Want a board appointment? Understanding the Fundamental Attribution Error is well, fundamental.

Want a board appointment? Understanding the Fundamental Attribution Error is well, fundamental.
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Aspiration, Articulation, and Application (Targets, Pitch, and Persevere) are the three pillars of a board appointment. If you get any of them wrong your journey to a board appointment will be unstructured, take longer, and will likely result in your frustration and potentially you quitting your search.

With approximately 65% of all appointments occurring through personal connections perhaps the most valuable thing you can do to gain a board appointment is to simply start telling people you are looking for one. This is surprisingly easy to do but as always, the devil is in the detail and your response can make or break your success.

If you do start telling people then you need to be able to be ready for the subsequent question – ‘what sort of board are you looking for?’ As such, defining your Aspirations – the organisation you think you want and can be appointed to – must be your first step, and being specific is critical. In my last article I listed eight questions to ask yourself to help you develop a list of your target organisations.

Why do you need to be so specific?

It is the Fundamental Attribution Error. You may ask what the Fundamental Attribution Error is. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this in his bestselling book, Tipping Point. He writes that the Fundamental Attribution Error stems from the fact that people ‘instinctively want to explain the world around them in terms of people’s essential attributes.’

In other words, people do not take into account the setting, culture or external influences when meeting people (and remembering people). Rather, they focus on immediately graspable facts. So, ignorant of context, people will ‘peg’ (brand) you in one way or another and are unlikely to hold differing views simultaneously.

What does the Fundamental Attribution Error have to do with your board search?

Imagine you were at an event – an annual conference, picking your kids up from school, at a sporting event or at a formal work event and you get talking to someone and they ask you what you do. What do you say? Like many, you will likely revert to your executive experience and the conversation will revolve around this topic. However, if you desire is for a board appointment then this must change.

Ask yourself how people you meet, or indeed those that know you, remember you? Is it as an aspiring or existing board member? Whether it be meeting someone for the first time or a close friend, family member or a colleague it is up to you to frame or reframe the way people ‘peg’ you.

For the vast majority of people, particularly those who aspire to a board appointment, they are often not associated with board directorships or becoming a Non Executive Director (NED). Instead, they are more likely branded by a relationship (father, mother, sister, or brother), by an executive or past/retired executive role. Perhaps instead you are defined by your extra-professional activities like the sport or charity work you are involved with or maybe your skill set a CEO, MD, HR, IT, Marketing, etc. If you want a board appointment it is up to you to guide the way people peg you.

Here’s how you get pegged as a Non Executive Director

You should:

  • Tell people.Remember they only know what you tell them so tell them about your board aspirations. That means you need to move away from framing yourself as an executive, friend or colleagueor an unknown quantity. For example, if you meet someone for the first time…Them: ‘Nice to meet you. What do you do?’ You: ‘I am a Non Executive Director/Building a board career and…’
  • Be Specific:Never say that you ‘can do anything’. Be clear about what you sort of organisation you are targeting. Don’t be too generic. If you are too general about what you can do, you will soon be forgotten. You will be remembered for something specific and forgotten by being too broad.
  • Be Passionate:Tell people what you are passionate about – but make sure you can demonstrate that passion.
  • Be Valuable:Understand the pressures on the boards and the pain points they have to deal with. Know what your skills are and why they are valuable at board level. Always answer the question: “Why should we appoint you?”

Why is this so important?

I mentioned earlier that 65% of people are appointed to boards via a personal connection. What I didn’t mention was that perhaps 50% of all board appointment occur via someone you meet rarely or infrequently. As such it is critical that those you meet leave understanding your very specific board aspirations. If they don’t, you will miss opportunities and those who are clear will present themselves as stronger candidates.

You want to make sure that they brand you as a Non Executive Director. Remember, people who don’t know you (weak ties), and even those who know you well, only know what you tell them, so tell them you are a Non Executive, building a board portfolio, or even just looking for your first or next directorship. 

What does it all mean for your board search?

Well, first impressions count and those you meet are going to only be able to remember you in a very narrow way. As such, the Fundamental Attribution Error, in the context of your board search, means that people only know what you tell them. So it’s unlikely that you are going to be ‘pegged’ as a Non Executive without specifically telling people of your board aspirations and changing the language you use to introduce yourself. The FAE reaches further too. It must impact upon the content and structure of your Board CV, your Board Applications and your Board Interviews. Understanding it and its impact truly is a crucial part of your board search and should revolutionise the way you frame yourself. Doing so will help you dare them not to appoint you.

Once you understand the Fundamental Attribution Error, you can start thinking how you can create a powerful board pitch. Articulating what this is and how you can do it is my next article.

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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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