One of the questions I am asked most often is “How long will it take for me to be appointed to a board?”
It’s always difficult to provide a hard and fast answer to this question, as there are many variables at play and everyone’s journey will differ. However, when thinking about a board appointment, it is true to say that ‘the harder you work, the luckier you will get’.
I recognise that this is a fairly glib statement to make and is not always true – there are plenty of examples of people working hard and not getting ‘lucky’. Still, for many people searching for a board appointment, finding time to dedicate to this ‘work’ can present the largest challenge. Furthermore, maintaining this effort and enthusiasm for the journey ahead often becomes unsustainable. As a result many become easily disgruntled and then return to the status quo of not doing anything – stalling their potential appointment by months or even years!
As such, I actually think ‘how long will it take?’ is the wrong question to ask. The questions you should be asking, are:
- ‘Which organisations are likely to appoint me?’
- ‘Why would they appoint me?’ and
- ‘How much effort am I willing to devote to the exercise?’
Examples of Success
One of our current members, having worked with me in the NED Program, was appointed to the board of a commercial transport/infrastructure board that we advertised within just three months of becoming a member. Further, on a personal note I gained a board appointment within three months of beginning my journey with only minor board experience, few relevant connections and skills that would only suit a small number of organisations.
In both cases, we were crystal clear about three things; the things I describe as the ‘core pillars’ for a board appointment. Having put people on boards for 15 years now and having spoken to thousands of successful NED’s, it is these three things that we all have in common and that together make the journey quicker and sustainable.
Whilst not everyone may gain a board appointment within three months, that should be your aspiration. A board appointment within 12 months should be your absolute expectation. Should you not be successful within 12 months, then it is likely that you are doing one of three things wrong; these are the three pillars I referred to earlier.
The Three Pillars
Aspiration: Defining your targets
Defining what sort of organisation you want to be appointed to is absolutely your first step. Whilst this may sound easy, or perhaps obvious, most people when posed the question ‘what board do you want’, are not able to effectively define their aspirations. Alternatively, they provide a generic answer that covers a multitude of different businesses and industries. Either way, they come across as poorly thought through, opportunistic, a reputational risk and probably entirely forgettable – certainly unremarkable. None of which you can afford to be!
Whilst being able to define your target organisations is critical, just listing off organisations that you are interested in can cause yourself significant reputational damage if those organisations are unlikely to ever appoint you to their boards because you don’t have the appropriate skills or experience.
You must ensure your aspirations are balanced against the likelihood of you being appointed to those organisations. This is critically important because if you tell me you want to be appointed to a company that is above your paygrade (i.e. that in reality you won’t be appointed to even though you may be able to contribute) then you do yourself a reputational disservice and risk reputational damage for me if I was to willing, or able, to introduce you to others who might be able to help.
It is essential when thinking through your aspirations you are equally clear on which organisation will, in reality, appoint you. This is a surprisingly difficult exercise to undertake (it is where I spend most of my time with my members) but very achievable and absolutely essential as a first step.
Articulation: Why you should be appointed
There are a number of reasons you might want to gain a board appointment. Frankly, some of your reasons will support your appointment whilst others will hinder it.
Asking ‘why do you want to be a NED?’ is one of the first questions you will always be asked. It is asked because your motivations are important. Also because I want to know whether you can articulate your value to the organisation you are targeting. If you can’t do this effectively, it will often be assumed that, if appointed, you won’t be able to contribute effectively.
‘Why do you want to be a NED?’ As I mentioned earlier, there are good answers and bad ones when responding to this question. Too many people tell me about their personal motivations – ‘I want to spend less time on the golf course’, ‘my wife wants me out of the house’, ‘I want a part time role’ or ‘I have been an executive for 30 years and now I want a board appointment’.
Whilst these motivations are not wrong, they do not address the things that the receiver wants to hear. They speak nothing of the motivations that a Chair (or decision-maker) is looking for in a successful candidate. They do not address the return on investment a company will get on your appointment. They suggest a self-serving nature, an unsustainable appointment, limited passion and a lack of thought about what your contribution will be at board level.
You must therefore be able to articulate your value at board level. You must understand what it is companies want to see in successful candidates and be able to succinctly state these formally, informally and both verbally and on paper. This will of course be a very different pitch to the one you give as an executive and may take some getting used to.
To begin with, I recommend writing a NED CV. The process of doing so can often be as useful as the end product, as it will help you think through what value you add at board level. This can then be worked into your vernacular in both formal and informal environments.
Application: How to get appointed.
When I talk about Application, I really mean perseverance. At the end of the day it is a pretty simple equation – the harder you work = the luckier you will get. Still, you need to know where to put in the effort; just working hard is often not enough. That means understanding that there are just four ways you will be appointed to a board.
1. Through personal connections;
2. By directly approaching an organisation with an offer to help;
3. Via a Recruiter;
4. Responding to an advertised opportunity.
Each of these routes requires different strategies and tactics. Beyond this, you should know that some appointments will be more desirable than others and as such, some will be difficult to secure. This means that the level of your aspirations must be matched with the level of activity you are willing to undertake in order to be appointed.
So how long will it take for you to be appointed?
Well, it depends, doesn’t it? Do you know which sort of organisation you want and can be appointed to? Can you powerfully articulate your board offering? Are you willing to put the time and effort into securing an appointment? If you can answer ‘yes’ to each of these questions, then you should expect an appointment (or more) within 12 months – if not considerably sooner.
By keeping this in mind and applying it when you start your journey to a board appointment, you should well be able to dare them not to appoint you.
A word of warning
Defining your target organisations is actually a difficult thing to do. Articulating your value takes time and carving time from your busy personal, professional and extra-professional life can be challenging. For this reason we have developed a range of offerings that will lead you through these elements – specifically our Board Career Planning Sessions that are included in our Executive and NED Programs. Dedicating just 90 minutes to this process and following our structured approach, will help you address these three core pillars and in so doing, separate you from your competitors. Don’t wait for the perfect time to begin your board career – get started today.
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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