The trustee recruitment process is not fit for purpose, says Sarah Smart. But what does she propose as an alternative?

“I go to selection processes for ridiculously responsible jobs, and I have a one hour interview with up to five people. Everyone has to ask a competency based question, which makes it really difficult to delve into the detail of any experiences. If I’ve prepared well I can just fly through the interview and sound fantastic”.

This reminiscence could make The Pensions Trust’s chair Sarah Smart sound rather boastful if she weren’t using it to critique the whole recruitment process. “It’s a really flawed way of hiring people,” she continues. “Personally I would be in favour of a real overhaul of how independent trustees, and professional trustees, and non-execs are selected”.

Smart has big plans for when she is replaced at the Pensions Trust. For chairs in particular she would like to construct a role playing situation to see how candidates control difficult discussions. The master trust tried this approach during the pre-selection process for appointing its board members. They set up a roleplay board meeting to see how they interacted.

The point of the half hour exercise was to “see whether they picked up key issues, how they responded to what other people were saying…see how they controlled the discussion, see if they stopped people from getting too far into the detail as soon as they picked up the key issues that need to be resolved, see how [the chair] guides the board toward the discussion”.

Another idea Smart suggests is to put prospective candidates in a social situation to see how they react and get on with people. She then advocates giving them technical examples and asking how they would deal with them if preparing for a board discussion on that subject. It is not hard to see why a realistic situation would be more useful than an artificial competency based interview.

Find the gap

Recruitment consultants have been coming up with more rigorous strategies to help boards find the right trustees, but it’s now a question of the boards actually adopting these procedures. The first and most important step that Paul Battye, chief executive at Moorlands Human Capital, advises is to perform a SWOT analysis identifying the scheme’s strengths and weaknesses, along with the opportunities and threats it faces.

This process will help the board identify its existing strengths and, more importantly, work out gaps in its expertise. As well as looking at hard skills and knowledge this analysis will also take into account how good the board members are at negotiating and interacting with each other, and whether the committee structures work.

Establishing exactly what kind of person would be a good fit on the board before going out to the market places the existing trustees in a powerful position. They can then research which independent trustees have the required experience or work for relevant organisations and approach them.

The recruitment agency then pre-screens the selected individuals over the phone and goes down the traditional route of asking the candidates to demonstrate they have certain competencies. So perhaps a combination of Smart and Battye’s approaches is required – really analyse the current needs of the scheme in depth to help you select your shortlist, and then put them in real life scenarios to see how they perform.

Either way, Smart is right – these positions are too powerful to be appointed after one hour of relatively superficial questions. Boards need to make sure they are painstaking when selecting new independent trustees because they are putting their members’ retirements in their hands.