Competency-Based Board Selection and Difficult Conversations

Competency-Based Board Selection and Difficult Conversations

By Anne Cordes, Strategy and Governance Consultant

In the past, Nominating Committees started their work a few months before elections began by identifying those who were next in line for the open positions. This process assumed that the most qualified candidates for the governing board were those who had worked their way up through the ranks of committees and participated in other volunteer opportunities.

More often today, however, a Leadership Development Committee is appointed with a year-round charge to identify, recruit, and develop the leaders of the future. These committees create a list of desired competencies and design tools to evaluate these skills and abilities in nominees. Application forms with experience-based questions, self-assessment surveys, calls to references, and personal interviews are employed to assess prospective candidates’ skills and abilities and select the most qualified for the slate or ballot.

If it accomplishes nothing else, publishing competencies tends to discourage those who are not qualified from pursuing board positions. But, as anyone who has ever made an unfortunate hiring decision knows, the tools available to assess competencies are imperfect: Few candidates will give you a bad reference, and it takes an experienced interviewer to detect limitations in a confident and practiced interviewee.

But even the most elaborate systems can break down if volunteers are not prepared to speak frankly with peers who are determined to advance in the organization. In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project point out that “difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings,” yet we often don’t know how we feel, much less how to express those feelings. The authors describe how, with attention and practice, we can begin to think like mediators and shift our orientation “from certainty to curiosity, from debate to exploration, from simplicity to complexity, and from ‘either/or’ to ‘and.’”

How do association executives help Leadership Development Committees have critical conversations with peers who believe that it is their turn to hold a particular position and are disappointed with the committee’s decision? If you have successfully coached a volunteer leader through a competency-based nominations process, I’d like to hear from you at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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