Common Questions: How to transition from an Executive to a Non-Executive?

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In my new “Common Questions” Series, I want to address some of the most common questions I am asked about becoming a non-executive director (NED). In this article, I want to answer how you might transition from an executive role into a board appointment. 

To begin with, over 90% of the people I work with hold executive posts. If you are a Senior Executive and looking for your first board appointment then, most likely, you have already begun to wonder HOW that transition will take place. Perhaps it feels impossible to make that step without existing board experience, possibly the endeavours made to turn your aspirations into reality isn’t worth it or you just don’t know where to begin. If some of that rings true, take a deep breath. Nothing is impossible even though it might initially feel that way. 

Is seeking a Board Appointment worth the effort?

A board appointment today, more than ever, should be part of your career plan. Studies have shown that those who hold board appointments alongside the executive ones earn more, are more appointable to new executive roles, they evidence stronger strategic experience i.e. the key to promotion; work better within their own boards, have a diverse network that can be leveraged professionally, and have more successful retirements. 

So the question is not ‘Should a board role be part of your career plan? Or ‘Is board appointment worth the effort?’ Rather the questions you should want the answers to are ‘How do you find board opportunities?’, ‘How do you determine the right one for you?’ and ‘How do you get appointed?’ 

How do you find Board Opportunities?

Recruiters, adverts and directly approaching organisations with an offer to help are the way 35% of all board appointments are made. However, 65% of all appointments come through personal connections. So, if you want a board appointment it can often be as simple as just telling people you know that you are looking for a board role. Just start by doing that. If you feel like you don’t have the right connections read this article.

Which Board is right for you?

This is really important to understand. What are you passionate about? What organisation can you meaningfully contribute to? Do you need to be paid? Who is going to value your connections? What is your value at board level? Answer these questions and you will begin to narrow your focus. In turn, you will be better able to target specific organisations with a strong value proposition. This is going to make you more appointable and mean that you get a greater return on your time investment.

Prepare and plan through the entire Board Appointment process

The harder you work the luckier you get. This statement is true in life and absolutely true when transitioning from an executive to a non-executive. 

Manage your aspirations. Make sure the businesses you are targeting are achievable. Spending all your time chasing unrealistic ambitions will definitely lead to frustration. 

Consider your experience. You probably have more experience than you think you do. Have you reported to boards before, been part of internal committees, or maybe prepared board papers? All that counts and can be used for your own benefit.

Research, Research, and again Research. Spend time getting to know the organisation, its NEDs, its challenges, and how you can help to add unique value.

Pitch well. Get ready for the interview and answer this question ‘What is your value at board level?’ All your hard work and preparation could be in vain if you have not got your pitch right. It needs to be compelling and address the reasons you should be appointed.

Engage. If you want to serve on the board of an organisation you need to demonstrate some passion for what they do. That means engaging. How? Perhaps using their services, becoming a member, volunteering or even using their services.

Don’t miss the internal opportunities. Set aside some time within your executive career to prepare for the next chapter. Does your employer have committees you can contribute to? Or a Charity they sponsor that you could be involved with? If they don’t  – be proactive and start a committee (and chair it!). At the same time, some companies encourage executive directors to offer their non-executive services to other organisations to broaden their experience and make them better at their day jobs. Take advantage of opportunities like this if they exist.

Be known. Get to know the NEDs – past and present  – in your industry. Better still, meet the NEDs of the organisation you want to get a seat in. Being known makes you a ‘warm candidate’ and much more appointable.

A compelling NED CV. Writing a board CV at the end result will help you to articulate better your experience and why it is relevant. Please note that a good NED resume describes how your experience adds value to a board, not just what skills you have. It is a vital tool in competing against more experienced candidates. But remember, the CV itself won’t get you appointed. Though it will make you a solid competitor.

Get and stay focused

I know the list above might seem lengthy but what it really boils down to is the focus. And, this can be the hardest thing to do, right? Carving out time from your day-to-day busy executive job to make building your board ’career’. Schedule time in your diary to dedicate yourself to working on your career and a board appointment. An hour a month can be enough. 

Finding and gaining your first non-executive role is a task no one is qualified for and is akin to acquiring your first job. But it does happen – time and time again – though it is often linked to the amount of effort you put in and preparing accordingly. 

Every day I work with people like you to start and advance a board career. I have been doing so for the last 15 years and have developed a number of packages that help aspiring NEDs achieve their goals. 

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world

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