Your role in the board recruitment asks

While you might hope that as board chair you can leave it to your nominating committee to make the recruitment asks, the reality is that you may need to play an active role. If you are going to recruit strong board candidates, it is essential that you have the right person, or the right team of people, making the asks, and sometimes that means you’ll need to be engaged.

Usually the right person is that board member who has the closest relationship with the person who is being asked. However, when there isn’t a natural relationship, board members too often turn to the chief executive to do the work. They shouldn’t. While the chief executive may be an ideal member of the recruitment team—joining a board member in making the ask—the chief executive should not take the lead or recruit alone. The board members you really want on your board will expect a board member (ideally one who is a peer) to ask them, and that may sometimes mean that the board chair needs to be that person.

So if it seems like it makes sense for you to make the recruitment ask, you may want to consider approaching the ask as a team. This might be you and another current board member, you and a former board member, or you and the chief executive (which tends to be the preferred route). Note, however, in all cases that a board member is involved and should, ideally, ask for the appointment.

The ask is actually the easy part, but here are a few tips:

1. The ask needs to be made in-person, face-to-face, and not on the phone – Getting the appointment without being forced to make the ask can be a challenge, but resist the easy way out. You want the prospect to learn more about the organization. You want him or her to consider the possibility of a role as a leadership volunteer. And this conversation is too important to happen on the phone or in an e-mail exchange.

2. Be clear in advance on what you want to cover and who will do what – This should not be an overly scripted or formal affair, so don’t over-prepare, but do have an outline in mind for how you want to go through the materials. If you are approaching this as a team, talk in advance about who will do what. Ideally it will be a board member who makes the ask.

3. Make this a pleasurable and informative conversation – This is a great opportunity to get to know more about the person who you are recruiting and for him or her to build a new relationship with you. The early part of the conversation should have you asking questions and being a good listener. As a nice segue into the ask, talk about why you got involved with the organization and why the mission is so important.

4. Don’t try to cover every detail (bring materials and leave a packet) – You should come prepared with a packet of materials to leave behind. It may be that you never open the packet and only refer to it to let your prospective board member know that you came prepared. More important is the conversation about what the organization has accomplished recently, where it is heading, and why the skills and experience he or she has are so important to the organization. Come prepared to answer the question, “why me?”

5. Make the ask – Remember that the board will still have to vote on any board candidates, and take care not to discount that process. So consider language like this: “For all the reasons we have just described, we are hoping that you might allow us to put your name forward for election to our board.” You can then briefly describe the process as he or she considers a response. You want to signal that careful thought has gone into this request and that there is real process in place that has to be followed.

6. Give them time, but not too much time – This is one of those occasions when it makes sense to give your prospective board candidate time to think it over. You want this to be a well-considered decision, and you don’t want a rushed “yes” or “no.” Consider language like this: “We know you will want to give this some thought and consider your other commitments, so we have prepared a packet of materials for you. Would it be reasonable if I gave you a call sometime next week to see if you have additional questions for us or if you have reached a decision?”

7. Be ok with a “no” (and prepared for a second request) – Sometimes you’ll get a “no” response right away. Be ready to be gracious and to keep the door open for the future. You might also think about this in advance and consider what your follow-up request might be. People are much more likely to say “yes” to a second request that sounds easier than the first. So, perhaps: “We understand that you can’t commit to serving on the board now, but could we ask you to help us sometime with…” It is not as pushy as it sounds, and you may get him or her involved at a different level.

8. Follow-up no matter what – Whether you get a “yes” or a “no” or a “let me think about it,” it makes tremendous sense to follow-up with a thank you or a, “I’ll look forward to talking with you next week.”

Approach this as an opportunity to establish or deepen a relationship, and you’ll enjoy the conversation and leave the prospective board member knowing much more about your organization. Be careful not to appear too desperate. The line, “It really doesn’t take any time at all to serve on the board,” (or other attempts to downplay the work involved) does a disservice to your organization. You want the person you are recruiting to know what he or she is getting into and come to the board with eyes wide open.

Even if you are lucky enough to have a nominating process that doesn’t require you to do any face-to-face recruiting, keep in mind that as board chair your position brings some additional stature and importance to this process. It may be that a message from you will help to open the door for an ask or help an uncertain candidate decide.

Again, the message here is that if building a stronger board and/or changing the culture of your board is a priority, then you will need to play an active role in the recruitment process.

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].