You’ve been shortlisted for an interview with the nominations committee of your target board. Many of your rivals have fallen away, so it’s a huge win. The question now is, how do you nail the interview? When you sit down at the boardroom table, how do you stand out from the other highly qualified and experienced candidates that have also been shortlisted?

Like finalising a complex sale, a successful interview will require a deft touch and some juggling. You’ll need to convince the board you can make a unique value-adding contribution while at the same time also proving that you are an excellent cultural fit.

If you can master the art of asking questions and take some calculated risks to reveal your authentic self, you will gain a strong edge over your competitors. “It’s about focusing on the company winning, rather than you winning,” says professional non-executive director, Julie Garland McLellan CSP FAICD.

The modern appointment process

Decades ago, company board appointments were a relatively simple affair. “The chair took someone for a whisky at The Australian Club and asked them to join the board,” says the Hon Robert Webster MAICD, head of board services at Korn Ferry. “There was no ‘beauty parade’.”

There is still, of course, an informal route to boards. Indeed, Garland McLellan says aspiring directors with zero experience often need to create their own “interviews” and seek meetings with chairs and directors so they can demonstrate insights that might add value to a company. “When you create interviews, you have zero competition,” she says. “But you had better be offering something good.”

Webster says for most companies, however, there is a now a nominations process for new directors. “There aren’t many companies now that appoint people without going through some sort of process,” he says.

There is a lot at stake. “It’s a big risk for a board to take on a new director of a public company,” says David Scambler MAICD, partner at Heidrick & Struggles’ Sydney office. “It’s very easy to put someone on the board, but it’s much harder to get them off.”

The “process” will typically create a shortlist of around three candidates who will interview with the nominations committee, which usually consists of the chair and two to three non-executive directors. If you have been shortlisted, you can be confident that you have ticked the particular boxes that the company is looking to fill.

The problem is that this also applies to the other shortlisted candidates. The interview, then, becomes crucial to selection.

A strategic edge

After being shortlisted for an interview you must prepare. That means developing a deep understanding of the company and what they want to see in a new director.

Garland McLellan has been appointed to boards 17 times and has been a director of Melbourne Water, Tamar Gold and Fitness Australia. She says that in a broad sense, the board will be looking to find out whether you are able to bring new ideas and add value without upsetting and alienating the other directors.

It’s vital to understand that adding value at the board level is about strategic insight, Webster says, not operational insight. You need to demonstrate that you understand what drives the business. “There is a bit of a tendency in some quarters to go for people on the governance and compliance side, but most companies want a board that really gets the drivers of the business and understands the commercial imperative,” Webster says.

“You want to show you have done your research,” he adds. “Do you understand the company, what the company does and the challenges it faces? You also need to think about four or five key attributes you will bring to the board.”

Garland McLellan suggests on-the-ground research: try and visit the company’s premises so you can get a feel for what they do, who their customers and staff are, and what they look like. You should also research the broader industry, check out competitor boards, and gain an understanding of the impact of technology in their space.

Once, before a second-round interview for a board seat on a coal mining company, Garland McLellan went so far as to ask the company if she could visit their mine. It gave her an immediate awareness of the operating culture and the seriousness with which the company took its workplace health and safely duties. “It also allayed the fears of operations staff that the new woman would not be a prima donna and was an engineer who could give useful insights on practical matters.”

Preparation also extends to dress code. What will be appropriate to wear to the interview? Scambler says annual reports, company websites and CEO presentations can guide your dress.

Brevity, clarity, relevance

It’s wise to take the day off from your current work and obligations so you’re fresh and focused for the interview. Enter the room, smile, greet people, shake hands and ask how they are. “Don’t imagine that you are a super hero with a swirling red cloak – just be natural, polite and professional,” Garland McLellan says.

Webster says director interviews are somewhat different to executive interviews. “They’re more conversational; more interactive.”

If you’ve prepared properly, Garland McLellan says you would be ready for questions such as: What excites you about the role? How would you describe your character as a director? Do you have time for the role? Do you have any conflicts of interest? What impact are you hoping to make? Are you aware of the liabilities and duties of a director? Describe your career to date? And, what would you want in terms of induction?

The key is to speak with brevity, clarity and relevance, Scambler says. One of the biggest interview mistakes is not framing answers and questions so they’re relevant to the board. “The fact that you were a prefect at school or a great cricketer is interesting but irrelevant to you being an effective board director.”

Provide real-world examples of changes you’ve led or tough decisions made and as Webster suggests, ensure that they are relevant to the board.

Garland McLellan says another trap for aspiring directors fresh from gaining qualifications is too much focus on compliance. “There is a danger of asking too many compliance questions. The board will be strategy-focused.”

The art of asking questions

You’re also trying to demonstrate you can add value, which creates an immediate challenge. “You have to be careful you don’t go in there and tell them how to suck eggs,” Webster says.

Garland McLellan agrees it’s important not to lecture. “If you say, ‘when I join your board I’ll sort your issue out in two to three meetings’, that’s going to go down like a lead balloon.”

The solution is to ask intelligent questions. Phrase your insights or observations as a question, rather than a statement, says Garland McLellan.

“What you can do through questions is demonstrate insight,” Scambler says.

Again, the board is looking for ‘director’ thinking, not executive thinking, so the questions also need to be about strategic issues, or if they’re about operations, link them to a strategic issue.

After asking a question, listen. “Encourage them to deliver the information, then respond to that,” Garland McLellan says. Your tone of voice should be inquisitive, calm, confident and assertive but “never aggressive, never antagonistic, niggling or complaining.”

Given the more conversational nature of board interviews, trick questions are unlikely. But if you do find yourself stumped or sideswiped by an unexpected question, be comfortable responding by asking a question in return. A well phrased and relevant question can buy time, diffuse tension, and even demonstrate a capacity to add value.

Garland McLellan says in one interview a director asked her a complex question about mining equipment. “I was absolutely floundering,” she says. But she flipped it around. She asked the director how the company got their non-mining board directors up to speed on those issues. It was a real challenge, the director said. Garland McLellan knew she could add value – with an engineering background she could help translate between operations staff and directors.

The X factor

The interview has progressed well. You’ve asked some insightful questions that clearly demonstrate you can add value. But amid the ping pong of questions and insights, there is an underlying current, a subtle judgement of you going on: Do we like this person? Will they be enjoyable to work with?

“That’s where the candidate’s emotional intelligence comes through,” Webster says. “It’s hard to coach people for that. You never know what interviewers will ask. It’s the way you react. Some people get it and some people don’t.”

Experienced directors and head hunters say there is often a natural, inexplicable chemistry with a particular candidate on the day. They win.

But one way to enhance the chance of a connection is to be authentic, to be yourself. “People warm to people who are authentic,” Scambler says. “By all means have a pitch, but if you come through as genuine and authentic, people will see that and like it. In most cases you’ll have a much better chance of being successful.”

Authenticity means revealing your true self within the bounds of professionalism. Garland McLellan says she is naturally enthusiastic. So in interviews she’s honest and upfront. She tells the chair she’s on her best behaviour, and she’ll do her best to make sure she contributes but doesn’t “over-contribute”.

During board meetings, Garland McLellan monitors the chair. “If the chair frowns, I shut up.”

They need you too

If the looming interview process is daunting, it’s important to remember the board also needs you. “We say to clients you have to sell your company to the candidates, it’s not just a one-way street,” Webster says. The candidate does not have to take the position.

“It’s hard, it’s competitive,” Scambler says. “You need to stand out. There is no panacea and no magic pill to swallow.”

By understanding the process, knowing what companies are after, demonstrating that you can deliver in a non-threatening way, and showing that you’re a likeable, authentic candidate, you will increase the odds of securing a board seat.

Scambler says that overall the screening and interviewing process works and identifies the best person. “Normally people end up on the right board.”

You might nail this particular interview, but if you don’t you can rest assured that there is a better match out there and you’ll have a deeper understanding of the whole process.

Steps to a successful interview

  • Be prepared
    Do your research, develop a deep understanding of the company and identify what they want to see in a new director.
  • Consider your skillset
    What can you bring to the business in terms of new ideas? How can you add value without upsetting and alienating the other directors?
  • Pay the company a visit
    Is on-the-ground research relevant? Perhaps try to visit the company’s premises so you can get a feel for what they do, who their customers and staff are, and what they look like.
  • Dress appropriately
    Preparation also extends to dress code. What will be appropriate to wear to the interview?
  • Ask the right questions
    The board is looking for ‘director’ thinking, not executive thinking. There is a danger of asking too many compliance questions, so make sure your questions are about strategic issues.