Balanced Boards

3 May 2022

The essential competencies within Boards and their value creation

If you decide to recruit Board members on your own instead of turning to a professional executive firm, it will result in lost opportunities and lower turnover.

Furthermore, it is not enough simply to elect Board members and a Chair, based solely on their professional competences. It is often overlooked, but far more important, can be the personal competencies that the headhunter puts into sharp focus.

What personal competencies are essential for Boards and how does this give the Board greater value?

An analysis from the Centre for Corporate Governance at Copenhagen Business School indicates that companies can increase revenue by between 25-40% by having a diverse and professional Board. However, about half of the Boards in Denmark are occupied by family members - and that is an issue. The human nature of the owners is governed by the power of habit and the aspect that it is difficult to replace oneself or a family member. That is why we see Boards that are characterized by:

  • Small, closed networks
  • No plan for generational change
  • Lack in diversity
  • Lack in description of the Board’s capabilities and competencies.
  • Similarity of members
  • Increased degree of groupthink bias

In recent years, we, Friisberg & Partners International Denmark, have experienced a greater interest from companies, who acknowledged that a professional Board can be a competent and strategic tool to increase the growth and development of a firm. The increased interest is supported, among others, by external advisors such as EY, who through their workshops and dialogues assure the owners about the advantages of having non-familial members on the Board.

When an owner has decided to strengthen the Board or when a current Board member quits, we are contacted to ensure the circle of potential candidates becomes wider and more diverse. The owner has often given some consideration to which professional competencies the company should have replaced in the Board of Directors. Typically, these competencies reflect the stand of the current situation of the company and partly  the qualities and competencies the outgoing Board member possessed, and which are now to be replaced.

The human side of Board work

Having the Board’s professional competencies described is one of the prerequisites for any successful Board recruitment. The Board’s competence descriptions contribute positively to an overview of which competencies the Board possesses and which are desired in the future. However, this alone is not enough to achieve the successful recruitment of a new Chair or a new Board member. There are many different perceptions of what it takes for a Board to create value and therefore it is important to clarify what kind of value creation is needed – and in addition to this, to understand the human side of Board work.

We are of the opinion that effective Board work takes place in the interaction between different people. It is simply not just the interaction in the Boardroom that is significant. The dialogue with management, employees, local business partners, authorities, costumers, and suppliers etc. further contributes to the positive dialogue and the value creation. So, one is the professional skills such as financial literacy – another is the personal competencies which are most often overruled in the recruitment for a new Board member.

Six key competencies

We work with six key competencies that the Board Chair or member must have to create value. Often, a Chair of the Board is elected from the existing Board, therefore the Chair's competencies are advantageous for all members of the Board.

1.    Executive experience

The prerequisite for a good working relationship requires that one can speak the language and appreciate the concerns of management that every CEO faces. Moreover, having a sharp business judgement, deep understanding of the company’s strategy, how it operates and the human issues.

2.    Respect and confidentiality

Many members are very adamant in their opinions, and it requires a special competence to be able to listen, understand and read between the lines when other members argue their positions. In addition, to be able to listen to, understand and support a CEO when the person expresses a reservation towards the Board’s decisions.

3.    The ability to collaborate and hold back

We have seen Boards where there are many strong personalities = alpha males/females (it can be both men and women), who are used to being top manager and thereby take their “director” behaviour into the boardroom. It inhibits the good, constructive, and idea-generating dialogue. Therefore, it is an important competence to hold back and to support that everyone around the table has their say.

4.    To create personal relationships

It is incredibly important to have the ability to establish relationships and to be able to work with the DNA that the specific Board and management have. It should be easy and safe for the CEO to approach the Chair of the Board and have a confidential conversation.

5.    The balance between confidence and overconfidence

The candidates of the Board of Directors must be in a place in life where they are in balance. That is where they have or have been successful in their careers and where they have no need to become No.1 or feel that they have yet to achieve a top position - that is, not dreaming of taking over the CEO’s office or longing for operational control. It is a high sense of self-worth, a “commitment” for the good of the company, without a trace of a personal agenda, which is something we especially ask about during the recruitment.

6.   Perseverance

It is necessary to uncover how much time the Board member is ready to spend on Board work. It is far from certain that it is “merely” four meetings a year. There can easily be situations where the meeting frequency will be much greater, and you must be ready to spend the necessary time between meetings. Emergency situations can always arise where a Chair of the Board or the entire Board of Directors must step in at short notice. It can be crisis situations, and in such times, it is the personal perseverance and drive to overcome a crisis that is essential. All things considered, it is especially the ability to confront these stressful situations and to avoid the organization becoming paralyzed, if they occur, that is central.

Susanne Becker Mikkelsen,
Partner Denmark


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