leadership

How to spot a director who will drive you up the wall

Myriam Robin /

Do you know a hobbyhorse jockey? Someone who won’t shut up about their little area of expertise, and who thinks it relates to everything you put in front of them? What about an egocentric, who seems to be in the C-suite just to stroke their own ego?

The odds are you do. These are just two of 10 traits global executive search firm Korn/Ferry found after interviewing 30 of Australia’s most well-known chairmen and executives about what they liked, and what drove them crazy, in the boardroom. Those interviewed included David Jones managing director Bob Savage, chairman of Coca Cola Amital and the Future Fund David Gonski, QBE chair Belinda Hutchinson and Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett.

As well as quizzing them on their pet hates, Korn/Ferry also asked its businesspeople what they thought made exceptional board members. More than three quarters (76%) of them thought the best directors were “big-picture thinkers who could focus on opportunities and risks in the detail”.

Sound contradictory? It can be. The best directors are able to balance, the managing director of Korn/Ferry, Katie Lahey tells LeadingCompany.

“The modern non-executive director has to be fiercely independent yet part of the team,” she says. “Strategic yet able to focus on the detail.”

Being a good director today is harder than it’s ever been, she said, as shareholders and the Government expect more and more from company boards.

“In times gone by, the board meeting was perhaps three hours, then off to lunch, then that was it.”

“That very rarely happens now. Boards meet for up to two days, which are jam-packed. They have thousands of board pages to read, they’re in the public eye, they have to be available to shareholders.”

As Tony Froggatt, a non-executive director at Coca Cola Amatil and Brambles says in the report, “even five or 10 years ago, non-executive roles were looked at as a ‘cushy number’ – that’s certainly not the case anymore.”

So what makes a great director? Surprisingly, the traits most commonly identified by those interviewed focused on soft skills, rather than business expertise.

  • As mentioned above, 76% wanted executives with high-level strategic views, who could nonetheless dive into the detail.
  • Also in high demand where directors who thought “collectively” rather than individually. 67% of respondents thought this was important.
  • More than half (55%) thought exceptional directors were independent thinkers with the courage to speak their mind. “When things get tough, they are prepared to be brave and prepared to acknowledge there is a problem which has to be dealt with,” said Hutchinson.
  • 52% wanted directors who could ask deep questions without being confrontational.
  • And lastly, 42% mentioned a breadth of experience as a key characteristic.

Of course, as well as finding great directors, Korn/Ferry asked the business-people interviewed what things made boards ineffective, and what types of non-executive directors they tried to avoid:

  • Hand-grenade throwers – these are directors who are argumentative and hostile, a pet hate of SAI Global’s CEO Tony Scotton. “The whole discussion gets hijacked because of one director’s questioning,” he says.
  • Non-stop talkers – those who speak, seemingly, for the sake of speaking, even if they have little to contribute.
  • Policemen – while directors who could ask deep, probing questions were valued, their manner did matter. Directors who view their role as keeping management honest rather than supporting their executives can put everyone on edge.
  • Captives of compliance – while following rules and regulations is important, directors who get overly worried about compliance can avoid making decisions, according to Gonski.
  • Nodders – prone to group-think. “People that show-up and nod ‘wisely’, but don’t make much of a contribution,” said Tabcorp Holding non-executive director, Justin Milne.
  • Hobbyhorse jockeys – these are non-executive directors who can’t stop talking about their area of expertise. “They focus on a narrow area they know, and other issues appear irrelevant,” said Hutchinson.
  • Hesitators – directors who fail lack confidence and fail to speak up when they should.
  • The uncommitted – these are directors who just seem to be going through the motions. Wright said he got frustrated with directors who “don’t prepare for meetings and think about what is in them.”
  • Egocentrics – directors who think it’s all about them.
  • In-over-their-heads – Asciano CEO John Mullen, who’s also a non-executive director at Telstra, said non-executive directors who don’t fully understand the challenges facing the business can’t contribute useful advice or solutions.

Do any of these sound familiar? Most of them being innate traits rather than easily-discernible qualifications, it can be hard for boards to figure out who has the good traits, and who doesn’t.

This is fuelling the growth in the executive search industry, says Lahey. “You can’t rely on the old-boys network anymore,” she said.

“You have to do the same rigorous process you would go through for an executive. Interviews, referees, all those tools are available.”

Carolyn Hewson, a non-executive director at Westpack, BHP and Stockland, said in the report that it was as much about attracting good board members as finding them.

“Good candidates will look at the chairman and the board, also the CEO and how the company is performing,” she said.

“For the good directors, it is not about the money,” added GWA’s managing director Peter Crowley. He said an interesting challenge, the quality of the current management team and the possibility for intellectual stimulation was important to attracting the best candidates.

The full report can be read on Korn/Ferry’s website.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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