideas. I think I can contribute to your board.”

What can you say to someone who has so much hope but is so naïve? As the CEO quipped to me, “Hey, I’d like to play quarterback for the Jets next year.”

Joking aside, it raises an important point that too many people miss: they can’t just vote themselves onto the island—nor do they ever vote themselves off.

There simply aren’t that many board openings. The S&P 500 represents about 5,500 board seats. The average tenure for directors is between eight and 10 years. That means that every year there could be thousands of potential candidates chasing hundreds of openings. Companies today can and should be more discerning about board talent.

So if you, like me, receive numerous queries from people who want to sit on a board, here’s what I tell them. 

It’s the “Right Brain” That Counts

Boards these days are assembled like a mosaic of backgrounds, perspectives, unique talents, and experiences. It isn’t enough to be, say, deeply familiar with Latin America—or even knowing Latin America plus having expertise in digital technology. That only speaks to someone’s “left brain” technical skills—what they know and what they’ve done. Among top-tier board candidates, such expertise is fairly easy to find.

What really distinguishes great from good goes beyond the left brain. It’s all about what I call “right brain” leadership, with capabilities such as a high degree of self-awareness, having courage, and being learning agile. The right brain embodies “social leadership”—having people skills to engage with, motivate, inspire, and influence others.

I see it over and over again: there is too much focus on the left brain and what people have done, and not enough on the right brain of who they are and how they will fit with the team.

Their pedigree as CEOs and senior leaders at other firms may get them on the board. But once they’re part of a group of eight, 12, or even more members, it can be a crapshoot as to how well the directors will function together—and the larger that group, the more difficult it becomes.

But when board members have both left-brain skills and right-brain leadership, they’re more likely to be successful in representing shareholders and working with others.

Assessing for Right-Brain Skills

So where can companies find board candidates with right-brain skills? For that, you need assessments. However, there is some resistance to assessing board candidates—the thinking being that the person’s name and resume should be enough. That’s certainly true for identifying a strong candidate, such as a star player who can score the points. But without assessments, boards won’t know how the team comes together.

A company we worked with recently sought directors who have specific expertise. Two of the candidates had stellar backgrounds. When the board nominating committee suggested that the candidates be assessed, there was pushback from the greater board. A very heated discussion ensued: How can we ask people of this caliber to be assessed? We’ll put them off. They’re beyond that in their careers—they’re already well established!

The board chair stepped in and explained: “We’re not just looking for a superstar. There are plenty of great people out there. We want to make sure these new members really gel with our team and help bring out the best in all of us.”

The board candidates understood this completely. Given the commitment of their time and reputations, they wanted to objectively understand board dynamics and how well they’d fit in. Their willingness to be assessed also proved an important point: they wanted to join the board for the right reason.

The vast majority of directors are motivated by the desire to make an impact. They’re head and shoulders above those who want to be on a board merely for the money or because they’re trying to “hang on” after retirement. We consult with dysfunctional boards all the time. When people are ego focused, it becomes impossible to coalesce into a high-performing team.

A failed board is like shattered glass, with sharp edges that can never come together. But when it works, there is an art to it, like molding clay into a beautiful statue—a monolith of cohesion and uniformity.