Skip to main content

What Boards Really Want From the Next Director

Too many boards don’t know what they want from the next director, when there is a transition. They aren’t short on ideas of what they *think* they want, but one wonders whether what they think they want and what the school needs align in ways that are beneficial to all involved. Let’s be honest: 100% success of the new director is never guaranteed. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way that the board thought they would. There are also those boards which continue to be shocked and appalled when their director choices fail repeatedly. [Sidebar. If you’re on that board, there’s a lesson there for you…what is the one constant in that equation of turnover? It’s you, the board. Consider the implications of recognising and dealing with that.]

Thomas Keil (chair of international management at the University of Zurich) and Marianna Zangrillo (university lecturer and experienced global corporate senior exec) wrote an article in the winter 2020 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review which is helpful in terms of looking at whether boards are setting up CEOs to fail, and what the consequences of those failures are. There are, as you might imagine, financial consequences (repeated, expensive search fees), enrolment consequences (perceived instability at the leadership level can lead to a loss of confidence in the organisation), and talent consequences (departure of key talent), among others. Their key question is, “With so much at stake, what can companies and their boards do to increase the odds of success?”

They point out that, at the heart of it all, the greatest contributor is the lack of a clear mandate by the board. As they write, “Boards often have only an implicit sense of what they want the CEO to do–in particular, how much they want the strategic direction and organisational model to change and how they expect the new leader to accomplish that. Clearly defining the mandate and matching the CEO’s profile to it is critical. Yet, there is surprisingly little expert guidance on how boards can do those things effectively or how leaders should act to fulfil their mandate.”

Based on interviews of more than 100 CEOs as well as executives who report to CEOs, board members, and executive search consultants, they suggest four types of mandate, each of which requires a different candidate profile and approaches to the job itself: 1) continuation, 2) evolution, 3) transformation, and 4) turnaround. Knowing the type of mandate required for success, aspiring first-time directors or sitting directors looking to make a move should be appropriately critical (analytical, if you will) relative to their own profile, assessing how effective they could be in that context and its boundaries.

Continuation. It sounds like what it says… Some schools simply want to continue their current strategy. Just recognise that you, as the new director, will be tasked with executing a path chosen under the predecessor. Potentially, this situation can result in fewer opportunities for the new director to make changes or ‘make a mark.’ In all likelihood, there will be a relatively tight framework set by the board doing the hiring.

Evolution. Again, it sounds like what it says, but perhaps it’s not as radical as you might think. With this type of mandate, “boards seek mostly incremental adjustments to strategic direction.” The board is likely seeking a director that has relevant experience of shifting an existing way of ‘doing school’ toward a tightened focus on x, y, or z. With this kind of mandate, it is understood that the new director has some leeway to adapt and refine the existing strategy. Let me underscore, however: the changes are not radical.

Transformation. It does what it says on the tin… This mandate is indeed more radical in nature. Here, the board is seeking the kind of director who can lead a fundamental transformation of the organisation, in order to achieve strategic goals. This type of mandate gives the director “substantial latitude to make such changes.” Importantly, as the authors underscore, “the call for a decisive departure from the past provides advantages to leaders [director candidates] from outside the organisation, who can approach the job without legacy constraints.”

Turnaround. Unsurprisingly, this type of mandate is the most extreme. When a board has this type in mind, the school tends to be in financial distress, let’s be honest. The new director will “need to take drastic action, often under intense time pressure. Turnaround mandates typically require financial and organisational restructuring experience and are best led by an external candidate [new director] who isn’t tied in any way to the current approach.”

Whether you are a sitting head looking to make a lateral move, perhaps to a new geography, or if you’re an aspiring head looking for that first headship, consider the nature of the mandate behind the search document (job description). Take the time to tease out, both with the search consultant and the board’s search committee itself — and any individuals who know the school, what that true nature of the mandate is…or ought to be. If there is misalignment between what the document/board say and what knowledgeable, trusted individuals are saying, that’s a clear signal that you should question whether you’d find success in that role/type at that particular juncture in time.

Sign up for our newsletter.

Get insights delivered to your inbox.

    Sign up for our newsletter.

    Get insights delivered to your inbox.