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by Julia Salem
Mar 3 2015
Julian, thank you for taking the time to speak with the AESC and BlueSteps about board director career and hiring trends. Can you tell us about the work you do at Heidrick & Struggles?
I lead our firm’s Government Affairs and Trade Association Practices from our Washington, D.C. office. I am also a member of our CEO and Board of Directors Practice. I have personally served on boards of public and private companies.
What has changed about the board director role in the last 5-10 years? How have long-standing board directors adapted to these changes?
Since the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley, the responsibilities and obligations of board directors have become much greater. They play a larger oversight role and their impact on an enterprise’s strategy has increased significantly. As a result, board members today have to prepare more diligently and ask more probing questions. The relationship between the board and CEOs has also shifted especially in a climate of activist investors.
What trends should board directors prepare for in the next 5-10 years? What new skills might they need?
The importance of understanding and appreciating the impact of technology can’t be overstated. It is both a transformative opportunity (new ways to improve efficiency and enhanced delivery channels) as well as a threat (think data hacks and crippling cyber-attacks).
What would you rank as the major challenges modern boards face at the moment, and what executive skills are in high demand considering those current challenges?
It depends on the company and the industry but common challenges would include: regulatory landscape (i.e. FCPA), globalization, risk management, shareholder activism, cybersecurity, and lack of board diversity. Financial acumen has always been highly prized, but a global perspective and the ability to think strategically are valued even more these days.
Are you seeing more requests for greater diversity from clients in your board searches? If so, how have you changed your search process to find qualified, diverse candidates?
Yes. Instead of us raising the question, clients now demand it. And it’s not just a “tick the box” exercise, but instead originates from a recognition that diversity of backgrounds and thought is essential to succeed in today’s marketplace. We have extensive relationships with organizations devoted to diversity as well as an extensive proprietary database and we tap these resources to uncover diverse talent.
Our Board Director Career report (release date June 9/10) highlighted a new hiring trend where boards committees are honing in on candidates with sector-specific backgrounds, such as technology and marketing experts. Have you started to see a similar trend in your board search work?
We started witnessing this trend a few years ago. In addition to technological and marketing savvy – I’ve also seen risk management and global experience rise to the top of many clients wish lists for board candidates. This is a reflection of where market needs have been heading.
How can a board candidate best present themselves to get noticed by executive recruiters in today’s marketplace?
We are often vetting candidates against very specific criteria on behalf of our clients. To some degree, it’s a chicken and egg dynamic whereby our most attractive candidates will be those who have already served on boards. However, being recognized as an expert in the areas critical to a contemporary board will certainly increase the chances we will be calling you.
What advice would you give to an individual who is trying to increase the extent of their exposure to their board?
Increased exposure often depends on the role the executive is currently serving. CFOs and General Counsels spend more time in front of boards given the increased criticality of finance and risk. But leaders in Human Resources, Marketing, Risk Management, Digital Strategy, Privacy, are also being called before the Board to present more often. The relevance of the role to the strategy of the enterprise will drive the increased interface between executives and their board.
For many executives, finding their first board seat remains a challenge. Do you have any recommendations for aspiring board directors seeking their first board opportunity?
Being regarded as a thought leader and subject matter expert can help position you to be noticed by recruiters and other board members (who are often in a position to recommend candidates). Try to establish a reputation as someone who can offer a relevant point of view to organizations on whose boards you’d like to serve. Joining a non-for-profit board with other board members who are serving, or have served, on corporate boards can also help raise your credibility and visibility.
Any final words of advice for current and aspiring board directors?
Board service today should be considered carefully. It is not a sinecure and carries with it a certain amount of reputational risk and liability. You should also have a passion for the products or services of the company on whose board you are considering joining. Speaking from personal experience, however, the rewards and satisfaction of board service are manifold and is an experience I highly recommend.