How I recruit managers with board-level potential

We’ve listed some traits of interview candidates with board-level potential, I wonder if other talent leaders or business leaders might agree

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Recently, I’ve had some particularly enjoyable interviews with candidates who have led my shortlists by quite a margin. Both came from very different sectors. Yet again, similar themes came up as to why they stood head and shoulders above the others. I’ve listed these traits, I wonder if other talent leaders or business leaders might agree.

  1. They put their well-being first and that of their families

    Because some things in life are far more important. This brings us to…
  1. They own their destiny

    It gets to a point in every leader’s career where they’ve made a poor career move or personal difficulties impact work. No-one is immune; however, these A-players one way or another get themselves back to a point where they’re controlling the situation. This might mean taking a step away from senior roles. Or, taking responsibility for anything they’re liable for and then moving on. And then, crucially, going to build something positive elsewhere. Leaders who allow poor investments on their watch or stay at ‘too big to fail’ outfits tend to not feature on my shortlists at all.
  1. They take responsibility for who influences them and their people

    As above. No-one can fully control the hand they’re dealt but good mentors or sounding boards can be sought out. “My employer doesn’t do talent development,” isn’t the right answer to “How have you sought out new challenges?” Also, at a more senior-level, this accountability helps when making those tough calls around retaining or rejecting partners or plans. Those who aspire to board leadership need the intellectual and emotional clout to balance here-and-now-targets with the long-term development of themselves and their businesses.
  1. They’re beyond managing time, they manage energy

    On seeing the interview note, “A hard worker versus his peers, goes the extra mile. ” A leading talent VP in one of the world’s biggest companies remarked, “That’s a red flag. This company takes more than any human being has to give.” She needed someone who was too smart to work too hard. Leaders need to be able to react to the unexpected and that requires some extra energy in the tank and a very firm control of one’s schedule.
  1. They manage their professional image

    Successful people use their authenticity as a tool to show themselves off in the best light. Both sides of the Atlantic have just fallen in love with Meghan Markle because when she speaks she’s so at ease with herself. If you’re ambitious, I’d say be yourself in a way that gets you ahead. Two list leading candidates recently told me that, when doing business, they consciously control their alcohol intake yet ensure that, to others, they look like they’re merrily "sinking pints or spirits". They use the scenario to cultivate the illusion they’re really relaxed and the event is relaxed. Both added they end up picking up commercial intelligence at a scale many would pay for!
  1. They’re really clever

    Obviously. Running businesses takes brain power. A knack for maths, analysis and advanced emotional intelligence is key. But guess what? This doesn’t mean they have a university degree or are a native English speaker. They’re also really good at quickly communicating complexity to outsiders.

And some more:

  1. They’re always building something (not necessarily the bottom line) and are never coasting
  2. They’re positive people who really enjoy tough challenges
  3. They never make the same mistake twice
  4. They’re not arrogant
  5. They like ambiguity
  6. They’re not striving for perfection, this inhibits speed
  7. They’re really likeable
  8. They take great pride in empowering others
  9. They take calculated risks
  10. They’ve endured adversity
  11. They have a personal life they’re passionate about
  12. They’re born into family businesses or they seek out sponsors early in their careers
  13. They can work out who is trustworthy

A few traits they don’t tend to have, do or be:

  • Inability to explain why or how they’ve secured success, numbers aren’t enough
  • Only secured professional advancement though changing employer
  • Arrogance
  • A dislike of junior or blue-collar staff members
  • Have had an easy/straightforward life
  • Have only been at one company (at advanced stage of their career)
  • Have taken an MBA without securing genuine management experience first
About the author
Doug Mackay
5 min read

Having started his career in Executive Search in 1998, Doug set up Collingwood in 2005 alongside his wife, Claire Mackay.

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