Women on Boards – from both sides of the boardroom table

7 03 2014

I’ve recently had experience from both sides of the interview table. Firstly I was interviewed for a public appointment and then, as Chair at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was part of the interview panel to recruit new board members.

It’s interesting to reflect from both sides of the table.

1. Process

The first thing I should probably say is that I’m unfamiliar with the public appointments process. It was incredibly helpful to be able to get advice from colleagues at Changing the Chemistry, particularly with respect to competency based interviews, a process that is completely different to executive interviews. For the similarly, uninitiated the best way I can describe the difference is that the competency based interview focusses almost exclusively on things that you have already done in your career, and how you did them, whereas, in my experience, business interviews concentrate on ideas and what you might bring to the organisation going forward. Essentially, the former looks backwards and the latter looks at future potential. In my opinion this tends to suggest that the public appointment process is biaised towards familiarity and a safe pair of hands while the private sector process is more likely to bring out flair and enterprise at interview. The point here is to be aware that not all interviews are the same.

2. Preparation

I used to watch The Apprentice, before it became simply a vehicle for attention seekers and celebrity wanabees. Apart from the general uselessness and lack of business acumen of the vast majority of the contestants throughout the programme, what struck me in particular was the lack of preparation of the candidates that made it as far as the interview stage. Some seemed to have little idea of what Amstrad did. That in and of itself is hardly surprising, as Alan Sugar himself now seems to be more of a TV and social media pundit than businessman, but for those looking for employment to have made such a little attempt to find out about their potential employer is incredible. If I thought about it at all I have always assumed that this lack of preparation was down to the fact that they didn’t really want the job itself and had entered the programme to simply appear on TV but I was genuinely surprised at the lack of preparation from some of those that I interviewed fot the library board.

One of the things I can say for certain is that while being well-prepared will not guarantee that you get the post, being unprepared will guarantee that you do not.

3. Blend

The first thing that the chair of the panel said to me at the start of my interview was along the lines of, “We have had almost 200 applications for the post and are interviewing 10 people, any of whom would be perfectly able to fill the post. Our job today is to get the right person to compliment the existing board of trustees.”

This was, on the one hand, reassuring to have confirmation that there were no skill gaps in my application and, on the other hand, unnerving to be unsure which of my competencies would be particularly attractive in filling gaps in the existing board.

Through preparation for the interview I knew who the current board members were but it wasn’t clear exactly what skill gaps they might have. I have to confess to feeling a little dissatisfied after the interview, knowing that I had given a good account of myself but also knowing that success, or failure, would be down to chance. The chance that I would be the missing ingredient to create this perfect “blend” on the board.

I then faced this dilemma in reverse, when chairing the interview panel for the library. On paper we were interviewing seven excellent candidates, whose skills would, in different ways, add value to the work of the organisation. What was uppermost in my mind when I was listening to the women answer questions at interview was, “would this person compliment or duplicate the skills of existing board members. Would this personality blend or clash with the existing team.”

It was interesting to reflect how my attitude when being interviewed was, “you should just pick the best person and worry about how to create a good working environment later” while my attitude while interviewing was, “will this person blend well with the current board.” While I am confident that we selected the best candidates to fill the vacancies at the library, consideration of the overall board mix was actually as, or even more, important than the skill set of the individual.

4. Feedback

I am pretty sure that, in my younger days, if I had ever been unsuccessful at interview that I’d have sulked. Disappointment is understandable but the lessons to be learned from failure are more important than those learned from success. So make sure that you get feedback. My first interview for a public appointment, sometime in early 2013 I think, was a disaster. The process was entirely unfamiliar and I failed to give compelling examples of my particular competencies. Knowing that, you can be sure I didn’t make that mistake this time.

And offer feedback to all candidates if you are interviewing. It is only reasonable that if someone has committed a large amount of time in applying for a post and attending interview that they are able to learn something from that experience. And it is a good discipline for the interviewer, to focus on why the choice was made and be able to justify that choice.

5. Conclusion

Not so much a conclusion as a reflection. The experience of being interviewed for a board post and interviewing for board members in such a short space of time has been illuminating. It might not be the very best person on paper or the best person at interview that gets the post.

I can finish with a metaphor. I’m a fan of Great British Menu. For those of you who haven’t seen it, chefs from around Britain compete against each other over four sessions to cook starter, fish course, main and dessert. Each day the dishes are marked and then, at the end of the week, the chef who has cooked the best menu overall goes through to the next round. In this way the best chef from each region goes through to a final and cooks all four dishes again. In this final process the aim is to put together a single menu, chosen from the dishes presented by the different chefs, to be served at a banquet. The judges do not necessarily choose the best dish in each course but have to create a balanced menu. So, for example, if they have decided that the main course is going to be duck it is very unlikely that the starter chosen will be pigeon, even if the pigeon dish was the best of the starters on offer.

Getting the right blend on a menu is more important than having the very best dish at each course. And getting the right blend on a board may not be by choosing the very best candidate.

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