Answer these 8 questions to define your board targets

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Defining a list of companies to target for a board appointment is critical to successfully gaining a non-executive director (NED) appointment. Indeed, if I worked with a pyramid structure rather than our fairly crazy interlocked circles, then this would be the base of the pyramid, the foundation on which everything else is supported. Honestly, I can’t tell you how important defining your board targets is. 

So, in this article, I am going to show you how to do this. How to define your targets by presenting you 8 questions in the hope that these simple prompts, and with some guidance, will help refine your thinking about what is and is not possible. The end result? A list of target organisations that you both want and can be appointed to the board of.

8 simple questions + 1

1. How much do I need to get paid?

There is nothing wrong with pursuing a paid board role; however, keep in mind that there are many short and long-term benefits associated with voluntary board roles

Some Not-for-Profits or ‘for-purpose’ organisations do pay their directors. While the number of these might be increasing, they are far outweighed by those who do not. It is also worth keeping in mind that gaining an appointment with these sorts of organisations (the ones who do pay) is extremely difficult! 

So, the first thing to think about is whether you need to be paid. If you do, I strongly recommend taking all Not-for-Profit organisations off your target list because I often see those seeking paid board roles get distracted by Not-for-profit opportunities

However, if gaining a paid appointment is not your primary objective, Not-for-profit organisations have much to offer and stay on your list.

2. Who is going to value your skills?

Not every organisation is going to value every skill set at board level. To understand who is and who is not going to value your skills, you must first know ‘What is your skill set?’. But also, ‘Why is it valuable at board level?’. Being able to do this will shed light on which organisations will value what you have to offer.

You have to look at this from the board’s point of view. Would a small company need an individual with HR expertise – no matter how passionate you are about them or your ability to contribute? Probably not, unless… they worked in the HR industry or had a significant workforce. Equally,  will your CIO/IT experience be valuable to a company with little IT infrastructure? Think about who is really going to value your skills and who won’t. Here, it is important not to let your passion get in the way of reality. Doing so will make your appointment process that much more painless. Indeed, it might even prevent you from quitting too early.

3. How competitive are you?

Gaining your first board appointment is competitive—I am sure you have heard that. The bad news is that finding a subsequent appointment is just as challenging. Even worse news: As your board aspirations increase (paid or more ‘significant’ appointments), competition for those roles becomes increasingly competitive and, therefore, even more difficult to obtain. 

So, it is time to put on your adult pants (apologies for my colloquialism. I’m writing this with a G&T in hand!). It is absolutely essential that you consider how likely your appointment will be in a competitive application process. If you are pitching for roles above your pay grade, you will be disappointed with the result. So ask yourself if your target organisation is actually an organisation the chair would appoint me to the board of.

With this in mind, you need to consider how much experience, your skills, and your value are and how that stacks up against other potential candidates and, indeed, existing NEDs.

4. Where do you live?

Even in this post-Covid era, geography still counts. Boards still, more often than not, take comfort in appointing individuals that are local to them. That means limiting your search initially to the state or region in which you live. 

There will be exceptions to this rule, of course – organisations deliberately looking for NEDs in different geographies. But, if you are considering an appointment somewhere geographically, not local, you need to consider what you would offer above and beyond that of a local candidate. There may be many good reasons, and if there are, you need to be able to articulate them. Equally, you will need to be able to convince them that distance won’t be a stumbling block in your effective functioning as a board member.

5. Who will value your connections?

This question is particularly important. What are your connections – individuals, companies, industries and sectors? What value are they, and to who?

Here’s what you do. In the first instance, simply list out, in full: the industries you have worked in, the companies you have worked for, the sectors you have worked and the companies in that sector that you know of have worked for. Then list out what similar industries or sectors exist (for example other highly regulated industries). 

Then, reverse engineer it by asking which of the organisations listed will want access to or value the connections I have. The answer will be in or very closely related to your list. By that, I mean potential target organisation might be on that list itself, and if not, then list out the competitors or stakeholders of the companies you have listed.  These are the companies that will value your connections – potentially enough to appoint you! 

6. What are your timings?

How urgently must you obtain your first or next NED appointment? I can help you get a Not-for-Profit appointment very quickly. But you may have to wait a little longer if you want something more commercial. So, ask yourself how quickly you need a board appointment and if you are willing to hold out for the perfect board role.

7. What are you passionate about?

If you don’t know it already, Chairs and NEDs are passionate about three things. 1. What their organisations do (its output) 2. The organisation itself (what it represents) and,  3. Their contribution to the organisation. 

For you to be appointable, you must be able to articulate and share one of these passions, too. If you can’t, you will likely be viewed as a risk, unable or willing to contribute as much as other more passionate candidates, or simply as an unsustainable appointment. All of these elements risk the company’s or Chair’s reputation and make you essentially unappointable. 

So, what company can you demonstrate passion for and not just want to be a board member of? Even more so, what company can you demonstrate passion for—and not just like? Don’t worry too much if you can’t. With Board Direction’s help, we can manufacture this passion and help you become more appointable.

What are you passionate about? Personally, professionally and extra-professionally. This counts. Now, put names of organisations against these passions. This is a great way to build out your list of target companies.

8. How much preparation are you willing to do to be appointed?

The harder you work, the luckier you get. This phrase sounds right when it comes to gaining a board appointment. It is kind of true, but it is rarely about luck; after all, luck is a combination of chance, preparation and perseverance.

Firstly, you need to prepare in order to gain a NED appointment – you probably need a Board CV and a compelling verbal pitch. Secondly, you need to persevere. Board appointments rarely happen overnight, so you need to be prepared to keep at it. Thirdly, you need to generate the right opportunities. That means managing your aspirations and choosing and targeting only companies that will value you enough to consider appointing you to their boards. In the end, if you prepare, work smart, and persevere, you will get lucky—over and over again.

Oh, here’s an additional question I just thought of…Who won’t appoint you, or do you not want to work with?

Knowing what companies are not for you can be as useful as knowing which ones are. Too often, I see my clients chase unrealistic goals only to be disappointed and quit. Being realistic about your goals is important. For example, if your aspiration is an ASX 100 company, you need to know that these opportunities only arise every 8 years, and when they do they are highly competitive. In that case, it might be worth realigning your aspirations against the chances of you gaining that sort of appointment. The same could be said for targeting companies in industries or sectors you have no connection with.

In Summary

Defining a list of target organisations is challenging but essential and not straightforward. So, if you are struggling to define your board aspirations, know that you are in good company.

But persevere with this task because, without doing this, your way forward is bound to be reactive, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful. I don’t often say this but don’t overthink it. Even coming up with just a couple of names of organisations that you can, and want to be, appointed to is a great start. Once you have, you can start positioning yourself for a potential appointment with them. More importantly, who to speak with to secure that appointment or generate conversations with other NEDs who have access to some of the 80% of board roles filled without any formal application process.  

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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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