How the lessons of Ocean’s Eleven can help you recruit an amazing team of executives

Danny Ocean was a man with a dream. That dream involved hitting three Las Vegas casinos and walking away with $150 million in cash. In order to bring that dream to fruition, Danny would need to overcome significant obstacles. He would need to find a way to infiltrate a public space riddled with surveillance cameras, elude an army of highly trained security personnel and gain entry to a heavily protected vault. Some people live for impossible challenges. Danny Ocean was one such person.

So how did Danny do it? The challenge he faced was complicated, but the answer was simple. He recruited a team of highly trained specialists. Once assembled, Danny’s team had all of the necessary ingredients to convert the impossible into the possible. They worked together to pull off the Vegas heist of the century. At this point, you might be wondering what the plot of the movie Ocean’s Eleven has to do with recruiting an executive board….

Your Board of Directors is also a hand-picked team that must overcome significant challenges, navigate difficult situations and work together when needed to make the impossible possible. You may not need to recruit a demolitions expert, acrobat, or pick-pocket to fill your empty boardroom chairs or achieve your business goals (at least I hope not). But you do need a team that possesses unique and complementary skills, meaning each member can function as a subject matter expert on his or her own or combine their individual expertise with the collective knowledge of the team to pull off the business equivalent of the heist of the century.

With that in mind, here are four ways you can apply Danny’s innovative approach to recruiting your own executive board dream team.

Think Outside the Box
Why it’s important: The boardroom is a venue steeped in tradition. However, not all of that tradition is valuable and blindly following historical precedent will not guarantee success. Like Danny Ocean, stop and think about what you need to accomplish. And use that knowledge to determine who you need to make it happen. Take an outside-the-box look at the following areas.

Age Matters: The average age of a board member across all industries is 63. For relatively new companies, especially those in emerging industries, recruit members who are younger and more closely associated with and involved in the nature of your business. Back on My Feet is an NPO with a mission to use running to help homeless members of the community change their lives. Given this organizational goal, it makes sense to recruit younger, physically active board members who embrace the value of running and fitness. Look at your own business and decide what the target age range of your board should be rather than simply following tradition.
Passion Counts: Look for candidates who have a clear passion for your specific industry. That spark creates a level of personal investment and enthusiasm that can be missing in someone who doesn’t have a personal connection or interest in your company’s work. Recognize that this passion can take many forms—passion for the product, or the customer; passion for the industry or its culture; passion for innovation or achieving excellence. Each expression of this passion has value. However, some are more valuable than others given the context of your current and future business goals. Choose wisely.
Context Differentiates: Not all experiences are created equal. A gardener and a surgeon are alike in that they both use sharp instruments. But you wouldn’t call the guy who trims your trees when you need knee surgery. Likewise, a veteran Kodak executive will not necessarily be a good fit on the board of Instagram. Yes, both companies are driven by photographs but in completely different ways. Look for candidates who possess practical, contextual knowledge within your specific industry or who have demonstrated and focused experience taking on the specific challenges your organization will face down the road. Context is key.

Embrace Diversity
Why it’s important: A board comprised of people who are too alike can lead to a myopic point of view and stagnant solutions. Diversity—including age, experience, perspective, and skill sets—is critical to create a well-rounded board that can take on any challenge. Bring the right level of diversity to your board with these tips.
Build the Foundation: At the most basic level, your board needs to be made up of people with skills in Finance, Corporate Risk, Human Resources & Human Capital and Marketing/Digital Marketing. Be sure you’ve covered this fundamental diversity. But don’t stop there.
Create Depth: Expand on the foundational skill sets with savvy executives who also possess practical skills and experiences. For instance, if you are a technology-driven company, having one or more board members whose resume includes leading and managing teams of developers—or even better, experience writing code themselves—would be beneficial. Look for candidates who can bring the necessary business skills in addition to practical knowledge to build a board with depth and agility.
Ensure Alignment: Diversity is important, but it is equally important to define what that means. Effective diversity requires bringing together people with different and complementary points of view that will open up new perspectives and possibilities. As with Danny’s approach, this builds a team that has diversity but retains the ability to work together towards a common cause. In summary, look for two things. First, ensure that each board member can offer a unique perspective. Then, ensure that each board member is fully aligned with the CEO’s overall vision and strategy. Don’t settle for anything less than both.

Eliminate Egos
Why it’s important: Is that an 800 pound gorilla in the room? No, it’s just a board member’s ego making its presence known. Effective teams are built around cohesion, trust and mutual respect. An unending battle of egos between members of the board is not a challenge you want to undertake. Steer clear of it by finding executives who possess the following traits:
Cultural Compatibility: Look for board members who have shared values, complementary talents, and a willingness to do what it takes to achieve and exceed business objectives. This cultural fit is something that is often mentioned when hiring new employees but it applies to recruiting board members as well. This sense of simpatico within your board will go a long way toward creating group cohesion and fostering team work.
Conflict Resolution: Let’s face it, conflict is a part of any group endeavor. To think otherwise is to dismiss the reality of human nature. An over-inflated ego often prevents the owner from taking a step back and looking for ways to reach a constructive resolution when conflict rears its head. Pepper your team with individuals who bring strength of character, rather than forceful and distracting egos, to the board room.
Transparency: Trust is a key ingredient in teamwork. Those who wield their egos like battle axes are often driven by personal agendas that they have chosen not to share with the rest of the team. Transparency and clarity are signs of people who have nothing to hide and whose interest in joining your board reflects a desire to serve the interests of the company rather than their own.

Seek Out Visionaries
Why it’s important: After recruiting his specialists, Danny revealed the full scope of the heist to his team. As they worked through each step of the plan, individuals were able to identify hidden challenges that Danny hadn’t considered and envision better ways to tackle problems. As a result, they improved the likelihood of a successful outcome. Follow Danny’s lead by seeking out visionaries for your board who can do the following:
Think Differently: This is one is an amalgamation of many different qualities—creativity, curiosity, insight, conviction, confidence and persistence to name a few. While it might be challenging to define, it’s clear and obvious to all when you meet someone who thinks differently. Apple launched its “Think Different” campaign on the heels of a disastrous run that found the company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy or takeover. This situation was, at least in part, the product of uninspired executive leadership. The ‘Think Different’ mantra rekindled the fire of Apple’s innovative spirit. Was it the campaign—the words—that sparked Apple to greatness? Not really. It was their new CEO, Steve Jobs, Apple’s new board of directors, and thousands of employees who brought the words to life. Look for board members who possess that ability to think differently. The success of your business depends on it.
Anticipate Opportunity: A true visionary can pull together seemingly disparate bits and pieces of information to anticipate future opportunities. This skill does not require reading tea leaves or consulting the Oracle of Delphi. Instead, it involves the ability to understand the past and link those lessons to current trends and future developments. Look for executives who have a vision of the future based on knowledge, logic and expertise and be ready to put that vision into play when opportunity comes knocking.
Imagine the Unimaginable: This is not about running around constantly muttering “The sky is falling.” Rather, it’s about identifying potentially negative outcomes and having the presence of mind to identify a constructive response in advance, even if the possibility of that outcome seems remote. For example, Target struggled to respond effectively to security breaches that resulted in the exposure of millions of its customers’ credit card information. Why? Was Target so confident in its security protocols that it decided a contingency plan was unnecessary? Learn from their mistakes. Recruit board members who can plan for the best while also preparing for the worst.

Running a successful business and planning the Las Vegas heist of the century are clearly very different objectives, but the roads to success are remarkably similar. They start with recruiting the right people. Danny understood this and created a team with the skills, experience and personalities needed to overcome every obstacle. In Las Vegas terms, he stacked the deck in his favor and assembled a winning hand. A line from the movie sums up his approach “Cause the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes. The house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet and you bet big, then you take the house.” Maybe it’s time to bring a little Vegas thinking to your boardroom?

© BlueSky Professional Services Group, June 2014