Assessing the right director for your board – tips on a step to board renewal

A prospective director comes highly recommended by your colleagues. He or she has a track record of success at a well-regarded public company or as a professional in a highly regarded firm and has experience at board level in other listed companies. It seems his/her background, skills and experience perfectly match what you are looking for. But how will the other directors on your board regard the prospect? Will he or she be able to understand and accommodate our board culture? How will he or she behave when there are difficult decisions to be made, or in conflict situations?

In many cases, you are happy to leave the assessment of ‘soft skill capabilities’ or behaviours to search consultants, although it is unlikely the consultants will ever fully understand the culture and dynamics of your board, which makes it difficult for them to advise on these matters. So how can you assess whether a prospective candidate is the right ‘fit’ for your board?

In this article we provide tips on how to reliably and validly assess board candidates.

The usual approach is to engineer a social setting or informal meeting where the candidate can meet the incumbent directors in a relaxed environment. This allows directors to make their own assessment of the candidate, and to raise any concerns or ‘red flags’. But Guerdon Associates would argue that this approach, while useful, is not enough – most people are able to ‘put their best foot forward’ during the courting stage of any relationship.

What you would really want to know is:

  • How do they behave under pressure?
  • What happens when their colleagues disagree with them?
  • What contribution do they make to the resolution of difficult problems? Etc.

A Behavioural Event Interview provides a way of getting answers to these questions. This type of interview relies on capturing samples of ‘real’ behaviour by asking the candidate to describe actual situations they have been involved in, with a focus on what they did and how they did it, in as much detail as possible – almost by re-living the actual experience. If you keep probing for more and more specific information, it is very difficult for the candidate to fabricate or misrepresent their behaviour and experience.

Here are some examples of questions we have used use to assess how the candidate actually behaves in the boardroom – things that are difficult to measure in a conventional interview or meeting.


Question you want answered

Interview Questions/Probes

Behaviours that candidate may display

How does the candidate behave in difficult situations, and when dealing with complex problems?

Tell me about a time when you were a member of a board that was grappling with some very difficult or highly complex issues?

What was the issue? What was the background to the issue?

What role did you play in the discussion?

What did you say? Can you describe how the conversation went? What did the other person say?

What were you thinking at the time?

What were you feeling?

Describe what happened in as much detail as you can

What was the outcome?


Tell me about a time that was a real low point for you, in your role as a director. You could also describe a time in which you look back and feel that you could have handled the situation more effectively. Please describe the situation in as much detail as you can, and explain how you dealt with that situation (use the same probes as above).


Strategic thinking


Creative thinking


Information seeking


Analytical/logical thinking






Self control…etc

How does the candidate behave when dealing with a highly sensitive interpersonal situation where tact and diplomacy are required?


Tell me about a time when you needed to deal with a sensitive ‘people’ issue…perhaps in relation to handling a conflict with a CEO or another board member.


Interpersonal sensitivity


Emotional intelligence (empathy etc.)


Listening and responding


Influencing skills


How does the candidate behave when attempting to persuade or influence other directors to adopt his/her point of view?


Tell me about a time when, in your role as director, you needed to ‘win over’ the rest of the board or convince other directors to accept your point of view.

Use of influence strategies


Direct persuasion


Interpersonal understanding


Emotional intelligence

Is the candidate collaborative and a good team player? To what extent does he/she build upon others’ ideas and contributions? Is he/she supportive of his/her board colleagues?

Tell me about a time in which you needed to pull together as a board, and to provide support to your board colleagues? In a situation in which the board was divided or in conflict, are you able to describe the role you played to bring people together?





Interpersonal understanding (i.e. being able to ‘read’ the other person)


Strategic influence


Emotional intelligence

It is important to continue to probe the candidate in detail, so you will need plenty of time for the interview (at least 1.5 hours). It is also important not to let the candidate stray into hypotheticals or generalisations (e.g. What I usually do is….or..It is important to focus on…).

Any intelligent person can describe the kinds of behaviours that an effective director should demonstrate…in theory. The key to success in selecting a high performing director is getting them to demonstrate, through real, convincing examples, that this is how they have ACTUALLY behaved in practice, remembering that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

The Behavioural Event Interview has a sound foundation in psychological research. But it is also a skill that can be acquired by any director with effort and practice. While it can be undertaken by external board advisers, we suggest it be one more important skill you add to your list of development needs if you want to make sure your board has the right candidate. In addition, because reliability of assessment (that is, multiple people make the same observations) is a necessary prerequisite to arrive at a valid judgement, encourage other board members to develop the same skill, or use it in conjunction with your external adviser to verify their observations.

It is worth the effort.

© Guerdon Associates 2024
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